“I told Mona that when that fire whistle blows and I leave the station, she needed to come over and watch my babies,” recalls Norma Johnson. This was the arrangement when Norma would jump into the fire truck and drive to a fire. While it was the community fire station and the community center, it was also home to Norma’s family the first few years after they arrived in the Basin.
During the late 1950’s, Norma and her late husband James, were fixing to take a vacation and decided to check out the Columbia Basin. They and her mother traveled from New Mexico to Washington to see about possibly purchasing some farmland. After all, they figured if the farming didn’t work out, James could work in a grocery store in Washington as well as he could at a store in New Mexico.
The couple found some land and decided to move. The land deal fell through, but they decided to move anyway. They loaded the U-Haul, stuffed their life savings of $700 in Norma’s sock and drove to Washington.
The first summer, James drove combine for Ben Grant. Driving combine was nothing new to James. During his teenage years in Oklahoma, he would follow the wheat harvest throughout the mid-western states. Most of the boys, including James’s brother, owned their own combine, but James’s combine was a loaner from the Massey dealer with the understanding that if Massey invented some gadget, they would be able to put it on whenever they wanted. The crew would start harvesting in Oklahoma, then move on down to Texas, around to Colorado, then back to Kansas, before moving up through the north and ending up in Wisconsin or Minnesota.
After living a few months in Richland, Norma and family were able to move to the fire station on the corner of Selph Landing and Columbia River Road. The fire hall had a large open room that was used for a lot of community functions. In fact, the women in the community formed a club and took on the responsibility of paying for the loan on the fire station.
“We raised money by hosting meetings or Christmas parties for businesses,” tells Norma. “Once a month, us women would meet, socialize and plan the dinners that were going to be held at the fire station. We’d plan the menus and then organize the groceries. We’d always have potatoes because someone in the community was already raising them. Then we’d go buy a big roast or two and have a nice Sunday dinner style of meal.
During the hunting season, all of us women would get up real early in the morning and cook a big breakfast for the hunters. We’d have a big pan of eggs and a lot of sausage or bacon. They’d come in and eat, then fill up a thermos of coffee and off they would go.”
The fire station held many socials. “Many times at Christmas, the close neighbors would come over and we’d all have our Christmas dinner together.” At one point, two of the neighbor girls learned to tap dance, so the men built a big stage and the girls would per format various functions throughout the year. Soon two other sisters learned to dance. The girls would compete against each other and all the rest of us would enjoy the entertainment!
After a few years, Norma and James were able to purchase Mr. Dewart’s farm. Many years earlier, Mr. Dewart had talked his brother and sisters into buying parcels of land when The Bureau had limited each person to owning only one parcel. As time went by, Mr. Dewart’s brother died and his brother’s daughter was left owning the land while Mr. Dewart oversaw the day to day operations.
“After leasing that property for a while, Mr. Dewart suggested that we drive over to Montana and talk with the daughter and see if she’d like to sell us his brother’s land,” remarks Norma. “We went to Montana, enjoyed Yellowstone, looked around, talked to her and then came home. When we got home, Mr. Dewart asked how we did. I said, ‘To make a long story short, she told me as long as you were willing to look after it, she wasn’t interested in selling.’
It wasn’t but a week later that we received a letter saying that Mr. Dewart didn’t want to take care of it anymore and she would like to sell the land if we were still interested.” We bought that land and have raised our family here. Our children participated in 4-H. “The years were all good,” smiles Norma. “We had challenges and hard times but overall, farming in the Basin was a good choice.”
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