L: Kenneth “Poggie” Baker, 82, “showing the ropes” to a new generation. Raleigh Anderson, 20, gets an education in fireworks-and tribal history- while working in Baker’s warehouse.
On a late June morning at Shoalwater Bay, Kenneth “Poggie” Baker rode his motorized “Jazzy” scooter along the shoulder of Highway 105, against traffic. An American flag fluttered behind him as he lumbered along, cap pulled low over his face to keep out the sun. The 82-year-old entrepreneur headed to work, passing seven firework stands in the half mile between the casino and Chief Charley’s Smoke Shop. There, he crossed the road and motored to his “office”; a huge garage stuffed with cases of pyrotechnics.
Baker’s helper, tribal member Raleigh Anderson, checks the inventory: Excalibur, Chicken on a Chain, One Bad Mother, Loyal to None, “cakes” “backpacks” “canisters” and more. Throughout the day, firework stand owners will stop by to replenish their stock. Business is brisk as July 4th approaches.
Almost 60 years ago, Baker and his extended family opened one of the first Indian reservation firework stands in Washington State.
“My aunt, Myrtle Landry, her son Gene [Eugene Landry] and her husband Fred came up with the idea,” the elder says. “They got everybody involved.” It was 1965. Five family members invested $500 apiece to buy inventory. “Reginald Hunter and I drove a truck down to Canby, Oregon and filled it full of fireworks.”
Baker’s brother in law, Reginald Hunter, riding atop Myrtle Landry’s Cadillac, 1979
They parked their 1950 Chevy pickup in an open field on the reservation. Their open-air display was set up on “a couple of saw horses with planks across them.” Their inventory was limited: M80s, red white and blue firecrackers, bottle rockets, fire crackers and fountains. Baker still remembers their first sale, to “four young guys in a yellow VW bug. They spent over $100. That was a lot of fireworks.” (Back then, firecrackers sold for a penny apiece.)
They sold out the first day and got another truckload. They did this several times, and then bought a trailer-full of inventory.
The next year they built two stands. Eugene Landry designed a mural for one of the stands. “It looked like a sunrise with red white and blue beams,” Baker recalled. “Gene was at the stand every day. He counted the money. It was Gene’s idea to raise the price of firecrackers to 4 cents.”
Brothers and partners: Dennis Baker (L) and “Poggie” Baker (L) 1965.
As the big holiday drew near, customers “came out of the woodwork.” They usually sold out before Independence Day. On July 4th, “We’d have a family show. We built a big fire out by the road; put a big pot on it, boiled hot dogs and had pop or beer for whoever wanted to stop by. It was a lot of fun.”
But there were also challenges from the Feds and the State.
In the mid-1970s, Baker got a call from a friend who worked at the State Capitol, who warned that US Marshals were heading to Shoalwater Bay to raid their stands. “We removed most of the inventory, just left a small amount on the shelves. Everybody was sitting out in the parking lot, waiting for them to arrive, even the kids.” Two Federal Marshals pulled up in an unmarked car. “One guy sat there with his hand on his gun. The man who came to the stand wore a pistol. He said they were here to confiscate our illegal fireworks. I asked to see his ID.”
The Marshall seized all the firecrackers and bottle rockets, but “had to leave the smoke balls because they weren’t illegal.” After the officer piled everything up, he asked Baker for a bag. “I told him no.” The elder chuckled. “Then he asked for a box… The answer was negative.” State Senator Slade Gorton sent Baker a letter, “telling me I was a communist-or Un-American. I wrote back and said I had a right to sell fireworks here, we are a sovereign nation.”
Baker mused, “I always thought it would be nice to have a painting of an Indian in a fireworks stand and a marshal with his hand on his gun, and three little kids peaking around the corner at them. Who was that guy who used to do all the Americana?
“Yeah. That would have been a hell of a Rockwell.”
Tires crunched on gravel as a truck backed up to the warehouse. Baker put his coffee cup down. He would have to continue his story later. Independence Day was just around the corner.
Originally published in the July 2021 Shoalwater Bay Tribal Newsletter. (Updated for 2022.)
The Eugene Landry exhibit is now open for viewing.
Shoalwater Bay Heritage Museum (across from the casino)
4115 State Route 105 Tokeland, WA
Admission Free. Masks required.
Behind the scenes at the Shoalwater Bay Heritage Museum.
Cultural Specialist and Shoalwater Bay Tribal Member Kristine Torset, (L) and tribal relative Winona Mail Weber (R). They hold oil paintings by Sharon and Eugene Landry. Painted in1965; reunited in 2021.
Art Exhibit to Open at Shoalwater Bay Tribe Heritage Museum
Tokeland, Washington- The Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe is proud to present Eugene Landry; An Artist, A Time and a Tribe, at the Nahms-chahts Heritage Museum. The exhibit will open September 17th.
