Shelley Smith came home from Vietnam in the early ‘70s and went back into the forests near Elbe, on the southwest side of Mount Rainier.
The timber industry let him make a good living there both before and after the war. Smith became a fixture in the small community, along with a wife who worked as local postmistress and their three children.
“I cut timber for 25 years and was good at the job,” Smith said this week. “I had a home near Mineral Lake, the kids all went to the same schools their whole lives.”
Gene and Patsy Snodgrass owned the Elbe Grocery, and they liked Smith.
“Patsy always said she wanted to sell the store to me to get me out of the woods,” Smith said. “After she died, Gene sold the store to me in 1988 or 1989.”
Since then, life has happened to Smith in a big way. Those three children are grown and have given him eight grandchildren. He was divorced. And he nearly died in an automobile crash just a few miles from home.
Through it all, the grocery has always been open, seven days a week.
Now it’s for sale, listed on Craigslist for $295,000. The price includes the store, the inventory and a one-bedroom apartment upstairs where Smith has recently been living.
“The store has been wonderful for me. I’ve made a living and met people I’d never have met, from all over the world, who stop here,” said Smith, 66. “It’s time for me to retire. My heart hasn’t been in the store for the past few years.”
There are two types of people who visit the small grocery. The first: travelers on their way to Mount Rainier or Mineral Lake, maybe stopping to visit the Little White Church of Elbe right across the street.
The second: anyone who lives nearby. There are fewer and fewer of those.
“The community is probably smaller now than it’s ever been,” Smith said. “There’s maybe 75 people living here, maybe 100.”
All of the residents know Smith, and he knows each of them — plus many from the surrounding areas. He’s more than a businessman.
“I used to hunt, and I’d only hunt for meat, not trophies,” he said. “If someone was having a tough time, I might go hunting and bring them back the meat.”
Smith owns the grocery store and, next to it, the property on which the U.S. Post Office sits. And a home not far away.
Every Wednesday for years, he has golfed with the same three friends.
In conversation, he frequently apologizes for his memory. It hasn’t been the same the last 20 years, since the accident.
“I was driving a brand new Corvette, headed home, and I came over a little hill,” Smith said. “As I started down the other side, there was an oncoming car in my lane. I went off the road trying to avoid a head on ….”
It was the last thing he remembered for months. He hit trees alongside the road and was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
“Dad was in a coma for 31 days,” said his oldest daughter, Charisma. “He was in rehab for eight months.
“His memory is different since the accident. He shows more love and emotion with his kids and grandkids. I think it changed him in a positive way. He tells me he loves me every time we talk.”
Smith can remember a Vietnam firefight in which he was wounded but may forget upcoming birthdays if not reminded several times.
Asked about the Purple Heart he was awarded for his wounds, he shook his head.
“I was hit in the foot with shrapnel,” he said. “Six men died. It put things in perspective for me.
“I could have died in Vietnam or Laos. I knew men who were killed doing timber work, and the accident probably should have killed me,” Smith said. “I’m grateful to still be here. I enjoy my children and grandchildren. I’m going to keep my life simple in retirement. See my family, golf a little more.
“My feeling is you just never know how long you have to live. Why waste any of it? People who wait too long miss things I don’t want to miss.”