Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Leno Prestini's Sketch "Hell at Dawn"

            During the summer of 2010 this article appeared in several local northeastern Washington venues: The Clayton/Deer Park Historical Society’s newsletter — the Mortarboard, Deer Park’s weekly Tribune, and Spokane’s Nostalgia Magazine.  The version below is what was sent to these various publishers.  And, as publications tend to do, they modified the text to suit their individual needs before printing.
            Regardless, I tend to think of this as one of my more satisfying articles.  As with most of my stuff, if possible I like to have the input of some trusted eyes before going to print.  For this article I would especially like to thank Charles Stewart, Ken Westby, Pete Coffin, and Bill Sebright for their comments and suggestions.  And of course express my appreciation for my prime interviewee, Warren Nord — specifically for his good humor while putting up with many hours of addled and repetitious questioning.
            As an additional note; this is my first experience with posting on a blog.  Hopefully things will get better as I learn.

Leno Prestini’s Sketch “Hell at Dawn”

— Moving the Old Clayton Grange —

Wally Lee Parker

Reprint from The Bogwen Report: Issue #42
May 16, 2010

Leno Prestini's "Hell at Dawn"
Reproduced with permission of Rainy and Warren Nord and the Prestini estate.

            Laid down in colored pencil on heavy drawing paper, Leno Prestini’s “Hell at Dawn” is a cartoonish 12 by 18 inch sketch depicting the relocation of the old Clayton grange from its original lot on the west side of Clayton to a nearby farm — there to serve out the rest of its life as a barn.  Though simple in concept and execution, the drawing still betrays the hand of an accomplished artist.  And though Leno is rightly considered the historic soul of his hometown, none but Clayton’s oldest residents — those old enough to recall the day in 1963 that the artist succumbed to a self-inflicted wound — remember why he should be considered such.  As a reminder, this summer three of the region’s smaller historical societies are reintroducing Leno to the newer generations by exhibiting extensive examples of his works.  Of those works, the sketch he titled “Hell at Dawn” is only a minor piece.  But this, like most all of Leno’s art, has a story to tell.
            After 117 years, Clayton is a town struggling against overwhelming odds to stay alive.  Its history began in the summer of 1889 — a few years before the town’s official founding — when the newly formed Spokane Falls & Northern Railroad was hurriedly laying tracks north toward Colville.  The railroad carved a sweeping curve through the dense woods to better align the tracks for the grade upward to Loon Lake.  A siding — Allen’s Siding — was placed along the east to west portion of that curve.  No one’s sure who the aforementioned Allen in Allen’s Siding was — nor if the sawmill loading its lumber at the new siding was in operation before the railroad came.  And no one recalls who discovered the deposits of fine quality clay underlying the area.  But late in the year 1892 William Brook and Joseph Spear of Spokane’s Washington Brick, Lime, & Manufacturing Company decided to build a factory on the north side of Allen’s Siding — and the next year platted a company town just to the south of the railroad tracks to support their new factory.  Somewhere in the process the name Allen’s Siding was lost and the new town was christened Clayton.
            In May of 1906 Luigi Prestini, at the suggestion of his already immigrated brother Ferdinando, left his wife and children in Besano, Italy, and came to America — obtaining work at the granite quarries in Barre, Vermont.  On the 28th of April, 1908, Luigi’s wife Caterina, with their young sons Battista and Leno, boarded the steam ship La Provence at the French port of Havre and sailed for New York’s Ellis Island – finding her way to Barre a short time after landing.
            Luigi’s brother Ferdinando had settled in the city of Spokane in the summer of 1900.  In 1911, at Ferdinando’s invitation, Luigi, Caterina, and their sons left Vermont to stay on Ferdinando’s 40 acre farm just a few miles west of Buckeye in northern Spokane County.  A year or two after arriving, Luigi obtained work at the Clayton brick plant, and by 1913 had moved his family to Clayton — becoming part of the town’s growing Italian community.
            Eventually son Leno started work in the brick plant’s terra cotta factory, and by the mid 1920s was well on his way to becoming a master clay modeler.  As his older brother Battista often stated, at a young age Leno had demonstrated an inborn skill as a sculptor — a skill Battista didn’t share.
            Likely due to his artistic temperament and habitual wanderlust, Leno chose to remain single.  During the 1930’s, based primarily on his oil paintings, he began to build a regional reputation as an artist — though his works, often quirky, editorial, and darkly personal, in large part tended to be statements the area’s working class residents wouldn’t care to hang on their living room walls.
            The economics of the Great Depression, combined with the general movement away from terra cotta ornamentation in architecture, pushed Clayton’s terra cotta works into decline, and by the end of World War II the terra cotta portion of Clayton’s Washington Brick & Lime factory had shut down.  With that, the few remaining terra cotta craftsmen retired or drifted away.

