It was September 21, 1924, and the townspeople of Eatonville were battling a string of arsons. Little did they know the real fire was yet to come.
Rumor has it, that afternoon in Alder a Fire Marshall swapped someone at the Cascade Timber Company a bottle of whiskey for a slash fire permit. Despite how the slash fire started, what made it a deadly were the 40 mph winds that picked up shortly after it was set.
The fire swept down the hillsides toward Eatonville, covering swatches half a mile to five miles wide and 15 to 20 miles long. It ravaged its way through Pack Forest, Ohop Valley, jumped roads, traveled through Lynch Creek, and Kapowsin, and set fire to millions of board feet of timber as far as Graham.
The draft from the blaze was so powerful “good sized” fir trees were twisted and pulled up from their roots. Barns, houses, livestock, and logging camps were destroyed in the fire’s path and people frantically worked to save their homesteads.
Eatonville resident Frank Hoffman says, “Our family was good friends with the Conrads who lost a barn in the fire. Mrs. Conrad worked hard to save their home and I’m not sure if it was the smoke or the heat, but it left her blind.”
By 5 p.m. the fire had completely encircled Eatonville and 500 people had yet to evacuate.
“The late Mrs. Otto Anderson once told of walking down Eatonville’s main street at the hour,” writes Marjorie Hayes in History of Southeastern Pierce County. “There was no sign of life. All the stores were empty and there was no one on the street but Mrs. Anderson and a bewildered cow. The air was full of smoke and ashes which obscured the sky, and there was a lurid glow over everything.”
Mrs. Larry Smith went up to the school to check on her husband, the custodian. Hayes says, “The fire was roaring through the canyon behind the buildings, and the draft was so great that she feared she would be sucked into it and resorted to crawling on her hands and knees.”
Firefighters from Tacoma arrived in time to help save the residences on the north end of Washington Avenue. More equipment arrived from Fort Lewis, right behind Dr. A. W. Bridge who had rushed from Tacoma to his patients at the Eatonville Hospital.
In the end, it was probably Mother Nature who played the biggest part in saving the town. The “freakish” windstorm shifted direction, which kept the fire literally at arm’s length.
Rains came the next day and Eatonville residents returned, relieved to find their town intact.
40 years ago, in the summer of 1970, Eatonville was gearing up for the Buffalo Party Convention and pig roast at Buffalo Don Murphy’s Flying M Ranch, east of town. It was supposedly a political gathering, but everyone knew what it really was — a rock festival.
I was in first grade at the time and even from my six-year-old perspective I could tell the townspeople were seriously worked up. Woodstock had taken place the summer before and people had images of thousands of hippies with their drugs and everything else that goes along with a rock festival.
Right before the event, a preliminary injunction was filed in Superior Court prohibiting “further advertising, opening, ticket selling, operating, or in any way furthering and having the event called the Buffalo Party Convention and Pig Roast.” But the word was already out and neither the injunction nor the roadblocks put up by the police stopped Eatonville’s rock festival.
Police, townspeople and businesses got ready for the worst. My dad was even hired by the Eatonville School District to guard to the grounds from vandalism. He had a billy club, which he jokingly referred to as his “hippy cruncher”.
A man who attended the event posted on the web: “I hitch-hiked from Portland, Ore. Arrived in Eatonville late at night and the police were directing traffic through town, trying to tell us to go back where we came from, the festival is cancelled! We went around in circles through town like a parade. The locals were out on the sidewalks waving and we were waving back. . . . the next day they let us in on the festival grounds ’cause there were just too many people to deal with.”
On a rather disgusting note, because of the injunction, the portable restrooms never arrived and attendees had to make due with one out building and a large ditch.
Despite the crowds, lack of restrooms and roadblocks, the three-day event held on the 4th of July weekend was more peaceful than rebellious. The Dispatch reported somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 people attended and although drugs were openly sold at the three-day event, the only real damage to property was a car collision at Center Street and Washington.
Merchants and residents stated that, “the long haired youths were courteous, polite and considerate.” It also appears the hippies turned out to be somewhat of a spectator sport. More than a few residents have told me they managed to get up there to take a look around.
Who played at the rock festival? James Cotton? Clear Light? No one seems to know for sure.