I can recall the exact moment when I fell head over heels in love with Seattle. It was 1988, mid-March, perched on a stool at a long counter tiled with tiny porcelain hexagons in one of Pike Place Market’s many secret-feeling spots, the late lamented (but never, by me, forgotten) Café Counter Intelligence, now Matt’s In The Market.
Church and chapel interiors often express remarkable temporal continuity. They are lovingly maintained by devoted members of an alter guild, dusted and polished but seldom significantly altered. This makes these spaces — sacred on many levels — significant places to feel the presence of the past.
Of all Seattle’s rich historical resources, my favorite might be the King County Land Use Survey photograph collection. These images document every structure standing in King County in the late 1930s, and many built subsequently.
I am constantly amazed by the Internet’s capacity to function as a sort of flying carpet to the past. Anyone who has tumbled down the rabbit hole of discovery using a subscription database like Ancestry.com knows this thrill. A few years ago, The Seattle Public Library Foundation helped the library cover the cost of a subscription to the Seattle Times Historical Archives database. This means that anyone with a Seattle Public Library card can dive into Seattle’s past 24/7, from home, wearing pajamas if they want to.
From 1908 until 1957, shoppers at Pike Place Market who smelled the transcendent aroma of freshly roasting coffee knew that the source of that olfactory pleasure was probably Manning’s. For nearly four decades, Manning’s provided market-goers with the beans and beverage that a subsequent and more famous flagship and delicious independent places now supply.
Cooking from vintage cookbooks brings the past right into the kitchen, and I do so often. Seattle has produced many cookbooks over the past century or so, beginning with the wonderful 1896 Clever Cooking. Until the 1920s, most recipe books could be a bit vague on details — contemporary cooks understood how much dry wood it took to produce a medium-hot oven, or how much sugar ½ a teacup would be. Once the influence of work flow engineer Lillian Gilbreth and cookbook author Fannie Farmer (who advocated standardized recipe measurements) spread, home cooks had an easier time following cookbook recipes.
I am always on the lookout for places where I can still feel the past, so it is not surprising that I lost my heart to Butte, Montana. I found the past completely present and accessible in Butte. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the town was the world’s most important source of copper ore, then mined underground by men who came here from around the globe to blast, extract, and backfill the tunnels that honeycomb beneath Butte. I spent a week in Butte last summer doing research for my next book, Looking For Betty MacDonald: The Egg, The Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle And I, due out fall 2016 from University of Washington Press.
Betty Bard MacDonald spent much of her childhood in Butte before moving to Seattle in 1916. All of the houses where her family lived still stand. Butte’s underground mining industry has now been inactive for more than half a century. The Berkeley Pit, a massive strip-mining operation, consumed Butte’s Italian Meaderville and McQueen neighborhoods and about half of the surface ground where many of Butte’s mining headframes once gave access to underground mines. The Pit is now Montana’s deepest aquatic body, a 900 foot deep lake of highly mineralized water. Butte is the nation’s largest Superfund project, and one of the largest designated National Historic Districts in the United States. Although far less populated than it was in Betty’s day, Butte is no less complex.