Leno Prestini in the mid 1950s.
Photo courtesy of the Clayton/Deer Park Historical Society

            After returning from duty with World War II’s Army Air Force, Leno supported himself by working when he needed money, but otherwise lived a bohemian lifestyle.  In the 1950’s he often traveled to California — where common wisdom asserted his art would find a more receptive and well-heeled audience.  Said wisdom proved to be in error as Leno habitually came back, without recognition from the larger artistic community, to the small shack that served as his Clayton studio — Vagabond House.

Leno Prestini's Clayton studio, the Vagabond House, in the mid 1950s.
Photo courtesy of the Clayton/Deer Park Historical Society. 

            It’s commonly supposed among Leno’s acquaintances that the constant rejection of his art, mixed with the psychological damage his widely rumored less than wise romantic pursuits had induced, accumulated into the last of at least several suicidal spirals.
            With the Great Depression, Clayton had slipped into a sleepy twilight the town couldn’t reverse.  Business failures, suspicious fires, and neglect left its once thriving main street a dusty dream.  And then, in the late summer of 1957, the brick kilns’ last fires were extinguished and the factory Brook and Spear had founded was boarded shut and slated for demolition.
            Clayton lingered on as a community.  And like many small communities, the neighbors seemed to have a good handle on everyone else’s business.  If that business was interesting enough, it was sure to draw a crowd.
            One such crowd gathered on the first day of December, 1958, to watch the problems plaguing the men trying to move Clayton’s old grange hall to its new home southwest of town.  The frame building was 62 feet long, 30 wide, and 30 high.  Although the journey was only perhaps half a mile, in order to avoid as many tight turns and overhead power lines as possible, it had been decided to drag the heavy load across open fields for the majority of that distance.  The problem spot along the proposed route was likely to be a low, swampy area to the east of Beaver Creek — just over half way to the new foundation.  It seemed reasonable to Warren Nord, his dad Clarence, his brother Lyle, and Bob Herendeen — the contractor and family friend that had been hired to move the building from its Clayton lot to Clarence Nord’s farm — to wait until the ground was frozen firm.  But waiting too long ran the risk that the move might flounder beneath the heavy snows that traditionally began falling across Washington State’s northeast corner right around Christmas time.  And while moving over frozen ground was a good plan, everyone, even the contractor, was surprised with just how massive the old grange hall actually was.  As Warren Nord said, “We think the old building was put up around 1919.  Back in those days a 2 by 4 was actually 2 inches by 4 inches.  And a one inch thick plank was pretty close to a full inch thick.”
            According to the daily journal kept by Warren’s mother, Wilda Nord, The 1st of December was “cloudy” with “showers”, and the men “worked late”, and “got wet and muddy”.  Among those men was Clayton’s resident artist, Leno Prestini.
            As Warren recalls, “When the move got down into the swamp, the dolly-wheels and GMC truck supporting the old grange hall began breaking through the frozen crust.  The guys would jack the wheels up while they shoveled down into the mud beneath the wheels.  When they’d gotten enough clearance, they’d push planks, timbers, whatever they had under the tires and make a couple of more feet before they’d bog down again.”
            This December adventure began on 28th of August when Clayton Grange #456 bought the historic brick and terra cotta Moose Hall on Clayton’s main street from the local school district for $2,100.  The grange’s old wooden meeting hall was put up for silent bid.  The Nord family, needing more outbuildings on their farm, decided this building with its sturdy second floor loft would make a good barn.  Warren placed a bid of $431.  And on October 18th the transfer of ownership was signed — with the caveat that unless Warren was willing to spend another hundred dollars for the land the old grange was sitting on, the building would have to be removed within several months.
            Already assured that the bid had been accepted, during the first weekend in October the details of the upcoming move were worked out with Bob Herendeen.  And, since the really hard kind of freezes expected later in the year could cause freshly poured concrete to crumble, the third weekend of the month saw the Nord men and several of their neighbors rushing under an unrelenting chill drizzle to pour the building’s new foundation — leaving a 22 foot wide gap in both narrow ends so the new barn could be pulled over top.
            On the 14th of November Wilda Nord wrote in her journal “first snow, about 2 or 3 inches.”  A few days before the two-story brick chimney had been dismantled and the large, artfully cast ‘Mammoth’ brand iron woodstove that had heated the old hall for many years taken to the Nord farm — where it still heats a workshop. 
            The hall never had inside plumbing, so there weren’t any pipes to worry about.  And a simple disconnect took care of the electrical.
            During the last three days of November the finally preparations were made.  Bob Herendeen brought in his hydraulic jacks — some of them, as Warren Nord recalls, “so big it took two men to lift them.”
            By the end of the third day the entire building had been elevated and long steel beams pulled under its length and jacked into place.  Two four-wheel dollies were attached under the steel beams toward the rear of the building, and Bob’s heavy duty GMC truck was positioned at the front.  According to Leno’s drawing, a transverse beam — probable a heavy timber — was chained to the longitudinal steel beams protruding from under the front of the grange.  That wooden beam, along with the front of the building, was eased down onto the pivot over the truck’s rear wheels.  This tricycle arrangement of truck and dollies was likely the best possible — considering the uneven ground ahead.

