Interview with Robert Brinson
Northwest Public Television | Brinson_Robert
Robert Bauman: --2013 and the interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. And I’ll be talking to Mr. Brinson about his family’s history at Hanford. And his family stories, experiences, memories about that community. If you could tell me sort of how and why your family came to Hanford, when that was, and what family members were part of that initial coming to Hanford.
Robert Brinson: Well, let’s see, I’ll start with my mother’s family was originally up in Ruth when she was born. In kinda north central Washington. And grandpa was working at the train station there, as a depot agent, telegrapher.
Camera man: Oh, let’s stop. Yup.
Bauman: Oh, sorry.
Camera man: Okay.
Bauman: All right? Okay. All right, so talking about your family.
Robert Brinson: Okay, mom's family, which was the Moulsters. My grandpa was Louis Lyman Moulster, the depot agent telegrapher at the, I think it was, the Milwaukee Railroad in Ruth, Washington, when mom was born. I'm not sure how old they were when he got just a little spooked about the immigrants who were coming in to that area and decided they'd move. So they moved on to Hanford. And he took over the depot down there and raised his family. And there was Mom and Aunt Louise. Twin sisters Margaret and Mildred and younger sister June, which they called Babe. The oldest one was Uncle Lyman. And the baby of the family was Uncle Arthur. When he came along, Grandpa was busy with a train about to come in so he couldn't take Grandma to the hospital. So Uncle Lyman had to drive the car, and this is a 12-year-old kid driving an old Model T to the hospital. [LAUGHTER]
Bauman: [LAUGHTER] Where was the closest hospital?
Brinson: In Pasco. Lady of Lourdes in--I think it was still in Pasco, early in that time. But when the word got back the baby had been born, he kind of slapped his knee and said, that's the caboose. [LAUGHTER] No more kids.
Bauman: So what year did that family come to Hanford?
Brinson: Oh, I'm not certain. It's probably in the late 1910 to 1915, somewhere in there.
Bauman: Okay. And the name is Moulster, M-O-U-L-S-T-E-R?
Brinson: Right, yeah. They came out of Wisconsin, originally. And Dad's family came out of Arkansas. He was only two years old when the family moved out here. All of them is, let’s see, brother Paul and sister Irene--or not—sister Bernice. Brother Herbert and Albert were all born, no, not Herbert, except for Herbert, they were born back in Fayetteville. They moved out to Seattle from there, and that was where Uncle Herb was born. But they didn't stay there long. They moved to—oh, I’ve forgot, you've got it in your notes there in that one I sent you--to one of the towns in eastern Washington, before they moved to Hanford, anyway.
Brinson: And they got what, 1918, I think they settled in Hanford. And not in Hanford, the foothills of the Rattlesnakes out there, where the Benson Ranch was up where Fitzdriver Hart is now?
Brinson: So they ran the ranch up there. Had the sheep and everything. And the boys would raise the sheeps that were what that the mothers wouldn't raise. So they had a good--they said it was a great place to grow up. The Moulsters and the Brinsons were all friends from almost the get-go. Even living 18 miles away from each other they would visit back and forth all the time. And so, that's eventually Mom and Dad ended up at--It happened that when they finished with the apple crop down here, the kids would go up to the Wenatchee area, where further north where the crops were still coming off, so they could get some more work in. Earn some more money. And so they were-- just happened to be up there in a little town close to Wenatchee--and they were picking apples in a tree, and Dad got it in his head and asked Mom he thought they'd known each other long enough that maybe they should think about getting married. So she agreed, up there at the top of the apple tree ladder. So that's where all that started. And then I was born in 1937. The same trip to the hospital in an old Model T. Dad grumbling all the way, why'd anybody want to live out in the middle of nowhere like this. So I only got to experience Hanford for probably four years. But I did hear tales about how I would like to run off, because nobody locked doors in those days. And so if Mom turned her back too long, I'd dash out the door and go down the street to see Aunt Bernice.
