Interview with Murrel Dawson

Dublin Core


Interview with Murrel Dawson


Hanford (Wash.)


An interview with Murrel Dawson conducted as part of the Hanford Oral History Project. The Hanford Oral History Project was sponsored by the Mission Support Alliance and the United States Department of Energy.


Hanford Oral History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities




Those interested in reproducing part or all of this oral history should contact the Hanford History Project at, who can provide specific rights information for this item.

Date Modified

2016-05-24: Metadata v1 created – [RG]

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Bauman, Robert


Dawson, Murrel


Washington State University - Tri Cities


Northwest Public Television | Dawson_Murrel

Murrel Dawson: I assume this will be edited. [LAUGHTER]

Robert Bauman: Yeah, so we’ve had the phone go off and—

Dawson: [LAUGHTER] Oh, this is not easy for someone who has not done it very much.

Bauman: [LAUGHTER] It’s okay. Just, I mean, essentially, we’re just having a conversation about your family and your experiences.

Dawson: Okay.

Bauman: I’m not—it’s not like an FBI interrogation or anything. [LAUGHTER]

Dawson: You won’t hold me tight to the dates? [LAUGHTER]

Bauman: No, you know, in fact, yeah.

Dawson: I think you have all the dates.

Bauman: Yeah, it’s more the stories, the memories, the experiences that we’re most interested in, than the—

Camera man: I’m rolling on both of them.

Bauman: Good to go?

Camera man: Yup.

Bauman: Okay, great. All right, well let’s start maybe by having you state your name for us, first.

Dawson: My name is Murrel Dawson.

Bauman: All right, thank you. And my name is Robert Bauman, and we’re conducting this oral history interview on August 6th of 2013. And the interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University, Tri-Cities. And we’ll be talking with Murrel Dawson about her family and their experiences in Priest Rapids Valley. And so let’s start with that, maybe, if you could talk about your family’s history a little bit, maybe how they came into the area and that sort of thing.

Dawson: Well, my mother and dad and the oldest four of his kids came from Prosser. It was right after Depression days. Dad had hired on to work at Midway, in the construction. It was under construction at that time. So we had about a month left of kindergarten—school, for me, talking about myself. And we went to Hanford to be near my dad. And we stayed with my Aunt Nell Clark and her family that had a home there at Hanford. And I went and finished my kindergarten there at Hanford. My dad hired on then at Priest Rapids as an operator at the little powerhouse. And they needed an operator, so there was an empty house there at the time. So they moved us up, or we moved up to that house. And that was in May of 1941, I believe, the end of May. And that's how we got there. Dad needed the job.

Bauman: Mm-hm. And so he worked in construction?

Dawson: He was, I would say, a laborer. And prior to that, when he lived in--he came from North Dakota, and I think when he lived back there, he had done some work as an operator for some company. I don't know what. But--so he had some experience at that. But during the Depression days, like everyone else, he just hustled for work, traveled for work, because we had four children in the family at that time.

Bauman: And what about your mother? I understand she had lived in Hanford growing up at some point?

Dawson: Mother's family--mom came from Indiana as a little infant. They came out on a train, settled in Hartline on a wheat farm. My grandfather was the civil engineer, I believe, county engineer for that county. Then I think they lived in Ephrata for a short time. He was not a good wheat farmer, I understand. [LAUGHTER] But he had several boys that did the work that were partly grown at that time. So then at that point, they moved to Hanford. Mother was a young child. And they farmed in Hanford, and my grandfather was a surveyor. He did the survey work for the soldier homes at Hanford. And my Uncle Howard, his son, helped him. That was one of the things. And he was also the engineer on some of these little bridges you'll see. One was across Crab Creek. I don't even think it's there anymore. But then about the time, I think, that mom was entering high school, they moved to Prosser. She went to school in Prosser, high school in Prosser, and that's where she met my dad, and they married. And I was trying to think--she, how many years would it be later? I don't know. But anyway, when I was in kindergarten, that's when they left Prosser. But mom actually graduated from Prosser High School.

Bauman: And what was your grandfather's name?

Dawson: Stradling was the last name. Edward was the first name, Edward Stradling.

Bauman: Did your mother talk much about her time growing up in Hanford?

