Founder of Eatonville Thomas Cobb Van Eaton

Thomas Cobb Van Eaton was an amazing man. Through his deliberate planning and strength of character, his dream of building a town became a reality. However, the whole story of the formation of Eatonville, WA is broader and not only includes TC Van Eaton, but other amazing individuals as well.

1889 TC Van Eaton

T.C. Van Eaton was not your typical settler.  He was well educated for the time; he not only went through grade school but also earned his high school diploma.  His love for education did not stop there.  Van Eaton emphasized learning and was a main force in building the schools. He had an ever-watching eye for opportunity, never losing sight of the future he saw for Eatonville. 
             
Born on June 26, 1862, Thomas Cobb Van Eaton was the first white child born in Pope County, Minnesota.  He was the youngest of five children to a circuit riding Methodist preacher Thomas Brown Van Eaton.
             
When T.C. was only a few months old, his family and other settlers left the farm and barricaded themselves in a stockade for protection during a Sioux and Crow uprising.  His father Thomas could stand it no longer and left to check on the cattle at the farm.  Once there, he was chased by some Indians into the swamp where his horse got bogged down.  Thomas Van Eaton fought desperately even killing some of his attackers before he was slaughtered in the assault.  The Indians cut off a finger from each hand and then severed his head.  His death was a huge source of confusion since Thomas had been good friends with the chief of the Crow Indians.
             
Several years later, hunters saw a curious circular path beneath a large tree.  As they looked up, they could see an object lodged in the branches.  They retrieved the object and discovered a skull.  The skull had been placed there by Indians.  His wife Caroline Poyner Van Eaton knew it was Thomas’ skull because of the fact that he still had some of his premolars.  However, the positive proof came when she saw his front tooth.  Thomas used to take pins and split them with his front teeth for amusement.  Not able to find a small pin, he tried a darning needle.  Instead of breaking the needle, the needle broke his tooth.   
             
Without a husband, Caroline came back to the farm and struggled to survive with the five children.  She never let an opportunity pass.  One day her two sons came in screaming about a buck having its antlers wedged in the spokes of a wagon wheel.   She took this as good fortune, went out, and stunned the deer with a piece of firewood.  They all enjoyed the venison from that deer for quite some time.
             
Not one to be kept down, Caroline brought out her old sewing machine and made money making men’s clothing.  The men of the Emerson family would place double orders to help her out.  One of them grew sweet on Caroline after getting to know her from delivering her groceries.  James Emerson married Caroline on March 28, 1868.
            
 A few years later, James moved the family to Le Mars, Iowa.  T.C. loved this because he attended a better school and did not have to walk several miles to get there.  He loved learning, especially history, and graduated from Harrison County High School.
             
TC Van Eaton and 1st wife Lenore
Ever since he was a boy, T.C. Van Eaton dreamed of building a town that would bear his name, so building houses seemed a great way to start.  Right out of high school, he and his brothers Sims and Hiram left for Nebraska and made a good living in construction.  Van Eaton saw many boom towns rise up along the railroad heading west.  There was plenty of work for the Van Eaton brothers during the winter of 1887 particularly in Alliance, Nebraska.  T.C. was doing so well, he decided to marry his fourth cousin Lenore Van Eaton from Tabor, Iowa. 
             
By the following spring, the town of Alliance was already dying out.  So, Van Eaton “pulled up stakes” and headed westward with his young wife Leonora.  With eight wagons, Van Eaton and his brother Hiram set out from Nebraska to Tacoma, Washington. 

