Saving All

In november 1937, Buzz Holmstrom became the first to solo the Green and Colorado Rivers. He made the journey in a wooden boat he had designed and built himself. The lumber for the boat was milled from a Port Orford Cedar windfall he found in the woods outside of his hometown of Coquille, Oregon. River historian Otis “Dock” Marston later deemed Holmstrom's boat, which he eventually named the Julius F., superior in terms of design, construction, and suitability for river travel. Marston went so far as to call the Julius F. “the greatest whitewater boat of its day.”
Throughout the war, the wooden boat lay anchored on the hillside near the house. In warm weather, the sun baked the hull. The weeds around the boat grew tall and unruly reaching for the gunwales. Winter brought wind and rain as the storms rollicked in from the Pacific Ocean. The Julius F. endured the seasons, as much a part of the scenery as the creek running by or the dirt road that dead ended in front of Frances Holmstrom's house. She had grown accustomed to the landmark and paid it scant attention until fall, 1943. Then she wrote in her journal, “Painted the top of Buzz's old boat, the Julius F., and hope to do the rest tomorrow, as I don't know any other way of preserving it; save the surface and you save all.”
Before the riverboat was turned over, Carl Holmstrom, Buzz's elder brother, often found its footwells filled with buckets of Oregon rain water. “Gunnel to gunnel and then some,” he said. He bailed it out. Once he even knocked one or two of “the bottom boards” loose to drain the boat. Made sense at the time, he thought. Mother and brother, each trying to protect the boat that Buzz had built only a few years before.
The war ended. By fall 1945, Buzz and Carl Holmstrom were on their way home to Coquille. The following spring Buzz took a job as “river pilot and lead boat builder” for the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey on the Grande Ronde River in the northeastern corner of the state. On May 18, in the late afternoon, he died of a gunshot wound on the steep banks of the river; the La Grande coroner pronounced it a suicide. The circumstances surrounding his death remain puzzling to this day.
Back in Coquille, the boat remained on the hillside until one Saturday morning in February, 1947. Once a symbol of her son's courage and triumph, it now served as a grim reminder of a loss whose mystery Frances Holmstrom would ponder and grieve over for the rest of her life. That morning she had had enough; it was time to get rid of it.
Frances Holmstrom could not have known that she was about to set the boat adrift on the currents of time and fading memories. Nor could she have known that the Julius F., like any good talisman, would come to represent much more than itself, that it would bear significance beyond its original purposes and intention. Could the boat have survived a mother's wishes, if not fifty years of Oregon weather? Would it be resting on the bottom of a lake or river bed forever out of reach? Or sitting in a garage or barn, out of the weather, awaiting discovery? What happened to the Julius F. after it left the Holmstrom's yard that February morning?
Rumors and stories abound.
Introduction to Rumors 101. Once upon a time, a boatman heard from another boatman whose sister went on a river trip in Grand Canyon and had lived in Oregon and had heard another boatman tell the story of Buzz Holmstrom. She knew for a fact that the Julius F. was in somebody's garage in someplace like Eugene or Medford or Grants Pass. This “story within a story,” embellished at each telling, made the rounds. Another boatman, who happened to be a native Oregonian and novice researcher, heard it. He writes letters, makes phone calls, talks to strangers, endures lengthy silences and dial tones, drives hundreds of miles, follows the trial where it leads. In case—just in case.
He does not find the boat; he does, however, locate Holmstrom's brothers and sister. He was not the first to do so.
Dock Marston kept an eye on the boat; he knew its worth. By the late 1940s however, the river historian with an insatiable thirst for Canyon lore, had fallen from grace with Mrs. Holmstrom. In September 1949, she wrote in response to his questions about Buzz's death. I do not feel at all moved to accede to your request. I do not see how the information can possibly have any bearing on the subject on which I believe you are writing. Marston, however, was not easily dissuaded. Others would follow in his wake, step more gingerly. Each would try to save the Julius F. from a variety of imagined fates.