Dawson: A lot. [LAUGHTER] She loves stories. Mom was a great storyteller. She tells about her and her brother John that were not the youngest, but next to the youngest two in the family. It was their job to herd the cows, bring the cows in, make sure they didn't run off when they went out to graze. She liked to tell stories of Grandma and the kids going down to the river for--they'd catch fish there at Hanford and clean them and cook them over a fire. Also about Grandpa driving his car out across the road to Prosser, where he did a lot of his survey work, and getting stuck in the sand and that kind of thing. And they would send her along so that if he dozed off, she could wake him up. [LAUGHTER] Keep him on the road, things like that. I don't know how much truth was in all of that, but they made great stories to entertain us kids. And my grandfather also laid out the cemetery in Prosser. He did the survey work on that. That's where my grandparents are buried.

Bauman: Okay. And so did they have a dairy farm? What sort of farm did they have? You mentioned the cows.

Dawson: In Hanford?

Bauman: Hanford, yeah.

Dawson: They grew--No, they did not have a dairy farm. That was just the family cows. And I think they sold butter and milk to the hotel, but they didn't have a herd, to my knowledge. They raised broom straw, sorghum, and something else. I think strawberries maybe. But it was row crops, what they raised. Yeah.

Bauman: And then you said you spent very last month of kindergarten there.

Dawson: Right. We moved to Hanford from Prosser. Daddy was up at Midway working. And we stayed for a short time with my aunt, and then we got a little house, rented a little house. So we were there I think probably the last month, maybe two months of my kindergarten age.

Bauman: Any memories from that time at all?

Dawson: The only thing I can remember is I would have to walk home by myself, and I would get lost. And I could always spot our house if I got over the right hill because there was a big washtub hanging on the side of it, on the outside of it. That's my memory. [LAUGHTER] But no, I can't remember Hanford myself at that age.

Bauman: And what was your aunt's name?

Dawson: It was Frank Clark and Nell Clark. And she had six boys, Benny and Walt that we called Killdie. But those fellows are still here in Richland. They still live here in Richland. The other sons are gone. One lives in Wenatchee. Steve lives in Wenatchee. So, let's see, Howard and Ray are gone, yeah.

Bauman: And so was that your mother's sister?

Dawson: Uh-huh. Aunt Nell was mom's sister.

Bauman: And then so you said then you arrived in Priest Rapids in about May of '41.

Dawson: Mom, in her book [LAUGHTER]--that's where I get these dates--in May of 1941, she went up to Priest Rapids to what we call the John van Ordstrand house. It was the number three house. And it was vacant. And she remembers vividly of walking into a house that the wind could blow dust through. It was built in 1914 or something like that, and it was built flat on the ground. There was no foundation to lift it up. And it had guy-wires to keep it straight from the wind. It was guy-wired on the upwind side because the winds blew so hard that it--I don't know what you call it--lean, tilted, not a huge amount, but enough that they had to guy it up. And it was full of sand and dirt and leaves and whatnot, so Mom got in and cleaned it up and got the--her favorite story, and she was spooky of spiders. She was really scared of spiders--of rolling newspapers up tight and lighting them on fire and making sure they weren't flaming but just cinders, and burning the black widows out from under the tub that sat on legs. You know the old style tubs, and trying to clean up the bathroom. And then once she got all that done, then us kids came up from Hanford and joined. And my first recollection of being at Priest Rapids was Daddy got us kids, us four kids, out of our old Oakland car, stood us up, and said, remember one thing. There are a lot of rattlesnakes here, so be careful where you step, where you walk, and where you put your hands. [LAUGHTER] That was my first memory of being there.

Bauman: And so how long were you in that house?

Dawson: We were there a couple of years, I think. And then--when we moved to Priest Rapids there were three operators--my dad, an operator named Les Brooks--and his elderly mother lived with him--and Joe Grewell. And Joe Grewell lived in what we call the first house, house number one. And it was a well-constructed house, needless to say. It was one that was built later, evidently. Okay, those were the people that worked at the powerhouse. Joe Grewell left. He I think went down to Hanford to work for something. And a man named John van Ordstrand moved into our house. And mom moved our family over to where Joe Grewell had lived, which was a much better house, because the first house we lived in was, like I say, flat on the ground. And it was very, very common to find snakes in our cupboard, bottom cupboard. Never found a rattlesnake, but bull snakes would get in there occasionally. And so she didn't like that house. Mom didn't like living in there. And so anyway, we went to Joe Grewell house when he moved. And I can't remember for sure the time frame on it, but we probably lived in the first house a couple years.

Bauman: So what sort of community was Priest Rapids at the time? Can you describe what it was like living there, people who were there, that sort of thing?

