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Life in the house on the hill

The Bybee/Howell House on Sauvie Island, built in 1856, is on the National Register of Historic Homes and sheltered four generations. It now sits empty, but a former resident has fond memories
by: Submitted Photo, The Howell family home during the winter of 1948 covered in snow. Mabel Dudley (aka Mabel Howell) said they had big snow and ice storms in those days. “It's nothing like now.”

A large two-story white house is stately perched at the top of a low hill on an island northwest of Portland. The two-story house, built in 1856, is a classical Greek revival-type structure boasting nine rooms, six fireplaces and a large friendly back porch perfect for sitting on a warm summer evening.

The old worn-down structure was home to two families and four generations over a period of more than 100 years. It saw numerous children born, grow up and move away. It saw a multitude of changes with the paving of the old pot-holed dirt roads, the building of a dike to prevent farmers' fields from flooding year after year, and a new bridge that linked the island to the rest of the world. It saw some of the harshest winters on record, preventing the families who lived there from venturing out except to feed the animals. The historic house holds a treasure trove of history within its four walls.

The house is the Bybee-Howell House on Sauvie Island. The home and two surrounding acres were bought by Multnomah County in the early 1960s and subsequently turned over to Metro and the Multnomah County Historical Society. After vast renovations and period furnishings, the house served a number of years as a tourist attraction. But, it now sits vacant, unused and falling into disrepair.

A woman who would know about the history of the stately home is Mabel Dudley (aka Mabel Howell), granddaughter of John Benjamin Howell Sr., who moved into the house on the hill with his new bride, Maria Amelia, in 1875. Howell had purchased the home from James Bybee somewhere between 1858 and 1873.

Dudley, born in 1922, has lived on the island her entire life and lived in the home until she married. She and her husband, Leo, built another home on the Howell homestead, not far from the family home, after their marriage in 1945.

One of John B. Howell Sr.'s four sons was John Benjamin Howell II, Mabel's father, who raised cattle. He would buy herds to be fattened up on his island farm. 'My dad would go out and buy up herds and swim them across the channel where the bridge is now,' said Dudley. 'That's where my mother met him.' Her mother's family, who lived about half- way between Linnton and the present location of the bridge, had come to watch the crossing.

John and Rose raised three daughters in the house on the hill, although Mabel, the youngest, wasn't born there. Instead, Rose delivered her third child while snowbound at her sister's home in Kelso, Wash. 'My dad had dropped her off. He had a butcher shop in Astoria,' said Dudley. 'A big snow storm came and they couldn't get home. We had big snow storms in those days. We had snow every year -- nothing like now.'

Dudley reminisced about the snow storms and the difficult island winters when she was growing up. 'I can remember going from the house to the barn in four or five feet of snow,' said Dudley. 'We had what we called silver thaws (ice storms),' said Dudley. 'It happened real often.'

Getting off the island to stock up on supplies could be difficult too, especially during the spring or fall when low-lying land flooded. People living on the east side of the island could traverse the bumpy muddy dirt roads to the ferry landing to get off-island to Portland. But, those living on the other side of the island caught the early morning dairy boats that stopped to pick up milk from the numerous dairies, and got a ride back when the boats returned to moor in St. Helens in the evening.

Getting to school could be a complicated venture during high water, called spring freshets by the locals. 'We'd walk into the fields, so we wouldn't put our shoes on,' said Dudley. When arriving on high ground, they would put their shoes and socks back on and walk until they'd come to another low spot. They would again remove their socks and shoes, walk through the frigid water, put the shoes and socks back on again and walk to where the car was parked to take them to the ferry landing. 'We thought it was fun,' said Dudley. 'Mother didn't. She didn't enjoy that icy cold water.'

Sometimes the deep water would keep them all at home. 'We didn't go out very much,' said Dudley. 'Mother always kept a good supply of everything. She canned hundreds of jars of fruits and vegetables and we had our own meat. She had two big bins of flour and sugar and made sure they were full.'

Waiting for the ferry was an experience in itself, according to Dudley. At times, large groups of early morning duck hunters or a boat going by would cause delays. One of Dudley's and her sisters' favorite tricks was to convince the ferry pilot of the dangers of crossing with children if there was a boat or a log raft coming. 'So, we'd be late for school,' said Dudley. 'She (teacher) never caught on.' Sometimes the hunters would be drunk. 'They'd be so drunk; they'd think the ferry was there and drive right into the river. There was more than one that did that.'

John B. Howell, having no sons, enlisted his third-born daughter to help with farming chores. Dudley said she spent her childhood hitching horses, milking cows and plowing fields. 'I was my father's son,' said Dudley.

Dudley met her husband, Leo, on the island when he came to visit his sister, who was babysitting for Dudley's nephew. 'He was in the service and so he came to see his sister and I was there,' said Dudley. When Leo was discharged after serving in Africa and Italy, the couple married. They built a home on Howell property. 'And, we've been here ever since,' said Dudley. They couple raised one daughter, Patricia, who was born the same day the new Sauvie Island Bridge was dedicated.

In the early 1960s the home was sold to Multnomah County after sitting vacant for six years while Dudley's mother, Rose, lived out her remaining years in a nursing home. 'It had fallen into some disrepair,' said Dudley. 'I could have had it but it would have cost too much and I didn't have it.'

Now, more than 150 years after the stately house on the hill was built, only a handful of Howell descendents remain on the island. But, the house still stands, dark, empty and neglected. 'The historical society doesn't have anything to do with it anymore,' said Dudley. 'They moved everything out of it. Someone from Metro said they want to tear it down. I thought it was on the national register and it had to be kept up. Anyway, that's what I was told.' Even the annual Harvest Festival has been abandoned by the historical society. A local farmer tried to resurrect the event but found it was too much work to organize on his own.

No one knows what will happen to the historic home. 'It all comes down to money,' said Dudley. At this time, Metro also owns another 60 acres behind the home, which includes a wetland, formerly a lake the family used for boating, fishing and swimming. 'They come down and mow it once in awhile, but that's it,' said Dudley.

Dudley would like to see the property preserved in a way similar to the Howell Living History Farm in New Jersey, where her family originated. That farm, in existence since the 1730s, is open to tourists and school children and run by the county parks commission with assistance by the Friends of the Howell Living History Farm. For more information about the Howell Living History Museum in New Jersey, see www.howellfarm.org.