On this, the last week of winter and the first week of Daylight Savings Time, the rural community of East Olympia is a diminished place.
We still have our post office, our church, our grocery store, our grade school and Lattin’s Country Cider Mill & Farm. But we lost Johnson’s Smokehouse & Sausage Kitchen in the early morning hours Sunday. The beloved, dare I say, iconic business went up in flames, a spectacular fire that left firefighters in a defensive mode, containing the flames so they didn’t spread to the nearby forest and homes, including Horsefeathers Farm.
In the 16 years I’ve called East Olympia home, Johnson’s Smokehouse has been a special, much-appreciated neighbor, visible through the trees, one driveway and a couple hundred yards away. How fortunate we have been to walk next door to purchase sweetheart ham or cottage ham or apple sausages for our leisurely Sunday brunches. How convenient it has been to bundle up on a brisk December morning, handsaw in a gloved hand, and make the quick trip on foot to pick out and cut a right-sized Christmas tree from the Johnson’s longstanding Christmas tree lot that borders Diagonal and Rich roads.
For more than a dozen years, our always happy and ever faithful Labrador named Jake, would accompany us on our holiday ritual. Part of the routine was pre-ordained: Whatever noble or grand fir trunk he lifted his leg and peed on was the tree I cut. Then we’d laughingly admonish Jake, hoist the tree on our shoulders, cut through the pasture between our driveways and head home.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Olympian
Last Christmas was our second without Jake and the first that Johnson’s Smokehouse owner Ronnie Johnson decided not to open the Christmas tree lot for business. It was fairly well picked over and more trouble to staff than it was worth. I stopped by the store one early afternoon this past December and asked Ronnie if we could still cut a tree, even though the tree lot wasn’t open for business. “I’m happy to pay for the tree,” I said. Ronnie said, “Sure, help yourself.” He wouldn’t accept money for the 7-foot grand fir my wife and I chose, without Jake’s help.
Two weeks ago, unbeknownst to me, I made my last store purchase. It was a chunk of Canadian bacon, which I chopped into bite-sized chunks and added to a pot of beans simmering on the stove. The store was out of ham bits and ham hocks, but the Canadian bacon worked just fine.
The fire of as-yet-undermined cause broke out in the smokehouse just before midnight on the night we were supposed to set the clocks an hour ahead, something we never do until the next morning. Barb and I woke up about 2 a.m., thinking we heard a vehicle coming down our driveway and then footsteps on the front porch. Was it our imagination, or a prowler, or what? In hindsight, it may have been a firefighter doing a safety check of the homes around the inferno that Johnson’s Smokehouse had become.
The next morning I walked out to the paper box for the Sunday Olympian, but the box was empty. The air was thick with smoke. Something wasn’t right. This wasn’t the fragrant smell that often wafted across our property, the smell of smoking meat. This was the smoke of a sinister fire, casting a pall on the neighborhood. Soon thereafter I saw images of the fire posted on Facebook, followed by hundreds of Johnson’s Smokehouse patrons sharing their sorrow and best wishes for the Johnson family. Luckily, their log cabin-style home on the property was spared.
All day Sunday a steady parade of traffic filled sparsely traveled Diagonal Road and our private driveway, motorists craning their necks to get a peek at the smoldering remains and the firefighters still on the site tending to hot spots and sifting through the rubble.
Shortly after the fire was doused, the Johnsons vowed to resurrect their decades-old business. The message was like a salve on the wound of their faithful customers. Surely, the next rendition of the business will be equipped with fire sprinklers. Perhaps sooner than later I can return to my go-to explanation of where I live. “The next driveway past Johnson’s Smokehouse,” I’ve said for years. I look forward to saying it again.