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Deep Wilsonville roots

Lyman and Louise Seely will soon celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary


by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - The Seely family, from left to right, Doug Seely, Louise Seely, Lyman Seely, Charlotte Seely-Sharp and Marilyn Seely-Harris, pose for a photograph during a recent interview about the family history.The bond between Lyman and Louise Seely contains many more threads than even their nearly 75-year marriage would suggest. The couple represents an era in Wilsonville where local families had strong ties and the town boasted little more than a general store and a post office.

“When I was growing up, to meet the family that lived here in Wilsonville I had to take the ferry across the river,” recounted Lyman Seely, who grew up as part of the Woodburn branch of the family. “We had aunts and uncles living in both towns — cousins, also.”

Lyman and Louise — 96 and 94, respectively — will soon celebrate their diamond anniversary. Recently, they sat down with the Spokesman at the Springs retirement community, where the couple shares an apartment. Their three children, Charlotte Seely-Sharp, Doug Seely and Marilyn Seely-Harris, were also on hand.

Deep roots

The Seely family can trace its lineage in the Willamette Valley back to 1851 and the settlement of Lucius Seely in present-day Canby and later Wilsonville.

“Lucius would have been Lyman’s great-grandfather,” said Marilyn, the youngest of the Seely’s children.

“But I never knew him,” Lyman added.

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Lyman and Louise Seely exchange a kiss in their apartment where they live at The Springs in Wilsonville. Longtime residents of Woodburn and now Wilsonville, the couple will celebrate their 75th anniversary on May 9. “He settled in Wilsonville, but came over in an 1851 wagon train,” Marilyn explained. “But we also have family members who have been traced back to the arrival of the Mayflower.”

Lucius Seely’s first stop was in Canby, where he lived for six years before moving to Linn City, present day West Linn. A year later he moved on to Wilsonville, where he purchased 320 acres of land and started a farm.

In 1858, Lucius Seely and his children completed a mile-and-a-half long drainage ditch north from the river through what is now known as the Coffee Creek Wetland on the west side of Wilsonville.

“It was underwater at the time, so Lucius and his sons dug a canal to drain the natural area,” Doug said. “It was just Lucius and his neighbors agreeing it was a good idea, and they did it and dug it by hand.”

Eventually, that canal, which is today marked by a commemorative plaque, drained nearly 100 acres that was transformed into a productive wheat farm.

By comparison, the Woodburn Seelys were slightly more urbanized, despite living in what is still an agricultural stronghold.

Louise comes from a family with deep ties to the French Prairie region of the valley: the Wegenroths, who emigrated from Germany and settled in the Champoeg area upon arriving in Oregon in 1879.

Momentous dance

Lyman was born in 1917 into a family that valued education. He graduated from Woodburn High School and attended Oregon State University not long after it changed its name from Oregon Agricultural College.

Before he graduated from OSU, however, he attended a momentous dance.

This was in the midst of the Great Depression, a lean, hard time in American history. But in Woodburn, the close-knit farming town wrapped its hopes up each year in the rich Willamette Valley soil that allowed most people to at least eke out a modest living.

When they weren’t busy working, people danced. Often at several different places a night.

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - The Seely Ditch was a mile-and-a-half civil engineering project dug by hand in 1858. It drained what is now the Coffee Creek wetland in north Wilsonville, allowing the area to be transformed into a fertile wheat farm. That’s how Lyman and Louise ultimately fell in love.

“We were both born in Woodburn,” Louise said. “And we met when I was in high school and Lyman was in college. I met him at a Christmas dance.”

“I thought you were cute,” Lyman said. “I went over and introduced myself and asked her to dance.”

That was at the Woodburn National Guard armory. The year was 1937 and the country, Oregon included, was still struggling. Lyman was 20 years old and a student. He also was enrolled in the U.S. Army’s Reserve Officer Training Course, from which he later received a commission as a second lieutenant upon graduation.

“Dancing was really the social life at that time,” Lyman said. “There were dances everywhere. Every corner seemed to have a two- or three-piece band.”

“These were the Depression years,” Louise added. “You could go to a dance for a quarter.”

From Woodburn to Broadacres and out to Gervais, young people would travel many miles in search of the next dance, cheap entertainment during a time of austerity and thrift.

“You thought twice about spending even a quarter,” he said. “That’s how hard up people were. There was no way to make money on the side.”

Two years later Lyman graduated from Oregon State with a degree in secretarial science and went to work for a bank in downtown Woodburn.

Louise’s family lived in west Woodburn, where her father owned a small grocery store and gas station.

‘I guess I scrambled’

Eventually, the couple decided they would like to get married. The bank where Lyman worked, though, had a policy that its employees were not permitted to marry unless they made more than $100 per month. Having not yet reached that pay grade, Lyman felt he had no other option but to resign from his job.

So he struck out on his own and followed the example of his fiancée’s family, opening a small grocery store in the tiny coastal town of Rockaway. It was early summer, the weather was fine and business seemed to be going well. Louise even was able to visit on weekends.