Dawson: Mm-hmm. Like I say, there were three operators, which meant the operators that worked at the plant, they did not rotate shifts. They were on a given shift. My dad was on graveyard. And he worked seven days a week, no days off, graveyard until the Pacific Power and Light Company came and leased the powerhouse. And I think that was something like two and a half years, which made it tricky to go to town to get anything. So it was Dad, the other two operators--like I say, it was Joe Grewell and Les Brooks. They did the same thing, except one was on days, and one was on swing, and dad was on graveyard. Then the ranch house, which it was Brown Brothers and Sisk's ranch house at that time. There was Cassie. Well, first of all there was Bob Sisk and his wife Dell--Della, and Della's daughter, Kris--no, I'm sorry, Cassie McGhee. Her son Russell McGhee and his wife, Kris. And did I leave--oh, Wynn, Wynn Brown was also Della's son. So Wynn and Russell were brothers and their sister Cassie. They were at the ranch. The depot had one fellow living there that I remember. I think it was just the one, and his name is Bill Mays. And that was it, plus then at the Indian encampment was about two miles up the river from us. And they were there only in the winter, because they went out in spring, early spring, to work at Moxee. Firstly they helped in the orchards at Vernita before they left, completely left. They went down and helped pick fruit. And then they went on into the Moxee area to work in the crops, usually the hops, I think.

Bauman: So they were there in the winter months.

Dawson: They came back in the fall when the crops were in. They came back to Priest Rapids, right, and spent the winter.

Bauman: Did you interact a lot with the--

Dawson: Not on a social level. Johnny, Johnny Buck, the chief at that time, would come down to our house from time to time, not often but from time to time. And when he had to have letters written, he would ask my mom to write letters for him. And he would sit and talk to her, and she would write whatever it was that he needed to say, and would address the envelope for him and put the stamp on. And then I assume he would mail it at the depot. One year--I think it was only one year that Martha Johnny brought her tepee down and set up beside our house. This was when we were in the ranch house. So that the two boys, Bobby Tamanawash--later known as Robert Tamanawash--and Lester Rumtuck stayed with her so they could go to school with us. And Bobby was the same age pretty much that my brother Dean was at that time, and so they hung out a lot together.

Bauman: So tell me a little bit about the school in the area. Was there a bus that you took to school? How many kids were in the school, that sort of thing. Any specific memories?

Dawson: Okay. When we started school, mother tried to get a school started at Priest Rapids because there was none. And, believe it or not, it's under the Selah school district at Priest Rapids. But she found that out. So she went to the school district, and they said no, it would be too expensive to start one there. So they evidently came into some kind of an agreement with the folks that they would drive us down to Vernita School--that was an established school--daily. And then the school district would reimburse Daddy for the expense. And according to mom's book here, it was like $45 a month to do that, which was big money because Dad was working for $45 a month in warrants. That's how he was paid before the power company took over. So cash money was unheard of. It was warrants. Okay. So anyway, we went to Vernita School until it was closed down, and I think they closed it down like in 1942 or something when DuPont took over the area. They closed that school, which left us kids at Priest Rapids without a school. Mom went back to the Selah district, and they reopened the Priest Rapids school, which is the photograph I've got, and hired a teacher to come in. And there was no place for her to live, so mom boarded her until it was about that time that Brown Brothers and Sisks had to leave Priest Rapids because of the Manhattan Project. They were forced out. They resettled at Vantage. And that left the ranch house vacant. And then the power company--by this time PP&L, Pacific Power and Light Company had, if I've got my timeline right, had taken over. And they had leased the ranch house for the fourth operator to live in. But Sisks were allowed to stay for the lambing season. They got a Quonset hut and set it up out in the field by the house, and the family moved into it while the power company took over the ranch house, which seemed to me unbelievable. But it did. That's what happened, I guess. So then the teacher had the little house by the ranch house to live in, so she moved over there. Then we had our school there at Priest Rapids from that point on until '40--well, '47, '48 I think was probably the last year that school ran. But I wouldn't swear to that. It may have gone another year. That was the last year we were associated with it.

Bauman: So how many students were at that school, then, in Priest Rapids?

Dawson: Okay, one year, the two Indian kids--Bobby and Lester--Dean and myself, Edgar--my brother--I think that was it one year. Another year, Jake Strike had two little girls. He moved his family in. He was the fellow way up the river. And one year they were there, but the Indian boys weren't there. But basically [LAUGHTER] it was Anglin kids and the Yeager kids. The others came and went. And then the last year, mother drove the school bus up from Vernita, because we then at that point lived in Vernita--drove it up, and two or three kids from Midway came up and joined. And that was the picture of mom standing by the car. There must have been about five or six of us maybe.

Bauman: And what was your teacher's name, the one who was hired to come teach?

