In early May 1943, our uncle Private Lester LaVerne Zornes mailed home to Spokane this beautiful (apparently government-issue) Mother’s Day Card. He was going through basic training at Sheppard Field near Wichita Falls, Texas. The card revealed one mystery to which we have no certain answer: Up until he went into the service, he always went by “Verne.” He signed “Les” to more than 100 letters he sent home while in the Amy Air Force. But, why did he sign this one card to his mother “Private Lester (Verne) Zornes”?
On Monday, December 14, 2020, the Spokane City Council voted unanomously to change the name of “Fort George Wright Drive” to “Whistalks Way.”
This action begins to correct a series of significant wrongs spanning 162 years aimed at the native population in our area .
U.S. Army Col. George Wright was responsible for, among other things, the execution of Yakima sub-chief Qualchan, along with more than a dozen other local natives in 1858.
The name of the one-mile stretch of 4-lane road will honor Qualchan’s wife Whist-alks, who was known as a warrior woman that fought to save her husband from being hanged.
Here is an excerpt from Chapter 13 of “Not Forgotten: A Pacific Northwest Family Brings Their Soldier Home,” in which I describe the incident that led to the naming of “Hangman Creek,” also known as “Latah Creek,” along which my mother’s family settled in the 1930s and 1940s :
When [my mother’s brother] Verne was about ten years old [about 1935], the family moved to a farmhouse they rented about three miles south of Spokane, near a quiet neighborhood locals dubbed “Vinegar Flats.” This valley was home to the Keller-Lorenz Vinegar Works, a particularly fragrant factory that took advantage of the area’s plentiful apple orchards to make cider, malt, and white wine vinegar. Even though the factory closed in the late 1950s, and the canyon no longer smells like pickles, the neighborhood’s nickname lingers.
By the time Verne was 15, Grandma and Grandpa had purchased land a few hundred feet away from their rental on the bank of what is called “Latah Creek” on some maps. If you ask any local old timers where Latah Creek is, however, you’re just as likely to get a blank stare as a reliable answer. Or you might get directions to Latah, a tiny village with that name 30 miles southeast of Spokane Valley.
Ask about “Hangman Creek,” and we’ll give you precise guidance that would turn any GPS green with envy.
I was afraid of Hangman Creek – with good reason. I was an odd child, but I was no dummy. I had read that children’s horror story “Three Billy Goats Gruff” enough times to know evil can wait for long stretches of time in dark, chilly places under bridges. Because this creek had the word “Hangman” in its name, I understood monstrously patient masked creatures (I pictured dozens of drippy Shrek look-alikes with black ski-masks and no sense of humor) could hide like trolls under every bridge, with the sole purpose of snatching up little boys and girls to string up and nibble on.
As an adult, I learned about the truly gruesome series of events that gave the creek its creepy nickname. These took place during the lead-up to the Civil War, as the stream of white settlers from the East and Mid-West kept filling up what in the 1850s was Oregon Territory. Several local Native American tribes started raising a ruckus at what seemed like an unending invasion of their ancestral homelands, which, of course, it was.
In May of 1858, the U.S. Army dispatched Colonel Edward Steptoe to travel north from Ft. Walla Walla to meet with local tribal leaders in Colville and persuade them to calm down. But some of the tribes were done playing nice. They confronted the troops near Rosalia, about 30 miles south of Spokane. Because Steptoe wasn’t expecting any problems, his 150 or so soldiers carried very little ammunition. Under the cover of darkness, they made a skillful tactical retreat through the Palouse back to Walla Walla.
Four months later, Colonel George Wright decided to put a decisive end to all these “troubles.” To cripple the economic vitality of the local Indians, Wright ordered the slaughter of hundreds of prized horses near what is now State Line, Idaho. This got everyone’s attention. Wright then called for leaders from several tribes to gather and sign a treaty at a shallow crossing of the creek, some 25 miles upstream from where Spokane would later sprout up.
