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"What price growth...?"

Rutledge farm preserves much of a vanished life

Karen Hucks; The News Tribune

Not much has changed on the Rutledge farm in more than 130 years.

Electricity, an indoor bathroom and a kitchen have been added to the 1861 farmhouse in Littlerock. But 77-year-old Dale Rutledge and his son, Tim, still heat their home only with firewood. And they still look through the same warped, bubbled, single-pane windows as earlier Rutledges.

The massive, 124-foot barn, built of hand-hewn timbers in 1864, is still full of hay. The Rutledges still raise beef cattle on the 340 acres.

"I think my great-granddad would recognize the place if he came back," said Tim Rutledge, 44.

Thurston County thinks that's quite an achievement. It will honor Dale Rutledge on May 4 for the remarkable preservation of his grandparents' 1850s homestead.

"They value their history and have made a conscious effort to protect it," said Shanna Stevenson, senior planner for the Thurston County Historic Commission.

It's the kind of stewardship that benefits the entire community, Stevenson said. The site is packed with history.

The rock that Littlerock was named after sits in front of the white Greek Revival-style house. The house once doubled as the town's first post office, when Thomas Rutledge was postmaster. And the property still bears the indentations left by American Indians who pulled canoes across the land as they traveled from Puget Sound to Grays Harbor.

Today the living room is filled with the sounds and smells of wood crackling in the fireplace. The wood-plank floors are painted, the 1870 organ still sits in the corner and doorknobs haven't been raised from their thigh-level positions.

"It takes a different kind of attitude to live in a house like this," Dale Rutledge said.

It gets as cold upstairs sometimes as it is outside, said Tim Rutledge, who lives there with his dad. When the wind blows, a draft comes through the living-room floorboards.

"But as it gets older, the dirt fills in the flooring and it doesn't come through as much," Dale Rutledge said with a laugh. "It helps to have a sense of humor."

He reminisces about the winter night one of his daughters took a hot water bottle to bed and awoke to find it frozen. Years later, two of his granddaughters asked him to turn up the heat upstairs.

There is none.

Half the reason Dale Rutledge never upgraded the house was he couldn't afford it. But he also believes that houses - like people - should act their age.

Partially modernizing an old house is " 'like an old woman putting on a hat and a young dress: It looks ridiculous,' " he said, quoting his mother.

"When you have an old house, the best thing you can do is make the best of what it has."

He admits to some meager modernizations.

"There's a fireplace in the kitchen, but I don't cook on that," Rutledge said. "I've got a cook stove. I've advanced a bit."

His parents bought that wood-burning stove second- or third-hand in 1925. He prefers it to the microwave oven one of his children bought him - just as he prefers crossword puzzles and books to television.

Dale Rutledge is "one of the people I revere most in the county because he's a very gentlemanly fellow and he knows a lot of history," Stevenson said. "And he walks the walk."

Rutledge shuns such compliments.

"I don't want it to sound like I've been a success and a brag," Rutledge said. "I have not been all that great. I've just hung on, that's all."

Sometimes, he's wonders if he's put sentiment above practicality.

Running the farm hasn't been easy for any of the Rutledges. Dale's grandfather came across the Oregon Trail from his native Maryland in a covered wagon and made a living by raising beef cattle and selling hay in Olympia.

When Dale Rutledge was growing up during the Depression, the family had so little money that the kitchen floor fell through, he said.

And even now, farming has become such a tenuous profession that he said he and his son earn only enough to exist.

Tougher state fisheries regulations on the bordering Black River have limited the amount of the Rutledge's property where cattle can graze, and therefore, the amount of money they can make, he said.

Most local farmers have given up, and houses have replaced crops. The farming community that once shared work during harvests is long gone. Neighbors don't know each others' names anymore, he said.

Dale Rutledge used to recognize every car that drove by his property on Littlerock Road, but now he doesn't even notice the constant hum of passing traffic.

It all makes the pressure to change great.

In the past, he threw out the numerous letters that came from timber and real estate agents offering to buy his property. One last year offered $1.6 million for 123 acres.

Dale Rutledge just laughed.

"I said 'I never heard anything more ridiculous,' " he said.

He didn't know what he'd do with so much money. But he's begun to think he'll have to sell 60 acres to developers just to make ends meet.

"I have to do it," he said. "I feel like I have to do that. I don't see any other way out."

But Tim Rutledge said he'll stay and farm the land for as long as he can. And that generation-after-generation commitment is one of the things that makes the Rutledge farm so special, said acting state historic preservation officer David Hansen.

"I think it makes for a unique happening in that the depth of recollections is so rich," Hansen said. "That can't be translated through a new owner."


  • Staff writer Karen Hucks covers Thurston County. Reach her at 1-800-388-8742, Ext. 8660, or by e-mail at kxh@p.tribnet.com

    The News Tribune

    April 12, 1998


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