Brinson: She would tell that story on and on and over and over as she entered in her elderly years when she got a little bit, I think it was Alzheimer's, probably is what it was, you know how they repeat themselves. So I heard that story a lot when I'd go to visit.
Bauman: So the house you lived in, was it in town? Or did you have a farm? Or what sort of place was it?
Brinson: No, it was right in town there because Dad had the little beer parlor, ice cream parlor combination. There was a room in the back where the men played cards. And they had--kids'd scrounge ice cream cones and men'd drop in for a beer. And even the Indians'd come by and try to get alcohol, which you couldn't legally sell it to them. So he had to keep a little short barrel .22 short pistol under the counter to dissuade the more belligerent of the tribe when they tried to buy alcohol of off him.
Bauman: Does it have a name, the pool hall or beer hall ice cream parlor?
Brinson: I never did hear if it was just a Hanford pool hall or whatever. Otherwise it was just--there were probably just orchards all around town and up and down the river, is all it was, was fruit.
Bauman: So the Brinson family had the place 18 miles out. Is that right?
Brinson: That, well, they worked for the. Benson, E. F. Benson I think was his initials. He was the owner of the ranch. And he built a house for the family out there. Had running water from a spring. And the kids got to drive in to--I think it said in the letter Uncle Herb wrote--that it was the county bought him a Model T to drive in to the school at Cold Springs. And then somebody found out they were actually were in the Hanford School District so they had to, even though Cold Springs was closer, they had to drive 18 miles to Hanford to go to school.
Brinson: So that must've been quite an experience. You can imagine teenage boys doing stuff like that. Would've been kind of fun.
Bauman: Had you heard any other stories about the school itself? About your dad or your aunts and uncles?
Brinson: No. There was something that nobody ever really made clear, that he did have to spend a year at a high school up north in--can't remember the name of that little town. Now, I ever got a letter on my sweater with a big P on it. Pateros. Yeah, Pateros High School. So he must have got into some kind of trouble and had to go away to a different high school for a year. Because I think it was like 1930, 1931, when they graduated. It was 1935, I think, when they got married, so. So there was some time, he spent time in the President Roosevelt's CCCs, building campgrounds and trails in the mountains around the state. And he actually went and spent some time down in Oregon on the Salmon River, I think, panning for gold one spring. He had a few adventures away from Hanford before he came back and committed himself to a long, long marriage with Mom. Yeah, so.
Bauman: Well, talking about FDR and the CCC, any of your family members ever talk to you about the Depression? What it was like growing up or living in Hanford during the Depression? Did it have an impact on the community in any way?
Brinson: You know, they always talk like it was the most wonderful place in the world. They didn't have any financial problems because they took care of everything themselves. They had their own herds and their own fruit and vegetables. Didn't depend on when the government came along with the social programs. They went off and made a dollar a day and sent whatever portion was required for them to send home. A certain percentage they had to send home. It was never, never heard of a word, like there was any kind of hardship at all.
Bauman: Now the Moulster family, did they have a place in town, then?
Brinson: Yeah, the railroad supplied a house for Grandpa and Grandma. So he would go down and greet the trains when they came in. And of course all the family had free passes so the kids could, during summer vacation, they could hop on a train, ride anywhere they wanted to go, for nothing. So they'd go over to Seattle and visit relatives.
Bauman: That's nice. [LAUGHTER]
Brinson: Yeah, they had a good time.
Bauman: Sounds nice. How long was your grandfather work for the railroad in Hanford then?
Brinson: Until the government came in. And they moved from there to Prosser and they retired. And they lived in Prosser for the rest of his life. I think he died, oh, somewhere like 1957 or 8, somewhere like that.
Bauman: Do you have any idea how busy of a train stat--like how often trains came through? Once a day? A couple times a day? Do you know?
Brinson: I never heard, no. You would expect maybe at least once a day to have to keep a guy there.
Bauman: Mm-hm, you’d think so, right. I was wondering about, you talked about the beer parlor/pool hall and ice cream parlor.