His daughter Susan Van Eaton Wenk described it best in excerpts taken from the Eatonville, Dispatch in 1939:

By spring, however, the boom had run its course and he felt that it was time to forsake the rolling prairies of Nebraska and follow the restless tide of adventurers westward where he hoped to find a permanent home.            
            He loaded his possessions, and then hitched his span of horses to his full heft wagon.  Eight wagons began the long journey together.  They soon forded the White River, and then set their course northward.  Buffalo Gap greeted them after the crossing of the South Fork of the Cheyenne River. 
            Northward the trek continued through the famous Black Hills of South Dakota.  And the voyagers marveled at the caves of ice.  Beyond the Rapid Creek lay Sturgis.  And Fort Meade, on the Spear Fish River, was reached on the July Fourth.
On departing from Fort Meade, a northwesterly course was taken to Bellefourche.  The country abounded with game.  And everyone enjoyed the sport of killing antelope and spearing fish in the North Fork of the Cheyenne River.  It was while the party was resting in Bellefourche that the cowpunchers put on an exhibition that was far better than the present day rodeos.
Miles Creek led them westerly to Sun Dance, Wyoming.  The bed of Powder River was of glistening white clay.  But its crossing was ten rods of trouble.  To begin with, two mules got mired and it required the efforts of four mules and ten men to extricate them.  Then some of the lighter teams got into trouble. Pushing with shovels was found to be the best way of getting the animals, and the wagons they drew, out of the river.
The wagon train divided into two parts after the crossing at Powder River was affected; Mr. Van Eaton’s part of the train continued a long way, northerly up the Powder River.  The caravan rested two days from the Custer battle ground.  The Crows had attempted to run off the stock during the previous night.
They proceeded to Fort Custer, at the confluence of the Little and Big Horn Rivers.  The Crows’ camp was opposite.  And that evening, a strange procession of mounted Indians rode up to the trekker’s camp fire.  There were a buck and a maiden upon each horse—the girl ahead. This was the custom when the bucks went wooing.
The crossing of the Yellowstone River was perilous.  Mr. Hiram Van Eaton’s pony went down and kicked his rider in the head.  Hiram was floating helplessly down-stream when his brother gained a sand-bar and rescued him.
Not all of the wagons, however, attempted the treacherous ford.  Some ferried across the stream six miles below Billings, Montana.
            Mr. T.C. Van Eaton was on watch that night at the Billings camp.  There were white horse thieves at work and no chances could be taken.  In the bright moonlight, he saw a man slink out of the dark shadows.  He fired over the prowler’s head and scared him off.
            The next day, he shot a sage hen at two hundred yards.  The river teemed with fish, and grasshoppers were the best bait.
            Arriving at the Boulder Mountains, they found the charges on the toll road excessively high.  Mr. T.C. Van Eaton and Mr. Gardner refused to pay for their three teams.  The Sheriff tried to force payment.  There was some gun play.  But Mr. T.C. Van Eaton proceeded in spite of the attempt to exact tribute from him.  His brother, however, paid.
            The Government was building a bridge where the rivers join to make the Missouri in the Big Flat country.  But it was not ready to travel.  The caravan was lucky to find a ford where the water only reached the wagon boxes.
            They rented the swimming pool at Hot Springs and enjoyed themselves thoroughly.
            The road to Helena ran by way of Galatin and Table Mountain.  When Helena was finally reached, the voyagers were surprised to see miners digging for gold—and finding it—right in the streets of the city.  Mr. Van Eaton took time out to do some prospecting at Prickly Pear.
            But his wife became too ill to travel any farther in a jolting wagon over what would nowadays be called no road at all.  So he sold his outfit for a hundred dollars and took the train.  His personal effects had been shipped as baggage.  But there was one trunk that he did not get till long after his arrival to Eatonville.  He paid as much to go to Tacoma as the fare from Alliance [Nebraska] to the coast would have been.
            There were no sleepers on the train.  Tourist had to provide their own food and bedding.  Mr. Van Eaton paid seventy-five cents apiece for the meals at the railroad eating house when Pasco, Washington was reached.  But there was nothing fit to eat on the bill of fare.  So he walked out and bought fresh milk and watermelons from a farmer.  And how good they were that dry, hot day!
            A little farther along, he was greatly interested to see Chinese cradling for gold in the Yakima River.
            There were no tunnels through the mountains in those days.  The railroad climbed up the summit of the pass.  There was one switch back after another in the sinuous steel trail.  The road bed could be seen three and sometimes four times below them.
            The rainy country began as soon as the summit of the Cascade Range was crossed.  There was a magnificent stand of giant timber on the western slope of the mountains.  Farther down, there were sawmills every few miles.
            It was after a stop at mill town that the brakeman tried to take Mr. Van Eaton’s bundles away to make room for a gang of loggers that had gotten on the train.  Failing, he brought in the conductor and three more brakemen.  Thoroughly aroused, Mr. Van Eaton drove the trainmen away with his six-shooter.  They did not return and the remainder of the journey to the coast was made without incident.
            Tacoma was booming and there was a strike on in the building trades.  The city was overflowing with the people who were arriving on every train from the East.  So it was not surprising that there were no houses to rent.  He found accommodations at the Halstead House the first night.
           
