There’s a light dusting of snow outside the John R. Jackson house near the south corner of Jackson Highway and Highway 12. The tiny log cabin sits in a pleasant little park nestled under the snow. It seems that a gentle billow of smoke should be coming from the chimney, the smell of Matilda Jackson’s famous cooking wafting on the air, and a welcoming light at the window as a beacon to weary travelers headed north.
But the house stands empty, not just of inhabitants, but of all historical treasures like Jackson’s writing desk and Matilda’s braided rug, which have been carefully catalogued and stored in preparation for the John R. Jackson restoration project.
“We were granted some money to do a restoration project on the house,” explains park ranger Pam Wilkins, the Upper Cowlitz River Area Manager. “The question came up, are we just throwing money into something that will continually rot? The last restoration project was done in 1996 so it lasted a long time, but we decided to have a historian go through and tell us exactly what we needed to do.”
Historian David Hansen went to work and the recommendation of his comprehensive report was that the combination of historical significance with the relatively good condition of the property made it a worthy project.
Because the original 1850 Jackson house was in such a state of disrepair, the current house is a reproduction built on the spot in 1915 by the St. Helens Club, an early civic-minded women’s club from Chehalis. This was the first restoration effort of its kind in Washington.
“They took the old house down and they used parts of it to build this one,” explains Wilkins. “And then over time people came along who had good intentions to preserve the house, but didn’t have the historical knowledge. Different phases or repairs can be seen throughout. Some is from the St. Helens Club and some are from the C.C.C who also did extensive work at Lewis and Clark State Park.”
Why was John R. Jackson so Important?
Jackson was a very influential person in the history of Lewis County. He was born in Staindrop, England, and immigrated to the United States. He became a citizen in 1835 then tried farming in Illinois before heading west with the intent of going to Tumwater Falls, but instead he fell in love with the Lewis County prairies.
“US citizens were not supposed to get past Fort Vancouver,” says Ranger Wilkins, “but because he was British, they didn’t realize he was a US citizen, and they allowed him to pass. So he is one of the first US citizens past the line.” The year was 1844.
“John came here and built a rough cabin. Then on a trip back to Oregon City for supplies, he met Matilda who was a widow with children, after a short courtship and his promises to provide her with luxuries like a cabin with windows, a sewing machine, a washboard wringer for clothes which are normally on display today, they were married.”
Ranger Wilkins describes John as a tall man for his time. He had an accident while back east; he was thrown from a horse into a hawthorn bush and lost an eye.
“In most of his photos,” Wilkins says, “you’re going to see an eye because he had them painted in, but he wore a patch in real life.”
The Jackson farm, called The Highlands, swelled to 2,200 acres and became a stopping point for weary travelers. Famously, a judge was passing through to conduct a trial up north but the traveling was rough, and the judge decided he would go no farther and the person who was to be tried was brought to him. The Jackson house became a courthouse because the judge had a warm place to stay and Matilda’s good cooking to eat.
“When they held court, the windows weren’t in yet,” explains Wilkins. “And when folks heard there would be a trial here, people sat outside looking in from the windows. It was quite the excitement for the area at the time. And the Jackson family became a hub, they became the post office, they had a supply store, and eventually built some little rooms off to the side so people passing through could stay.”
“Jackson carried something about him that showed a strong leadership skill and he must have been very good with decisions because he was instrumental with the post office, he became the sheriff and then he traveled to the Monticello Convention and signed that. So I think he had a great gift for being able to weigh through things and to make decisions and gather public opinion. So he must have been a strong person, a survivor.”
Matilda was the same. She survived coming from Missouri with her family. Her husband died crossing the Snake River and in her grief she went in to labor and lost the baby. Matilda and her four sons went on to the Dalles Mission to recuperate. Though still weak, she went on to Oregon City by canoe.
Preserving Lewis County Parks
Ranger Pam Wilkins started as a seasonal employee for Washington State Parks in 1977. She moved around the state in the department working her way up. She was promoted as Park Manager of Lewis and Clark in 1994.
“Lewis and Clark State Park is something I grew up with as a kid,” she says. “I grew up in the Oakville and Rochester area. I was pretty excited to come home. A lot of changes have happened since 94’. But the history of Matilda Jackson has always been amazing to me.”
The Jackson House property is now under contract for repairs to the house as well as new fencing, restoration of the arch and gate at the front of the property, and a new information plaza.
There isn’t the staff to keep the house open all the time, but it will continue to be open by appointment.
Also in spring 2017, there will be a rededication of Matilda Jackson State Park just across the highway from the John R. Jackson house. The rededication will recognize improvements made at the park. Louisa Ware, John and Matilda’s daughter donated the five acres to create the park to honor her mother. According to Wilkins, the donation states that the land must always be a park and that it must always have a “comfort station,” wording which puts Louisa ahead of her time.