Bauman: I wonder if any of your family members ever talked about recreational activities, picnics, or Fourth of July celebrations, or things that kids did for fun.
Brinson: Just when they'd visit families back and forth. They'd go out to the Benson ranch on Sundays, usually after church, and they'd have a big supper. And, like I said in the write up, they would make a big tub of ice cream. You know it probably was salt and ice and stirred all up. And when they'd come the other way down to Hanford and they probably went to the river in a summer day, cause that's where the whole town gathered, right there in the swimming hole. Only place to keep cool. And you can imagine those blistering summer days like we get around here. Without, back before they had a lot of the agriculture we have now. Wasn't nearly as cool, probably.
Bauman: Right. Yeah. Then there's winter, also, which is a completely different.
Brinson: Oh, yeah there's pictures. I've seen pictures at the reunions of the frozen Columbia with a herd of sheep going across. And just amazing. The ice skating, of course, on the same place they'd swim in they'd be ice skating on it in the wintertime.
Bauman: Mm-hm. Now, when your family was at the Benson ranch, right?
Brinson: Dad's family, yeah.
Bauman: So it was sheep. Did they also grow crops at all? Apples, peaches, anything along that—orchards?
Brinson: No, it was always strictly for wintering the sheep, I think, mostly.
Brinson: In the springtime they'd drive them out onto the sagebrush flats out in the range. Well, even today if you drive--we just got back from a cross-country trip to Kentucky, and out through Wyoming and Utah there, you see sheep all over the place. You see the little carts out there the sheep herder lives in. It's just like it was back then.
Bauman: You talked about the Brinson and Moulster families being close, were there other families, do you know, that you got close to—
Brinson: Yeah, there were--
Bauman: --Or knew really well?
Brinson: When they had the get-togethers, the reunions were just the happiest times, when they'd all get together and they'd hash out the old memories from. And they'd talk about the people around the mercantile downtown. And the different neighbors, all of them. It was too young for me to remember most of the names. I remember a few names. I think the store was run by the Boyd family. And of course there were the Clarks. Ilian Clark was one of the latest, or she went to our church, actually. I mean she would, she's the one that'd always try to organize the sing-alongs at the reunions. She would play the piano and try to get everybody the sing all the old songs.
Bauman: Yeah. What about churches in the community? Were there a number--
Brinson: I think there was only a Presbyterian church there. I think that's what everybody went to, if they were so inclined, anyway.
Bauman: Mm-hm. And did your family get to some of the neighboring communities very often? To White Bluffs or Richland? I know the hopsital’s in Pasco, but--
Brinson: Not that they've mentioned very often. They've had quite a rivalry going with White Bluffs that even carried on into the reunions. The Hanford folks and the White Bluff folks still had a few issues, even going into those later days. Probably sports teams and such like that.
Bauman: Probably schools and sports teams.
Bauman: So let’s talk a little bit now about World War II and when the federal government decided that they were going to build a site out where the community of Hanford was. What do you know about that? Or what have you heard from your family members? I know you were only four years old or something at the time. What sort of stories have you heard about that?
Brinson: There was a lot of bitterness. And even to this day, some of them, like that one fellow you mentioned that you'd interviewed before, I'm sure you must have heard from him how hard it was on some of the folks to walk, practically walk away from a orchard just ready to probably pick and produce a crop and make a profit for you for the first time. And you have to walk away from it. You can imagine what kind of bitterness that might produce. See, we had already left by probably 1942. And Dad decided a growing family needed a better income, so he got on at the shipyards over there in Tacoma and then Grandpa followed. We lived together for a while over there. And did a little work. Didn't come back ‘til 1948. But you heard the stories at every reunion from just about the same people. They repeat the same stuff. [LAUGHTER] Grandpa Brinson got his--after all the work he did on his place, planting the peach orchard and everything--he got 700 whole dollars out of the government for it. And I'm sure it was similar for a lot of the other folks.
Bauman: $700 is what—is all he got?