Harry Aleson, perhaps more than anyone, pined for the preservation of the Julius F. An early river rat and friend of Georgie White, he wrote to Carl Holmstrom on a number of occasions after Buzz's death, pleading that the boat be taken good care of. Finally, he came to Coquille in 1960 to visit with Carl. As it turned out, someone in Coquille did have possession of the boat at that time. It is possible, even likely, that Aleson saw the boat.
In the late 1970s Cort Conley, boatman and author of guidebooks for the Main Salmon and Snake and Idaho Loners—Hermits, Solitaires, and Individualists, came looking for stories and the Julius F. He had an idea, a crazy idea about starting a museum of river history. He interviewed Anna Holmstrom, slept on her floor, visited the cemetery, but discovered little about the whereabouts of the famous boat.
Among the Holmstroms themselves, the family stories about the boat's disappearance ranged the spectrum of possibilities. Before he died in 1997, Carl insisted that the boat had been burned as his mother requested. Carl, a robust ninety-year-old, was a man whose recall could be as crystal clear as it could be muddled. Still, he remained a credible witness, closest to Buzz in age and shared experience. Rolf, the younger brother, helped Buzz build the boat. He wasn't so sure about Carl's claim. He thought the boat had been “passed on,” maybe to Bob Taylor, a neighbor. Perhaps to the postman. Generous to a fault, it had been Buzz's habit to give away his boat (two from the Rogue, one from the Main Salmon) after each of his river trips.
Rolf figured his brother's boat might stand the rigors of time. Port Orford Cedar weathers pretty well, he guessed. As to locating the Julius F. after fifty years, his eyes suggested otherwise.
Anna Holmstrom, Buzz's sister, gently shook her head back and forth as if she were trying to loosen a memory from its hiding place. Anything was possible, she supposed. She had a friend who worked for Coos County. He often drove the back roads and isolated areas surrounding Coquille. He promised Anna he would keep a lookout.

One afternoon in the mid 1990s the boatman/ researcher from Oregon rode with Anna for hours along those same back roads in the coastal range. She cautioned him that they must be careful, they couldn't go poking around people's property unless they were introduced properly. It could be dangerous. Dangerous? Yes, indeed. She knew, for a fact, there were folks with a different sort of crop in the woods around Coquille. Folks who didn't like visitors or strangers.
They peered over fences, looked behind barns, talked to strangers. No luck.
Anna admitted that she hadn't paid much attention to the boat back then. She was busy raising a family. In fact, her daughter June had been born while Buzz was in the heart of Grand Canyon. She thought it might have gone to a cousin or nephew of one of Buzz's many friends. Did she think the boat had been burned? She remembered the story, but couldn't be sure. “It's more likely sitting in someone's yard or pasture and they don't know it's Buzz Holmstrom's boat,” she ventured wishfully.

Billy Steward was a quiet fellow who loved to hunt and fish when he wasn't delivering letters. He knew Buzz Holmstrom. Like most of Coquille, Steward was stunned and saddened by the news of his death in May 1946. For ten years, day in and day out, Steward had walked the same postal route. When he delivered mail to the Holmstroms home each afternoon, he had seen the Julius F. there on the hillside. Sometime after Buzz's death, he plucked up his courage and asked Frances about the boat. At first, she put him off. She wasn't quite ready to let go. One day, however, she told Steward to take the boat, take it and put it to good use. She also instructed him, so the story goes, that when he was finished with the boat he was not to sell it or pass it on to anyone. He must burn it. One assumes he agreed to the conditions. How could he do otherwise? On February 15, 1947 Mrs. Holmstrom wrote in her diary, “Steward came and took away the red boat this morning. It is such a relief to not have it sitting out there going to ruin.”
Steward was a fisherman, not a river runner. He removed the fore and aft compartments and modified the stern to carry an outboard engine. He adjusted the rowing seat and kept the oars and oarlocks for days when the engine wouldn't do. Photos suggest that he did a decent job. During the fall salmon runs, he fished the Coquille; later he worked Isthmus Slough for striped bass. Thirteen years later, in October 1960, he still had the Julius F. in his possession.
