Hillside homesteaders took on own set of prospects, challenges
By Ross Schneidmiller
Liberty Lake Historical Society
Osmund Knudsen staked his homestead claim in the hills above Liberty Lake in 1889. Like many homesteaders, Osmund could not initially support his family from the land. So he continued in the express business, which consisted of a wagon and the team of his prize horses, "Kaiser and Sullivan".
A year after his arrival, gold was discovered in Rossland, British Columbia. Rossland is located on Red Mountain nearly 2,000 feet above Trail, B.C. After a road was built in 1893, express services were needed to haul freight up and down from the mines. The O. Knudsen Express, loaded with ore from the Rossland mines, would meet the stern-wheeler steamer at Trail Landing on the Columbia River. The ore would be taken down the Columbia to be loaded in railroad cars destined for smelters in the United States.
The work was hard, requiring a strong team of horses traveling five miles up the steep grade to the mines. But the financial reward made it worth traveling to Trail from the Inland Empire for the work. This opportunity lasted for the expressmen until a railway was completed over this route. Although the creators and supporters of the Homestead Law perceived homesteads to be sufficient in themselves, outside income could determine their success or failure.
Homesteaders in the wooded hills around the lake had additional challenges from those in open spaces. Imagine clearing the land for cultivation, which was one of the requirements of the Homestead Act. Trees were felled; stumps were burned or pulled out with levers, mattocks and peaveys. But with challenges also came opportunity: sawmills started to dot the hillsides of the southern and eastern slopes surrounding the lake. The expanding railroad lines of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho created a great demand for railroad ties. The large stands of fir and tamarack trees above the lake were cut into thousands of ties. The circular saws of the mills were belt driven and often powered by the back wheel of a truck. The Knudsens had such a mill, powered by a Ford Model A pickup, in the hills east of the lake.
These lumber operations provided employment for a number of the hillside settlers. In addition to lumber for the railroads, the North Idaho mines were good customers to these mills using their timbers in the construction of the mine shafts. The lumber was often hauled by wagon to the nearest railway station for delivery. Business for these mom-and-pop sawmills was strongest from the late 1800s into the 1920s.
The settlers in the hills tried many other things to make a go of it. They raised livestock, fox for their furs and chickens -- both fryers and layers. Road Island Red Chicken was a popular dish served at many of the area resorts. In addition, several of the resorts relied on the hillside communities for their farm fresh eggs.
When state and federal laws were passed prior to 1920 prohibiting the sale, manufacturing and distribution of liquor, a backwoods industry was given an economic stimulus. The hills above the lake became a hotbed for the moonshine industry. One of the eastside's most well-known operators was granted his homestead in 1916. He was a moonshiner and bootlegger, meaning he both manufactured and sold the hillbilly pop. His method of transporting the illegal goods to customers in Spokane was a flatbed truck with a façade of firewood, supposedly for delivery. On his return trip he would haul barrels of sugar needed for the manufacturing process. Of course, the firewood traveled both directions concealing the true identity of the shipment.
U.S. Treasury agents, called Revenuers, were responsible for enforcing laws against illegal distilling or bootlegging of alcohol. In our area, they would scavenge the hillsides looking for stills. If one was found, they would destroy it, often with dynamite, and arrest the perpetrators if they could catch them.
Several in the hillside community beneath Big Rock and Signal Point had stills, but only a few were big-time operators. Many claimed the products from their stills were for their own medicinal purposes. Sig Knudsen, the youngest son of Osmund, recalled a time when he thought he heard gunfire coming up the road. He thought for sure it was Revenuers looking for violators. Sig quickly destroyed the evidence of his home moonshine operation only to learn he had heard backfiring from a truck.
If the eastside hills were the minor leagues of moonshine lore, Mica Peak was the majors! They gained their reputation legitimately through their many illegitimate commercial-sized operations. A Google News Archives Search will reveal the plethora of headlines garnered from the discovery, seizure and destruction of Mica Peak stills over a period of several years. They were so infamous, their production was known as "Mica Moonshine," sort of like an appellation in the wine industry.
The Homesteaders in the hills were a tight-knit group. They worked together and socialized together, often attending dances at one of many venues around the lake or Spokane Bridge. They even built and operated their own schools. As time passed, the families moved out of hills into the larger communities in our area.
Ross Schneidmiller is president of the Liberty Lake Historical Society and a lifelong resident of the community.