Chelatchie Prairie

February 22, 1979

The big sign on the general store boasts that the building sits “in downtown Chelatchie Prairie.”

It is the only store in town.

Among the hundreds of items for sale in the country store is a bumper sticker: Where’s Amboy? I’m from Chelatchie.”

While the average person probably doesn’t know where either Amboy or Chelatchie is on the map, the residents of the rural community 30 miles northeast of Vancouver take a special pride in their isolation.

“People here like to say they’re from Chelatchie,” explained Kathleen Handsacker who, with her husband Walter, owns and operates the Chelatchie Prairie General Store.

One of the more historic rural areas in Clark County, Chelatchie Prairie apparently was settled in the early 1860s. The fertile valley ringed by mountains and drained Chelatchie Creek was well-suited for growing grain and vegetables, and the area was among the first settled in the northern part of the county.

Chelatchie, according to historians, is an Indian word meaning a flat area covered with ferns. The earliest settlers found the prairie covered with ferns and other low vegetation, easily cleared to prepare the land for tilling.

By far the most prominent and eye-catching geologic feature of the area in Tum Tum Mountain, a symmetrical hill rising 1,500 feet above the plain. This mountain, which has become the symbol of Chelatchie, resembles a huge gumdrop.

Tum Tum, according to legend, means heart, and might have been so named because it vaguely resembles an inverted heart.

Another legend insists a famed Indian chief lies buried at the summit.

At one time, two school districts, Chelatchie and Tum Tum, served the area. These districts consolidated in 1914, forming Chelatchie Valley District 84.

There had been several earlier schools in the area, but after the consolidation a “modern” school was built on the site now occupied by the Mt. St. Helens Ranger District Work Center of the U.S. Forest Service.

Now, all of those old districts are part of the Battle Ground School District. Elementary pupils from Chelatchie Prairie attend nearby Amboy School while high school students must be up at 6:30 a.m. to catch buses for the long ride into Battle Ground.

Although the Amboy School population has risen dramatically in the past year – from 470 to 530 pupils – most of this growth has occurred south of Amboy.

“I know of only two families who have moved into Chelatchie Prairie during the year,” said a school secretary.

Frank Emerick, road inspector for the Forest Service, is a lifelong resident of the area. He said there have been few signs of growth, despite the big International Paper Co. lumber and plywood mill that sits in the middle of the prairie.

Many of the historic farms are still intact, Emerick said, but few residents make their living from the soil.

The lumber and plywood mill, the only major industry in the Battle Ground School District, was constructed in 1960 to replace Long-Bell operations in Longview which were phased out. The Chelatchie Prairie mill has employed about 600 men and women, including those who work in the woods and haul the big logs to the mill.

Most of these workers, however, commute to their jobs, some from long distances. Some drive each day from Longview-Kelso or even from Oregon.

The economy of Chelatchie Prairie has moved up and down, depending on the cycle of the lumber industry. At present, residents said, there is a slump, and quite a few employees have been laid off.

Across the road from the general store sits a huge stack of fireplace wood. Mrs. Handsacker said unemployed loggers cut the wood to supplement their unemployment benefits. It is sold for $40 a cord, with some customers driving out from Portland to buy it.

Mrs. Handsacker said she and her husband have complete confidence in the future of Chelatchie, no matter what happens to the lumber mill, which has been up for sale.

“We intend to build a new store across the road and turn this building into a tavern,” she said. “We really like this area and believe it has great potential.”

While there is little evidence of any new homes or building growth, she said, “We have at least 200 families stuck back up in the hills. Many of them are old-time families, although there are some transient younger people.”

Mrs. Handsacker said there are a few attractions to hold young people in Chelatchie Prairie, but some effort is being made to provide some forms of entertainment for them. A large community hall, with a sign on it that reads Tum Tum Log Cabin Club, is being refurbished and may be used for dancing and other community activities, she said.

“We welcome growth,” she added. “We just don’t want to see it come too fast.”

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