WHEN LIFE BECOMES very difficult people with resolve, determination and strength of character will take action and find a way to carry on.
I thought about this as I read about a local character named Morgan E.A. Lasley.
In the 1890s, tough times could lead many to gather up what money they could, board a steamship or train and start over. The Lasleys took a different path.
Morgan Lasley was born in Gallipolis, Ohio. Mary Ambrust was born in Greensburg, Pa. They were married in 1882. Morgan worked in general mattress and furniture repair.
Their first child, Viola, was born while they lived in Horace Greeley’s temperance colony in Colorado. A second child became ill and lived only 18 months. The child’s illness put an enormous strain on Mary, causing her health to fail. Morgan sold his business and the family headed northwest in search of better health.
The family landed in Pocatello, Idaho, where their third child, Leona was born. Their time in Pocatello was short.
Conflict soon came on the area when a dispute arose between the local residents and the Shoshone Tribe over their reservation’s boundary. It was time to move again, this time to Washington.
The Lasleys landed in Port Angeles in 1889.
Morgan filed a land claim on 160 acres about 3½ miles south of Port Angeles. He again set up business offering mattress and furniture repair. But life would not be easy for the Lasleys.
The family established themselves in our community. Morgan was one of the first regularly elected officers for the new Methodist Episcopal Church. Mary was a charter member of the Women’s Relief Corps.
In November 1890, a man named Fowler filed suit contesting Lasley’s land claim. Morgan viewed it as blackmail, supposing that Fowler believed they didn’t have the money to contest the suit.
Morgan ran out of cash by March 1891 but a friend, John Murphy, gave him the money to fight the suit.
All decisions and subsequent appeals were in Morgan’s favor but the Department of the Interior determined the Lasleys needed to pay $200 for the land.
In the end, they lost their claim.
Our community’s stability was not immune to the Panic of 1893. It became difficult for Morgan and Mary to make ends meet.
Morgan concluded that he must leave his family to search out work. Morgan wrote a book, “Acrose (sic) America in the Only House on Wheels,” recounting the family’s life from this point on. It was published in 1898.
A quote from their book says, “Now dear, you know that I have worked hard and undergone many hardships to make a home for my loving family, and now we are about to lose all.”
Morgan planned to travel to California, earn some money and send for his family to join him.
Mary stated, “I will never consent to you going alone. I married you to live with you not away from you.”
Mary suggested Morgan build a house on wheels so they could all travel together. That started them down a different path in life.
During the winter of 1893, they felled a cedar tree and split out the boards for their rolling home.
By late winter, “I succeeded in making a sure enough house, small but comfortable.”
It was 14-feet long, 6-feet high and 5-feet wide. It also had three windows and a door. It had a stove, a cupboard, a folding table, folding beds and a commode.
The work was completed March 21, 1894, at their home on Fifth and Lincoln streets in Port Angeles.
Their journey to California began in the afternoon of March 22, 1894. The Port Angeles Tribune noted their departure and predicted failure.
It took the family about five days to reach the “metropolis” of Dungeness. There were no open roads east, so on March 28, 1894, the Lasleys, horses and rolling home boarded the steamship Monticello to Seattle.
The Seattle Post Intelligencer noted their arrival and interviewed them.
By June 1894, they were in Salem, Ore., where “I leaned out and asked for the road to Eugene. I stopped to hear the answer, and ere we could start were captured by people curious to know our history, etc.”
By December 1894, they were in California. The Lasleys stopped for the winter in San Francisco. They had traveled approximately 1,200 miles so far.
Many people came to meet the Lasleys and see their odd form of travel. Morgan decided to write their story down rather than continually answer questions. Also, an enterprising photographer took a photograph and made prints which sold very easily.
This sparked a whole new idea for them.
Morgan bought a camera, took photographs and had copies made to sell. He also finished a book about the first part of their journey. He eventually found a publisher who would print the books and allow Morgan to pay him after he sold them.
After this they could continue their journey using their story to help pay for it.
The Lasleys were encouraged by San Franciscans to continue their travels east selling their books and photos to support their needs. On June 6, 1895, they started their journey east.
In total, they traveled 6,666 miles from Port Angeles through San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Denver, Texas, St. Louis and New York. They arrived in New York City on Nov. 17, 1897.
They continued to travel around the east coast for a while longer. They also had dreams of touring Europe.
Finally, they gave their home on wheels to an amusement park in McKeesport, Pa.
It seemed like their choice made for a difficult life at times.
They were near starvation, robbed and ignored as “wagon tramps.”
They endured mud, rain, wind, rivers, mountains and deserts.
On the brighter side they got to enjoy living off the land.
They also met many kindhearted people who gave them shelter, food and feed for their horses.
They endured the hardships to live a dream to see the country.
I believe there are many who dream of traveling the world serendipitously wherever the path in front of them leads.
The Lasleys managed to travel across the United States largely supported through the telling of their story.
There is so much more that could be told.
You can read the complete story in a book titled “Acrose (sic) America in the Only House on Wheels.”
Their book has been selected by scholars as being culturally important and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.
A copy is available at the North Olympic History Center Resource Library. You can also find copies online.
John McNutt is a descendant of Clallam County pioneers and president of the North Olympic History Center Board of Directors. He can be reached at woodrow [email protected].