             
His brother Hiram went along with T.C.  Census records show his older children being born in Iowa and North Dakota, so he was probably married when they made the journey overland.  Hiram had five children: Guy, Ben, Harry, Gurney, and Clair.  Gurney married Vivian King.  Eventually, they all left Eatonville.  The majority moved to Eastern Washington, but Guy Van Eaton moved to Canada.
             
In Tacoma, T.C. Van Eaton jumped right in the day after arriving by building a cabin across from Union Station.  After six weeks, he sold it and purchased a lot at Seventeenth and Kay Streets and constructed his home. 
             
Van Eaton worked several jobs in Tacoma.  He found work with the Standard Oil Company for two dollars a day.  It was not worth it; he was losing money more than he was making because of the cost of replacing his clothing destroyed by the creosoted barrels he was unloading.  Then he worked for three dollars a day as a mechanic in a machine shop. 
             
After two months, Van Eaton felt he could do better doing his own contracting.  With only $42, he took a contract to build six homes.  He was accustomed to working with pine, oak, and elm but quickly caught on to using the magnificent fir, cedar, and hemlock lumber.  He was at work, so much so, that a man who watched him loaned him $100 to continue.  Van Eaton noticed out of work men and put them to work.  He had a gift for managing and handed the keys to the owner of the first house within nine days.  By the time the second house was done, Van Eaton was able to pay back the $100 loan.  All the houses were completed at the rate of one house a week having all six done after six weeks.  From the never-ending flow of people to Tacoma, he was busy from that time on until March. 
             
After finishing his last contracted building, T.C. Van Eaton desired to explore the surrounding area.  He still had that dream of building a town and began his search.  His journey was rough and tedious.  There were some roads, but they were primitive.  Van Eaton traveled the only known road until it ended at Robert Fiander’s home.  There he stayed the night and shared with his generous host about his dream of starting a town.   The kindly Fiander suggested that Van Eaton talk to old Indian Henry who had scouted and advised many.   
             
Mashel River
Following an ancient trail, Indian Henry led T.C. Van Eaton out to the pristine Big Mashel River to level ground below the snow line surrounded by gigantic firs and cedars. The surrounding forest was abundant with game, and the rivers supplied plenty of fish especially salmon.  It was a perfect place to build a town.
           
T.C. Van Eaton came upon “Hank the Squatter” camped in this location and paid him fifty dollars for the rights to one hundred and sixty acres of land and took possession on March 20, 1889.  However, homestead papers were not secured until it was surveyed seven years later in 1896.  During that lapse, T.C. Van Eaton had to be on guard as others tried to scare and drive him out.  Van Eaton was dedicated to the spot that would become Eatonville.
             
Van Eaton then packed in coffee, salt, sugar, flour, and other supplies on his back for local men to purchase.  Quickly, he hired many of these men to cut out a road from Robert Fiander’s place into Eatonville wide enough for a spring board wagon.  After completion, Van Eaton was able to haul in a thousand pounds of supplies all they way into his new township.  Next, he built a 17 by 27 foot cabin of split boards planed by hand with split shakes for a roof.  This would serve as home in the back with the trading post in the front.  This post became a main source of provisions for many in the area.  Soon, Van Eaton established pack trains and stage lines bringing more necessities and people to and through his little settlement.
             