Dawson: Firstly it was Maddox, Mrs. Maddox--interesting lady. She only had one arm. But it was amazing. She could do everything. She lived independently. She was there a couple years. Mother was a little upset with her because she took school up at 10:00 and let us out at 2:00. And we were all in different grades, so mom didn't think she was covering what we needed to learn. Nice lady, but she did like to hold Sunday school more than she did regular school, which was okay. But we really needed to know some basic education. [LAUGHTER] So anyway, she was replaced by--oh goodness. Who was she replaced by? I know. It was Ms. Thompson. She came in. She was a very good teacher. She was going to be teaching 1947-48. And the only reason I remember those dates is the lightning struck our house the weekend before school was to start and burned it to the ground. That was the ranch house. So Ms. Thompson was going to live in the little house beside the little—we always called it the teacher's house. So when our house burned, obviously we had to find a place to live. So PP&L at that point found us a place down in Vernita, the closest one to Priest Rapids, which was the Knobb brothers' home. It was vacant because of Manhattan Project. Those guys were all sent out, left. They had to leave. So we moved there for that winter and spring. We were there when the '48 flood hit. And mother was still driving us up to Priest Rapids to school and to take Daddy to work. Dad was still at the powerhouse. So the flood caused some problems in the spring because it covered the road. So there were times that the speeder from the railroad station would come down and pick us kids up and take us up so we could go to school. The older children--my brother and sister, who were eighth grade and older—they drove down. Daddy taught my brother how to drive. I don't know how old he was, eighth grader I guess or something like that. And he would drive down, and they would go to Sunnyside. Although my sister, who when she was in the eighth grade, they took the eighth grade kids out of the Vernita School because the classroom was too much for the teacher. So the eighth grade kids went into Hanford.

Bauman: Oh, wow.

Dawson: And my sister was there when the bulldozers came in to start breaking up for Manhattan.

Bauman: She was at the school in Hanford?

Dawson: Yeah. She went to eighth grade there. Then after that, the kids came back home. And Edgar never went there, I don't believe. Edgar was still at home. And then they would go down to Midway, and Irvy Wright would drive a little bus into Sunnyside, all the kids into Sunnyside every day and bring them home again. And then my sister started living in Sunnyside with my aunt. And she was kind of the older one, and while she was in high school she roomed with my aunt and also a family named Beth and Claude Jones in Midway. She stayed there a year. But that was how we got her education.

Bauman: I want to go back and ask you a little about when your house burned. You said there was a lightning strike. Were you home at the time?

Dawson: Mm-hmm.

Bauman: That must have been a fairly scary situation.

Dawson: Well, we had just--Dean and I, my brother younger than me by a year--we had just gotten home from town, actually, shopping. And we had ridden in with Irvy Wright and come home. And I guess mother had picked us up, or somehow we'd gotten up to Priest Rapids. I don't remember exactly how. But we were trying on our school clothes, and the storm had come in. It was a humdinger. It was probably the hardest lightning storm I'd ever seen. And most of the storms would come down the valley, hit us a little bit, travel on down. This one didn't. It came in and just hung there. And we heard--Daddy was sleeping. He was on graveyard, because he was on rotating shift by this time. But we heard this big heavy bang, and he jumped up, got on his clothes, and went to the powerhouse. He thought the powerhouse had been struck. And mom, she a reassured us kids, don't worry. We've got lightning rods on the house. It can't hurt us. It won't hurt us. And my brother was actually mopping the kitchen floor for her right in the back of the house. It was a big house. And it struck right over the top of him. And he had just gone out the back door with the mop pail in his hand. And mom claims she never found the pail, but I don't know that. [LAUGHTER] That's probably a mom story. But anyway, some people--the Bells, Leo and Effie Bell, one of the operators by this time, they were coming up on the grade road, the road that leads up along the mountain to Priest Rapids. And they saw it hit our house. They saw the bolt hit the house. It hit the top of a poplar tree in the front of the house and bounced and hit the cliffs behind Priest Rapids. There's basalt cliffs back there. At least this is what Effie told us. And they realized the house had been hit, so they really drove as hard as they could. And you have to remember these were all rocky, rutty, unpaved, well-used, beat up roads. So they drove as hard as they could. They ran up, parked, ran up to our front step yelling, your house is on fire. And when the lightning bolt evidently hit the back of the house right over the kitchen and went right down the ridge pole of the house and hit the tree, it ignited our house. There was no way to fight it. The water pressure wouldn't reach. We didn't have big fire extinguishers at the house, plus we had no insurance. But anyway, someone ran and got Dad from the powerhouse and said, it's your house on fire. It isn't the powerhouse. So Daddy came home, and by this time, the neighbors were all there helping. They just couldn't get the fire out. So we all just got busy and carried everything out we could. Mom put the two little kids--Jeannetta and Butch--in the car, drove the car out in the field with the kids in the car so nothing would happen to them, and came back.