Warren, Clarence, Lyle, and Wilda Nord - 1949.
Photo courtesy of the Clayton/Deer Park Historical Society - from the Jean Nord collection.

            The mover, Bob Herendeen, was something of a local character.  As for when he had become a local character, Warren recalls that his own family had moved into the Clayton area in 1938, and onto their farm in 1941.  And that Bob had first appeared in the Clayton area several years after that. 

Bob Herendeen, August, 1968.
Photo courtesy of the Clayton/Deer Park Historical Society - from the Stephen Parkin collection.

            Former Deer Park resident Paul Erickson sketched out Bob’s appearance.  “He was heavy and rotund, at least from my then pint-sized perspective, and spoke with a distinctive gruffness.  Despite that, he seemed a nice guy — happy, approachable.   He usually wore loose fitting bib overalls, often dirty from crawling around under buildings.”
            Charles Stewart remembers Bob elevating a house his family once owned at Loon Lake so a basement could be placed beneath.  “Though Bob was thick and round, he could wriggle into really thigh places.  He always seemed to be carrying a shovel.  It didn’t seem to bother him to have a kid — me — hanging around, though he never offered to explain what he was doing and didn’t encourage questions.
            “When things got tough, Bob would sing to himself — lyrics and tune unintelligible.  The tighter and dirtier the situation, the louder Bob would wail.  Only later did I figure out that Bob might have been singing in Danish — which would explain why he had “The Crazy Dane” lettered on his truck’s doors.”
            For moving the old Clayton grange, Herendeen charged the Nord family $300.00.
           Helpers and observers began gathering at the old grange before light on the morning of December 1st.  A few minutes after 8 o’clock Milton Strong, a lineman with Inland Power & Light, arrived to drop the power lines running along the north side of the county road.  As soon as the lines were down, the building began moving south.

The old Clayton Grange easing onto Twidwell's property.  Leno Prestini's pickup seen in foreground.  Lyle Nord seen between pickup and southeast corner of the building.
Photo courtesy of the Clayton/Deer Park Historical Society - from the Jean Nord collection.

            Directly across Olson Road was the home of Sol Twidwell.  The grange was pulled to the road, then across the blacktop at a diagonal so it would miss Twidwell’s garage on its way to Lyle Nord’s field.  Likely it was the twisting stress placed on the dolly’s solid axles as each dolly’s heavily loaded double duel wheels were turned across the county road’s paved surface that did it, but as the hall rolled into Lyle’s field the axle on one of the dollies snapped.  Clayton mechanic Marvin Calicoat was called out to weld it.  That problem consumed the rest of the morning.  It was afternoon before barbwire fences were dropped and the building began moving again, this time across property owned by Charley Larsen and then down toward the worrisome swamp along the bottom of Clarence Nord’s pasture.
            The power-lines were only down for 20 or so minutes.  But as Warren noted, if the axle had snapped while the grange was sitting crosswise on the blacktop, everyone whose power was disrupted for however long it took to get the building moving again would have had something unkind to say.  Whether or not they would have actually said such outloud was another matter.

Moving across frozen ground.
Photo courtesy of the Clayton/Deer Park Historical Society - from the Jean Nord collection.