Van Eaton had some big help in his brother-in-law Nate Williams.  Williams married Van Eaton’s sister Sarah Elizabeth Van Eaton.  Williams was born in Indiana about 1853.  As a boy, he ran away to join the Union Army as a drummer boy.  He was sent back home when it was discovered how young he really was.  At 18, he took off for the gold rush in the Black Hills in South Dakota.  From time to time Williams would have to pack up his camp and slip away as a result of tension between the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Crow tribes.  He married Sarah Elizabeth Van Eaton and started a family on the Piney Ridge Agency.
             
When T.C. Van Eaton made plans to head west, his sister Sarah, Nate, and children were ready to move and joined the wagon train to Washington.  After he helped build a cabin with Van Eaton, Williams built a cabin for his own family.  Unfortunately, it was built on railroad land, and they had to move.  To ensure, the Williams family would not move back, men working for the railroad burned the cabin down. 
             
Nate’s bravery was tested when two men got into a heated argument bringing up old wounds from Civil War days.  One man was pro-Union and the other for the Confederates.  Things got crazy when the Confederate man came back with a gun and killed the Union man.  The man’s anger was still blazing when he approached Nate Williams and pointed the gun at Nate’s face.  Acting quickly, Nate jammed his thumb between the hammer and gun rendering it useless. 
             
Jackson Earl Van Eaton
Just as Van Eaton’s dream was coming true, his family faced tragedy.   The couple’s first child had died, and the second child Jackson Earl Van Eaton was approaching his first birthday when he, too, died in 1889.  Then, Lenore having never fully recovered from her illness passed away in 1891. 
             
His family gone, Van Eaton poured himself into the growth of the town.  Times were hard when a depression hit in1892.  T.C. Van Eaton was said to have given families needed food and new shoes so that the father could go out and look for work.  
             
Wanting to help people in a broader sense, T.C. Van Eaton ran and was elected to the Washington State Legislature from 1893-1895.  His involvement in social issues continued as he served on the Eatonville School Board for many years.
           
Eventually, business picked up, especially at the Groe Hotel, which made more jobs available.  Mary Jane Osborn came down from Ashford for work and gained employment at the hotel.  She and Van Eaton met and got married around 1893. 
             
T. C., wife Mary Jane with Frank, McKinley, Bessie, and Lucy (Susie)
Van Eaton had lost two children in their infancy and his first wife.  Imagine his joy when Thomas “Frank” Van Eaton was born on Van Eaton’s birthday on June 27, 1894.  Three more children would follow: McKinley, Bessie (Roder), and Lucy (Susie Wenk).
             
While T. C. strained to get the town up and running, his wife Mary Jane fell ill.   Since Eatonville had no doctor, T.C. took her by stage to Spanaway.  Their worse fears came true when Mary Jane was diagnosed with cancer.  T. C. spent thousands of dollars to try every cure possible.  As the cancer became worse Mary Jane was in such pain that she could not even bear the jostling of the stage.  Wanting her to get treatment to save her, T.C. laid her on a mattress as he and some other men carried her down the long road to the doctor in Spanaway. Tragically, though trying everything to cure her, Mary Jane Osborn Van Eaton died on March 3, 1906 at age 39.
             
Years before, on October 8, 1884, John Quincy Appleby, related to John Quincy Adams, became the father of Nellie.  Appleby originally wanted her to be born in the Oregon Territory.  While on route to Oregon, one of the other men became very sick.  Appleby stayed with him as they stopped in Kansas.  Life took a twist, and he ended up staying there settling in Wauneta, Kansas.  
             
For most of her school years, Nellie was the only student in the county school.  When she reached 7th grade, Nellie rode or walked to attend school in Cedar Vale.  Her father died in 1896 when Nellie was twelve.  She moved to Cedar Vale and worked for room and board plus ten cents a day while she went to school. 
             
