By Laurelle Walsh
The last time John and Carol Lester were treated like royalty was when they were the “Belle” and “Dandy” of the Antique Auto Rallye in the 1980s — now the Winthrop Vintage Wheels Show — an event started by Carol’s parents, Herb and June Gatewood.
Now the Lesters, who have been involved in countless community events over the decades, have a second chance to be Winthrop royalty, this time as ’49er Days grand marshal and grand lady. “We never thought we’d be asked” said Carol.
“Every ’49ers our kids were in the parade, or we were, or all four of us were,” Carol recalls. For the bicentennial in 1976, John and Carol dressed up as George and Martha Washington, and their sons Kjell and Kory dressed in blue-and-red infantry costumes. They also often drove one of their antique cars in the parade.
A couple months ago, when John’s stepbrother and former grand marshal Tom Graves called to ask them to serve as ’49er Days royalty, he told John, “I want you to know I didn’t nominate you or vote for you,” John recalls. “I told him, ‘I didn’t think I was old enough,’” he remembers, laughing.
Rooted in the area
Carol started life in Wenatchee, where her father delivered groceries around north central Washington for Pacific Fruit. The Gatewood family moved to Winthrop in 1961 to own and operate the Evergreen Grocery, which was located where the Farmers Exchange Building is now.
John was born in Winthrop. His parents, Bill and Juanita Lester, ran a cattle ranch near Campbell Lake, originally homesteaded by Juanita’s parents, Seth and Mary Kenison, in the early 20th century.
“My family owned the area from the middle of Pipestone to almost Cougar Lake,” John said. “We’re rooted in the area.” Old apricot and apple trees that had been planted by his grandparents in the 1930s bore fruit every year until they burned in the Cougar Flat Fire last summer, he said regretfully.
“I graduated from the Winthrop Dance Hall in 1961,” John says, chuckling. The old Winthrop School burned to the ground on Jan. 1, 1960, so his class finished the year at Twisp High School (they kept the two schools separate even though they were in the same building), and then had classes at the Dance Hall his whole senior year.
John and Carol became an item in the summer of 1962, and eloped to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho in 1964, while Carol was still a junior at Winthrop High School. “I was a teenage girl that wanted out of the house,” Carol said.
But she also wanted her high school diploma, and the newlyweds “had to fight the school board to keep her in school,” John said. “It was totally unacceptable for high school girls to be married in those days.”
Carol, who had been a cheerleader, remembers being shunned and having “everything torn away from me. They thought I was a bad influence,” she said. Interestingly, three Winthrop High School girls got married that same year, “and none of us were pregnant,” Carol notes. She graduated from Winthrop High School in 1965.
John worked as a smoke jumper under North Cascades Smokejumper Base manager Francis Lufkin from 1960-1966. “I was one of the lucky boys who got a job there during high school,” he said. “I earned $2.50 per hour, which was good pay. I was the richest kid in school.”
Once they were married, Carol followed him to fire camps in Pendleton and La Grande, Oregon. “The wives were all proud of our husbands,” Carol said. “I was too young and dumb to be worried.”
“I loved it. I wish I could still do it,” said John. He still pilots a 1942 Taylorcraft L-2 and a Bellanca Cruisemaster out of Okanogan Legion Airport.
John would continue for another 15 years flying jump planes and spotter planes for the Forest Service, but the birth of their first son, Kjell, and a Winthrop business opportunity in 1966 “made me settle down,” he said.
Local business leaders
The Lesters partnered with the Gatewoods to purchase H&J Hardware, located where the Emporium is today, which they ran until 1976. Previously Shafer Hardware, the partners changed the name to H&J for “Herb and John,” they said.
“Everybody came there. It was all the old valley families. Life was different then,” John said. “We’d talk to everybody who came in to sit at the counter and drink coffee,” said Carol.
The hardware became more of a variety store as they added clothing and furniture and eventually got into groceries. That was also when they began accumulating the vast collection of antiques that would one day become the White Buck Museum — another story.
Then, in September of 1972, the North Cascades Highway opened, and life as they knew it in Winthrop completely changed.
“When the highway opened, the magnitude of change was unreal,” John said. “The number of cars that we saw in a day was what we’d seen before in three months.”
He recalls early one morning, five tour buses carrying around 200 people parked down the street near the Rural Electrical Association, “and we were the only ones open … We couldn’t believe it. It was like a tidal wave of people coming down the street. We had to serve all of them.”
“It was like that everyday,” said Carol. “It seemed like we worked 24/7 … People loved the town and we loved Winthrop.”
Both Lesters deserve credit for helping the town transition into a tourist destination during the lean years before the highway opened. “We knew the direction we wanted to go; it was that or watch the town die,” Carol said, citing a depressed local economy that resulted from agricultural losses and the burning of the lumber mill.
Carol served as secretary and then treasurer of the chamber of commerce, and John spent 14 years on the town council and Westernization Architectural Committee. “We were involved in everything,” Carol said.
After the Dance Hall collapsed in the winter of 1971, Carol and six others began raising money for its reconstruction, and in 1973 local builders, including John, began building the Winthrop Barn, the community’s auditorium and gathering place to this day.
After the family sold the hardware store in 1976, John went to work for Lloyd Logging and Sun Mountain Lodge. The Lesters moved to Kent, Washington, in 1986, and then to Spokane, where John retired in 2009. The couple has resettled in Okanogan — with a house and hangar right on the airport runway — to be nearer to their sons and their grandchildren, Delaney and Joshua.
If you miss the chance to meet the Lesters in their royal capacity over ’49er Days weekend, you can say “hi” at The White Buck Antiques where John and Carol will be spending the summer selling the former museum’s inventory. You might also catch them smiling behind the wheel of an antique automobile at the Vintage Wheels Show in Winthrop later this summer.
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