One of those leaders was Chief Qualchan of the Yakima tribe. He rode proudly into camp, apparently expecting to negotiate a deal with the Army.
Wright had something else in mind. He promptly ordered his soldiers to hang Qualchan from a tree along the bank of the creek. Before Wright was finished, more than a dozen Yakimas were executed in much the same way.
A stone marker at the site commemorates the hangings. It also notes that just a few hundred feet away, the tribal leaders who were not strung up signed a peace treaty, pretty much putting the kibosh on any organized resistance.
The name “Hangman Creek” stuck almost immediately.
Maps published by the U.S. Geological survey still recognize the name “Hangman Creek.” Toward the end of the 20th century, Spokane County and the State of Washington officially opted for the earlier “Latah Creek,” perhaps as a conciliatory nod to the tribes, or to keep from scaring away tourists and nervous little boys and girls.
In an act of in-your-face arrogance, the military in 1899 established Fort George Wright about a mile and a half north of where Hangman Creek empties into the Spokane River. For a time during World War II, Fort Wright became Pacific Northwest Headquarters for the U.S. Second Air Force. It provided ground school training for pilots and even top-secret training for spies.
In an act of poetic irony, the facility in 1990 became home to the Mukagawa Fort Wright Institute, an American language Japanese student exchange school.
I’ve also learned the pretty little creek (or “crick” as many pronounce it) forms from melted winter snow pack from the western-most slopes of the Rocky Mountains. It flows about 100 miles in a generally north and west direction, with dozens of tributaries draining water from nearly 700 square miles of the Palouse. Frequently in the early spring, higher than usual levels of snow melt can force the creek to surge over the edges of its banks.
The creek’s volume is highest through the Vinegar Flats canyon immediately before it joins the Spokane River west of downtown Spokane. The walls of the canyon give it the shape of a long spade, with the tip pointed generally toward the northwest. The mostly flat floor of the canyon narrows to about 300 yards.
Three features dominate the canyon floor, each meandering from the southeast towards the northwest: the creek, the Burlington Northern Railroad, and State Route 195, known locally as the Pullman Highway. From a bird’s point of view these three ribbons appear pinched together at a narrow spot centered on the bottom of the canyon.
That narrow spot is where the Zornes family purchased eight acres to put down roots in 1940. The long rectangular property was scrunched between the creek on the east and north, and a 25-foot high pile of rock that made up the rail bed for what was then the Union Pacific railroad on the west. Highway 195 finished the property’s frame on the south.
When you stand on the property and look east across the creek, your field of vision is filled with a tall wall of sandy dirt rising steeply for about 500 feet. Your eyes are instantly drawn to the top of the bluff upon which sits High Drive and Spokane’s South Hill. Before and after the war, well-to-do Spokanites built spacious homes along High Drive so they could gaze out over the less affluent residents in the green valley below.
Turning to the west, you see a gradual, pine and fir-speckled rise toward the West Plains, home to Spokane International Airport and Fairchild Air Force Base.
The sediment the creek piled here through the millennia has been good to this valley. When Verne was a teenager, the neighborhood was carpeted with orchards, family gardens, and truck farms, which supplied the city’s markets with fruit and vegetables. Today, manufactured housing has replaced much of what had been groves of fruit trees and fields of berries. Most of the orchards are gone but there still are a handful of commercial and community gardens and greenhouses.
Once they purchased the land, Grandpa and Verne spent evenings and weekends scraping and leveling the ground and building a simple two-story house. Emphasis on “simple.” It looked handmade. It was small with no fancy adornment. The exterior was plain wood planking, which Grandpa would later cover with a reddish tar paper siding textured to look like brick.
It must have seemed like Heaven.
Grandpa built the house toward the south end of his property and set it back from the highway enough for a broad driveway. He planned to put a gas station there to take advantage of motorists heading to and from Pullman and the rest of the Palouse. His plan later fell through when the state re-routed the highway. In fact, the state would declare eminent domain in 1960 and force Grandma and Grandpa to sell a large chunk of their property to widen Highway 195 from two to four lanes. Today, motorists traveling in the northbound lanes drive straight through the ghost of the Zornes’ living room.
