"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

A life lived hard and varied in Wenatchee

By on August 28, 2018 in Columnist with 0 Comments

Rod Molzahn

By Rod Molzahn

Ed Ferguson rode into Wenatchee in the spring of 1894.

The greatest Columbia River flood in memory was still receding and the road from Colockum Creek to Wenatchee was mostly impassable.

Ferguson left the wagon he was traveling in and rode horseback the last few miles.

When he reached the center of town, the corner of Wenatchee Avenue and Orondo Street, Jack Lillis stepped out of his saloon, took one look at the 15-year-old Ed and shouted, “Hi, fellows! Here’s Jim Ferguson’s kid.”

Jim Ferguson settled in Wenatchee three years earlier and opened a tin shop in “Old Town.” He was known and respected for his patriotism, community spirit and his public speaking prowess.

During his first years in Wenatchee he served, “at extremely small pay,” as town marshal. Ed had come from Tacoma to join his father.

Jim Ferguson insisted that his son attend school. Ed had quit school in Tacoma early in his fourth grade year claiming that he was unfairly treated by his teacher.

So at age 15 Ed was placed in the third grade at the Wenatchee school. He advanced quickly and within a year graduated from seventh grade and got his first job in Wenatchee — pounding down nails on the town’s wooden sidewalks.

But Ed Ferguson had bigger goals. He declared in an interview later in life that his long held ambitions had always been, “to be a policeman, fireman or actor.” He accomplished all those and much more.

Wenatchee’s police in 1908: From left, Nate Inscho, Chief J. Ed Ferguson and Bob Nelson. Photo from the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center #90-56-56

But first, at age 17, Ed went to work for Captain Alexander Griggs as a night watchman, deckhand and fireman on Griggs’ fleet of riverboats.

He “followed the river” for two years. On one trip, bringing a full load of wheat down river from Bray’s Landing, Captain Griggs found that the sacks of wheat had been loaded too heavily in the stern and the Thomas L. Nixon could not be steered.

Drifting through a narrow, boulder-filled channel between Entiat and Orondo the boat struck a large rock where it stuck, taking in water through a stove pipe sized hole in the bow. “Git into the hold and plug that leak,” shouted Captain Griggs.

Ed and Cliff Griggs, the captain’s son, climbed inside to stop the gushing water. Cliff stuffed blankets in the hole and Ed rammed a piece of cordwood in behind the blankets.

The leak mostly stopped but the water filled the boat to within a foot of the deck. Finally the boat floated free and headed down river. Somehow Captain Griggs negotiated the rapids at Rocky Reach, grazed a sandbar near the mouth of the Wenatchee River and drifted to the Wenatchee dock.

In the midst of his steam boating career, Ed, showing his community spirit and interest in entertainment, was a founding member of the Wenatchee Cornet Band. He played the bass drum and eventually the tuba.

The band played for the town’s Fourth of July celebration that year and Ed gave a rousing speech. A “dead ringer for his dad,” it was said. That same year Ed took a leading role in a community theater production of Turn of the Tide complete with heroes, villains and a beautiful heroine played by Maude McNeil.

The town blacksmith, postmaster, Great Northern express agent and Billy Parr, later Chelan County’s first superior court judge, all had big roles. Jim Ferguson provided thunder and lightning from off stage.

During 1898 and ’99 Ed worked two seasons on a government survey team mapping north central Washington. The first season they started in Chelan then down to Entiat, across the river and up to Waterville.

The second season the team worked north from Chelan to the Methow Valley and mapped the rugged canyons that drop from the mountains down to the valley floor.

When the surveying finished Ed took a job clerking at Taz Rarey’s General Merchandise store at $35 a month.

John Gellatly remembered that Ed got him his first job in Wenatchee; a week of work shoveling out the trash from the basement under Rarey’s store. Ed was soon offered $50 a month to clerk at the Wenatchee Hardware Company next door to Rarey’s. He took the job staying until he joined his father in the tin shop and hardware store. The business expanded as “Ferguson and Son.”

The basement under the store was rented to Leonard Fowler, publisher of the Wenatchee Advance newspaper. Fowler was an eccentric figure on the town streets in his green pants, spats and red necktie. He sported a cane and derby hat.

Ed was impressed and worked for more than a year at the paper in ad sales and, occasionally, as editor when Fowler was out of town and the regular editor was “dead drunk.”

Sometime during the years of clerking and newspaper work Ed Ferguson married Alice Blair the youngest of the four Blair sisters. She and Ed were the same age and had likely met when they both attended Stevens School. The marriage, short lived, was over by 1905.

That year Ed’s interest in entertainment came to the fore again. He was convinced that the town needed a theater.

He persuaded developer O.B. Fuller to build one at the corner of Columbia and Palouse streets. Ed leased the theater with an option to buy and went into show business.

He offered the people of Wenatchee dances, band concerts, nationally known speakers, community theater productions and traveling stock companies bringing plays by train from across the country.

Louise Hollenbeck played piano for the plays and for the first silent movies shown at the theater. She was a professional musician from New York. She came to Wenatchee to visit her brother and stayed to fill the Wenatchee Theater with music and to become Mrs. Ed Ferguson.

Ed added law enforcement to his resume on a night in 1907 when drunk construction workers building the Columbia River bridge started a fight downtown.

The town marshal was gone so Mayor Scheble called on Ed to deal with the situation. Ed rounded them up and marched them off to court.

The mayor was impressed and appointed Ed the new town marshal and first city police chief with two uniformed officers. By the end of the year Ed was also the town’s first fire chief.

In 1908 he was elected Chelan County Sheriff and, for a time, held all four offices. Through all this Ed continued to manage the theater.

In 1914 Ed’s dad — his best friend — died. In 1916 Ed’s mother died. She was followed the same year by Louise, Ed’s wife and partner in their love of theater, music and entertaining.

Ed was devastated. He sold the theater and fell into depression. His friends convinced him he needed a new career. Ed, known to everyone, a consummate hand shaker, backslapper and champion booster for his community belonged in the insurance business.

Along with his new wife, Anne Price, Ed spent the next 18 years selling insurance. In 1935 he and Anne started their own successful agency as part of the Mutual Life Insurance Company.

Ed Ferguson died in 1959 at the age of 80.

Historian, actor and teacher Rod Molzahn can be reached at shake.speak@nwi.net. His third history CD, Legends & Legacies Vol. III – Stories of Wenatchee and North Central Washington, is now available at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center and at other locations throughout the area.

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