The second half

Continued from last week, Island pioneer Virginia Ogden Elliott’s (1908-1981) Mercer Island Old & New column, first published on March 1, 1961 in the MI Reporter. “Nin” tells of the first grocers and the birth of our commercial center. Oh, what would she think of the scalped “country village” she hoped for? Enjoy.

“The Grubstake: First Floating Grocery Store”

In these weeks of supermarkets opening at various parts of our Island, thoughts turn to a half-forgotten childhood memory of “The Grubstake,” Mercer Island’s first store.

The Grubstake, that little boat as seen through the eyes of a child who was lifted down into its wonderful-smelling interior, has lived in my memory for years. It was a small and huffy gas boat — this floating store so aptly named. In the dim cabin ran shelves of groceries all around the walls — bins of grains and flour, and a taste or two of the “largess,” for every child in those less commercial days.

The little Grubstake made its appointed rounds from dock to dock. Mercer Island life in the early 1900s was as dependent on boats as was Mr. Mercer with his canoe. Memory fails on who ran it — did Johnny Anderson, known to us shore dwellers as “the captain?”

Ogden’s dock was the last in line for the Grubstake, the connecting link between Seattle and the trails of Mercer Island. One would like to think that children greeted the little boat from dock to dock, but there were not a baker’s dozen of children on the shore from East Seattle to Ogden’s — or even the whole Island — in those days.

But we watched and gave our elders no peace until the Grubstake was properly welcomed, whether they wanted groceries or not. Before long, the passenger boats ran at regular times from Leschi Park, and the stubby little steamer Dawn began its long term of service from dock to dock. Groceries were brought in a more prosaic way, lugged in twine sacks and paper parcels from Seattle, and over the trails from the nearest dock, home.

Dorothy Brant Brazier, granddaughter of a pioneer Island family, writes in the Seattle Times how her grandparents made the long trip to town for weekly supplies. Anyone trying to find a parking place and get waited on in the madly bustling center these days appreciates the leisurely way of shopping she describes.

Still later, you could walk down the “board walk” to the East Seattle Store. Or cut across the beach trail in those fenceless days, coming out on the road again at Tennant’s. East Seattle had settled down from its booming beginning of the Calkins Hotel to become the peaceful business center of a peaceful people. Founded as a would-be resort, it had simmered down to a general store, with a dance hall above it, a post office within and, of course, the East Seattle dock.

A few blocks uphill was the new East Seattle School (built in 1915). Still in use (in 1961), it saw us and our children through the first eight grades and survives today, much as it was then. (Editor’s note: It was sold in 2007 to Michael O’Brien and may be razed for playfields.)

It seems to have been Frank Hurt’s general store that brought the grocery business finally and irrevocably to ground. His store changed little throughout our childhood, though it changed hands several times. Then, George Lightfoot, of Floating Bridge fame, was storekeeper for a while. During his time the dance hall was operated upstairs, with community dances every week. About then, the Post Office moved next door, with Frank Sandell as post master for many years, followed by Ruby Ryberg.

As for the store, Mrs. Booth ran it for a few years; then in pre-bridge years, Mr. Fordyce bought the store and ran it until his nephew Harold Fordyce took over when he retired. Harold was the grocer until the bridges (East Channel 1923, Floating Bridge 1940) gradually shifted accessibility and population to the Mercer Island business center we know today.

It was quite a day when Art’s Food Center opened there, one of the first “new” buildings. The Island marveled at that it could attract and support such a big, modern store as Art’s. But support it, it did. So ably that before too many years the Island’s grocery business caught the eye of the super-markets. Tradewell opened its store with much fanfare and ribbon cutting and speeches by Island pioneers.

We who knew the little Grubstake will watch with interest the growth of this new place, in its beautiful setting of woods. Watch – and hope – that the new and growing community can profit by the mistakes of those gone before it. That we will have room for parking, trees, flowers, and landscaping to gladden our eye while we shop. And enough woods left to remind us that after all, we still live “in the country.”

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