Bauman: That'd be very hard, yeah. And so then you moved to the house at Vernita.

Dawson: Yeah, the Knobb brothers' house, yeah.

Bauman: So obviously this is a very small community.

Dawson: Very small.

Bauman: Very small, so where did you do your shopping? Did you--for either groceries or for clothing or whatever, where did you go to? Well, for clothing, it was Montgomery Ward catalog or Sears catalog. We could order in. When we were first there in '41, a man named Reierson in White Bluffs, he had a store that sold food and dry goods of some sort. I don't remember the store at all. But he would send--see, we got our mail that way too, from Kennewick. And the mail carrier would come up every, I think three times a week. And mom could write a grocery list out, and he would drop it off at Reierson's on the return trip. And we all did that, all the people. And Reierson would take warrants. He would cash a warrant for us. And then next day, the next time he brought the mail up, he'd bring those groceries or whatever mom had written on the list. And I said, gee, mom, how did you--I don't ever remember not having some kind of meat on the table. We never had fresh vegetables to speak of, but how did you do that? You didn't have a refrigerator. And she says, as soon as the meat got there, she cooked it. She cooked it all. And we had lots of beans, and we had lots of those kinds of things. But never missed a meal. Okay, then later, also when Daddy was working seven days a week with no days off, he would get off work at 8:00 in the morning, and Mom would get up really early in the morning and take him down stuff so he could shave and get cleaned up and a change of clothes. And she'd cook his breakfast. She always cooked his breakfast and took it down or whatever. Then she'd get us kids up, get us all fed, get us all cleaned up, dressed, in the car. Daddy'd come up. He'd get there about 10 minutes after 8:00, get in the car. We'd drive to Sunnyside usually, because it was closest. And occasionally they would go into Hanford, I guess. But we'd time it so he could get home and catch a couple hours sleep, because he went to work at midnight again. So that was how they had to work it. Because the other operators, they couldn't fill in for him because if they took a graveyard, they would have had to--you know. So that's how we did it. So a lot of work on Mom’s part and lot of work on Dad's part.

Bauman: Sure, right. Were there any--you said this is a very small community. Were there community events that you remember, celebrations of any kind?

Dawson: One or two times we had, I remember once it was on a 4th of July, and I think what got us all together--there was a grass fire broke out. [LAUGHTER] And of course, like I say, if there was a problem, everybody came to help. And it ended up that after the fire was out, Mom--I think Dad killed a couple of chickens and Mom fried them, and Bill Mays brought some ice from the depot. They had an ice place, ice thing where you could keep it in sawdust. And they made ice cream. That was one of the gatherings I do remember. But Vernita School would have programs, and all of the farmers who still lived there, Vernita, would come to those programs. Those were important gatherings. They’d put on plays. The teacher would have us kids learn little parts, and we'd put on plays and so on.

Bauman: What about churches? Were there churches in the area?

Dawson: No. The church, one of the teachers at Vernita--what was her name? Fisk. I don't know what her name was, but she married Frank Fisk while she lived there, so we remember her as Mrs. Fisk. She would hold a Sunday school class. She was going to hold it on Sunday, but then everyone decided that gas was too expensive, so she would hold it on I think it was Friday after school, because people came to get their kids anyway, so they'd have it then so they didn't have to drive extra time. And our teacher at Priest Rapids, Mrs. Maddox, she wanted very much to hold church. However, Mom didn't agree with how she was doing it. [LAUGHTER] That took care of that. [LAUGHTER]

Bauman: I want to ask you also then, how did you get news? Did you have a radio? Was there a newspaper that you got to learn about things that were happening?

Dawson: We got a newspaper. It came down on Sagebrush Annie with our mail. Firstly, the mail, if I remember right, the mail came through Kennewick to start with. It was called star route Priest Rapids, I guess. Anyway, then, when that no longer could happen--I assume it was Manhattan that stopped that--it came down through Beverly on the little Sagebrush Annie train. And we would get a newspaper that way. We had a radio, but the static was so bad it was rather difficult to listen to the radio. But we did it anyway. But that was that, and there was a telephone line--they called it the high line--that you could call from the powerhouse out. But our telephones in our houses were the cranky kind, and they only went to the powerhouse.

Bauman: Okay, so you couldn't call someone? You could only call the powerhouse.

Dawson: Yeah. I don't think we had the ability to telephone away from Priest Rapids from the houses. And I don't think they ever did, even after the Pacific Power and Light Company took over. I don't think they changed the telephone system.

