Eli Cyr, known as Kelly to his friends and family, had a dream.
He had already married the prettiest girl in Montana, Clara, and they had moved further west to Hoquim, Washington. Soon a daughter was on her way and Kelly, ever-faithful to provide for his family, worked long, hard hours at one of the many local sash and door companies along the waterfront of Gray’s Harbor. It paid the bills and put food on the table, but what Kelly really wanted to do was harvest his own crops to provide for his girls.
Married on February 13, 1903, Kelly and Clara along with their daughter, Mabel born in 1904, spent the next ten years moving about between Hoquim to Oregon City, Oregon and further east to Condon and Blalock, Oregon (now a ghost town that is entirely under water). Kelly, always industrious, found work at sash and door companies, working on threshing crews during the harvest season and leading local bands. Clara, too worked during many of these years cooking in the cook wagon for the men.
It wasn’t until 1913 that Kelly felt it was time to move forward with his own dream of being a homesteader and earn a living as a farmer. In the spring of that year, he packed up his family and they headed east to Wapinitia, Oregon, just north of Madras, on the outskirts of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. There, Kelly had purchased a plot of land that already had a one-room house on it. Since it was just their first year on the homestead they were unable to generate any income so Kelly did what he always did, he found work where he could, which happened to be on anther family’s farm. Clara and Mabel joined him, Clara working as many as 16 hours a day, cooking and cleaning up after the men on the crew. In order to earn a little more money, Kelly started 2 bands in two nearby towns, earning an extra $6.00 a week.
That summer, Kelly got innovative and decided the local fair needed a hot dog stand. According to his daughter, “He designed a stand that could be put together in sections – drop door for a counter, which could be put up and locked at night. These stands could be knocked down and taken to the homestead and reassembled for chicken coops, pig pens, etc. He bought a couple of wash boilers – made coffee (in cheese cloth sacks) in one, simmered the wieners in the other. This was the only thing served that first year, hot dogs and coffee. But it bought the winter groceries. The following 4th of July he repeated the idea at the 4th of July celebration at Abbotts Grave – near Wapitnita, with good results.”
In order to earn enough money Kelly needed to work for other farms, leaving little time to do more than produce just enough food for his own family on their farm. Even Mabel, not yet a teenager, had an important role to play helping her father harvest their own crops.
In the spring of 1917 World War I broke out and again, things changed for Kelly and his dreams. Farming, it seemed was not going to provide the life he’d hoped for. He sold the homestead and with many young men leaving to fight in the war, his two bands broke up. Kelly took a job at the general store and the family moved again. This time, however, it was only Clara and Mabel that moved. They headed north, to Spokane, Washington, where Clara’s parents and siblings were now living. Meanwhile, Kelly did the only reasonable thing: he bought a confectionary in Wapintia.
In 1918, Kelly became a confectioner. In 1919, he bought a confectionary in nearby Maupin, Oregon and the family moved yet again. Clara and Mabel, now in the 8th grade, helped in the shop also. For 3 years the family seemed settled; the confectionary was doing good. Then on September 10, 1921, tragedy struck the small town of Maupin when a fire broke out in a local shop, taking with it, 7 other businesses, including the confectionary, and several homes. When the smoke cleared and the ashes settled, the only thing remaining was the cash register and a few appliances.
Once again, Kelly’s ambitions were stymied by forces beyond his control.
Over the next several years Kelly, along with his wife, plied many trades. He, having learned the art of making shoes as a young child under the tutelage of the Brothers at St. Ignatius Mission in Montana, set up shop in a number of locations, while Clara, a much-admired seamstress, consigned dresses. They also bought and operated a restaurant in Grangeville, Idaho for a year. Kelly helped lead the school band in Maupin. He built the first Catholic Church in Warm Springs, Oregon. He served as the city recorder in Maupin, as well.
But all the while, the one thing he wanted that he’d never found success in was farming. In 1948, he tried again. They bought a small farm near Sisters, Oregon. There aren’t a lot of details at this point. Their daughter, Mabel, who has recounted this story was, by then, married and a mother of three, herself. What is known is that in 1952, Kelly’s health began to fail. He and Clara sold their farm and moved back to Maupin, where Mabel and her family were living. Kelly said a final goodbye to his dream.
In 1957 on April 23, Kelly died.
When I first read this tale, about one man’s quest to fulfill his dream and how every attempt was thwarted, sometimes by the hands of fate, and sometimes by his own enthusiasm to jump in head-long, it left me feeling a bit sad. He was a jack of all trades, but a master, it seems, of none. ‘I’m like him,’ I thought. And that left me feeling a little bit hollow.
But reading further on, Mabel describes her father. First, by his physical features, of which I share none, but then by his personality and demeanor. He was, “well liked, affectionate and sincere.” She goes on to say, “His frequent cursing was from force of habit more than from deliberately meaning to curse, and he was a fun-loving, jolly fellow, who loved to dance, and have a good time. When he laughed, tears would generally roll down his cheeks.” Likewise, Kelly was devoted to his faith and the people who served in the churches they attended. It went without saying that when the nuns and priests would come to town, they always had a meal and a place to stay with the Cyr’s. Kelly was generous. And kind. And, really, quite talented at a lot.
So, no, Kelly’s dream of living off the land never really came to fruition. And he never mastered any ONE thing, except this: he was a good person. He cared for his family, for his neighbors, for the people he met along the way. He was loyal. He gave of himself – in whatever way it was needed. He loved big and laughed hard. He just kept going. He didn’t give up.
Upon further reflection, I still think I’m a lot like my great, great grandfather. I have many dreams, most of which will never come to be. I’m good at any number of things, but far from being a master of any of them. But what matters most – what has been his legacy, and what I hope will be mine is having a spirit of kindness and love, a laugh that’s contagious, and the perseverance to keep on trying.
(Photograph: Eli “Kelly” Cyr standing in front of his confectionary in Maupin, Oregon shortly before it was destroyed in the fire in 1921)