The display will include 30 oil paintings by Eugene Landry, (1937-1988) an enrolled Shoalwater Bay artist with Hoh and Quileute descent also. Eugene painted the world around him, and the people in it. His paintings tell a powerful story of mid-twentieth century life on the Shoalwater Bay reservation. Paralyzed at the age of 18, he dedicated his life to perfecting his craft from a wheelchair.
Much of his work was lost after his death.
Twenty-five years later, the collection was found in an attic by Tokeland artist Judith Altruda. She has since dedicated herself to restoring Eugene’s artistic legacy and is writing a book about his life and work.
The Heritage Museum is located on the former site of Landry’s studio. It’s only fitting that the art created here, fifty years ago, is coming home.
“Eugene’s art is so much more than just one man’s view of the world,” says Earl Davis, cultural director of the Shoalwater Bay museum. “It is an important index point that highlights a turning point in tribal history. During Eugene’s time, the people were at a crossroads of struggling and recovery. We have come a long way since then but it is important to remember the effort that went into getting us here. Many of our elders when viewing Eugene’s work reflect upon those times and begin sharing those stories with us. I doubt that he ever intended his work to be such important cultural cues, but that’s exactly what they have become.”
A 2019 Humanities Washington Storyteller’s grant recipient.
The opening reception will take place on September 17th from 3:00-6:00. The exhibit will be on display during regular museum hours; Tuesday-Saturday 10:00-6:00 Admission Free. Masks required. 4115 State Route 105 Tokeland, WA (360) 267-8130
The Significance of September 22nd for the Shoalwater Bay Tribe
By Earl Davis, Shoalwater Bay Tribal member, and Tribal Culture and Heritage Director
Life for the people living in the various villages scattered around Willapa (Shoalwater) Bay and the Coast from Tokeland to Westport, was largely unchanged for a millennia. The people were made up of a cultural group now known as South West Coastal and/or Chinookan. Two related cultural groups under the larger “North West Coast” group. The biggest distinction and perhaps the only distinction between these two groups was language. The more northern group predominantly spoke Thlawaltmish, a southern Salish language. The Southern group spoke Chinook. The two groups were highly intermarried which resulted in the material and ethnographic cultures of the two being nearly identical.
It wasn’t until relatively recent that things changed for us. In 1788 the bay was “discovered” by John Meares of the East India Trading Company. While this is often considered the first direct contact with outsiders, general knowledge of Europeans and settlers in other parts of the country were known by the people. In addition to that, oral tradition does have some ancient stories about things like lost ancient Chinese vessels being stranded on nearby shores.
These first encounters were often not much more than a bit of trading and years often passed in between encounters. Lewis and Clark’s famed expedition reached the mouth of the Columbia in 1805 and the area then was still largely untouched by outside influence.
The expedition resulted in the great expansions west by the United States, but by the time James Swan lived on Willipa Bay in 1854, it was still largely unsettled. However, by this time several waves of various illnesses had resulted in an estimated 80-90% death rate of our people. This meant, that while settlement of the bay was still very low, so was our native population.
During Swan’s time on the bay, westward expansion was at a fever pitch and the Governor of the new Washington territory was eager to relocate tribes and open the area to settlement for non-native peoples.
As a people we went to the Anson Dart Treaty negotiations in 1851. The terms were found to be acceptable by the people of our region. One of the terms was that we were all to relocate to Willapa Bay. This was acceptable for the people already living in villages here. The problem with this treaty though is that Congress never ratified it.
In 1855 we met with Governor Isaac Stevens in Cosmopolis. Stevens’ terms were to relocate “All fish-eating tribes of western Washington” to the newly proposed reservation at Taholah.
Our leaders found these terms to be unacceptable. Our terms were very simple, we wished to be able to continue to hunt and fish, and to live and be buried with our ancestors. The settlers could do what they wished with land that was of no consequence to us.
With neither side being able to agree, the negotiations broke down and we refused to leave our traditional territory. Governor Stevens vowed to return and strike a deal or force us to submit, however, he was called back east to the Civil War where he was killed in action in 1862.
The people of Shoalwater Bay were largely forgotten by this time. For us, things kind of went back to normal. Most accounts from both sides say we got along fairly well with the new settler neighbors and there was not much thought about it.
However, during 1865-66 the government remembered we were here. The local Indian agent wrote to President Andrew Johnson about our situation. The letters stated that there was a group of natives “some 30 to 40 families” living on a village site on Shoalwater Bay. He continued by saying that we did not wish to give up our ways and simply wanted to secure our village for our selves and not be driven off. The land of our village was of no farming value and according to the letters “would work no injury to the whites”.
