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Thursday, April 2, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Flocking To Ernie's Grove -- City Folks Got Away To The Little Houses In The Big Woods

It was a Shangri-La, a pristine place to get away from the city - something they might have even called a destination resort, if the concept had existed in the early part of the century.

They called it Ernie's Grove.

You can still find the name on the map, if it's a good enough map. And you can still drive there, on back roads a few miles outside Snoqualmie. You can even feel the attraction the place must have had, its towering cedars and firs and tangled brush lining the narrow road in the shadow of Mount Si.

But you have to just imagine the bustle of Ernie's Grove, back in the quarter-century before World War II - back when there were no bridges across Lake Washington, no city of Bellevue, precious little anything ELSE on the Eastside . . . and when a trip to the outlands of the Snoqualmie Valley was a journey, not a casual outing.

SYLVAN RESPTE

Today, little traffic moves past the two dozen or so well-tended and neatly landscaped homes, and residents like it that way.

But between about 1915 and 1940, this dot on a map was the destination of Seattleites and others seeking respite from the big city. They traveled over bumpy dirt roads in their whining Fords and Chevys - and found what they were seeking at the end of a dead-end road.

Some of them camped out, and on weekends people from all over flocked to the grove a few miles north of Snoqualmie. For 25 cents they drove through the log archway on 440th Avenue Southeast and settled in for Saturday or Sunday picnics.

Some of the cabins nestled among towering evergreens along the North Fork of the Snoqualmie River were grabbed up for weeks or even the entire summer.

"They were mostly rich people from Seattle," recalls Isetta Renton, who arrived at the doorway to Ernie's Grove as a bride in 1925 and has lived most of her life there since. "The mothers and kids would be here all week, and husbands would join them on weekends."

Before the turn of the century, the area in and around what eventually became Ernie's Grove was divided into large timber claims. One of those was homesteaded by David Renton - a nephew of Capt. William Renton, after whom the city of Renton was named.

Along with three men other men from a small town in England, David Renton migrated to the United States and in the 1880s the four of them staked out homesteads in the vicinity of what became Ernie's Grove.

The Renton homestead stretched across the North Fork to the foot of Mount Si into what is now known as Moon Valley.

When Isetta Flory Renton, then 23 and fresh from the Puyallup Valley, arrived at the 172-acre homestead with her new husband, Alonson, David Renton's son, Ernie's Grove was already a popular summer and weekend hideaway. Most of the old-growth timber had been logged off.

"In those days we had to grow our own produce to survive," she recalls. "We stored food in root cellars and did a lot of canning. We also had dairy cows and sold the milk and cream we didn't use."

The beginnings of Ernie's Grove as a vacation spot are a little vague, but the story goes that when one of the pioneer homesteads was divided into smaller parcels, one tract eventually came into the hands of Ernie Hodgeson. Around 1915, Hodgeson built a few rental cabins for summer residents - and when he sold a large chunk of property to George Talke, Ernie's Grove was off and running.

More cabins were built along the river, connected by wood sidewalks, and back in the woods. Other residents in and around the grove, including the Renton family, saw the profits to be made from tourists and built their own cabins and even small homes to rent to tourists.

HOME SWEET FIRST HOME

Leah Fitzgerald remembers her first home there. It was 1937 when she and her husband, George, bought a cabin - a not-so-roomy 16-by-16-foot affair. Initially, the couple bought a few acres and later added another 40 acres to their holdings. Their original cabin now is the living room of her sprawling, brick home on the bend of the loop road through the former resort.

A number of regular summer visitors found Ernie's Grove so appealing they too bought land and built cabins for their summer vacations, she said.

Fitzgerald remembers the summer tourists and weekenders well.

Grinning, she says, "It was a busy time. I even remember those Seattle businessmen who would come out for a weekend with their stenographers."

June Gundersen remembers both good and bad times. She moved to the grove as a teenager in the late 1930s with her parents, Herb and Daisy Miller, and Gundersen's four sisters and two brothers. Miller bought a tract from Talke that sat smack in the middle of the grove.

It was a spartan way of life at first. While Miller built a house the family lived in a cow barn.

"He built our house board by board" says Gundersen, who now lives in Redmond. "Almost every day he brought home a few pieces of lumber and everyone pitched in. The original house is still there."

In those days, there were only six or seven families living year-round in the grove. Miller worked in Snoqualmie; the family raised chickens and an occasional pig. "We lived off the land - a small garden, picked mushrooms and berries and the fishing in the river was always good," says Gundersen. "We sort of scrounged; you had to in order to eat."

There was no well on the Miller property. Water was brought from the river in a car or truck - and that, Gundersen says, is how she learned to drive.

Vacationers bought produce from farmers and friendships developed between local teens and their peers spending weekends or summers at the grove.

There were picnics, bonfires, parties and dances those summer days and nights. It was a simple time. Everyone was friendly.

"You have to remember that very few people had a lot of money," she says. "They couldn't afford hotels and long trips. We were coming out of the Depression."

WAR AND MORE CARS

The demise of Ernie's Grove as a resort was caused by two things: the advent of World War II and then the fact that more and more people owned cars and longer summer trips became fashionable.

It wasn't long before the cabins fell into disrepair or were torn down. Just a few have survived.

One home in the grove is a combination of two cabins and some extensive remodeling. But another still is recognizable as a 1920s-era structure. Five years ago, Cathy Shultz bought a small, cozy cabin on which a previous owner had built a small room to one side.

Shultz ran into some surprises recently when she was adding a room on the opposite side of the cabin - the outside wall was constructed of 4- by 12-inch-thick timbers, much like a log wall. And she discovered the remains of a brick chimney.

Georgia Kramer, sister of June Gundersen and a longtime resident of Ernie's Grove, loves the place.

"It's a little corner of the world," she says. "Beat-up and forgotten."

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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