            As the building rolled toward the expected problem area just to the east of Beaver Creek, the hope was that the surface would be frozen far enough down to support the building’s weight.  If the wheels broke through into the sub-irrigate muck below, it was feared that the building might just have to stay there permanently.
            And they did break through.
            One thing was for certain — if the building sat mired in the freezing bog overnight, come morning it would take pickaxes to chop away the frozen mud.  So from mid afternoon until 8 o’clock that night, with shovels and planks, Bob Herendeen, Clarence and Lyle Nord, Tom Scriven, Sol Twidwell, Harry Jose, and Leno Prestini struggled in the cold mud.  They managed to move the hall forward a foot or two at a time until it rested on the solid ground rising from the south side of the bog.  When Warren got home from his job in Spokane, he found the moving crew muddy, wet, and exhausted — and worried that when the move resumed in the morning the increasing rise to the south would prove too much for Bob’s already overloaded truck.  As the men conferred, it seemed likely that come dawn there would be still more hell to pay.
            The next morning’s scene was captured in Leno Prestini’s sketch.  Ken Kratzer, one of the Nord’s neighbors, brought his 40 horsepower 1938 McCormick-Deering TD35 crawler to push against the rear of the building.  To assist Bob Herendeen’s GMC truck, a towline was hooked to the Nord’s four-cylinder 20 horsepower Farmall Super C tractor.  And then Bob Herendeen’s pickup was attached by line to the right front corner of the building’s support.
            In the sketch, the other vehicle shown sitting off to the side was Warren Nord’s 1951 Chevy 1-ton.  Warren still has the Farmall tractor shown in the drawing.  And a resident living just east of Clayton, Ray Hall, is currently restoring the McCormick-Deering crawler.
            With all pulling and pushing in consort, the grange slowly moved up the hill into the pasture west of the Nord’s farm — at which point something in Bob’s GMC’s engine broke.  The front of the grange had to be jacked up so the GMC could be pulled out.  Then the truck was towed to Marvin Calicoat’s garage in Clayton for overnight repairs.
            Repositioned the next morning, Bob’s truck pulled the grange through the 22 foot wide gap on the west side of its new foundation.  Jacks were used to lower it onto the foundation.  And Herendeen’s part of the job was done.
            Over the next few weeks the Nord’s filled the gaps in the foundation and cut a ten by ten foot door in the east end of their new barn — a building currently believed to be only nine years shy of its hundredth birthday.

The Nord barn as it appears today.
Photo by Wally Lee Parker

            Leno Prestini stopped by the Nord’s farm a short time after the move and gave his sketch to Warren — not unusual since most of Leno’s works in private hands were originally given as gifts to this or that person.  Warren rolled the sketch and tied it with string, then placed it in the corner of a dresser drawer.  It lay there for a number of years — until Warren got married.  His wife, Rainy, found the drawing.  Seeing that it was an original Prestini, she told Warren, “This needs to be taken care of.”  The drawing was carefully framed behind glass and has since become one of the family’s prized mementos.
            From a commercial perspective Leno’s artistry was not successful during his lifetime — with only a handful of his paintings having been sold.  Nor has his art done well since.  The highest price ever paid for a Prestini is believed to be $500.00 — that for a nude purchased from a private collector in the summer of 2008 by the Clayton/Deer Park Historical Society.  But as time has passed, two things have become apparent.  The historical value of Leno Prestini’s art far surpasses what this lack of monetary appreciation might suggest.  And the time for a careful reevaluation of Leno as an artist is long overdue.
            Leno has long been dismissed as nothing more than a self-taught folk artist.  Within that self-taught label lies the implication that his artistic techniques are not particularly sophisticated.  However, as far as is currently known Leno did obtain the equivalence of formal training during his apprenticeship at Clayton’s terra cotta works in the 1920s.  While his training was not academic, it appears he learned his craft well.  And as for the overall tendency to interpret his work as folk art, this is probably a misinterpretation of his artistic sensibilities based on the country and western themed content of some of his more popular paintings.  Closer inspection suggests that a good portion of his work evokes an artistic philosophy in tune with some of the more avant-garde trends of the 1920s and ‘30s.  Once people allow themselves to see beyond this learned tendency to lower their expectations in Leno’s case, they will find far more in Leno’s art than traditionally assumed.
            To speed up this much needed reevaluation, this August three area organizations will present a collective retrospective of Leno’s art and life.  From August 7th through the 22nd the Stevens County Historical Society will have 70 plus paintings — including some of Leno’s most controversial — and several of his surviving terra cotta sculptures, as well as other memorabilia, on display at 251 North Main Street in downtown Colville.  On the weekends of August 14th and 21st the Loon Lake Historical Society — custodians of Loon Lake’s historic schoolhouse — will have several of Leno’s larger paintings from their own collection as well as various borrowed works available for inspection at the schoolhouse — 4000 Colville Road.  The Loon Lake group also has in their collection some of the most unique items of Prestini memorabilia known to exist.  On those same weekends the Clayton/Deer Park Historical Society will have two of its Prestini nudes on display at the Clayton Grange Hall — the former Clayton Moose Temple.  Also on display will be pieces of Prestini artwork on loan — including the sketch “Hell at Dawn” — as well as other miscellaneous artifacts.  The Clayton Grange Hall is located on Railroad Avenue — Clayton’s main street.  All three of these sites will also be showing numerous photos and other materials related to Leno’s life and Clayton’s clay industry.
            All these venues will be open from 10 am to 4 pm on the indicated days, and admission is free.  For more information, these various organizations can be contacted online.

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Copyright to the above material is retained by Wally Lee Parker.

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