Brinson: That's all he got for his house, outbuildings, and orchard, yeah.
Bauman: So you were in Tacoma, your family was in Tacoma though at that point. Is that right?
Brinson: Right, before they--
Bauman: Did you hear about it at that point? Do you know did your family hear about it from?
Brinson: Well, I'm sure there were--I'm not sure how they communicated. Mostly by letters, probably. I don't think that there was--well, yeah, there must have been long distance at that time. But, yeah, I don't recall, of course, being at that age, a lot of telephone traffic at all. But I'm sure they heard from the folks. Because after it happened we'd take a lot of trips back over the mountains to visit Grandma and Grandpa there in Prosser.
Bauman: They had moved to Prosser then?
Brinson: Yeah, a lot of folks moved to Prosser. A lot of them moved to Yakima and surrounding towns out through there. It scattered them pretty good, so it was always nice to see them come back. The reunions were really crowded in the early days.
Bauman: Do you know about when those reunions started?
Brinson: Oh, it had to have been in the late '40s.
Bauman: So pretty soon after the war.
Brinson: Probably in the, yeah, '47 to '49, somewhere in there probably. You know the kids--all the kids noticed was free ice cream, free pop. [LAUGHTER] And a lot of grass and trees to play under, play around under. So my sister was the one that—she would love to sit under the picnic table and listen to all the adult talk going on. But us kids, us boys, we'd just run around and play. We didn't care about that kind of stuff. So she heard all the stories, but you couldn't talk her into coming in for an interview, huh?
Bauman: So when did you--since you were only four years old or so when your family left Hanford-- when did you first become aware of the family story here and what had happened to the communities here?
Brinson: Oh, well, when they would take us to the reunions, they'd hear the stories and, of course, even family get-togethers you'd hear it then, too. ‘Cause we'd always have a get-together in a Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving. There'd always be a family get-together, so you'd hear all the stories around the dinner tables. All the fellowship around that time, most times of the year. And there'd be a lot of good-humored joking, but there's always that underlying disappointment. It would've been nice to have carried on and grown up and realized the full potential of a community like that. Along the river would've been a beautiful place.
Bauman: Yeah. So I was going to ask you--one of the reasons we're doing this project is to get memories and stories about families that were there, so that someone in the future, a student maybe, or maybe a descendant of yours could listen and watch the video. What sorts of things or anything that you would especially like people like that to know about, or know about the community of Hanford, or about your family that you think it would be important to let them to know about?
Brinson: Oh, probably the most important thing would be I think the freedom you felt like you had in those days, even at four years old and you don't really don't realize the importance of it. You had it, when you could just run out of the house and go visit some aunt up the street and not worry about being lost or being abducted by some nutball. And the people were independent and helped each other. And it was just, compared to how things are today, wow. Yeah, don't get me started on the politics going on today.
Bauman: So in other words, it was a community.
Brinson: Yeah. There was even--
Bauman: People who really felt like a community.
Brinson: Oh, yeah. You could tell when you see them at the reunions how close they were. Just a whole lot of hugging going on.
Bauman: [LAUGHTER] Yeah. Well, just the fact that they had those reunions and kept doing those for so many years suggests--
Brinson: Yeah. Yeah the--
Bauman: --strong bond, right?
Brinson: Yeah, the people that organized those had to really be committed because that took a lot of work, sending out all the letters and getting together all the food, all the materials it took. And then they would put out tables and tables of old photographs and paper, newspaper clippings, and stuff like that. I hope you were able to get ahold of some of that.
Bauman: I did, yeah, see some of that, yeah. Have you or any of your family members ever gone back, say on one of the tours that goes out? Been able to go see the former sites out there?
Brinson: A few times we went out to. One time when they let you take your cars out, they kind of travel out there following the DOE guy. They let you park and walk around, trying to find your old home site. My mom always knew by the shape of some tree about where their house was. And her cousin Dick went with us one time, and he got to poking around out there and he actually found a little fish pond that his father had built for him. It was all covered over by sagebrush and stuff. But he managed to find it and brush off the stuff. But it was just made out of stones that were just kind of cemented in. It was probably no bigger than that, but it was only so deep, but it was. It meant a lot to him to--
Bauman: Oh sure.
