It was my Grandpa, Oral Willard, that changed everything and brought stability to my Grandma’s life. She was a single mother when she met him, raising an only child. He was in his late 30s headed for mid-life, too late to have kids, but doing well at this stage of his life with a 76 gas and food mart in Sun Lakes. This is what happens when a hopeless romantic meets a dreamer.
Oral didn’t always have money though, he came up poor in Springdale, Washington, in the first half of the twentieth century, one of four boys and one sister. He was the third oldest but still learned a lot back when he was a teenager in the early 1920s. He learned how to fish, and hunt and to subsidize their diet he learned how to garden. For a while he was content to work around Springdale, staying close to his family but when the Great Depression hit the farm was lost and the family split up. He decided to take his chances with a friend who had been panning gold up in the mountains by Idaho and joined up with him. His name was Dutch Berdaga, and the two had gone to school in Springdale together. They never really found much gold, but they did find some. Mostly it was an excuse to put their homesteading skills to use and live off the land in a lawless area. They lived by hunting and fishing. My Grandpa Oral was always opposed to trapping, he deemed it inhumane. When winter came they holed up but by the time spring thawed they had enough and wandered back into town.
When they arrived in town they heard the news the Grand Coulee Dam hiring Washington State citizens for all sorts of labor, which of course is what my Grandpa knew, all sorts of labor. It wasn’t long before the two found a place to wash up and once more hit the road, this time out of town and towards the Grand Coulee. When they arrived in 1936 it was like an alien world. There is no way two farm boys from the woods could even begin to imagine what they saw there. Everywhere they looked where people, and everything changed all the time, it seemed if you stood in one place and turned around by the time you got back where you started the scenery would have completely changed. It was a sea of people, lights, sounds and smells that assaulted your senses every where you went. And the scenery itself was incredible, treeless, and like a huge tear in the earth then filled with tiny people making a huge ruckus.
Together the two men pitched in their last dimes and rented a one room cabin up in Coulee Center. My Grandpa Oral Willard was reserved. He wasn’t the type you would find up on B Street, or even out walking around late at night without reason. It was more likely you would find him sitting outside in front of his shack, listening to the radio, rolling Prince Albert from a can and playing checkers. He loved music, he would spend his evenings going to the Roosevelt Theater, getting ice cream at Dovers or something from Pop Wallis. He was a hopeless romantic, getting lost watching sunsets listening to the music in his head.
At first, they put Oral on the side of the granite quarry with a jackhammer, but he couldn’t stabilize himself dangling over the top of the 400 foot drop so he was pulled off and put to work doing manual labor; i.e. shovel jockey. One day the Dam builders needed someone to drive a bulldozer, and my Grandpa had experience with farm machinery, and was elected. Oral didn’t just drive the bulldozer, he interfaced with it becoming some sort of machine whisperer. It wasn’t long and he was driving his own bulldozer with a small group of men working around him moving stones and working the shovels, pick axes and jackhammers.
Grandpa came down out of the mountains and made the long trek to Grand Coulee with his feet, his thumb, a couple dollars from panned gold and a few years later and things were looking up; he could afford a car, rent, and other simple luxuries. He wasn’t really frugal, but he didn’t have a lot of needs or wants so he was able to save some money, and this was during the depression in a place where most men his age were going hog wild living check to check drawn into the flash in the pan that was B Street. Even as work on the Dam started slowing down and crews were reduced, things still looked good, and he was still working, right through the expiring of the WMAK contract and into the CBI years. He saved his money so during the times he was laid off he could live unfettered, but the man had skills and was working more often than not.
In 1941 a bombshell dropped on America in Pearl Harbor signifying the start of the official American involvement in the overseas war. Oral was already in his 30s with a small pot belly from sitting and driving bulldozers for a living, but feeling a desire to serve the country, he enlisted anyway. Due to his age he never saw combat, instead he became a member of the Corp of Engineers and would serve his country by driving a bulldozer. This time however, he would be doing it in the war torn and dangerously volatile South Pacific. He would arrive on a key location which was usually an island by ship, unload and get to work creating a landing strip for advancing forces or occupation. Once he arrived on an island shortly after the combat had subsided. He said the beach was littered with corpses and burned bodies. It was something he would never talk about, but he carried the scar for life. Another time he was on the transport ship in the South Pacific when the ship alarm started sounding. The ship was going down. Everyone was rushing around getting supplies into the lifeboats and donning their life jackets and in the chaos one soldier was running around looking for a lost shoe. The ship was sinking and the soldier wanted both shoes. Turns out it was only a drill.
After the war Oral returned to the Sun Lakes area. He had spent time there before the war, during construction and the land called him back. There was a store down in Sun Lakes and my Grandpa was on the lease with another man he knew from the service. This was around 1946, and Sun Lakes was a cluster of resorts, and a few old homesteader farms. A gas station with a store and coffee shop was a brilliant idea. And what a location, right on the highway, plenty of parking, a public park and multiple lakes. Stop for gas, get a Hysterical Map, Heap Good Soda and pack of Black Jack. Grandpa even sold Archie Comics.
