Special Reports

Defiance full of good fish, even greater times

John Emley remembers his mother’s tales about her childhood in the big house, near the edge of Point Defiance Park.

Grace Denman Emley was frail, lovely and artistic. She made hats, sang, and spread her signature green icing on the cakes she baked perfectly. And she loved her park.

As a mother, she would take her son down to the same waters.

“We kids would go out and rent a boat for some ridiculous price, 25 cents, or 75 cents for all day,” said John Emley, who was born in 1918.

Never mind that his family owned A.F. Emley and Sons Grocery at 42nd and Cheyenne streets. Sometimes his mother wanted fresh, fresh fish. She would drive John down to the Boathouse in the family’s 1918 Model-T Ford, and he would rent a 12-foot flat bottom skiff and row off in the certain pursuit of dinner.

“In those days, if my mother wanted a fish, I’d go out there and rent a boat and get a fish,” said Emley, 86. “There was no question whether you would get a fish.”

Emley recalls rowing home alone one evening when a small fishing boat putted past his boat.

“One of the fishermen called, ‘Hey, kid, you want a ride?’ I went on board and they tied my boat behind to tow it,” he said. “I went up and sat on the raised deck. It was such a lovely, soft evening.”

The family, which had moved to 24th Street and Puget Sound Avenue after his sister was born, took regular outings in the park. Emley saw the park filtered through his parents’ sensibilities.

“Sometimes my mom would say, ‘We’re going to have a picnic at the Sand Spit,’ and we’d go out, the four of us, with blankets and food. We’d leave the old Model-T on Five Mile Drive and take the path down to the Sand Spit. I remember being 6 years old, carrying baskets and thinking how heavy they were,” he said.

The spit stretched around a fresh-water pond filled with cattails.

The children loved it, fresh water on one side, salt on the other.

“When I moved to Portland for college, they filled in the lake and called the whole thing Owen Beach,” Emley said.

He was 22 and working in Portland when his mother died.

He came back, eventually, and settled in University Place, where he and his wife raised two sons.

Yes, they spent time in Point Defiance, he said. But times were different. Parents did not let their 10-year-olds run loose and explore, or set them on the water to bring fresh, fresh fish home to a beaming mother.