Brinson: --to be able to find that and remember that part of his life.
Bauman: Wow. Do you know when that might have been, that he would have went back out there and found that?
Brinson: Oh, that was probably in the late '60s, early '70s, in that area.
Bauman: And you mentioned that your mom was able to by the shape of a tree know where. What sort of response did she have to going back out there? Did you get a chance to talk to her about that? Or were you out there with her?
Brinson: Yeah. Oh yeah, she liked it. Her thing, like I said, was down at the old swimming hole. She kind of graded everything by where the swimming hole was, where that meant that. And then she could figure out where that tree was. And then that house stood right there by the tree. Some of the houses, they moved out of there to other parts of the countryside that weren't on the project. Some of them might still be in use today for all I know. But, oh yeah, she'd get excited every time we'd go out there and remember--remembering things.
Bauman: Mm-hm. So she seemed to really appreciate being able to go out there again.
Brinson: Oh yeah. Invariably it'd be a real hot day and it'd be uncomfortable out there. You'd usually gather around the old high school there. The shell was still standing. Must have been quite--I guess, the bank building. Maybe that was in White Bluffs, so it was still standing too.
Bauman: White Bluffs Bank, yeah.
Bauman: Yeah. But you must've had if she could remember that well just by a few things that were she had a real--she knew that town.
Brinson: Oh, yeah. She grew up there.
Bauman: Knew it well.
Brinson: Yeah, that was when she used to tell us about sleeping out on the hay stacks at those hot summer evenings, and listening to the coyotes howl. Falling asleep to that noise. What she called music. [LAUGHTER]
Bauman: Remember any other stories she used to tell you about things like that, that would've been sort of unique to the area?
Brinson: No, not really. She did leave to go to Seattle to go to secretarial school. Or business school, she called it. Business school. So she went to a couple years of that. And then probably right after that they probably got married.
Bauman: With the proposal in the apple orchard--
Brinson: Yeah, and then moved to Tacoma over in probably '42. I think so. But they did have a lot of close friends that they could talk for hours about the old times, the good times. Especially if the sisters got together. Boy, they could--Man, it was—[LAUGHTER]
Bauman: It sounds like she had a lot of very fond memories of--
Brinson: They were, yeah.
Bauman: And did your dad talk about much, talk about the old community much?
Brinson: Oh, yeah. They had the men's fraternity, I guess you'd call them, were pretty close. They had a lot of—especially the high school kids--they were the hardest things ever. So and Dad was, when one of his friends was killed at Guadalcanal, it took him a long time to get over that, because it was his best friend. So, yeah, they were really close. Yeah.
Bauman: And so you said your family then moved to Tacoma and then '48 came to Kennewick?
Brinson: Came back to, yeah, it's cause Dad got a job at the--actually, we stopped for a year in Prosser, lived with grandparents until we got, finally bought a piece of property in East Kennewick. And then he had a house built. And we lived with Herb and his family on East Fifth Street while the house was being built on East First Place. So eventually got moved in there and spent--that's where us kids grew up right there, at East Kennewick, so.
Bauman: And what did you think of Kennewick when you came back, when you moved in?
Brinson: Oh, just immediately there was guys to run around with and we just formed a bond right there. We were the four musketeers. We would—[LAUGHTER] There were no gangs back then, I guess we were about as close as you could get to a gang, I guess.
Bauman: Yeah. I guess I asked, what it would feel like being in the Tri-Cities knowing that a lot of the people in the area were working, out at the Hanford site, which is where your family used to live? Have any feelings about that? Does it seem a little odd at all or strange or? What are your thoughts about that?
