EVERETT — Even before Hewitt Avenue was paved, the women of Everett decided the city needed a library.
Streets were lined with plank sidewalks in the summer of 1894, when a women’s book club met at the home of Mary Lincoln Brown.
“On that warm summer evening, these wives of prominent professional and business men admired the fine jelly made earlier that day by Mrs. Brown and then turned their attention to the need for a public reading room,” reads a history of the book club — which is still going strong with over 300 members.
The clock was turned back 125 years this weekend at 2702 Hoyt Ave. in celebration of the women who launched the library with 1,000 books in three rooms at the City Hall of that era. Since then, the Everett Public Library has moved twice: to the Carnegie Building in 1905, and to its current space in 1934.
Author Carole Dagg explained what life was like in the 1890s to a crowd in the activity room Saturday.
The former assistant director of the library wrote the historical novel, “The Year We Were Famous,” based on newspaper archives and a decade or so of research into her great-grandmother, Helga Estby, who walked across the U.S. in the 1890s.
For years, the story was a family secret. It happened in the aftermath of the Panic of 1893. The Norwegian immigrant family was at risk of losing their farm in Mica Creek, a 20-mile walk south of Spokane.
It’s a mystery who promised $10,000 — close to $300,000 in today’s money — to Estby and her daughter, Clara, if they could walk from Eastern Washington to New York. But given how it was sensationalized in the press, one guess is that it might’ve been a newspaper tycoon, looking to manufacture a story and sell papers.
“She never divulged who it was that she made an agreement with,” Dagg said.
Or maybe it was a high-roller in the clothing industry, scheming for free national press to advertise the practicality of a new fashion trend — skirts that didn’t scrape the floor.
Dagg’s daughter, Emily, clicked through slides showing archived press photos of the pair.
“Those skirts, oh dear,” said Emily Dagg, who manages Youth Services at the library. “They were the talk of the town. You could see their ankles!”
For years, the story was a family secret. Back home, two of Helga’s children died of diphtheria during the seven-month journey. The Estbys were shunned because many people felt they had abandoned the kids in Washington.
“Would you leave your husband and seven of your children back home to walk across the country, for a chance to win $300,000?” Emily Dagg said. “Maybe. Women didn’t do that. It was a scandal.”
In the end — spoiler alert — they made it to New York alive, but the mystery financier never delivered the cash. The adventure inspired two other recent books, “Bold Spirit,” a non-fiction account, and “The Daughter’s Walk,” a novel that follows Clara’s life afterward.
The library’s weekend events marking its 125th anniversary flashed back to that era and what Dagg called the “history of the ordinary” — what people ate for breakfast, what they wore, what their jobs and schools were like.
Out in the lobby, Cary Williams from the Hibulb Cultural Center shared an exhibit about the Tulalip Indian Boarding School of the late 1800s and early 1900s, when missionaries forced native boys and girls around the region to give up their culture and spiritual beliefs in exchange for a white man’s education.
It was a half-century of concerted effort to erase tribal identity.
“It wasn’t the prettiest history, and it’s something that’s been important to teach,” Williams said. “For a long period of time, these things weren’t being taught or being spoken about.”
Children were forbidden from talking in Lushootseed, the traditional tongue spoken by many Coast Salish tribes.
Williams, 29, and his son, 16 months, are now learning the language to keep that piece of heritage alive.
“My goal is to become fluent in my elder stages of my life, if not earlier,” he said.
On Sunday, a Port Townsend couple, Sarah and Gabriel Chrisman, explained why they’ve chosen to live a late-Victorian lifestyle for a decade — corsets, pantalets, petticoats, gas lanterns, tea, an ice box — and what it has taught them about ordinary people of the past.
“It gives you insight into the rhythm of that world,” Gabriel said, “and the way that the whole culture worked, and the way that the technology worked, and the way that people wore clothes and the way that people dealt with things.”
Sarah Chrisman writes historical fiction.
“It’s one thing to learn about a different culture in a classroom,” Sarah said. ”It’s a very different thing to go to the country where it’s a living culture. By immersing ourselves in a lot of the artifacts from the 19th century … we can at least learn from the artifacts that they left behind, and get a deeper insight. We don’t expect everyone to live the way we do. That’s what my books are for.”
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.