ABERDEEN — Alice Esses came to Lake Quinault from Oklahoma as a young woman and carved out a life for herself among the tall trees. She recognized the Pacific Northwest as “heaven on earth,” and put down roots, becoming a beloved member of her small community as a teacher, mother, neighbor and business manager.
Now 94, Esses has been honored by the Polson Museum as its Pioneer of the Year.
Esses arrived in Grays Harbor in 1937. She had saved her teaching salary to take a trip to the West Coast. She intended to leave her home in Turkey Ford, Okla., for only the summer while she visited Los Angeles and worked her way up the coast to Portland, Ore.
But a family friend encouraged Esses to visit some friends in Hoquiam, and Esses, undaunted, took trains and buses to get there.
Esses said she had a nice daylong visit, and was about to catch a bus back to Seattle — “I had already bought the ticket,” she recalled — when the woman she was visiting, Marie Testerman, asked her to stay the night.
“She said, ‘My brother is going out tonight. He’s got a date, and we can get one for you.’ That sounded pretty good to me!” Esses recalled.
One thing led to another. Testerman then encouraged Esses to get a job in Hoquiam.
Esses was lured by the high minimum wage — $100 a month for all 12 months for teachers, versus Oklahoma’s $70 a month for eight months.
“That was more money than I’d ever made,” Esses said.
Talking to the school superintendent only cemented her desire to stay. He was from a nearby town in Oklahoma and they knew each other’s families. But Hoquiam wasn’t hiring. The superintendent told her to apply at Lake Quinault and Moclips.
The next day, Esses was off to Lake Quinault. She had hired a car for the princely sum of $5, and said the drive started her love affair with the Washington coast. Having left behind the Dust Bowl, Esses said the trees and water “looked like heaven on Earth.”
The Lake Quinault School hired her, and she settled at the Lake Quinault Lodge, where she paid $35 a month for room and board, living with the other teachers in one of the hotel’s wings.
Esses said she bonded quickly with the families in Quinault — pioneer and Native American, they were all welcoming to her. And she loved teaching the children, who were always well-behaved and sweet-mannered no matter what grade she taught, and she reckoned she taught just about all of them.
Esses met her husband, Vic, when he moved to the area after finishing his degree at the University of Washington. He intended to log until he saved enough money to go to law school.
From such humble beginnings rose Esses Logging Co. Vic Esses, like his wife, was a hard worker, and even as the company took off, the couple took on more responsibilities.
Alice Esses left her teaching job when she had children, but when they were old enough, she followed them right back into school. She even got her husband to put a house on a piece of property directly across the street from the school so she could be close to them.
When Esses wasn’t teaching, she was running the store that is now the Quinault Mercantile.
As her children were born, she would tuck them in a basket in the vegetable aisle. All the clerks in the store would look and fuss after her children.
“I wore a lot of hats, but I always had my children with me,” Esses said.
The store did a huge business during World War II. It was the only place to get groceries between Forks and Hoquiam, and Esses was in charge of rationing gas. The family also ran a restaurant and a shingle mill. Esses had a big hand in managing the businesses even though she was a full-time teacher. Plus, she had all the obligations of running a house with four children.
“I would get up at 5 and I was lucky to be in bed at 1,” she recalled.
Her son, Ludlow Esses, said no matter how hard his mother worked, she never failed to be cheerful and optimistic.
“I’d see her doing laundry late at night, and then she’d wake us up with a song,” he recalled with astonishment.
Throughout her busy schedule, Alice Esses did what she could to make school interesting for her students. It would be her teaching, her son said, that would be her lasting legacy in the small community.
“I didn’t just teach the page, I tried to be creative,” Esses said.
It was important to her to imbue a sense of adventure in her students, a sense that there was a big, exciting world waiting for them. In one famous lesson, Esses had the students bring in their model trains and they laid the tracks on the floor, replicating the way trains connected the coasts. She then took them on an actual train ride that wound up in Olympia.
Ludlow Esses said his mother reached out to all her students, whom she appreciated for their individual personalities. And they remember and love her.
Alice Esses said she was grateful she could work in a field she loved, as so many opportunities were closed to women in those days.
After the years of hard work, Alice and Vic Esses settled into a retirement that more than made up for all those years. The couple traveled through Europe, Asia, Australia and all over North America.
Vic Esses died in 1987, and Alice Esses said she’s slowed down a bit now that she can’t drive. But she still has surprises for her friends and neighbors who check in on her, doing Sudoku puzzles daily and telling stories from a remarkably nimble memory.
“I’ve had the most varied life,” Esses said. “My father always believed in going and seeing how things were, and that’s what we did with our own kids, and that’s what I wanted to teach to my students.”