In late 1941, things were looking up for the Zornes family as they got ready to settle into their modest dream home. Verne was gearing up to graduate from Spokane’s Lewis & Clark High School the following spring. He was learning automotive mechanics through a federal youth Technical and Vocational School program offered through Spokane School District 81. The program was housed less than a mile from Verne’s home at the Lowell Public School, a tan stucco structure which still stands at Inland Empire Way and 22nd Avenue.
Like so many 17-year-old boys, the world must have seemed to offer options limited only by his interests, talents, and gumption.
On December 7, an event three thousand miles away in Hawaii Territory would strip away his choices and narrow his path. It would also change the landscape of our town and the course of our family for generations.
This is the 39th letter P.f.c. Lester L. Zornes wrote home to Spokane, Washington while in the service during World War Two. By this time, he had been in the Army Air Forces for seven months and in Radio Operator and Mechanic Course at Army Technical School in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
I have inserted the text below the images:
Saturday, September 4, 1943
Dearest Mom, Dad, and kids,
Well, here it is, Fall already, at least it seems that way from the weather. It’s cold and rainy today. Seems kinda swell though, at that. The nights as so a person can use both blankets comfortably, nice and cool, you know. I’ve got a feeling the winter is going to be nice and cool. It has a good reputation, anyway, -40º. Brrrr. I hope to be out of here by then, though.
I passed my 14 word check last night [Morse Code], so I’ll be working on 16 words per minute. We have to have credit for 18 words before graduation, so that means I have to pass two more checks.
Well there’s nothing new from here, except tonight is my last night of school for a while. We go on days tomorrow, Sunday.
Today is gas mask day. The first Saturday of every month we have to wear our gas masks all day. Gosh I hate to lug the darned thing around, even to school. We have to wear them, even to chow.
How is the old Buick? Is it still running? I miss having it here to overhall every other day. It used to be lots of fun. Maybe I’ll overhall it again, some day. Are you guys careing for the tires? They are precious things, you know.
How is the top of the Cad? Does it still leak? How is the Gas situation? How about the truck gas? Does the twin horns still work on the Cad?
I think I’ll be qualified for Combat Duty, ‘fore I get out of here. I wouldn’t mind it, being Radio Operator and Gunner (or as it is called, Radio Gunner) on a B-17 or something of the like.
Lots of others are going off to combat and are coming back. Lots of them have
gone over and came back, so why shouldn’t I be able to get back okay. Some times I feel as though I’m anxious to go across and help get it over with, but think of the extra money I’d get. I’d get my 20% over seas pay, and flying pay, with a Staff Sgts rating. Gosh I’d draw down way over $130 per month. But don’t worry about it though, that’s a long way off yet.
Thanks for keeping the Cad shined for me. Tell Betty if her Ford worked like a Radio, I’d fix it for her. I’ve forgotten how to hold a wrench, it’s been so long.
Well, I’d better close for now. Write real soon please, and if you see Harold, ball him out for me for not writing.
Bye for now,
Love as always
The Italy news looks mighty good, huh?
Here’s a great article by Cindy Hval that appeared in the Thursday, December 5, 2019 Spokesman-Review:
Here is the 51st letter our uncle P.f.c. Lester LaVerne Zornes mailed home during his training in WWII. At this point he was nearing completion of Radio Operations and Mechanics program at Army Technical School in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He would go on to serve as Radio Operator on board a C-47 troop transport plane with the 306 Troop Carrier Squadron, 442nd Troop Carrier Group. The first image is of the Radio Operator patch he mailed home.
As he did in nearly all of his letters, he had to check on the 1928 Cadillac his father purchased for him. His father had been working for the ALCOA Aluminum smelter in Mead, Washington for six months.
The text of all of his letters are included in the second half of “Not Forgotten: A Pacific Northwest Family Brings Their Soldier Home“.