Brinson: Well, we didn't really think about it that much. Most of the activity was closer to Richland, in the Camp Hanford area. And right out there where the town site was there was never any--It just happened to be in the middle of the condemned area. Yeah, I don't think we ever resented. We were too young to work up resentments at that point. We were having too much fun growing up in East Kennewick. Because back then East Kennewick went clear out to Finley, you could roam forever out through there.
Bauman: So are there anything that I haven't asked you that, or any event, or memory or family story that you haven't had a chance to talk about yet that you'd like to?
Brinson: Oh, it's one of those things that you might wake up at 2 o'clock in the morning and say, Oh, yeah I should've said that. [LAUGHTER] But right now I just can't draw on anything, anything else. It was just with all the aunts and uncles and the friends, it was just a wonderful time of life, a wonderful place to have been a part of, for a little while, anyway.
Bauman: So I do have one other question. So I know your father and grandfather and your family went to Tacoma. What happened to, say, cousins and aunts and uncles, cousins, other families you're related to?
Brinson: Well they, yeah, mom's oldest brother ended up in California as a bulldozer operator. The twins, one twin, Aunt Mildred, never did give married, and Aunt Margaret married a wheat farmer out of Walla Walla. Let's see, Aunt Babe married Uncle Doc Jones from Tacoma. They lived in Tacoma, lived out their years in Tacoma. And, see, Uncle Arthur worked on the fire department in the Seattle fire department. Let's see, on Dad's side, Herb ended up running a Chevron station right down at the end of Washington Street there in Kennewick, and later on moved to Spokane and ran one up there in Dishman. And Uncle Paul moved to San Bernardino and passed away down there, after raising a family. Let's see.
Bauman: So did all the Brinsons then go to Tacoma, pretty much? Your uncles as well?
Brinson: Generally, in that area, yeah. Uncle Albert ended up in Renton and raised his family. His son Gary is the—Gary Brinson of the Brinson Fund, you know. Multimillion. [LAUGHTER] He had to build a building there on the WSU campus for the business college, I guess you'd call it.
Bauman: But he was younger than you, correct?
Brinson: Oh, yeah. Just a few years, yeah.
Bauman: So did he live out at Hanford at all?
Brinson: No. They all grew up in Renton.
Bauman: And then what about the Moulster side? Were they still living in Hanford when the government came in during the war?
Brinson: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, because that's when Grandpa had to drop the depot agent job. Retire from the Milwaukee Railroad and move to Prosser, so. And I don't know who was, if Aunt Margaret hadn't married Uncle Bud at that time, so. They were in the, yeah, she and Aunt Millie both joined the Navy, that's right. They were both in the Navy ‘til the end of the war, so. So that's where they went. And so Uncle Arthur was also and flew in the--whatever aircraft that was. He was a navigator bombardier off of a carrier airplane of some sort. P-40 or something like that. Forces that have survived.
Bauman: Now, did you or any of your family end up working at the Hanford site?
Brinson: Dad worked at the fire department in Richland for the rest of his career there. Central fire station. When I got out of the Air Force, I spent a couple years at CBC and got into the physical chemistry laboratory out there, in 300 Area. Worked out there for 40, 42 years. Retired in 2000. Paid for my- [LAUGHTER] Put a couple of kids through school from working out there. Yeah, it was a good place to spend a career. Yeah.
Bauman: Mm-hm. Is there any final thoughts about the old Hanford town or of your family--families, even the Moulster or Brinson family, and their experiences there?
Brinson: Oh, the biggest thing was just missing them all so much. Just because it was such a wonderful family to grow up in. So supportive and loving, and just getting together at a drop of a hat. So many get-togethers and camping trips. Yeah, I wish I could have grown up older there and had more memories of the old Hanford town, but. But that's the way things go.
Bauman: Well, I appreciate you being willing to come talk and share your memories and your family stories about Hanford and the community out there. I really appreciate it.
Brinson: Well, I wish I could've helped you out more.
Bauman: This is terrific. You were great. Thank you.
Brinson: Okay, you're welcome. I'm glad you got a chance to talk to Mom there, that 12 years ago.
Brinson: She made it to 97.