Seattle Now & Then: Smithers Farm in Renton, 1891

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN1: In 1891, the Smithers farm was contracted to supply hay for mules that hauled coal from local mines. Several of the posers have been identified as members of the Thorne family, who were Smithers in-laws. Just behind the foreground horse is Diana Smithers, Erasmus Smithers’ wife. (Ron Edge collection)
Prize-winning twins Lydia (left) and Linda Della Rossa stand at the entrance of McLendon Hardware near Rainier Avenue South and South Fourth Place, former site of Smithson’s farm and Renton Hospital. The sisters still live in the area. (Jean Sherrard)

Published in The Seattle Times online on April 27, 2023
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on April 30, 2023

Harvesting history, trivia – and a whole stable of animal phrases – from a pastoral photo of 1891 Renton
By Jean Sherrard

When historian Ron Edge forwarded this week’s picturesque portrait of the farm of Renton founder Erasmus Smithers (1830-1905), I melted into a sentimental puddle.

Like many Americans long removed from pastoral life, I still use its idioms, from “Hold your horses” and “stubborn as a mule” to “till the cows come home.” Also, I began life near this spot. So to complement our 1891 “Then” photo, I’m all in on making hay while the sun shines.

The young Smithers was lured from Virginia to the Northwest by the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850. Upon arriving in 1852, he secured 160 acres near the confluence of the Black and Cedar rivers. Following the death of neighbor Henry Tobin, Smithers expeditiously married Tobin’s widow Diana in 1857. Their combined holdings totaled 480 acres, displacing the Duwamish village that had straddled the rivers for millennia.

Reputedly guided by Duwamish chief Jimmy Moses, Smithers discovered a seam of coal on a nearby hillside. Soliciting investment from a wealthy Port Blakely lumberman, Capt. William Renton, he founded the Renton Coal Mine, soon providing right-of-way for the nascent Seattle-Walla Walla Railroad. The site became a thriving rail hub, its huge bunker serving mines throughout the eastern foothills. A grateful Smithers deeded Moses a single acre on the Black River (dried-up today).

Erasmus Smithers, circa 1885.

With mining partners, Smithers platted the town of Renton in 1875. His original grid of streets and avenues remains largely intact south of the Cedar River.

This spring, I met fraternal twins Lydia Della Rossa Delmore and Linda Della Rossa outside vast McLendon’s Hardware, near the farm site, on which, in 1945, Renton Hospital opened. It was where the three of us were born.

In an undated aerial, the Renton Hospital, designed by Seattle architect George W. Stoddard and opened in 1945 as a temporary post-World War II facility, was nicknamed the “wagon wheel” due to its formation. The renamed Valley General Hospital moved south and opened in 1969. (Dorpat Collection)

Aptly nicknamed the “wagon wheel” for its hub-and-spoke formation, the hospital was designed by Seattle architect George W. Stoddard (1896-1967), also noted for Seattle’s Memorial Stadium (1947) and Aqua Theater on Green Lake (1950).

While layers of concrete and box stores offer few links to the past, the Della Rossa sisters, peering over a seemingly endless parking lot, had a story to tell.

At 4 a.m. New Year’s Day 1953, the two were born to Eddie and Angelina Della Rossa. Aiding the family’s fortune, the Toni hair-products company — whose popular “Which twin has the Toni?” ad campaign had swept the country — awarded them $500 for producing the year’s first set of twins born in the United States.

Born Jan. 1, 1953, Lydia (left) and Linda (first of the twins to emerge) demonstrate Gerber baby-level pulchritude. (Courtesy Lydia and Linda Della Rossa)

In one shake of a lamb’s tail, the Della Rossas were living like pigs in clover. On that, you can bet the farm.


For our narrated 360 video of this column, mosey on over here.

For a video interview with twins Lydia and Linda Della Rossa click here.

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