On Thursday, June 24, I sat down to interview members of the Snowden family for this article which is part of the Discover Beautiful Camano series of stories that celebrates the people and places of Camano Island. As it was the day before the opening of the Camano Studio tour, Dad and Mom were there and it was a reunion of sorts. It was a joy to hear the Snowdens share their stories, to see how their family stuck together through thick and thin, to learn how they cared for each other to the end of their days. Camano Island is a beautiful place, but the real beauty unfolds in the stories of her people. Here is the Snowden’s story.

The Snowden Family

Big families settled and spread on Camano. The Snowden family synchs with the south end in the mid to late 1900s. Their tie to Camano was through Bernie and Eva Dallman. Ellen, born in Wendell, ID, was the youngest in her family of thirteen kids and just an infant when her mother Edith died. As an infant, Ellen often stayed with her oldest sister, Eva. When Ellen was two years old, she was adopted by Eva and Bernie Dallman. They raised her as their daughter.

After Eva married Bernie Dallman, they traveled on horse for two years to figure out where they wanted to live. In 1939, Bernie, Eva and Ellen made their way to Camano where Bernie’s parents had purchased land on the southwest side. They bought a section of property from them and built a two story farm-house.  Today that property is bordered by Bernie Road and east Camano Dr.

There were few south end neighbors back then. But one stands out. When Bernie and Eva moved onto their land on Camano, there was an older Native American woman living at the edge of the field under a tree. Across the street and north from Tyee Grocery was a polished dirt circle where Indians had Pow Wows and artifacts could be found.

Ellen graduated from Stanwood High School in June 1945.

After graduation, Ellen got a job in Seattle doing discharge paperwork for veterans of WWII. In the fall of 1946, she met Ted Snowden, an Air Force vet who served in the Philippines, New Guinea, and Japan. Ted and Ellen were married in Stanwood, WA, on December 21, 1946.

In 1947, Ted and Ellen bought eleven acres on Camano Island from Bernie and Eva for fifty dollars an acre. First they built the house, then the barn, then when their kids were young, the shop [where Jack Gunter’s art gallery is now]. Last, in 1970, they built the store. And there amidst the hum of business, Ted and Ellen raised their children: Leslie, Ed, Wendy, Robin and Chuck. As the Snowden family grew space was tight. Before the house addition, Ed remembers sleeping in the kitchen. Ed, Wendy and Leslie all slept in the shop at different times. 

Maybe Ed’s time in the shop gave him a love for engines and fast cars. He had an orange Camaro, his friends Tim Oxborough, had a purple Challenger and Larry Saimons had a Road Runner. They cruised Colby Avenue in Everett on Friday nights.

To provide for his growing family, Ted ran a number of businesses: Snowden Logging, Snowden Well Digging, and Camano Island Towing. At Ellen’s funeral service several people told stories of her pulling them out of the ditch in the middle of the night. She didn’t tell their parents and didn’t send a bill.” Ted also did some home remodeling; Ed remembers helping him with that when he was young. My mom remembers that Ellen was very capable at all kinds of things. For one, she was famed as a water witch. Lore is that she “never got it wrong,” her grandson Daniel says.

Snowden Well Digging

After he graduated from Stanwood high school, my Uncle Bud worked for Ted and Ellen digging wells. Ted had a crane on a truck. The crane would go up and the cables would go down. A “clam shell” scoop did the biggest part of the digging. But when it hit rocks or hard pan, Bud went inside the well casing with a small jackhammer, called a breaker, that ran off compressed air. He broke up the ground so that the crane and scoop could do its work.

After the shaft was dug and the shell was into the water, Ted let down big concrete well casings two to three feet wide, and two and a half feet high. They were placed in the well, from the bottom to top. Bud would be lowered down and set them in place, fitting them into the groves of the casing below, bottom on up like that. Then Ted put pea gravel around the outside of the casings, where there was about six inches of space between the casing and the dirt. The pea gravel allowed the water to come into the well. The bottom casing had perforations that allowed the water to come in from the bottom also. Typically wells on Camano would be about eighty feet deep.  Bud wore a hard hat, but he admits that it, “Wasn’t the safest thing in the world.” Besides Bud, a big husky guy Bud nicknamed “Moose”, Tim Oxborough, worked for Ted. Tim married Ted’s daughter Robin.