Years after finishing school, twenty-year-old Nellie was working when she met and married Van Miller on March 5, 1904.  They had one daughter, Jennie Ann.  
             
After some dark days in Kansas, Nellie divorced her husband and took daughter Ann and mother Sarah leaving Kansas behind.  They came to Washington in 1907 to start a new and better life.  At first, all three of them stayed with mother Sarah’s Uncle James Samuels who worked at Goodwin’s Mill. 

TC with wife Nellie (Appleby)
Soon, the women found work.  Nellie took a job as a housekeeper to a widower and his four children.  She took care of the children while keeping up the home of this lonely man.  Nellie was warm and gracious but firm.  The children embraced her.  Over time, it became clear that Nellie was much more than a housekeeper.  As T.C. and the children grew to love her, they realized that Nellie and her daughter Ann were the missing pieces to their family.  T.C. Van Eaton married Nellie Appleby Miller in 1912. In years to come, the Van Eaton family grew by three: John, Robert, and Nell. 
             
Sadly, before the marriage, Nellie’s mother Sarah started getting weak.  The doctor diagnosed her with cancer.  She died from the disease on September 19, 1909. 
             
Kate Dutton, Nellie, Anne Miller, Frank, Susie, and John Van Eaton
At the time of their marriage, Eatonville was incorporated and the Eatonville Lumber Company drew in many workers.  The town, as well, populated and business flourished.  T. C. sold off his store to Nels Christensen in 1914 and focused on real estate and other ventures.  Many who know him stated that T.C. was an extremely generous and unique man.

Ann Miller Crowe (Nellie’s daughter) remembered him well:
He did not wear horse boots.  He wasn’t much of a horseman.  I think he was more the type to wear a coat with a blue velvet collar.  He did an awful lot of reading.  He spoiled me.  He wasn’t so good to the boys.  He made them work, but I never had a licking in my life.  Poor people would come in here and he would try to care for them a while.  If they came here and didn’t have anything, he’d try to fix it so they could stay.  He gave away a lot of property, like to the school.  He had a generous side and was generous to his family.

  There exists many tales of him giving food, clothing, or allowing installments for repayments.  Martha O’Neil remembers the mortgage that she and her husband secured from him.  They bought a place off of Pennsylvania Avenue and made payments of $5 a month.  When the depression hit, Mr. O’Neil went to Van Eaton telling him that they could not make their payment.  He was gentle and told them not to worry but pay when they could.  Money started coming in, and they made up all their missing payments.  Finally, Mr. O’Neil said to his wife, “Let’s pay it all off.”  They went down to see Van Eaton who was at Nellie’s restaurant and proudly presented their payoff of $15.  They brought a bag full of scraps of paper Van Eaton wrote on for payment receipts and expected him to count them.  He just told them that he trusted them and wrote out a final statement on another scrap piece of paper close by.  Van Eaton was so generous that his profit line did not have much margin.  It is said that he made and lost money many times.
             
If money was lost, Nellie could make some.  She ran a restaurant, the family farm, and sold insurance. Never idle, Nellie was constantly making and growing things.  She not only grew gorgeous flowers but was skilled in preserving them.  There were so many flowers that she made bouquets and enlisted her grandchildren to sell them around town.  Her grandchildren remember her as industrious.  She toiled planting vegetable gardens and fruit trees.  Her little orchard was full of fruit. Even while sitting, Nellie kept busy tatting and crocheting intricate designs.
             
As T.C. grew older, he still loved getting involved around the community.  He loved baseball and sponsored many teams.  All the young men around were welcome to join.  The Indian players from the Mashel Prairie were said to be great.  They joined up with some talented Ohop and Eatonville players going up against other local teams.  Some places did not want to play with teams that had Indians on them.  A game in Kapowsin was almost called off because Eatonville had Indians on the team.  So, T.C. got them to agree to play by placing a wager on the game. 
            