Oral Willard had a great first season at the 76 Station in Sun Lakes. Life was good, he had a successful store, bought a new car, and now he was headed back to Springdale to visit family that he hadn’t seen for a long time. When he was there he heard about a divorcee in town who was working as a housekeeper for the farm down the road. She was well liked by her employers and they were urging her to go to the dance that night. She was a single mother and seemed adrift in life with her daughter. Oral listened closely.
It was a wonderful dance, the music of course was live and came from the stage. All around in the half light people danced while their kids ran around doing kid stuff in the shadows. The floor shook and the hall rang with laughter as everyone was having a great time. Suddenly, while everyone was dancing and celebrating the double doors flung open and standing in the doorway was Oral Willard.
He stepped in and the doors closed behind him. He squinted in the half light while his eyes adjusted, then he saw them. They were across the room against the wall, nervously, he walked straight towards them, feeling an awkward self consciousness that even the half light couldn’t hide.
“Would you like to dance?” he asked my Grandma Jean, and they did, while my Mom ran around in the background playing with the other children.
Oral couldn’t keep Jean out of his head. He would drop in on her, dressed to the irons, in a new car and bring gifts. He told her about where he was from, in the Grand Coulee…. a land of bold antiquity filled with mystery and surprise. He was genuine, and honest, and had an innocents that my Grandma could see. Pretty soon the two started dating and she moved down to Park Lake in 1948. She worked at the store and lived in the stone house behind it. My Grandpa lived in one of the cabins across the street. For my Grandma it was a whole different world, a world to be explored and understood. She would listen to people tell her stories of places and things and spend hours out wandering the prairie searching, listening to the land, dreaming. She was a dreamer.
In summer of 1949 my Mom, who was staying at my Great Grandma’s so she could finish out the school year, moved down and started living in the stone house that is now gone, with her Mother. It was there that once a black snake crawled up through the water pipe and into the bathroom sink. After an action packed summer vacation, Oral and Jean were married in Hunters. When they all returned to Park Lake they returned as a family, the Willards, with my Grandpa going so far as to legally adopting his own step daughter. They moved into a slightly bigger two room cabin across the street and ran the store. My Mom, Elizabeth Willard, started school at Coulee City when the fall came and things slowed down around Park Lake. The fall and winter were a peaceful time around Park Lake. The mad rush of tourists had dwindled down to locals and travelers stopping to refuel their cars or bellies before continuing on. The nip of winter was in the air and morning frost had moved in.
Meanwhile, down the highway to the south was a dilapidated resort called McCann’s Beach. At one time in the 1920s and 30s it was a happening spot for all sorts of gatherings and the McCann’s allowed different organizations and families to use the beach as they wanted. The resort itself was almost exclusive, and Frank McCann used it as a staging ground to help promote the geology of the area. Frank was instrumental in getting J Harlen Bretz into the Coulee, and he often stayed at McCann’s beach where they would depart into expeditions into the scab lands behind Park Lake. Directly across from McCann’s beach is where the rhino cave was discovered. When Frank died suddenly in the late 1930s the beach started to also fall into disrepair. The old widower Mary McCann could no longer manage the land. One day while she was at the Park Lake 76 Station getting some groceries she mentioned that maybe she should sell it, winter is coming and there is no way she can afford the upkeep and taxes. The lady ringing her up at the till that she told this to was my Grandma, Jean Willard.
It was my Grandma who discovered McCann’s Beach was for sale. A wonderful piece of property, sitting on both sides of the new Scenic Highway, with beach front property on both Blue and Park Lake, and it’s own private inlet and beach. Plus, it was a geological hot spot with nearby fossilized trees and the much bantered about Rhino Cave. In 1948 there was a lot less in door time as it was associated with work or school, and as soon as the weekends and summer rolled around it was literally everybody hit the beach. Fishermen, sun bathers, swimmers, skiers… and with the endless coulees, valleys and caves, also the hikers, hunters, explores and stone hounds. The land was full of promise, and as she looked at the dilapidated resort she started to enter the world of ‘what – if ? ‘
When Oral saw the land he saw all the work he would have to do, and money to invest.
Love is a funny thing. As Grandpa drove Mary McCann down to Ephrata to sign the final papers, my Grandma rode in the backseat and all the way Mary told stories of the olden days, revealing secrets of the coulee and especially the Park Lake / Blue Lake area. This is where my Grandma Jean Willard learned of the stone bridge behind Park Lake and many other hidden, tucked away places that she would later spend hours hiking to and from, exploring.