Bauman: Do you remember any particular radio shows that you liked listening to?

Dawson: Yeah, Fibber McGee and Molly, Jack Benny, and then us kids would listen to the Inner Sanctum. And I think one was called Wanted Dead or Alive. These were all mystery stories. And my brother Dean, who, like I said, was a year younger than me, we had vivid imaginations, I guess, because we knew that one of those ten most wanted was out of Priest Rapids for sure. And if we didn't really pay attention, [LAUGHTER] we were in danger.

Bauman: You were in trouble, yeah.

Dawson: Yeah. So those were the things we--oh, I think the Lone Ranger maybe. Yeah, those were the--

Bauman: So that provided you some entertainment, the radio.

Dawson: Yeah.

Bauman: Any other things that you did for fun, for entertainment?

Dawson: We did a lot of climbing around the mountains, on the mountains. My sister, JoAnn, who was the oldest and the most--she had a good imagination for things to do. We would climb up in the canyons behind the settlement. And we found one thing. We found a hole in a cliff. Those cliffs were uplifts, I think you call them, like this. And you could climb in. There were shale slides, [INAUDIBLE] slides, down between. And one of them had a hole through it at the base. So we decided that it needed a name. So we took some paint up there, and we wrote Wishing Tunnel 1945 on it. And I think we wrote our names. I can't remember that part for sure, but 1945, Wishing Tunnel. And just not too many years ago, I worked with Jason Buck when I worked for the cultural resources at Battelle. He says, you know--he lives at Priest Rapids. He says, you know, we often wondered who did that, who put that there. I says, well, Jason, your question is answered. The Yeager kids did. But climbing around the rocks, the mountains, hiking. If some of our cousins came out, we played touch football and work up, I think is what you call it with baseball, where you softball and there aren't enough to make two teams, so you play it that way. My brother Edgar, who was two years older than me, had a horse. One of the Gandy dancers that came in at Priest Rapids to lay the new rails for Manhattan, when the Manhattan Project came in, he bought Edgar a horse, a saddle, and a bridle. And I think he bought it from the Indians. And so my brother, he was pretty good size kid for his age, although he was 12 probably, 10 or 12. I don't know for sure how old he was. He rode that horse everywhere. And one time, for some reason, we didn't get our mail from Beverly. And this, I think to this day, I think about it, and I think, oh, Mom, why'd you do that? But anyway, she let him ride that horse to Sentinel Gap. You know where that is? Above Priest Rapids where the Beverly, the railroad tracks, the bridge goes across the river. He rode that horse up there all by himself, walked across that bridge, got the mail, walked back across that bridge. He's just a kid, gets on his horse and rides back. Well, I think to myself, riding a horse up there wasn't all that big a deal. But to walk across that bridge with the Columbia under it--And another thing, the same guy that bought the horse for him, a nice man, but he was from I think New York or someplace. He was just a laborer that came out to help lay the tracks. We got to know him a little bit. He and Edgar rode their horses down across the ferry at I assume Vernita. I'm not sure what ferry they went across, but I think it was the Vernita ferry, which was the Richmond ferry, I believe, by name, down to Ringgold Ranch. And he spent the summer there working for the Ringgold Ranch. Then in the fall, when it was school time, he rode his horse back up, came home. Now, this day and age, do you think I'd let my kid at that age do that? No. [LAUGHTER] Mom didn't know who lived at Ringgold. They weren't personal friends. But Edgar got to do a lot of stuff. And he also got to help the Indians run their horses in off the hill. They would have a roundup to brand the colts and count them or whatever you do when you run your horses in. And Edgar used to ride with them. He was not that old. And I think, wow. But Dean and I, we were the little ones. We had to make our own imaginary villains looking for us and things like that.

Bauman: So you moved there in May of '41. Obviously, America got involved in World War II in December of '41. I wonder how you heard about Pearl Harbor and that sort of thing. Do you remember anything about that?

Dawson: I think maybe somebody called the powerhouse. I think that's the way we found out about that. But I do remember how we found out what they were making at Hanford. Edgar, my brother, went up to the depot, got the mail, and came back. And our paper--that's where we got our paper--and he opened the paper, and he said to Mom, I know what they're doing at Hanford. They made a bomb. It was on the paper. Now, I don't know if that came out in the paper a time--if there was a time lapse from the time of dropping it till it was on the paper. But that's how we found out was when Edgar brought the paper in from the railroads.

Bauman: So before that, what sort of impact did Hanford have on you? Did you know anything about what was going on?