Bud has fond memories of the Snowdens. He remembers digging wells. He remembers driving his Gremlin, a hatchback made by Studabaker, to Ted’s shop to get it fixed. He remembers how Chucky and Ted would put a stick of dynamite out on a stump on the Fourth of July and strap it to a tree. Then “there was a big bang.” Bud laughs when he says, “Those were the good ole days.”

Snowden’s Grocery

Ted and Ellen may be best known for the store built next to their home. It’s official name was Tyee Grocery, but everyone just called it Snowdens. When it opened in 1970 it was the only store on the south end. Years before, there had been a store a little south of the schoolhouse [where Summerland now is] called “Bucklands” because it was owned by the Bucklands, Later, it was called Helzens after the new owners. Besides food and other essential items, they had a laundry machine; my grandfather Doc Dodgson and grandmother Sayre had done their family’s laundry there.  When a sock went missing, Doc complained that “old Buckland had taken one of his socks.” When we moved to the south end of Camano, the Buckland/Helzen building was still there but the store was long gone. Snowdens was the closest place to get milk, basic food items, and oil and gas for your car.

Ted and Ellen made Snowdens a reliable, friendly place because they knew you and were there to help you with lots of experience and advice for country living. They also let local people charge for items. During the 1970’s, Dad struggled to make ends meet selling paintings. From time to time our family needed to charge for some items. Ellen kept track of what was owed. Dad paid them back when a painting sold. We weren’t the only neighbors who struggled. Others appreciated their help too. Ted and Ellen’s kids still have the books with the record of IOUs. Wendy says that with the store next to their home there was no day off. “If someone needed milk they knocked on the door. And you went and opened the store,” she says. They were good neighbors.

Once when my brother Jed was seven, Dad and Jed took a trip to Snowdens to get something. When they came back Dad noticed that Jed had a candy bar in his pocket.  Dad immediately drove back, made Jed hand the candy bar over and apologize to Ellen. She, of course, forgave him.

Mainly it was locals shopping. But occasionally a big name would make it that far south.  JP Patches, who had a summer place at Tillicum Beach, shopped in the store. One time two guys drove up in a little pickup and both got out. One said, “Have you ever heard of a guy name John Denver.” Ellen hadn’t, but Robin said “Yes.” One went over to the truck and got his guitar and started singing to Ellen a song about the store and the chickens they had running around there at the time. But most of the time it was just locals and summer vacationers. Ed’s wife was at church just a few months ago and met a guy who summered at Tyee Beach. He shared with her how every summer the first thing he would do is head to Tyee Grocery to swap jokes with Ted. “They would swap jokes for hours,” Ramona said. He was a kid at the time.  

Painting by Dad, Jack Dorsey, of Tyee Grocery done in the early 1970s

Ed and Ramona’s son Daniel, a classmate of my brother Jed at Stanwood High School, was young when his grandparents owned Tyee Grocery. He writes:

“They were always (and still are) referred to as store-grandma and store-grandpa. Their years running that store were a significant part of their identities within the community. Driving to the south end from Stanwood felt like it took forever in my young mind. I recall my mother being prepared with Jolly Ranchers to try and slow my brother and my complaining. My first memories of Tyee have to do with being terrorized by my grandparents large Dobermans and Siamese cats. As we drove up to the store, those dogs would come out barking and snarling at us. They were bigger than me at the time which I think earned me special attention. I remember their Siamese cats crawling around on their roof and hissing down at me as we walked by. Thinking back on it, I wonder how their patrons felt about their “pets.”

Apart from that, I have fun memories of climbing through old cars and broken glass in search of loose change and whatever else my brother and I could find. I remember always looking to see what new car may have been dumped into the pond behind the store. Even though grandma Ellen was always giving us ice cream and candy when we arrived, we would try to turn our findings into more candy back at the store before we left. My grandparents had huge stacks of concrete well casings and other things that were part of their well digging business. My brother and I would climb through the casings for hours. Between broken cars [from the towing business that were the wrecking yard], the pond and well digging supplies, we had our own private playground that was definitely unsafe enough to be really fun. Whoever cleaned that place up had to have found a LOT of treasures in the process.”

