Early 1900s diary depicts universal truths: Cherishing family, pouring rain

The corner of my desk is piled with self-published books by South Sound authors seeking free publicity. I rarely find the time to read the books, let alone write about them.

I made an exception this week with “Grayce’s Journal” by Olympia resident Bernie Grayce Cline.

In a project filled with challenges, raw emotions and life lessons, Cline shares the diary of her grandmother, Grayce Stark, who spent most of her young adult years in Olympia, beginning in 1903.

Stark is the youngest of 13 siblings, and her life is filled with tragedy and hardship.

Her father, George Thompson Stark, died when Grayce was 7 months old after he was dragged behind a runaway hay wagon pulled by a team of horses that had been spooked by bees.

Years later, she moved west to Olympia from Nebraska with her mother to be near family. She was a spirited young woman trapped in a body crippled and twisted by scoliosis, a curvature of the spine and a source of great pain, headaches and heartache as her disability set her apart and made it hard for her to find a loving man.

Through an accidental encounter on a Seattle street trolley in 1912, she finally met a man who loved her. After a lengthy courtship, they married, but not before she became pregnant out of wedlock. Her daughter, Bernice Kathryn Ayers, was not yet 2 years old when Grayce died in 1916 from a chronic inflammation of the internal lining of her finally happy heart.

In between bookend tragedies of her father’s death and hers, Grayce also found joy in life through her friendships, family, art – she was an accomplished painter – and skills as a seamstress; she made most of her own clothes and hats.

Perhaps the most lasting gift of the journal for those outside the family is the intimate glimpse “Grayce’s Journal” provides of life in Olympia at the turn of the 20th century.

When Grayce begins her journal on Dec. 1, 1903, travel in and out of Olympia was limited to boats, trains and horse-drawn wagons. Theodore Roosevelt was president of the 45 states. The average income of a working man was $240 a year, and eggs cost 10 cents a dozen.

Portions of the journal are written in secret code deciphered long after Bernie Grayce Cline, at age 14, took possession of the journal of the grandmother she never met.

When Grayce writes in code, her thoughts are intimate and heartfelt. She’s filled with longing for Jack Melling, the railroad man who waved his lantern and at whom Grayce waved her lantern back from her bedroom window when the train passed the family’s southeast Olympia farm. The coded language returns as Grayce is overcome with despair when Melling and, later, another long-distance suitor in Nebraska forsake her for other women.

Most of the time, Grayce writes about the chores and simple joys of daily life in a time before supermarkets, cars, electronics and plastic toys. Whether digging clams at Hogum Bay on the Nisqually Reach or picking berries, gathering enough food to feed large families was nearly a full-time job.

A case in point: To find wild honey, the trick was to sprinkle a bee with flour, track the bee to a honey tree, initial the tree with an ax and return at the end of the summer to chop it down at dusk. The honeycomb was placed in a pillowcase and hung by the woodstove so the honey could be warmed and strained through the cloth.

Friday, Aug. 12, 1904: “In the evening we were busy with honey. Warren (Grayce’s brother-in-law) and Mr. Cormier (a neighbor) cut down a bee tree. Warren got about two gallons after it was strained.”

Sometimes Grayce was a witness to major news. While staying in town with an older sister, she watched as the ornate, 144-room Olympia Hotel, built to house state legislators, was consumed by fire.

Nov. 23, 1904: “Last night, the Olympia Hotel burned to the ground, nothing was saved and tho’ no lives were lost, it came very near. … O, I was so frighten and had my duds all packed so if it became necessary to vacate everything would be ready. When they saw the building could not be saved, they turned their attention to other buildings and saved them. And the only thing that saved the town was the heavy rains that fell well, it simply poured.”

One thing that hasn’t changed much in the past 100 years is the description of South Sound winter weather.

Feb. 11, 1905: “Last night was the coldest night we’ve had this winter. It froze my wax begonia in the living room. I’m so sorry …”

As I read “Grayce’s Journal,” I felt deep empathy for this woman and other family members, especially her daughter, a little girl nicknamed Tiny who wasn’t accepted as family by Grayce’s mother, Sophia Stark, until the woman was on her death bed at 82 and asked to see the little girl, nearly 8, for the first and last time.

Cline, one of Tiny’s seven children, said it was a deeply emotional undertaking for her to bring the journal to life.

“The journal impacts us on several levels: personal, historic and cautionary,” Grayce’s granddaughter concludes in the book. “The most important lessons to be learned from the journal are these: Life is too short to be taken for granted, and love those around you without condition.”

For more information or to order the book, send an e-mail to

John Dodge: 360-754-5444