SEQUIM — Friends of Hoh pioneer Elsa Schmidt are remembering her love of the outdoors and self-reliance on what would have been her 98th birthday today.
“There are just no other people living like her anymore,” said her longtime friend Rob Friedman, who met her in 1980.
Schmidt, who lived from March 17, 1919, to Feb. 14, 2017, grew up on the Hoh River with her father, where she lived off the land.
Hoh tribal members would paddle up the river to her ranch to trade, said Jenny Linth, Schmidt’s friend. She added that the tribe had never seen a white girl with such blond hair until they met Schmidt.
While on the Hoh and for much of her life, Schmidt lived off her environment. She hunted, trapped, fished, crabbed and gardened to get much of her food, according to Linth.
Schmidt was schooled at the ranch, Linth said. The state would send teachers to live at the house and teach her.
Schmidt would tell Linth that “she was the smartest student in the class — and the only student in the class,” Linth said.
Schmidt loved the outdoors growing up and didn’t go to the city very often, her friends said.
When she was about 18, she went to Aberdeen for about a year to study art, they said. She was on fire-watch, looking for enemy planes over the clear-water during World War II.
Friedman said she briefly worked at a high-end women’s clothing store while she was in Aberdeen.
That didn’t last long though, he said.
“She went in in the morning and realized there was no way she could ever work inside,” he said.
Early on, Schmidt discovered she loved using fungi to make art, something she carried with her through her entire life.
She discovered she could make intricate art pieces using a quill pen and tree fungi.
“She became pretty famous for that,” Linth said.
Schmidt also loved to search for mushrooms and was involved in a mycological society, Linth said.
“Elsa’s famous saying [was], ‘All mushrooms are edible, but some only once,’ ” Linth said.
Friedman said Schmidt won a number of awards in the Clallam County Fair for her art, which she created well into her 80s or early 90s.
Her friends remembered her as an avid lover of the outdoors who loved to camp and be away from the city.
“The more remote and rugged it was, the more she loved it,” Linth said.
Friedman said when Schmidt retired, she and other friends would take a van to go camping. Inside was a sleeping area.
“She loved to go camping even in her late 80s,” he said.
Among her favorite spots was along the Dosewallips River near Brinnon.
Her friends say Schmidt’s knowledge of the outdoors helped place the Hood Canal Bridge.
Her life partner, Kenny Arkin, was one of the engineers working on the bridge, they said, adding that he showed her proposed locations for the bridge, two of which she said wouldn’t work.
The reason, her friends said, is that some of the locations would have destroyed clam and oyster beds.
“She knew every clam and oyster bed,” Linth said. “The Hood Canal Bridge is there now because Kenny asked [her].”
The two eventually bought a house on Cedar Street in Sequim, where she lived until just a few years ago, Linth said.
Arkin died in 1981 in Sequim.
Little to do with tech
Linth said that, although Schmidt lived in the city, she had as little to do with technology as she could and would do everything for herself.
Linth said she didn’t even have a washing machine for a long time and never owned a dryer.
Schmidt did most things the way she did growing up, Linth said.
“She didn’t need any modern conveniences,” Linth said. “Everything she had was probably 50 years old.”
The one thing she would occasionally buy is ice cream, Linth said.
Friedman said Schmidt has relatives in Pennsylvania and Arkin has a grandson.
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected] dailynews.com.