HOW WE ARE PROGRESSING: Tillie Winkler Robinson’s Letters Home
Edited by Ann Norman
Late in 1889, at about the time President Harrison was declaring Washington a state, Tillie Winkler and Tom Robinson were planning their wedding. In January of 1890, the newly weds boarded a train and, like hundreds of others, headed for “Oregon Country” and the opportunities they hoped to find. Tillie corresponded regularly with her family during that journey and the following years, sharing her perceptions and describing events that were important to her. Remarkably, several of these letters have been preserved.
Thanks to the generosity of the Robinson family and the archives of the Everett Public Library, we have access to this rare first person account of one woman’s journey from Germantown, Pennsylvania to the newly declared state of Washington. Through her letters, Tillie gives us her first impressions of Port Gardner where the “magic city” of Everett was about to emerge and she provides us with glimpses of turn-of-the-century everyday life..
The following excerpts from her correspondence focus on her journey across the country, her first glimpses of the Pacific Northwest and her early attempts at homemaking. They illustrate Tillie’s unique experiences and reveal some of the realities of late nineteenth-century frontier life as well as showing what the journey to Everett may have been like for other Snohomish County foremothers.
Jan 22, 1890: “Dear sister … We are doing bravely. There is a fine cook stove on the train and we bake potatoes & make tea & coffee. We saw the Allegheny Mts & it was lovely going through…. Cold last night but we are going south right soon now. Love to all and a big share of it from Tom & Till.”
Jan 24: “We stopped at Chattanoga & bought a coffee pot…The potatoes were the best thing we had, tell Kate & the butter was so good we have it all eaten but a little bit. The potatoes were finished last night. Tell mother the pears were splendid. They are half gone. We will soon be in New Orleans….The journey is not half as bad as I expected but every thing is black in the morning. The dust gets in at the windows….”
Jan 27: “We are still traveling over prairie land and it is very dusty. It is too warm to keep the windows shut so we must have the dirt. We are 187 ft below the level of the sea & see some lovely mirages…You might think you saw lots of water & trees & cattle, but for miles around there is no water or anything but cactus & grease wood & mesquite. It will be dark tonight when we get to Los Angeles.”
Jan 28: “ We have to go to San Francisco…we can’t get a car to Portland. There has been a wash out & we will quite likely go by steamer….You should have seen our car yesterday and day before….nothing…but dust all over everything. Now it is all right…. We hear very good accounts of Portland all along the route….The mountains are something I shall never forget so long as I live. It was grand, for hundreds of miles…. If I had time I could tell you so much… “
January 29 [San Francisco]: “We…are nicely fixed, a lovely room with red plush furniture and …marble top table, at which I am writing… Brussels carpet on the floor & and an open fire place all for $1.00 or.$2.00, we don’t know which yet…We have seen lots of Chinamen….I must keep all the folks informed about our doings. Tom don’t write. He did all the cooking on the train so we are square….”
February 5: “We are now in the great Portland and have still to find out if it is as great as represented….It is very wet…the river is very high up into some of the streets… we saw a cabin washed down the river yesterday….The trip up the Pacific was stormy and rough. We were tossed about dreadfully and after the first meal… did not appear at table until Monday breakfast, in our berths all day Sunday…poor Tom, he fared badly…. We could not get to see each other. We were very sea sick, but if I had known that the steward neglected him I would have crawled over to him….
…we dream of you as well as think of you often. We are not going to get home sick of course, we have enjoyed every thing (except the sea voyage) ever so much. The trip on the Columbia & Willamette was something lovely….the sun shone…we saw a rainbow very low & then reflected in the hills…. I would not have missed it for a great deal, the trip over the mts & prairies, it was something grand….There are some folks came on the boat with us….They want us to go to Tacoma with them. It is a better place than Portland & not so wet…. I wish we could hear from you, it has been such a long time now all of two weeks…”
May 21: “I have been to the [Tacoma] P.O. so much that I am getting tired of it and will be so glad when all my letters come…Tom is going to make a table right away & on Saturday we are going for the stove & some other things for our kitchen & as we have our blankets & sheets we may possibly manage to get a bed to sleep on until ours comes…” Later letters boast of their two large rooms, enumerate their growing possessions and lovingly praise the wooden china closet Tom is building (a piece of furniture that still remains a cherished Robinson family heirloom). Tillie marvels at the mountains and the mild climate and describes bouquets of wild roses and weekend excursions in a borrowed rowboat. In November, she announces baby Willie’s birth and later notes when Tom takes the baby to the grocery store to weigh him, that he’s doubled his birth weight to 22 pounds.
She outlines her husband’s dreams of owning a mill. When Tom abruptly loses his job, she tells about their moving to a remote “shanty” and marvels at how Tom repairs its badly damaged stovepipe. “Everything is topsy turvy, but as soon as Tom gets some shelves & pegs up, I will get things fixed up a bit.” She covers the floor with paper and a carpet to make it “warm and cozy”, loyally contends the tiny cabin will eventually “look much nicer that those two immense rooms” and brags that she is helping Tom cut down and saw the immense trees around the house. “We have a 6 foot double handed cross cut saw & it was such fun…. Tom and I are eating as heartily as we used to at picnics….” Willie is put in front of the window or bundled up and taken outside “to watch the sawing & he likes it immensely too.”
Two years later in August, Tillie writes about their first excursion to Snohomish County: “…we had a delightful trip.,,, a very large & new boat went up the Sound to Port Gardner, where Tom has two friends who are putting up a factory there. He thought he would go to see them & take them some stuff to eat, as they are doing their own cooking & don’t have things of the best & not much time to cook, it being a new town & only one store & a few houses….”
When the boat arrives at Port Gardner, they can’t land. “The wharf was not quite finished…we were very much disappointed, but we saw the place where the new city is to be. It is a beautiful town site. Did not see the men & had to bring our things back…” She reports they stopped briefly in Mukilteo and Willie “played with the pebbles & enjoyed himself for all he was worth….”
In her next letter, Tillie tells her sister they plan to go to Port Gardner “as soon as possible…”. Existing correspondence does not indicate when that was, but the next letter in the collection, the only one written by Tom, was mailed from Everett on October 30, 1892. It was to Tillie’s sister Laura, announcing the arrival of their second son and assuring the family that Tillie and the baby were “resting nicely”. It was written on Parminter, Robinson & Co. letterhead.
Subsequent letters and family stories indicate that in addition to caring for her babies, cooking, sewing, gardening and maintaining a frontier home, Tillie became an active force in her church and ran a boarding house to supplement the family’s income. Eventually, as hoped, some of her sisters joined her in Everett. Later letters describe their active social lives and many suitors, along with her perceptions of Everett’s early economic and natural disasters. Tillie lived until 1957 and is fondly remembered as the beloved grandmother and matriarch of her extended family.
Sources: Tillie Winkler Robinson’s Letters and Postcards in Everett Public Library archives; Interview with Tillie’s great grandchildren, Dick Robinson and Terry Fithro.
© 2007 Ann Norman All Rights Reserved; (WLP Story #41)