Ole Peterson was a well known figure in the Clark County area who lived as a hermit in the woods near the Lewis River area until his death at the age of 85 on May 6, 1953.
Despite his mostly solitary lifestyle, he had some friends and visitors who would stop by his home.
In an article titled “Ole Peterson Story” by Ted Van Arsdol, Peterson was described as “something special and also one of a pioneering breed.”
The article referenced Peterson as the “last of the timber beasts,” “the lovable old patriarch of the peaks,” “lord of Lewis River,” and “the bearded homesteader of the hinterland.”
Peterson was born in Emmett County, Iowa, on Oct. 3, 1867.
“The story commonly told about his trek West was that he came to the Lewis River country to escape from ‘the Cleveland panic,’ in which he had lost a farm,” Ardsol wrote.
With 900 acres of land, Peterson built his wooden home by hand with the help of two other workers.
“A photo that has survived the years shows the two-story frame building in process of construction, with three workers including Peterson obligingly ceasing their labors to pose for the unknown cameraman,” the article states. “One of these, a booted ancient with a great swath of white whiskers, togged out in suspenders and baggy trousers, suggests that Peterson may have been, in a physical sense at least, only the last of a line of types of woodland patriarchs.”
One thing that Peterson was known for was the state’s first commercial cave which was found near his property in the Lewis River area. It was discovered when 13-year-old Vancouver resident Ken Teter met Peterson while at a summer camp at Lake Merrill with his Boy Scout troop. The group hiked four miles east of Cougar on the north fork of the Lewis River where they came across Peterson’s property, Ardsol wrote.
Peterson allowed the scouts to stay overnight in a haystack he had, and the next day, the Boy Scouts hiked to a series of lava caves nearby, one of which later was aptly named “Ole’s cave.”
Teter became a historian for Peterson as he compiled a scrapbook of letters, clippings, and pictures of the pioneer.
As a pioneer, the article stated Peterson owned an aviary which swarmed with many bees. The bees would then pollinate the orchard he had on his land, providing honey in the process. He also had a truck garden which provided “considerable hay” for his bulls. Peterson canned his own vegetables and fruit, the article stated.
Peterson’s 85th birthday party in 1952 was the last time locals celebrated with him as he died the following year. The event featured a cake, potato salad and chicken.
Due to clutter in Peterson’s house, the roof was ignited by sparks in the chimney, which then engulfed the structure on May 4, 1953, according to the article. A witness, Georgia Teel, who was a Yale school bus driver, saw Peterson draw buckets of water from a fountain in his yard in an attempt to extinguish the flames and save possessions in the house.
After Teel went to the Upper Lewis River Ranger Station for help, she came back and found Peterson in a state of shock as his clothes burned. Peterson was brought to Vancouver Memorial Hospital, where friends — including Teter — gathered around him. Peterson died as a result of severe burns on May 6, 1953.
Clark County Historical Museum Executive Director Bradley Richardson said Peterson’s legacy is seen “as almost representing the end of that initial establishment of people coming out West.”
“In addition to that, he’s this rough woodsman, gruff with a beard, individualistic, opinionated. He also kind of fills a western theme of tall-tale folk,” Richardson said. “He’s not Paul Bunyan or anything of that nature, but he talks about stories that refer to him like finding a cougar that’s injured and putting a new wooden leg on it and it ends up beating a bear to death. Really extravagant tall tales and people say that he walks into town with a stove pipe and potatoes strapped on his back.”
The article also mentioned a proposal in 1958 to name a new camping area at the mouth of Cougar Creek in honor of Peterson, but that was never finalized.
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