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photo of large, old white housePhoto: Solveig Torvik

Update 12/8/2011: The training practice burn of the house is now postponed until spring 2012 because of potential air quality issues created by the stagnant air in the valley (a common occurrence during winter).

Emy's Place
Historic Winthrop structure coming down

Emy Hallowell, known always for her kindness and good cooking, lived in the big white house by the Winthrop bridge for 43 years. Photo: Karen West

Life in a small community is intensely personal. Just ask anyone who knows Emily Hallowell, who at age 92 is considered by many to be one of the most generous human beings ever to live in Winthrop. Everybody who knows her has an Emy story. So when news started to trickle around that the big white house by the bridge in Winthrop is to be burned down – the house where Emy lived for 43 years before moving to Jamie’s Place – the response was unanimous: “What about Emy?” “Does she know?” “I don’t have the heart to bring it up.”

Emy’s daughter, Sally Criswell, had no choice. She drove her mom around the valley for five hours the other day before she got up the courage to tell her.

When Cyndy Oliver first told someone what was going to happen to the house she, too, got the response, “What about Emy?” Cyndy and her husband Jerry, bought the house two years ago with the intention of operating a small bed-and-breakfast. “We wanted to try to use it,” Cyndy said, adding that although the house looks large, it has only one bathroom and two bedrooms. “It had oil heat and a spring-fed water system,” she added. The Olivers concluded that current commercial code requirements and egress issues just couldn’t be addressed in the existing space.

They offered the house, which was built about 1936, to the Shafer Historical Museum, but the board of directors had no interest in acquiring and moving it. The museum’s mission is to preserve valley history from the late 1800s up to the 1930s. And so Okanogan County Fire District 6 is using the house for weekly training drills and is scheduled to burn it starting at 9 a.m. on Saturday, November 19, according to Fire Chief Don Waller.

Construction of the new bed-and-breakfast won’t start until spring and will be done in stages. “We’re hoping to have nine rooms eventually,” Oliver said. The first phase will be to build a carriage house with two rooms above a retail space, probably to the left of the present house. Phase two will be to build the main house with seven more guest rooms and “a cozy porch where guests can sit and watch the traffic go by or watch the river.”

“We’re hoping that we portray something cozy and warm, something Emy would like,” Oliver continued. And like the Methow Valley Inn in Twisp, the plan is to have a space for community gatherings and weddings.

The Olivers will do some work themselves. Since moving to the Methow Valley in 1998, Jerry Oliver has worked as a finish carpenter. He’s also been a landscaper. Cyndy Oliver, who has worked mostly in retail, says the front yard will be nicely landscaped. But her current project is to learn more about the history of the property before selecting a name for the business.

And there is history to tell. The house, and the three acres that surround it, are part of the original James Sullivan homestead. James “Jimmie” Sullivan was a colorful Irishman and twice-wounded Civil War veteran who in 1874, at age 45, married Louisia Robinson Heckendorn in Wisconsin. She was 29 years old at the time and had divorced her husband, Ben Heckendorn, to marry Jimmie, according to material Dale Dibble collected for “Methow Valley Pioneers.”

Jimmie Sullivan moved to Winthrop in 1886; Louisia followed three years later. “They operated the first hotel in Winthrop, a log structure located on the north edge of their homestead by a good fresh water spring,” according to Dibble. It was very near “the big white house by the bridge,” as Emy’s house is known in local parlance.

Jimmie and Louisia Sullivan sit outside their log home, which doubled as Winthrop's first hotel. “Mrs. Sullivan was noted for her good cooking, especially her preparations of bear meat, venison, grouse, and fish,” according to U.E. Fries, the mail carrier who boarded with the Sullivans when he stopped in town. Photo courtesy Shafer Museum

Told this story, Emy said there is a flat spot up behind the house, across the irrigation ditch, and she remembers seeing remnants of an old cabin there. Was it the Sullivan’s cabin? she wondered.

In his memoir, From Copenhagen to Okanogan, U.E. Fries, who carried mail across the mountains from Malott to Silver and on to Winthrop starting in October 1892, tells of boarding with the Sullivans, who charged him 25 cents a meal and two-bits a head for hay to feed his horses.

