Postcard of Main Street, Morton, Washington. c. 1950s
My grandma was born in a little town called Morton, Washington. Her name was Wilma Marie, born February 1940. When she and her younger brother were very little they caught pneumonia and had to go to the hospital–during which time her mother ran off with another man and left the children behind. My great-grandfather worked long and tiresome hours as a logger, so from a very young age my grandma was responsible for caring for her little brother and looking after the family's small farm of cows, goats and chickens.
Coming of age in the 50's when television was constantly advertising for the middle-class American lifestyle, my grandma must have become aware of her family's poor economic situation–having an outhouse rather than a flushing toilet, and not being able to afford the modern household appliances. She never spoke highly of the house or the situation she grew up in (only of her father). I imagine that as a youth she dreamt of being on television like Marilyn Monroe and the other supermodel icons of the time, and maybe even tried to make a go of it during the short time her and my grandfather lived in California before my mom was born and they moved back to Morton. She never achieved that model-stardom lifestyle, but my grandma was the supermodel of tiny little Morton and for that she was famous.
All of these photographs were collected and saved by my grandma, and many of them are photographs she made (or likely directed, in the case of her 'model' photos). She had an excellent eye and natural technique for capturing beautiful, animated and intimate photographs of her life and community as a child and into mid-adulthood, but was never able to develop this talent for fashion and connection, and ultimately stopped documenting her life as time went on.
This selection of images tells the story of my grandma's life in Morton, Washington: from as early as when her parents married in the late 1930s to the moment the whole family (and many other members of the community) began moving away for good. Woven throughout is the story of the logging industry from it's early "glory" days to it's fall, as well as the story of my family's ultimately successful economic struggle over several generations.
James Bennett & Agnes Smith. c. 1938
Family dinner at the farmhouse. c. 1943
Unknown members of the Smith family. c. 1940
James Bennett, Jr. c. 1944 & the family farm dog. c. 1940
James Bennett, Sr. on his farm. c. 1953
Students at the Morton Grade School. c. 1952
My Grandfather Eugene Amburgy. c. 1953 & 1958
Contesters for one of the first Logger's Jubilee Queen's Coronation. c. 1956
After getting married my grandparents moved to California in search of better work. They stayed only a few years before moving back to Morton after my mom was born.
c. 1953. Left: Eureka, California. c. 1950
Are these "good lookin' loads of logs"?
Or "loads of good lookin' logs"?
My Grandpa's family was somehow connected to the family that owned one of the logging companies in the Morton area. I've heard stories that my grandpa and his brothers worked in the woods alongside one of the owner's sons, as well as a different version where my grandfather's sister married the son of one of the owners. Both versions could be true. Either way, this connection (alongside having grown up in a logging community and having labored in the industry as young men) allowed my grandpa and his brothers to all move into higher-paying positions once they began their families.
When my grandparents moved back to Morton, my grandpa got a job as a log scaler. He would sit all day at this station (left) on the road down the mountain, and measure each load of timber that went by. This was his job all the years my mom was growing up, along with coaching the girl's softball team once his daughter was old enough to turn out for sports.
Morton Grade School Softball Team. c. 1962
Once my mom was in school, my grandma began working in retail. She had a passion for fashion and modeling, and was known for always looking her best everywhere she went.
Summer in the PNW. c. 1976
Morton Huskies football practice. c. 1977
Main Street, Morton, Washington. c. 1979
My mom and all her cousins were able to go to college, and inevitably they all moved away from Morton. There was nothing there for them besides working in the logging industry (boys) or marrying a logger (girls), or so I have been told. Morton was a bustling little town at the time, because of the profitability of the logging industry in that moment, but as timber production thrived, national concern for the environment was increasing, labor was more difficult to find, and supply was becoming less abundant and more difficult to harvest.
The decline of the logging industry is ultimately what impoverished Morton's economy. An entire generation of young people left the town for college, higher paying jobs, and lives in different places. My mom went on to get her Master's degree in Public Health, traveling some of Europe and Latin America, and landing a very stable government position in Olympia leading projects involved in the state's anti-smoking campaigns and WIC programs.
My grandparents divorced after my mom left for college, and my grandma moved out of town a few years later. She worked retail almost her entire adult life, and never again lived in Morton. My grandpa Gene stayed through his 50's, moving to Arizona after he retired (probably for the golf lifestyle), where he died after a heart attack in 2002. Grandpa Bennett lived and died as a farmer and logger in Morton, along with the rest of the older generations. Every one of my grandparent's siblings eventually left Morton, none of their children ever returned to Morton, and many other people from those generations tell similar stories. Yet the town remains a source of connection for people from the area, and the landscape is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen.
In memory of Wilma Marie Amburgy, born February 17, 1940, deceased April 24, 2018, at the age of 78. She was preceded in death by both her parents, her brother, her first husband and her daughter, and survived by her husband of later-life, half-sister, and two granddaughters. For approximately ten years before her death she suffered a rare degenerative disease that prohibited her from passing on any stories of her life and family to her granddaughters. These photographs are all we have.
This project was made as part of the program How Did We Get Here? with professor Anthony Zaragoza at The Evergreen State College. Summer 2021.