 The team roster included Chas, C.S., and T.E. Williams; Brown and Clint Smith; William Bess; Nick Sharpf; William Benson; George Fenton; John Henry (Indian Henry’s son); Silas Barr; and Louie Jack. 
             
Louie Jack pitched that day as Eatonville was behind 2 to 1. Van Eaton stepped over and told the fellows he would give them $10 a homerun and $5 for a strike.  With that, the team got fired up, and Eatonville won with a whooping score of 10 to 2.  T. C. left with $2,000 in extra cash that day.             

TC with great grandchild Rose Steiner
Becoming grandparents seemed to suit T.C. and Nellie just fine.  Some of the grandkids walked over after school.  Grandma Nellie picked raspberries, made raspberries and cream, and set them out on a table with chairs by the fountain under the trees.  She would show them the garden, teach the names of the plants, and let them help her tend it.  Nellie treated all the grandchildren just the same.  She told them to be proud but not “smarty.” 

             
Grandpa Van Eaton was remembered as a tall, strong man in good health.  He always had a story and set the grandchildren hunting for “blue ice worms.”  So, they looked for the big, fat blue worms crawling through the snow but never found any.  The twinkle in his eyes gave the hoax away.  Grandpa Van Eaton took the grandchildren to the farm to feed the hogs a carrot, give the horses a turnip, and learn about all the animals. 
In his very later years, his memory was not as good, which frustrated him quite a bit.  He was used to being sharp and witty.  His family was there and loved him very much.  Van Eaton was happy when he thought of Eatonville.  It turned out to be a fine town.  During the month of October, 1951, T.C. Van Eaton closed his eyes for the last time.  He is buried next to his family in the Eatonville Cemetery.
             
The patriarch of Eatonville was gone, but stories about him remain. Some incidences made T.C. seem bigger than life.  One evening there was a big meeting regarding the school.  Folks were fussing and yelling.  T.C. had enough and went outside and sat on the stairs of his store.  He had his Star pistol with him and caught sight of a rabbit.  Not thinking much of it, he took a shot at the critter and hit it square in the head.   People peeked out to see what he was shooting.  They saw the rabbit and the distance it was from Van Eaton and concluded the he must be the best shot around.  His family laughs about this because in real life, he had terrible aim. 
             
Van Eaton may not have had the best aim, but he sure was not one to be messed with.  One night he was over at the saloon counting his take for the day from his store.  He got word that some men were going to rob him on the trail back to his farm.  So, he waited patiently letting them drink some while he did not touch alcohol.  When he thought they had a few too many, Van Eaton made like he was heading home.  The men slipped out and got ahead of him on the trail.  As he sauntered home the men tried to attack.  He was not husky, but he filled out his over six-foot frame and left those men bloody and bruised. 
            
 Another favorite one has to do with a chicken.  It seems Indian Henry had good timing about when Mrs. Van Eaton cooked chicken.  He came over and sat down in front of two chickens for all to eat.  When it came time for Indian Henry to take slice of meat, he took an entire chicken instead.  Van Eaton’s wife would fuss.  All of this amused Van Eaton as he and Indian Henry were good friends.
              
Nellie Van Eaton’s sister Kate and her brother Sid Appleby came out to Eatonville.  Kate Appleby was a teacher and married Robert Dutton.  She died in 1964 and is buried in Eatonville.  Her brother Sid was killed in a car accident in Oregon in 1931.

TC and Nellie
Jennie Anne Miller, Nellie’s 1st daughter, married three times.  One ended in divorce and two in death.  Her last husband was Capt. Crowe.  After living in California, Alaska, and Seattle, she came back home to Eatonville.  Annie Crowe died in 1996 and was buried in the Van Eaton plot next to her mother.
             
Nellie proved to be more than a companion to T.C.  She was indeed his partner.  She relished the outdoor life, loved all the children and grandchildren as her very own, and her generous spirit is an example to all.  Nellie must have seen many changes that took place in town of Eatonville in her lifetime.  Nellie Appleby Van Eaton died on March 6, 1973.  She is buried next to her husband in Eatonville Cemetery.