The unapologetic book “Prohibition, Prostitution and Presbyterian Pews” has recently been updated and re-released for the pleasure of bookworms and connoisseurs of hyper-local history.
First printed and distributed in 2012, the book tells behind-the-scenes stories from inside the old Kennicott home in Chehalis and the associated misadventures of life in hardscrabble Lewis County from the early 20th century. That historic home, which still stands, belonged to Dr. Guy Kennicott, who founded Lewis County’s first hospital next door. The book was cobbled together by local writer Jan Pierson, who wove a compelling and honest narrative using a scattered collection of memories written down over the years by Dr. Kennicott’s son, Robert.
Those memories were provided to Pierson by Robert’s wife, Florence. A tag line on the front of the book describes the contents as, “An irreverent, outrageous, heartwarming collection of memories and Washington state history.”
After the book had been published, Pierson realized there was more story to tell. About a year and a half ago, a grandson of Robert Kennicott found a previously unknown stack of writings by his grandfather inside a dusty trunk. Also, Pierson noted that she had glaringly omitted a key firsthand account.
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Pierson, who lives in Olympia now, spent 30 years living in Chehalis and was friends with Robert and Florence Kennicott for more than 50 years.
“You can tell that he wanted his words to be seen and remembered,” said Pierson of her commitment to telling the complete version of Robert Kennicott’s stories.
What’s more, Pierson failed to realize until recently that her former Mint City neighbor, Helen Knoechel, had spent her teenage years working as a housekeeper for Dr. Kennicott and his wife, Harriet. Pierson, who has written 17 books , said she needed to add Knoechel’s memories and the newfound words of Robert Kennicott to the book for posterity.
“I published this one by myself because it’s such a specific piece of local history that the world doesn’t really want it,” Pierson said with a laugh.
Knoechel moved to Chehalis with her family in the 1930s after they fled Oklahoma and the Dust Bowl. By the time she was 14 in 1938, Knoechel, who at that time was known as Helen Riedesel, had moved into the Kennicott home to work as a full-time housekeeper.
Knoechel said that her interactions with the doctor were sparse and that he spent most of his later years in his office and occasionally seeing patients.
“One thing that I remember was I heard the screams coming from the hospital and it really scared me,” said Knoechel, who noted that Dr. Kennicott was known to go light on preoperative pain medication. Once, Knoechel said, the doctor worked on her finger, which had become infected through her chores, and then promptly received a good tongue lashing from his wife for not adequately medicating their young helper.
“I don’t think the kids today know what we had to do. You had to be tough,” said Knoechel.
While her daily interactions with Dr. Kennicott were often limited to changing out his urinal and spittoon, Knochel was closer in age to Robert Kennicott, who was just starting his own family at the time.
“You had to know Robert to know how to write about him. He was so funny,” said Knoechel.
Knoechel also remembers how she wound up on the good side of the notoriously fickle matriarch.
“Mrs. Kennicott was a crackerjack of a cook and I had to help her in the kitchen so she wound up liking me,” Knoechel said.
Back when she was working in the Kennicott home, a tall grandfather clock painted black served as her notice that the doctor had started his day. Knoechel says that each morning he would wake and set about noisily winding it up. On a whim in the 1960s Knoechel asked Florence Kennicott if she knew where that old clock had wound up.
“She said it was out in the shed full of squirrels nests, so I asked if I could buy it,” said Knoechel, who ended up purchasing the keepsake for just $20. It sits in Knoechel’s living room as a reminder of her days at R.E. Bennett School and the Kennicott home.
“I still remember all of the old kids and their faces,” said Knochel. “I don’t feel like an old lady.”