Billy the bear

In commemoration of this weekend’s McCleary Bear Festival, it is a good time to look back on the life of Billy the Bear; a study in fortitude and self-reliance in the face of physical infirmity, and Grays Harbor’s real-life answer to the mythical mountain men of lore. Billy lived the life of a hermit, but his door was always open to visitors at what was known as the Winter’s cabin 20 miles above the Wishkah Falls.

William Sherwin was born in the mountains of Pennsylvania in the 1860s. It was sometime in the 1880s while working as a powder monkey in a mine, that a dynamite explosion blew off his left hand. He then suffered a stroke which debilitated his right side, leaving him with limited physical mobility but Billy did not let that keep him down.

With few job prospects, Billy acquired a bear cub and would fight the animal in towns throughout Pennsylvania for pennies. One winter both Billy and the bear disappeared, the two were found hibernating in a cave. Billy would cook meals over a small fire so as not to wake his sleeping friend, and at night curl up with the hairy beast. A concerned citizen from a nearby town asked Billy why he stayed with the bear as it hibernated. Billy responded, “So some damn hunter wouldn’t kill him.” From then on he was known as Billy the Bear. The bear-fighting act came to the end one day when the bear decided that it was tired of fighting, knocked Billy down and, standing on his chest, snarled at the man. Billy quickly sold the bear and with money in his pocket he headed west, settling in the foothills and woods of the upper Wishkah Valley.

Upon his arrival in the Grays Harbor country in the late-1890s, Billy befriended Joe Malinowski, a Wishkah Valley pioneer and splash dam operator. Malinowski would later work for the city of Aberdeen’s water department and was instrumental in the construction of the Wynoochee Dam. Thanks to this friendship, many of the stories of Billy’s life were chronicled.

Billy trapped beaver, coyote, fox and bear near his cabin on Cedar Creek. At the turn of the last century there was still a bounty paid on wild cat and cougar pelts, which afforded much-needed income for items that he couldn’t get from Mother Nature. He would buy the largest shoes available to avoid having to deal with the laces and in the summer would tromp through the forest barefooted. When the bounty was removed in the early 1910s, friends of Billy’s persuaded the county to allot Billy a $10 per month stipend which went largely toward staples such as beans, flour, bacon, salt, and cereal. His one creature comfort was a phonograph. Billy learned every song on every record he owned and could be heard singing in a rich baritone voice as he tramped through the woods. He was particularly fond of operas sung by the great Enrico Caruso. Billy was also a spiritual man known to quote biblical verses and sing hymns.

He was also a man of tenacity. On one winter day, Billy had been out checking his traps and found a bear caught by a paw in the iron jaws. He went to put the animal down but his paralyzed right trigger finger would not cooperate in cold weather so he sat and waited for his finger to thaw. For two nights he waited. Finally on the morning of the third day, the sun shone and warmed up enough to allow Billy to pull the trigger and put the animal out of its misery.

Sometime around 1912 when John Tornow, the “Wild Man of the Wynoochee”, was on the run from the law, a passing rider was shouted at by an ill-clad, bearded and barefooted man in the Cedar Creek area. The rider, absolutely sure that it was Tornow, quickly rode off and contacted the sheriff in Montesano. The sheriff rode to the area with his deputies and found Billy who, not having a watch, had simply inquired the man for the time of day. The sheriff, fearing that Billy in his debilitated condition could never survive in the woods alone, took the woodsman into custody and, with the blessing of the local authorities, had Billy sent to the county poor farm for his own protection. Billy sat it out for a week before heading back to the woods complaining that the sheriff “wanted to fence him in at the poor farm.”

Despite his reputation as a hermit, Billy welcomed guests to his cabin and would always offer them a meal. It generally took only one visit to know not to stop at the cabin at mealtimes. Due to his handicap, cleaning fish or game was a near impossibility so some of his meals were less than palatable. When it came to fish stew, Billy’s recipe involved simply snapping the fish in half and tossing it in a pot with perhaps an onion and a potato.

During one fishing trip, Joe Malinowski stopped at the cabin with Dr. Lewis F. Walker, an Aberdeen dentist. Billy invited them to stay for supper as he had a pot of bear stew bubbling on the stove. The only way it could be identified as such was the bear paw, with fur intact, floating in the broth. They then observed a bear skin hang above the stove, evidently to dry from the heat of the stove. As the stew cooked away, the steam rose up, condensed on the bear skin, and dripped back into the pot. When the men, however hungry they may have been, declined his culinary offering, Billy replied “Well, you don’t know what you’re missing.”

Dr. Walker invited Billy to visit him for a dental appointment, and Billy took him up on this offer. Upon his arrival at the Finch building, Billy had the elevator operator move the lift up and down a number of times before he was satisfied that the cables would hold. Once in the dentist’s office, the doctor found a number of cavities and Billy insisted that they be replaced with gold fillings. Billy’s grin shined as he returned to his cabin.

On March 17th, 1917, Billy made one of his rare trips to town, stopping at Roscoe Conrad’s grocery store at Heron and K streets in Aberdeen, and packed wheat flakes and a barrel of flour back to his cabin. A month later, three Montesano men, Claude Nutter, William Barrows, and Alex Kellerman, passing through the area on a prospecting trip in the Olympics, stopped at Billy’s cabin and found it eerily quiet. Upon investigation they found Billy’s body in the cabin. It appeared that he had died shortly after his last trip to town. As per his expressed wishes, Billy the Bear was buried two days later in the woods near the cabin where he had resided alone for so many years.

Roy Vataja is the son of Finnish immigrants and prefers his bear stew to contain no fur or fur drippings.


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