Jimmie Sullivan’s war injuries caused him to become an invalid. Louisia convinced a son by her first marriage, David Eugene “Gene” Heckendorn, to move his wife and two children to Winthrop to help care for him. And when Jimmie died in 1901, out of gratitude for her son’s help, or so the story goes, Louisia deeded him the southern portion of the Sullivan homestead. He then platted the town of Heckendorn (south Winthrop today). Sullivan Cemetery also is part of the original homestead and is named for Jimmie Sullivan.

The big white house was “considered the finest home of its day”in Winthrop when it was built by Ralph Kenison, according to Dibble. It is sometimes called “the old mortuary.” That’s because Kenison started an undertaking business in 1918, which he operated until his death in 1953. (Kenison had come to the valley in 1909, with his parents, who homesteaded on upper Beaver Creek.)

Emy said Kenison used the cardboard wrapping from the caskets to cover the ceiling over the basement stairs and that in time it started to droop so much it almost touched your head. She also recalls hearing that the Kenisons lost a daughter and had her funeral in the living room.

When Max and Emy Hallowell bought the house in 1966, they were the second owners. She said it had been a rental and then stood empty. Every window was broken out, Emy said, so they got a reduced price to cover at least part of the cost of making it liveable again.

“We’re trying to incorporate as much from the house as we can,” Cyndy Oliver said. “Emy had some neat things in her kitchen.” The flour bin, bread drawer and brick from the fireplace, for example, will become part of the new guest lodging.

Local watercolor artist Paula Christen captured Emy sweeping her front porch in her apron and imagined a B&B called Emmy’s Place. (Her name is often spelled Emmy although it really is short for Emily and has one M.) Image of painting courtesy Paula Christen.

Criswell, who lived in the house only one year before graduating from high school, expects the emotional jolt will hit her when the house is gone. But she is pleased that local artist Paula Christen immortalized her mom and the house in a watercolor painting. Emy is shown sweeping the front porch. “You can even see her white anklets,” Criswell said. And, of course, she is wearing an apron. She always does.

Christen chose not to include the shop near the road, which Emy had built as a surprise gift for her husband one Christmas or birthday. A welder, among many other skills, Max was working a job out of the valley and when he came home, there stood his new welding shop. He also worked 19 years at the Wagner Lumber Mill in Twisp. “Work made that man happy,” Emy said.

And work they both did. At one time the Hallowells raised spuds near Twin Lakes not far from where the schools are today. But one year they got some bad seed potatoes and that was the end of the spud farm. They also took care of the orchard in lieu of paying rent for some years at the old Zemke place up the West Chewuch.

Emy had many employers over the years. She spent 23 years with the Forest Service. At onetime she cooked at the Winthrop Cafe, the forerunner of the now defunct Sam's Place, and she was the head cook for three years at the Winthrop School that burned down in 1961. She remains widely known among old-timers for her gifts of food.

Lois McLean recently recalled one instance of Emy’s legendary generosity. Lois and her late husband, Ron, were camping with their five girls while building their place up the West Chewuch. One day Emy invited the whole family to dinner. “You can’t imagine how much that meant. I’ve never forgotten how good that dinner tasted,” McLean said.

Emy not only cooked for people she knew, she has always been in her own hospitality business. She was forever taking in strangers, according to her daughter.

When her mom worked at the Winthrop town information booth, which she did until she was about 84, “People would come into town and all the motels and hotels were full, and she would say, ‘Well, I have a room, come stay with me.’ Or, ‘Oh, your car broke down? Your motor home broke down? Take my car.’ ” And though her trusting nature worried the family, Criswell said, “She made some wonderful lifelong friends.”

Emy also said that she and Max rented out the apartment above the garage, and their motor home, to weekend tourists for awhile before there were enough places to accommodate visitors.

The past two years, Emy has lived at Jamie’s Place, but good luck finding her at home. She gets out often. And she definitely will be gone on November 19. She will be on another drive with her daughter – one that includes a nice lunch at a favorite restaurant in Wenatchee.

Shortly thereafter, the site of Winthrop’s first hotel will be ready for its next chapter. And no matter what the Olivers name their new bed-and-breakfast, you can be sure that for many years to come, locals will call it “Emy’s place.”

(see more of Paula Christen's work at