Roy Vataja — William Hepfinger’s toothpick


Through the years there have been many schemes to advertise Grays Harbor and its vast resources. One of the earliest forays into national promotion occurred in 1904, giving prairie dwellers and easterners a look at the biggest stick of timber most of them had ever set their eyes on. As a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer put it: “The stick will give Easterners a chance to see the kind of underbrush that grows out in this section of the world”.

The story starts in late 1902 when William Hepfinger, a local deputy sheriff, inventor and promoter, got an idea in his head to create a display for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, more commonly known as the St. Louis World’s Fair. The State of Washington was preparing an exhibit of Pacific Northwest products and resources, and Hepfinger, an Ohio native who had lived on the harbor for some time, saw an opportunity to add to the state exhibit and put a spotlight on the forests of Grays Harbor.

In February 1903, Hepfinger gathered two-dozen friends and relatives and traveled to the Drummond Ranch in South Aberdeen aboard the naphtha-powered launch, Wolverine. The group made its way to a 271-foot tall spruce and watched as loggers, standing on springboards 16 feet off the ground, axed and sawed their way through the final few feet of the eleven and one-half foot diameter behemoth. With a cry of “Timber!” the tree fell to earth with a great “whoompff,” landing in a long, deep trench piled high with fir boughs. Hepfinger surveyed the fallen giant and grinned as he found it intact with the bark utterly unscathed. From his pocket he withdrew a bottle of the Aberdeen Brewing Company’s “Prima” beer and, smashing it over the end of the tree, christened the great spruce “The Grays Harbor Toothpick.”

The 440-year-old tree was bucked to a length of 36-feet, and then slowly, carefully, yarded to the Chehalis River — a task that took six weeks to complete. The log was floated to a muddy slough between M and Jefferson Streets where it was placed on skids and loaded onto a Northern Pacific railway flatcar. A shed was erected and N.A Springer’s work crew began the summer-long job of chiseling, sawing and burning cavities into the forest giant. On one end they created two large rooms with 8-foot ceilings containing a chair, a desk, a table and two settees carved from the solid wood of the log. On the other end of the log, two large hollows were shaped and steel bars were placed in front, creating cages to hold a bear and a 12-foot cougar. The door and windows were cut out of the log and fitted so that when closed it gave the appearance of an unbroken surface. To cover expenses, ($8,000 dollars had been invested so far) Hepfinger formed the Western Washington Exhibit Co. and issued stock. Some of the waste wood was used to create walking sticks which were sold to an eager public, and a large slab was cut from one end, banded with iron and shipped to a Swedish buyer in Stockholm for exhibition.

The railcar was then prepared for the trip in a rather ingenious fashion. During travel the log was boxed-up with hinged sides and a detachable roof. Upon arrival at the exhibition site, the sides were folded down, forming an 8-foot platform around the entire exhibit. A massive waterproof canvas tent was then erected over the exhibit to add a hint of mystery and further entice the locals to plunk down a dime for the opportunity to view the largest stick of wood that most any of them had ever seen.

The log was emblazoned with signage reflecting the small town pride and chutzpah that went with a national tour. At the end near the cages it read: GRAYS HARBOR TOOTHPICK. THE LARGEST TREE EVER HANDLED. WORLDS FAIR AT ST LOUIS. WESTERN WASHINGTON EXHIBIT TENT. A sign attached to the side proclaimed: WE ARE GOING TO MISSOURI AND WE HAVE TO SHOW EM.

Finally, in the fall of 1903, with the log prepared and advertising materials in hand, William Hepfinger and his business partner, John Morgan, set out on their cross-country trip. They were accompanied by William Irvine, a correspondent with the Aberdeen Daily Bulletin who would act as publicity man and send occasional dispatches back to the harbor.

The exhibit meandered east to St. Paul, stopping at railroad stations and sidings in cities and hamlets along the way, and then through the central states into the south for the winter months and finally to St. Louis where it spent time as part of the Washington State exhibit. There were some setbacks: An early experiment involving removing the log from the flatcar in St. Paul and Chicago for exhibition proved to be cumbersome and expensive, and in Racine, Wisc., a freight train backed into the car holding the show piece, shutting down the exhibit for 24 hours. There was also great success, as in Milwaukee when 1,500 persons passed through the tent flaps for a tour of the evergreen giant.

At the close of the fair, the log went back on the road, eventually ending up in Detroit, Mich., where Sen. Thomas W. Palmer acquired it and placed it in that city’s Palmer Park. For years afterward it drew a good crowd fascinated by the sheer size of the immense tree. Postcards and souvenir plates, along with Brownie camera snapshots spread the fame of the “Grays Harbor Toothpick.”

William Hepfinger later returned to the Midwest and worked as a salesman of novelties before passing away in Chicago on April 19, 1941, at the age of 75.

Roy Vataja is the son of Finnish immigrants and wonders why that one guy in the picture insisted on posing with this bicycle.