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Montesano

They didn't like the look of the sky. They knew what it meant to the place they were. Timbers weighing tons were the ships' spines and ribs, and sails and ropes were their flesh and sinews. No man could lift the timbers, tear the sails, or break the ropes. A man's strength is nothing to the strength of the ships, but to the southern Atlantic Ocean, the ships were toothpicks and lint, and the men were even less.

In 1792, there was no Panama, and there was no Panama Canal. The ships from Massachusetts had to sail the Cape Horn to get to the otter pelts waiting for them on the West Coast. Storms were the Horn's hired bullies, and they pushed, beat, screamed at, and hopelessly separated the ships.

The ships found each other again at Nootka Island. One of the ships went clear to China and returned. Mission completed, the ships parted company, and Captain Robert Gray sailed south for a detailed exploration of the coast line where he discovered two things - a bay safe enough and calm enough to be called a harbor and a wide, impressive river which he successfully penetrated with his ship for roughly 25 miles. Gray described the harbor for future navigators as being watched over by a lone tree - a spruce that could be seen for miles - and 20 years before Lewis and Clark, he named the river after his ship, the Columbia.

For the next 90 years, the Lone Tree guided sailors to Grays Harbor, but two men came from the other direction - newspaper men from Tacoma named J.E. Calder and J.W. Walsh. Calder only had 75 cents to his name, and a barber in the town of Montesano charged 25 cents for a shave. Mr. Calder declared he wouldn't spend a third of his life savings for a shave, left, and swore never to shave again - which he didn't - and his long, flowing beard became his trademark. Six years before Washington became a state, Calder and Walsh founded a newspaper in the town of Montesano in 1883 - the westernmost newspaper in America - named it the Vidette after a military term for distant outpost. Its first issue had a circulation of 480 copies. After only a year or so, Calder moved on to the real estate business, leaving behind a newspaper surviving into the 21st century.

By the 1930s, the 78-year-old, bearded man who couldn't afford a shave 50 years before was very wealthy and had been elected mayor of Montesano, and the town was a-buzz with news that it would be briefly hosting a distinguished visitor. The President of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, coasted to a stop in his limousine in front of the Montesano post office. The mayor approached the president and spoke up for the crowd to hear.

"I am welcoming you as the Mayor of Montesano, Mr. President," and Calder handed the chief executive a pretty, wooden souvenir paper weight.

"What is this?" Roosevelt asked, and Mayor Calder explained that it was made from the wood of the by-then deceased Lone Tree that Captain Gray had seen in his discovery of the natural harbor that gave birth to the region's settlement.

Smiling through his large, white beard, Mayor Calder said, "We'll always welcome you here, Mr. President. They often call you Santa Clause, but I'm the real stuff down here!"

"Right you are, Mr. Calder!" the president laughed, tugging at the mayor's beard.

From across the street, employees of a 30-year-old business were watching their mayor hand the president a piece of their history. A seedling from the Lone Tree still grows at the State Capitol Museum in Olympia, and the business that witnessed the presidential visit still faces the Montesano post office-Whitney's- where cars of one kind or another have been sold and serviced since 1909.