Dawson: No. The main impact, when DuPont took over, Browns and Sisks had to move their ranch. That brought in the fourth operator, which brought money to Dad and time off. That was our impact on our family. And at that point, they started taking up the railroad tracks, the rails, and reinforcing them, putting down heavy ones. Because at that point, or very soon after, Sagebrush Annie didn't come anymore. It was those huge, long trains, those heavy trains bringing the materials in to build Hanford. Prior to that, Sagebrush Annie just came down and picked up the fruit at Vernita and White Bluffs and turned around and went back. And it was a big long train with big two cars then and the caboose. And also we had to have identification. And I don't remember if all of us kids individually had to have identification, but Mom and Dad did before they could come through the checkpoint at Midway. Because Midway was then guarded by MPs, and we'd have to stop there, and they would check our identification and let us go through. And if we had company come to visit us, we had to verify who they were and what they were doing. That was the impact, yeah, one impact, yeah.

Bauman: So you obviously knew something was going on because there were guards and the trains--

Dawson: Mm-hm. We had no clue.

Bauman: What the guards were--

Dawson: No.

Bauman: Somehow related to the war effort.

Dawson: Yeah. And all of the ranchers, which were mainly fruit people, were forced out of Midway, the Midway-Vernita area. Midway, of course, it was fully constructed then, and it had a full crew of workers there to run that substation. No, we didn't. We all guessed. We were told that if we heard a siren, a warning siren, to immediately go to the railroad track, and there would be a train or someone, some vehicle coming up the railroad track to pick us up and take us to safety. So we assumed that it was some kind of poisonous gas or something like that. That was our assumption. But no, there was not a clue, not a clue.

Bauman: And you had aunt and uncle and cousins in Hanford.

Dawson: Mm-hmm.

Bauman: And so they were still there in '43 and had to leave at that point, is that right?

Dawson: Their place was taken over, yes, and they moved to Yakima. But by then, the six boys were grown, and we were teenagers, late teens, I think. And some of them--obviously I think there were four of them ended up in the military. But no.

Bauman: So you knew that people, obviously the people in those communities had had to leave and--

Dawson: Mm-hmm, yeah. The reason we didn't have to is that they needed someone to man the powerhouse. They needed those operators. So they were--Dad and the rest were allowed to stay. The Indians could come in, in and out. But they were not allowed to go down to their fishing areas down at Hanford. They were also blocked out. But they could come into Priest Rapids and spend the winter and go out. And I don't know if they had to have identification or not. I assume that they probably did as a group, maybe. I don't know. I have no idea.

Bauman: And then how long did your family live in Priest Rapids?

Dawson: From May of 1941 until September of '47 when the house burned down. Then, when we went to Vernita, we were there until--we were there September of '47. '48 was the flood. So we went to Yakima in '48, 1948.

Bauman: And what was the reason for moving to Yakima? Was it the flood, or--

Dawson: No, it was the fact that they had transferred Dad. Dad got a job at the PP&L substation in Union Gap, I think, or maybe it was Naches. Anyway, they transferred him. By this time, my little brother and sister were approaching school age. Dean and I were in junior high. Edgar was in high school. JoAnn, of course, she was out of high school. She was working in Sunnyside High School in the office as a secretary by that time. But it was just time that we left. Yeah.

Bauman: So, you were there from '41 to '48 in the area.

Dawson: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Bauman: I wonder if there's anything we haven't talked about in terms of things you think it's important for people to know about the area at the time, of what it was like living there, growing up there?