The resort turned out to be a lot of work, just like my Grandpa predicted and since money was tight most of it he did himself. When he could he would hire people, but mostly they would be friends or friends of friends depending on what he needed or needed to get done. It’s true that sometimes necessity is the mother of invention. Using his bulldozer, he cleared the land next to the highway, and leveled it. Then he moved the cabins across the property to the leveled spot, some of the outbuildings he would put on 4 x 4 skids and pull them with his ‘dozer. Oral then found a store and paid Jessie Canady’s Home Moving to transport it from Fordair down the old switch back highway to Sun Lakes on the back of a trailer. He placed it on the area he leveled closer to the highway and off the original McCann’s Beach front. He added a small cafe to the store where he could sit at the counter and look out the window. Right behind the cafe and accessible through the store, or out the back, was the apartment they lived in, my Mom, my Grandma and Grandpa. In the early days more than once they would be eating dinner when some fool would take a shot at some ducks and bird shot would hit the side of the house. My Grandpa would always go rushing outside yelling “What are you doing? Get out of here!” and they always did.
Grandpa didn’t have much time for sitting around the cafe though, he dug all the waterlines, added outdoor wiring, a new, grated manicured beach he would drag weekly, new roads and new campsites. Then he added docks during winter on the ice, a fish cleaning station, a public washroom that he plumbed as well, it also had a laundry room in the middle. When he wasn’t working he was cooking at the cafe, or sitting on the porch by the ice machine watching the sun set and enjoying the sights and sounds of nature. Sometimes when he was having a day at something and it was fighting back he would call it a day. When this happened he would head into the store, grab his pole, some bait and a can of sardines and head out to Park Lake. Across the street and up a little ways was his favorite fishing hole, one that is still popular 50 plus years later.
At first the times were tough, and my family relied on fish and game that my Grandpa hunted in the area. Sometimes they would all go up onto the shelves above Park Lake where there are hidden seasonal duck ponds. “Sneak over to the other side and bark like a dog” he would tell them and they did. The ducks would fly up and ‘POW POW’ dinner would fall out of the sky. My Grandpa was allowed to hunt in his friends pasture so he would get deer that were alfalfa or grain fed. Once when he was out hunting, he shot a doe by mistake and when he came up on it, it was still alive. He pulled out his knife to finish the job, and as he bent over he looked into the deer’s face and saw her eyes gaze back at him with a profoundly sad look that gave him pause. After that he put his gun away and never hunted again. He wasn’t against hunting, he just lost heart in it. He hated traps too and when ever he found them around Park Lake he would uproot them and throw them in the lake.
After a years worth of work, the rechristened Willard’s Resort opened in 1950 up to the world of vacationers from all over. It was an immediate success, and continued selling out for consecutive summers. Help was hard to come by, and when fishing season opened it was a tidal wave of people and problems. Everyday was something new. By the late 1950s Willard’s Resort was at the top of it’s game, appearing in fishing guides and area pamphlets, it had been photographed by both J. Boyd Ellis as well as L.D. Lindsley who used to get coffee in the cafe and trade stories with my Grandma. Fish and Wildlife Game Warden Dick Hoyt used to drop in often and was good friends with both Oral and Jean. When my mother was growing up the resort had many adventures for her too. Once some air force boys were out hiking by the Rhino Cave and one lost a finger. The boy above him had kicked loose a sharp rock and it fell taking the other lads finger completely off. They made it back to the store and while my Grandma tried to administer first aid she sent my Mom out to “Go get that finger, they might be able to save it.” Bewildered and about 12 or 13, my Mom headed down to the dock, jumped in a boat and made her way to the steep trail that leads up to the rhino cave. Up she climbed, looking for that missing finger but of course she never did find it. She says a bird probably saw it and made off with it thinking it was a fat worm. Mom was the one my Grandma used to send up to show people where the Rhino Cave was located on the side of the cliff overlooking Jasper Bay. Time and again she lead carefree tourists up that harrowing trail just to look once more at the cave that had been there since prehistory. Eventually my Mom fell in love and left the resort with a new husband.
Almost 20 years my Grandparents spent in Sun Lakes, and my Grandpa probably longer. They were genuine nice people and everyone adored them. Because of this they were able to watch generations pass through their resort as the kids grew up, had kids and brought them to Willard’s Resort in Sun Lakes, where they would grow up and repeat the process. My Grandpa never expanded much beyond the original build; he was content to sit at the counter and make friends, and enjoyed cooking. They were aided by my great grandma, Nellie Hanning, who helped out by running the boat rentals and lived on the property. My Mom had moved out years earlier to be with her husband and two children and then in 1967 my Grandparents sold the resort and bought some property in Coulee City. After staying a final winter at the resort, Oral and Jean left Sun Lakes and started construction of my Grandma’s next dream; a trailer park with a farm attached!
She was a dreamer, and he was a hopeless romantic.