So on September 22, 1866, the president signed a one-paragraph executive order that basically says set this land aside for the Indians. The order was a milestone in that, through our stubborn refusal to submit we had secured our ancestral home as our own. However, the order was so vague and so short that it has often meant we secured nothing else. The original order also only secured just over 330 acres of land.
So today let us remember our ancestor’s determination to live their lives as we had forever and also let it reignite our pursuit for our rights to do so. Due to the vagueness of the order, our small size and unique location means that many of our issues in terms of relations with the U.S. government are unique even in Indian country. Our ancestor’s determination secured this life for us today, let us be as determined to secure a better life for our future generations as well.
One year ago today, I met the man who built Eugene’s geodesic dome studio, and wrote a blog post about it. To commemorate this anniversary I am reposting it here, on Gene’s official website. I hope you enjoy it~Judith
Last week I got a phone call in response to the article about Eugene Landry. The caller said he was sitting in his car at Swanson’s. He’d been reading the newspaper while his wife shopped for groceries, and found an article I’d submitted about my search for the art of Eugene Landry. This was the second phone call I’d received since the story was published six weeks ago. The story I wrote mentioned the geodesic dome and small beachfront cabin where Gene once lived and made his art.
“I’m the guy who built Gene’s dome.” His voice was soft and had a hint of a smile.
The tribe had razed the dome and cabin in 1998 to make room for casino parking. Today a gas station sits on the site. I talked to people to get a history of the dome, but after forty years, the facts were hazy. I heard the dome was put up during the summer of 1978, possibly by a hippie who drove a Rolls Royce…or was it a Citroen? or was it someone else entirely? Maybe it was the guy with the great danes. Someone said a couple of guys from Canada might have put it together from a kit and then moved on. And so it went. I never expected to talk to the actual builder of the dome, figuring he was either a fugitive, dead or just plain untraceable.
And suddenly this sweet guy from the nearby town of Cosmopolis was on the phone, with a story to tell.
One week later, I drove through a quiet neighborhood in Cosmopolis, an old logging town, looking for the home of Don Norkoski. Following his directions, I turned off off Highway 101 and looked for “the house surrounded by rhododendron bushes”. A sandy-haired man wearing a grey blazer over a colorful shirt and blue jeans greeted me at the door. He reminded me of a high school band teacher, he had that air of patience and good-natured smile. Don invited me inside and introduced me to his wife.
In the living room, a box of photos and old newspaper clippings sat on the couch, along with two original pieces of Gene’s art. Like something out of a dream, he handed me a photo of Gene’s dome. At last-proof that it really existed!
While he was a student at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Don took a class called Space, Time and Form. He learned how to build geodesic domes from a book by Lloyd Kahn called Domebook.
“I would read Buckminster Fuller-he was the guru of domes. I just got the urge to build one. I’d spent too much time in academia and not doing enough with my hands. Once I got into it I never left. I went blue-collar.” He shows me a photo of a dome at the corner of Smith and Butte creek.”This was my hippie place,” he smiles. “I was an infamous North River Hippie.”
Don was 22 years old when he dropped out of Evergreen and went into the dome building business, setting up shop in the home of a friend on Cedar Street near the river, where he built a greenhouse. And then, “Gene showed up one day. He heard about me and he looked at this (the greenhouse) and he said ‘can you build me one?'”
Gene hired Don to build his dome. Back then, in 1976, the daily wage was five dollars an hour. Don recycled old-growth 2x4s, planing and oiling the surface, to build the frame. They used beach-salvaged Alaskan cedar to make the girders. “It smelled like perfume when you cut into it,” he said, with a nostalgic tone of voice.
Over the course of a summer a dome was built and a friendship made between Don and Gene. He visited after the job was completed, showing me a photo of how Gene kept it as an art studio. It was sparsely furnished inside, with a wood stove and simple lighting. I asked Don why he thought Gene liked domes.
“The dome had an ambiance about it. You always found yourself looking up, staring at the patterns..and it would definitely help with inspiration, especially with a window looking out over the bay.”
After we finished talking about building the dome, Don showed me two pieces of Gene’s art he bought during that time period. One was a highly detailed charcoal drawing of a boat at the docks. Don said “I liked his art. But we were poor hippies. I had a sister in law, she was older than me, she grew up in a different generation. She never said anything but I could tell she didn’t like me…being a hippie. There was a short period of time where my brother and I exchanged gifts at Christmas. So I decided to take a chance. I bought the picture from Gene. I remember the price, $75. That was two days wages. I gave it to my sister in law and she loved it. Had it professionally framed. And I got treated a little nicer since then.”
Don’s brother gave the drawing back to him after his sister in law passed away in 2001.
As the time came for me to leave, I asked Don how he would sum up his time with Gene. He paused for a moment to gather his thoughts and find the right words.
“He always had a smile, was always positive…there was never any negativity or reaction to his plight. I know that. That’s one thing I definitely came away with.”