Dawson: Well, it was isolated. It was an isolated area to live. But it was a community, a close community. The ranch house had big wheat field--or not wheat fields, alfalfa fields. See, there were one big long one and a thin one down there. And, like for example when it was hay cutting time, they had the bailer, and they'd bail the hay. And Cassie would sit on one side, the wire that poked through and someone had to grab it and stick it in, my sister JoAnn worked on one side. My brother Edgar bucked the bales. He was a real strong kid for his age. [LAUGHTER] He bucked the bales. And lambing time was, for me growing up as a little kid, I loved lambing time, because they would bring--it was a sheep ranch, by the way. And they would bring somewhere around 2,000 head of sheep, maybe 3,000. I don't know, somewhere in that vicinity. They would trail them down the river, and we could see them coming. And that was so much fun, you cannot believe it. And Bob Sisk, the senior, the eldest of them all, he was really a great old man. And he would put up with me tagging after him every hour that I wasn't in school and Mom didn't have me doing something. During lambing season, Dean and I would be up there. And we'd hang out in the lambing sheds. And a couple of the Indian fellows would come and help with the lambing. Cy Tamanawash was one of them that I remember. And it was just a lot of fun. And Bob never talked to us much. He'd just put up with us tagging after him. And he gave us a bum lamb for a pet. And we raised it. His name was Joe, and we raised it with our dog. And I think it was probably the only lamb in history--the only sheep in history that chased cars. And cars coming into Priest Rapids was pretty rare, and our dog would go out and chase the car. And the lamb would go with him. And the lamb would chase the car even as a grown sheep. And that would get the driver's attention when a sheep was chasing his car. And also what was really strange, it would go swimming in the canal with the dog. Now, sheep don't go swimming. But anyway, I think the lamb thought it was a dog. But Bob gave us that lamb, and Mother raised it behind the kitchen stove in the winter when it was cold. This little lamb was in the box, and she'd get up and feed it milk every couple hours. Mom worked real hard. But that was a fun part was when Browns had their sheep in. And then in the spring, they'd separate the youths that had twin lambs and the ones that had single lambs. And Bob always took--Bob Sisk always took the herd that had the twin lambs, because it was trickier to keep all those sheep together. And so as soon as school was out, boy, I'd be out, and I'd track him down, find out where he was. And I'm sure I sat and talked his ear off. He just occasionally would tell me a story about getting a bear attack when they had the sheep up in the mountains and stuff like that, bear stories. And I realized when I was grown that they couldn't have been true, some of them. But that was all right. I didn't know. I was a kid. And one time, one spring, he came up to the fence, called me out, and said, I got something for you. Reach in my saddlebag. So I did, and here's his old red handkerchief, all something was in it. And it was a little baby jackrabbit, a little tiny guy. His eyes weren't even open. He had found it and brought me one. So, needless to say, it was Mom that got up every couple hours and fed that little rabbit throughout the night. We got it going till it was big enough it sat on our fingers, made a little puddle, and it would drink the milk out of our hand. And we raised that rabbit until it was a great big rabbit. And then I think--I think the cat killed it. But that was Penny the rabbit. So those were things, just stories.

Bauman: Well, I want to thank you very much for coming in and sharing your stories and memories.

Dawson: Mm-hmm.

Bauman: I really appreciate it. Any other last things that you want to--

Dawson: One thing I thought was interesting and I don't know how many people ever saw it was the balloon that was shot down at Cold Creek. We were going out to town one evening--one afternoon, late afternoon. And we came up off the Vernita hill up, and we were headed toward Yakima at the Y. And there were so many security guards you could not believe it. They were everywhere in their cars. So we slowed down, obviously, went around the corner to go to Yakima or Sunnyside, either one. And out in the field was a big dirigible balloon that was deflating. And they just waved us straight through. Just go for it. So we did. But of course this added to my brother Dean and my imagination. [LAUGHTER] We knew there was an enemy had come in on that balloon. And he was hiding up in the canyons behind our house. We knew that. We really had to be careful. No mention of that anywhere in anything, that balloon, until after the war. And it was shot down. And I'm not really absolutely certain what, but it was either a Japanese balloon--I think it was a Japanese balloon that they had shot down. But I'm sure it's somewhere in the records around here, but we did get to see that.

Bauman: So you saw it. You drove past it.

Dawson: Yeah. It was still inflated, but it was down. The ends of it had deflated down. But I didn't know there were that many securities in the world that were around that site. [LAUGHTER]

Bauman: I was going to ask you if, after the war ended, did the security change at all in terms of your parents having to show identification and that sort of thing. Did that continue still after the war, do you know?

Dawson: We couldn't go into Hanford. We were stopped at about--I think that we could then go back and forth there at Midway, but I can't really remember for sure. I can't really remember for sure, but I do know that we could not go into the Hanford site. And it would be, if I remember right, it would be about where Vernita Bridge is now, where Bruggemanns’ land is. I think that was as far as we could go. Yeah.

Bauman: All right, well, thank you again. I appreciate you coming in--

Dawson: Okay. [LAUGHTER

Bauman: --and sharing your memories.

Dawson: It was fun. I love to tell stories, as you can well tell.



Bit Rate/Frequency

244 kbps

Years in Tri-Cities Area


Names Mentioned

Clark, Frank and Nell
Stradling, Edward
Ordstrand, John Van
Brooks, Les
Grewell, Joe
Sisk, Bob and Della
McGhee, Russel and Cassie
Mays, Bill
Strike, Jake
Bell, Leo and Effiel
Tamanawash, Robert/Bobby
Rumtuck, Lester
Buck, Johnny


Dawson, Murrel.jpg



Hanford Oral History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities, “Interview with Murrel Dawson,” Hanford History Project, accessed July 16, 2024,