[Envelope postmarked Nov 10, 1943, 10 AM; Sioux Falls, S. Dak.]
P.f.c. L.L. Zornes
804 T.S.S Bks. 1235
Army Technical School
A. A. F. T. T. C.
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Mrs. L.O. Zornes
R.F.D. # 1
Dear Mom, Dad, and kids,
“Beautiful, beautiful Texas” that’s what I’m singing now. I never realized how swell Texas was till about three days ago. Yes, siree, they don’t have blizzards in Texas. This was the first (Real) Blizzard I’ve been in. Honestly, it was terrible!!!!! Two days and nights straight the wind blew at rates of about 50 m.p.h. It quit snowing after the first couple days, but even after the skies were blue, there were so much snow in the air all the time that you couldn’t see but a few feet ahead of you. Some places the ground is bare,
and other places its piled up several feet high in drifts, especially around the buildings.
Today the wind is down and its fairly nice now. During the storm, it was almost impossible to walk against it, the wind would blow you backwards on the ice, no kidding. It blew so hard cars and busses couldn’t stay on the roads. Here on camp along a strip of road on the windward or northern side of camp, 4 busses and 1 or 2 trucks were ditched, within the distance of 2 blocks. All the trains were tied up and roads blocked and schools closed, businesses shut down. It was really a severe storm.
We may not get to fly this week because of bad weather. I’m hoping we can fly, though.
Well, next Monday, I’m graduating I hope. Graduation excercises are going to be held in town. They are sure keeping us busy, gosh, aint got time to do anything.
Did I tell you how much I enjoyed them thar cookies and cake? I devoured them the first day and night. Gosh, they were sure good. They were sure good. Thanks ever so much Mom. Say Mom, I won’t send any money home till after I ship from here and get settled at my next camp, just in case I should need something unexpectedly. Okay?
So, the Old Cadillac is getting cranky, huh? Are you treating her good? Tell her to be good and not act up like that or I won’t like her any more (so it says here). Oh, well, if the Cad don’t run, Rich [12 year old brother] can drive Dad to work in the Ford (again it says here). How is the weather back in good old Spokane? I sure hope you don’t get any blizzards like the one we had. The wind even ripped off a lot of our storm doors on the barracks.
Say Mom, I’ll send you a graduation patch when I graduate, the kind I’ll wear on my sleeve. I think they are pretty.
How’s the kids and school and so on? Does Lois [sister] still like High School as well as she use to? Tell her I’m ashamed of those low grades. Gosh, she could at least get keep up the great tradition of high grades I left there at L.C. [Lewis & Clark H.S.] Be quiet, Mom. Nuff said. No remarks.
Well, Mom, I’m running out of news so will close for now. Tell the Foreman of the Pot Room (to be) to keep the old Cad running good, cause ‘twould seem mighty funny if the foreman should be late, would be a very poor example to set up for his men. Tell him also that if he’d [get rid of] some of that tummy of his, the Cad wouldn’t have to work so hard and might work better. I’m proud of that tummy of his’n anyhow, cause it’s not every man that can have a ‘white coller” job and get a Pot Room Pot Belly (or is it Beer belly) huh?
I’ll try to write sooner next time, but you know how it is. I owe everybody a letter. Lottie. Harold [buddy]. Lena and Doris and Pauline and Johnny and Kiku and every body, but I just ain’t got time right now. If you see Harold, tell him I’ll try and write him soon.
Bye for now,
Love and Love and Love
When: Saturday, October 12, 2019
3:00 pm to 5:00 pm
Where: Sans Souci West Club House
3231 West Boone Avenue
Spokane, WA 99201
(Former site of Old Natatorium Park)
No charge. We’ll provide snacks and refreshment.
Travel back to Spokane during World War Two.
See historic pictures, letters and documents not included in the book “Not Forgotten: A Pacific Northwest Family Brings Their Soldier Home”
Get your copy of the book signed by the author!
For more information please email Dave@InonitPublishing.com or call 509-216-2611