By Joanna Bastian
The lower valley is quiet and unassuming. Quiet bends in the river flow past blossoming orchards, streams bubble and bounce through stands of aspens, wildflowers dot the shaded groves. The setting sun lights up fields of bunchgrass as ladybugs and bees dance in the iridescent glow.
No one expects the lower valley, home to retired orchardists and ranchers, to be a hotbed of crime. A scene of notorious drama. A land of thugs. But there is a history here, in the rocky cliffs and open meadows. A history of violent crime and restitution.
In Methow (A Scrapbook), compiled by Bob Tonseth, newspaper clippings and journal entries draw a picture of a rowdy past in the valley. An interview with Audrea Mills notes that in 1895 there were, “guns barking. Young John Bruster was in a shooting scrap with Wilbur Condon, better known as Wild Goose Bill, was killed in a gun duel over a woman.”
A Squaw Creek Town rhyming letter from March 12, 1897 proclaims, “There’s a few more bums in this town that don’t figure; they’re simply waiting for the town to get bigger.”
Several years ago an interview with the Duguay family, at their historic Gold Creek Schoolhouse home, revealed a murder that happened on the steps of the schoolhouse. Johnnie Duguay relayed the grisly story about a miner waiting for a ride home from the mine located up Gold Creek. When his ride did not show up, the miner walked down to the schoolhouse and murdered the man he had been waiting for. No word on how he got home. I imagine no one was eager to let him join their carpool (horse pool?) after he shot his last ride.
Industrious Methow-ites will make the best out of any situation. They put those hooligans to work building the Methow-Barrons road, the precursor to Highway 153. Originally, there were no roads from Pateros to Methow. On Aug. 16, 1907, an experimental work program began, using convicts from the state penitentiary.
Barracks for the prisoners were located at the Vroman ranch, just south of the first bridge along the Methow River. In November of 1907, Gov. Mead visited the valley to view the progress. He stated, “The convicts are doing excellent work and are making satisfactory headway.”
Methow (A Scrapbook) contains an article from the Methow Valley News, dated Dec. 27, 1907:
“The employment of convicts on state road work has not only saved a considerable sum to the taxpayers, but has been a genuine success in every way, according to a report just submitted to the governor by J.M. Snow, state highway commissioner. Mr. Snow is so pleased with the results of this year on the state road in Okanogan County that he is desirous of employing convicts next year on the Snoqualmie Pass road.”
The potential for criminality is still around. As reported in the recent May 6 edition of the Methow Valley News, a South Fork Gold Creek man has been charged with setting his house on fire the week after the largest wildfire in the state’s history destroyed over 300 homes and left nearly 1,000 people homeless (he had pleaded not guilty). While his neighbors had no power and no running water to fight existing fires, this man allegedly destroyed his home and possibly put the rest of neighborhood, which had miraculously escaped the path of the flames, in imminent danger by starting another fire. If the man is convicted, maybe it would be fitting for the law to make the punishment fit the crime and have him join a labor crew and build houses to replace the ones that were lost.