Soon, though, the four-month tourist season at the coast ended.

“Winter came along and there was no one there,” Lyman said. “I borrowed $600 from my brother, which is what it took to go to the wholesaler and they would outline for you a starting stock for a grocery store. So my stock was $600 of mostly canned goods, and I’d drive to Tillamook to buy milk.”

Lyman was lonely, though.

“I went one weekend there to see him and he said ‘I’m not staying here one more day alone,’” Louise said. “’We’re going home, and we’re getting married.’

“That was my proposal,” Lyman laughed. “And she accepted it.”

The couple quickly got married in Stevenson, Wash., because that state, unlike Oregon, required no waiting period for couples wishing to marry.

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - The genealogy of the Seely family in the Wilsonville area and beyond can be readily traced by just a brief visit to the Pleasant View Cemetery outside Wilsonville. There, more than two dozen family members are buried, including Lucius Seely, who traveled to Oregon in 1851. So they traveled across the Columbia River and signed all the necessary papers on May 9, 1939.

“I hadn’t introduced you to my mother yet at that point,” Lyman added. “I took Louise (home) and said ‘I want you to meet the woman I just married.’ “

The young couple settled in Woodburn, grateful that Lyman had a solid education that gave him in-demand skills.

“The effects of the Depression lasted almost a decade before things really started going again,” he said. “So having a job, any kind of a job, was where my secretarial science came in handy. I could do side jobs. I worked in Salem for a short while at a job, and one of the guys there wanted to give private dictation for $5 a month after work. I could do it after hours and turn it in the next day, so there were ways to scramble and I guess I scrambled.”

Off to War

Soon enough, Uncle Sam came calling. Oregon remained on alert for a possible Japanese invasion early in 1942 as the country’s war effort began to gear up. With submarine sightings off the northern Oregon coast still fresh in mind, Lyman was called up to active duty from the reserves in June of that year.

He was assigned as an intelligence officer to the newly formed U.S. Army Air Corps and sent to North Africa to assist the Allied invasion. He left behind Louise and the couple’s first child, 13-month old daughter Charlotte.

For 26 months Lyman leapfrogged his way across Africa and into Europe, briefing pilots, preparing missions, analyzing reconnaissance photos and much more. It was exhausting. And when he was sent home he chose not to remain in the reserves.

“I was a little afraid they might be wanting to send me to the Pacific,” he said. “I had a choice to stay in the reserves, but I chose not to. Had I stayed in, I probably would have been sent to the Pacific and I had had enough by that time.”

It was time to come home and start his family in earnest.

Community pillar

Over the next two decades, Lyman progressed through the ranks at First National Bank, where he was hired following the war. He established himself, his son said, as a “pillar of the community,” joining the Woodburn Rotary Club and involving himself in all manner of civic activities.

On the professional front, Lyman stayed busy with the bank and its eventual spin-off, First Interstate Bank. He continued his career into the executive ranks and ultimately played a key role in the creation of the Visa credit card brand. He even served as chairman of the board for Visa International, continuing on in an advisory role until after his 90th birthday.

Just one example of Lyman’s lasting effect on Woodburn can be found at Interstate 5. Originally, what was then called the Baldock Freeway was slated to bypass Woodburn entirely. But Seely and other local businessmen were alarmed by this prospect and knew it would harm the town’s economic prospects. Seely led a contingent to the Oregon Legislature, where they successfully lobbied for the inclusion of an interstate interchange at Woodburn.

That was about as far as his political involvement went, though.

“I stayed out of politics, thankfully,” he said with a chuckle.

‘Unconditional love’

The Seelys are one of the closest-knit families you’re liable to find. From the bouncy trips to Wilsonville in a Model T - a big deal in the 1930s - to the present day visits with Lyman and Louise at The Springs, the Seely clan has remained remarkably cohesive.

“There may be a little dent here and there,” Lyman said. “But we pound it out.”

One important consideration, Doug added, is the lack of “drama” in the family.

“I remember Grandma Seely saying one time that she credits her mother with always valuing the family,” Charlotte added. “And her family was very, very close.”

“I think it’s almost inherent in our family that you’re going to feel that way about family, that family ties are meaningful,” Lyman said. “In my opinion, that’s one of the principle reasons why you don’t see as much divorce in places where that exists. People don’t like to have a rift in that family relationship so you go to great lengths to avoid deepening the ditch is, I guess, what I’m trying to say.”

“You heal up and compromise, forgiveness, there’s a lot of good words you could use for what I’m trying to say,” he added. “They all come from unconditional love.”

At A Glance:

The Seely family has an up to date website detailing the family history. For those interested in local history or genealogy it is a valuable resource: www.oregonseelyfamily.org.

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - The Seely Ditch was a mile-and-a-half civil engineering project dug by hand in 1858. It drained what is now the Coffee Creek wetland in north Wilsonville. This view looks northwest.