[Daniel Snowden is a gifted poet-musician. You can stream his music on soundcloud. Daniel is working on song that celebrates his family’s roots on the south end of Camano]

My clearest memory of Tyee Grocery store was the day my grandfather died in November 1980.  Dad took our Volkswagon van to Ted’s auto shop to get snow tires put on the van so that we make it across the pass on Highway 2 to be with his mom. Dad wept as he told Ted about his dad’s passing. I was balling too. Ted helped us put on snow tires. I don’t know if he charged Dad. I doubt he did. That’s the kind of neighbors the Snowdens were.

Life on the South End

Like other Islanders the Snowdens struggled to make a living. They made do. They had a big garden. All the kids helped in the garden. They could always find a snack of some kind in the garden each summer, especially Ted’s biggest and best rhubarb. They raised every kind of berry and vegetable for the store and family. They had an orchard to with apples, plums, pears and the best logan berries.

Ted and Ellen loved hunting and fishing. Ellen loved nothing better than standing by the creek, catching a trout. They instilled the love of camping in their children.

The kids were lucky to live on a farm with cows, chickens, a pig and horses. Wendy had her first horse at age nine. “Dad paid fifty bucks for him. He was wild. He loved me and trusted me.” The Snowden boys preferred cars, the faster the better. Growing up on the south end you had to have a car to get around. Chucky used to race up and down the road past our home in a purple Cougar. It was loud; you could hear him coming and going. Dad or Mom would say, “there goes Chucky.” 

Bernie and Eva were Grandma and Grandpa to Ellen’s children and the door of their home always open and welcoming. The Snowden kids attended Mabana Sunday School where Aunt Eva served as superintendent. Wendy says, “If you didn’t go to Sunday School you had to stay home and work. I only missed once.” Aunt Eva picked the kids up. After Sunday School they went to her home and had a big dinner: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy and home-made rolls. Aunt Eva always baked a cake and hid money in it. When you got the right piece, you got the money. Ramona remembers, “the very first time I went to Aunt Eva’s for dinner, I got the dime in my cake. I carried that special dime with me for many years.”

Leslie looks back with fondness to being nurtured at Mabana Chapel. She loved the VBS programs led by college students and taking turns ringing the bells for church. She remembers how every Easter “we decorated the cross with crate paper, daisies made into corsages.” She remembers Doc Dodgson and Ken Day preaching, Margaret taking care of her in Sunday School class, and walking down to Mabana Beach with all the kids. 

Eventually the Snowden kids grew up, married and had kids of their own. Leslie has five kids, Jeff, John, Julie, Jared, and Joanie. She lives in White Cloud, Michigan. Ed married Ramona live in Stanwood. They have two children, Daniel and Steve. Dad officiated the wedding ceremony for Wendy and her first husband. Wendy is married to Harry and has two daughters, Jill and Heidi and a son, Jace. They live on Camano. Robin married Tim Oxborough and had Tamie and Mike. Robin and Tim own Eva and Bernie’s old house and land once settled by Eva and Bernie on South Camano. Chuck married Julie and they have a son named Keith, and live in Sedro Woolley.

Even as they moved on the Snowden kids chipped in as they could. When the store first opened, Leslie who was married and living at Lake Ketchum, came out on the weekend to clean the store and the house. But hard work and time and bad habits took their toll. In 1991, on the day Chucky got married, Ellen, who had been a chain smoker all her life, had a heart attack and was taken to Skagit Valley Hospital. While there she had a disabling stroke, was put on life support, and had to have a five-way bypass at Providence. She was never the same after that.  

Selling Tyee Grocery and Saying Goodbye

Ted and Ellen sold Tyee Grocery in 1989. It was time for them to retire. They were in their 60s and tired from decades of hard work. It was time for a change. After selling the store, they lived for a few years in a mobile home adjacent to the store property.

After Bernie passed away, Eva lived alone. Robin took care of Eva 24/7. It was too much for her. She called Ellen and asked if there was any chance her mom could help out. Ellen started coming a few times a week to help. As Eva’s health failed, Ted and Ellen moved into a motorhome on Eva and Bernie’s property so that Ellen could be close by to help. Robin and Ellen cared for Eva for a couple of years, just as Eva had cared for Ellen so many years before. Eva passed away a couple years after Uncle Bernie. Ted and Ellen moved into Bernie and Eva’s old home. Ted stayed with Ellen and took care of her until she passed away on September 23, 2001 at the age of seventy-four.

Families come and go on Camano like the tide brings in and takes away driftwood. But few families leave such a mark and bring so much good as the Snowden family did to their southside neighbors so many years ago. 

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