The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
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Polly Bemis in 1894. (Photo courtesy of Johnny and Pearl Carrey)
From The Asian Reporter, V14, #19 (May 4, 2004), page 15.
An extraordinary life
Polly Bemis: A Chinese American Pioneer
By Priscilla Wegars
Backeddy Books, 2003
Hardcover, 32 pages, $18.95
By Josephine Bridges
Although Idaho’s Polly Bemis is the Pacific Northwest’s most famous Chinese American woman, almost nothing is known about her early life or her family except that she was born in northern China, near Beijing, on September 11, 1853."
The opening line of Polly Bemis: A Chinese American Pioneer reads like the beginning of a fairy tale, but this is a true story. Between her birth and her death in Idaho on November 6, 1933, Polly Bemis lived an extraordinary life indeed.
The adventures of most pioneers don’t begin quite the way Polly’s did. "In faraway northern China long ago, a young girl’s family sold her because they had no food. She became a slave girl. Her owners took her to a southern seaport and put her on a boat going to America." After two months punctuated by storms and seasickness, the boat docked here in Portland, where Polly was illegally sold for $2,500.
After a long journey to Warren, Idaho on horseback, Polly was delivered to her owner, a wealthy Chinese man. "When she started to dismount, a stranger said, ‘Here’s Polly,’ and helped her down from the saddle," thus giving her the only name by which we know her. This is a children’s book, and the details of Polly’s work for her owner in a saloon, dance hall, or gambling business are mercifully absent. To Polly’s credit, she began to learn English in this environment.
We don’t know how Polly "eventually obtained freedom," but she became a housekeeper and then ran a boarding house for a businessman named Charlie Bemis. "Polly’s boarders, mostly rugged miners, once complained about her coffee. When she brandished a butcher knife at them saying, ‘Who no like my coffee?’ the complaints ended."
Charlie and Polly got married in 1894 and went to live and raise vegetables and animals on a small ranch in the Salmon River Canyon. Never one to shirk an opportunity, Polly found big worms while gardening, saved them in her dress or apron pockets, and used them to catch fish. "She excelled at it — one day she caught twenty-seven trout!"
Charlie and Polly had a good life together, which they shared for a time with a pet cougar, until Charlie took ill and died in 1922. Charlie and Polly’s house had burned during Charlie’s illness, and Polly returned, with the help of good neighbors, to Warren. Here Polly befriended young Johnny Carrey, to whose memory Priscilla Wegars has dedicated this book, and his family. She began to travel a little and had her first automobile ride, saw her first train, and watched her first movie in Grangeville. On a later excursion to Boise she saw her first streetcar and her first tall building, and rode in her first elevator.
Polly’s neighbors, Charlie Shepp and Pete Klinkhammer, built her a new log cabin in the place where her old house had stood, and for ten more years she "lived by her beloved Salmon River." Polly took ill in the summer of 1933 and died after a few months. "Years later, in 1987, some people who remembered Polly wanted to make sure that no one would ever forget this Chinese American pioneer," and they made her cabin on the Salmon River into a museum.
Polly Bemis: A Chinese American Pioneer is not just a pleasure to read, it’s also a beautifully designed book full of photographs of a remarkable woman and the land and people she came to love. There’s a generous biographical note at the end, and if that isn’t enough, a website, <www.pollybemis.org>, with everything from maps to paper action figures. Now what would Polly Bemis think of that?
To obtain a copy of Polly Bemis: A Chinese American Pioneer, call (208) 257-3810 or visit <www.powells.com>.