On October 15, 1960 Carl wrote to Harry Aleson:
Dear Friend Harry,
I talked to Mr. Steward about the boat some time ago, but could not get him to set a price. All he would say was that for sentimental reasons he valued the boat very much. I explained to him what we wanted to do with it and assured him that no one would be making a profit from it but he apparently will not consider selling at this time. If he should change his mind at some later date. I will let you know.
Sincerely Yours, Carl
Five days later, Aleson replied:
Dear Carl:
Thank you kindly for your letter of 15th out of Coquille—forwarded from Richfield and received at Torrey on 24 Oct. I appreciate what you are doing in the effort to preserve Buzz's river boat. There may come a day when Mr. Steward and I are older, that he may be willing to let me buy the boat from him, in return for having cared for it for so long. Ask him if he will raise it up on blocks and build a rain shelter over it—and send me the bill.
After I left you, I found the cemetery and walked around until I found Buzz's and your Mother's graves, and placed a few of the native wildflowers there. Thanks again, Carl.
Sincerely Yours, H.A.
In Marston's voluminous collection of river-related materials is a photo of the Julius F., perhaps the last picture taken of the boat. Clearly, the boat is in someone's yard. What is confounding about the photo, however, is the sign leaning against it: for sale / 256 e.6th / phone—2603. In another Marston file, containing pages of hand-written notes, is a single line entry: Last in Coquille in 57, Julius F. for sale. Inquire for me. Carl had claimed in his 1960 letter to Aleson that Steward wanted to keep the boat for “sentimental reasons.” Yet, the Julius F. was unquestionably for sale in 1957. Frances Holmstrom had died in November, 1956. Was the sale of the boat somehow related? Or was this a coincidence? A misunderstanding of some kind? It is hard to imagine Marston not pursuing the opportunity to purchase the boat. Why then did he not purchase it?
Before the war, every kid in Coquille knew Buzz Holmstrom. Mel Steward, Billy Steward's son, was no exception. At seventy-one, he fondly recalls the building of the boat in the Holmstrom basement, the hoopla and excitement surrounding Buzz's river adventures, and the sad news of his hero's death. The Julius F. sat uncovered on a trailer near his house at 6th and Collier Streets for many years. When Mel's father died of a heart attack at age sixty-six in October, 1962, the boat was still there.
That fall thirty-two-year-old Mel Steward returned to Coquille to help move his mother, Ida May. There were repairs on the house to make, furniture and possessions to pack up or give away. Mel remembers his mother saying to him that someone had come by the house, asking about the boat. What should she do, she wondered? At the time Mel didn't think too much about it and told her to pass it on. Someone over in Fairview, a valley to the east of Coquille, might have taken it, he thinks.
That was just a guess though.
Plainly his father had not followed through on Frances Holmstrom's request. The boat had not been burned.
Like a river bending back on itself, the story of the search for Buzz's boat took yet another turn. Anna Holmstrom remembered hearing from someone in Coquille that Mel Steward's aunt, Violet Barrett, had a brother named Bartley Carillo. He could have taken the boat, thought Anna. Mel Steward, on the other hand, never heard that story.
Mel knew two people who might know more about the Julius F. As a young man, Wayne Timmons had often fished with Billy Steward. Later, he married Steward's daughter, Shirley, and become Mel's brother-in-law. He remembered the Julius F. Not only had he fished from it numerous times, he had mowed the grass around it so often he didn't care to recall. The boat sat on a trailer in the yard for many years, he said, unused. One day it was gone.
In the late 1950s Jay Sauve rented a room from the Stewards. Like Timmons and the elder Steward, he loved the outdoors. His wife, LuAnn, works at the Coquille Sentinel. Yes, her husband had fished with Billy Steward; yes, she vaguely remembered the boat. Unfortunately, Jay had died some years ago and she had no idea where the boat might be. When she learned that Mel Steward thought the boat could have gone to someone out in Fairview, she volunteered to ask the elders who still lived there if they remembered a boat like the Julius F.
“That was such a long time ago,” LuAnn said before hanging up the phone. “You know people and their memories.”
Vince Welch