Forgotten Seattle: Robin Elford remembers the city of her youth

The Arabia. The Baghdad. The Cheerio. The Roxy. All gone.

Piggly-Wiggly. The Finnish Hall on 15th. The old mercantile store, Ross Marche, near Seattle Pacific University. The Grizzly Inn near the former Queen Anne High School.

All gone, but still very much a part of Seattle native Robin Elford's memory bank.

Robin, nee Roberta, was born at Providence Hospital in 1928, grew up in the Mount Baker neighborhood, spent 41 years on Magnolia and another 13 at the Grovesnor House-now called the Wall Street Tower-near downtown.

Today, this active senior lives in Lower Queen Anne, close to where, as a child, she used to visit her grandmother and uncle. Getting off the streetcar and rollerskating near what is now Key Arena are still clear memories.

During two recent interviews over coffee at Zingaro, Robin, quick as a metronome, ticks off the names of stores and buildings that once dotted Magnolia or Queen Anne. "So many places I loved are gone," she says. "They just weren't salvageable."

Dressed in royal blue sweatpants and shirt, Robin looks thoughtful when asked to consider her favorite past places: Salladay's, a combination drugstore and gift shop; Meredith's, a dime store; and Winchell's Doughnuts. Of course, Winchell's came much later, after places like Hansen's Baking Co., built to resemble a windmill, had already been torn down.

Get her talking, and this retired teacher of Spanish and Latin has no trouble remembering another Seattle. But she's not the type to say that that Seattle, the one she has watched through decades of change, was better than the Seattle of today. "I think everything's fine the way it is," she says.

Nevertheless, it's apparent these old Seattle haunts played an important part in Robin's life, and she admits she misses them. She loved the movies and the music of those earlier days. There was also the fact that her mother was manager of the tearoom at Frederick & Nelson's, where she says she was "Frango'd to death," because she knew many of the salespeople and buyers.

An avid baseball fan even as a girl, Robin watched the Rainiers play at Sick's Stadium and remembers how, during World War II, the games were restricted to afternoons because of the blackouts and air-raid alarms at night.

Another war memory involves rations: little red tokens that were issued for gas, sugar and butter. She also talked about how scary it was when the Japanese-Americans were taken away to internment camps.

After finishing Franklin High School in 1946, Robin started in at the University of Washington, where she majored in Spanish and often attended classes in Denny Hall, a building that has been renovated since her student days but remains a center of action for language students.

Teaching was not Robin's original intention, and she is no longer completely sure how she veered into it-probably because her advisor and teachers encouraged her, she thinks now. "I guess I thought I was going to be an interpreter, or a translator," she says.

Those were heady years for college students, the days when women students routinely wore sweaters and pleated wool skirts. Robin says she actually had nine cashmere sweaters that she wore to classes, as well as out on dates with some of the " mostly older" men on campus.

The veterans had returned from World War II, and many took classes thanks to the G.I. bill. In her senior year, Robin "had a crush" on her Latin teacher and "fell in love," not with the teacher but with the subject. Eventually, in 1961, she earned a master's degree in Latin.

After practice, or cadet, teaching, which she undertook at Queen Anne High School, the young Miss Elford landed her first teaching stint at Edmonds High School. That time in her life was important, and not only because it was the beginning of her of teaching career.

"Did I tell you about my four cars?" Robin asks a second time as she sips her coffee. Each of her four cars has its own story, she explains, and the first story coincides with when she started to teach.

Edmonds undoubtedly seemed even farther away than it does now, and Robin didn't always like to take the bus. A considerate co-worker sometimes drove her home, and one day she turned to her and said, "I think you should buy a car."

The friend then promptly dropped her off at a car lot in Ballard, and Robin ended up with a 1954 red convertible. "The men teachers just loved it," she says with a laugh. Later, the car caught a bullet when one of her neighbor's shot at a Peeping Tom. Then Robin's next car, also a Ford, caught on fire one day in Magnolia Village. The third Ford she had "just conked out," she says, and her fourth car turned out to be a lemon that she owned just one day.

It's easy to see that those cars had special meaning for the lively teacher, who also ended up substitute teaching and "loved" it. Part of the intrigue, she says, was jumping into her car and heading off in a different direction each time on the spur of the moment.

During her teaching career, she also taught junior high in the Seattle Public Schools, and spent five years teaching in a girls' school called St. Nicholas that later merged with Lakeside. At St. Nick's, as it was known, there sometimes would be a whole class of A students, Robin reminisces-a situation she appreciated in contrast to some rather unruly junior high students she encountered. Toward the end of her career, she taught at Holy Names Academy for three years.

Finally, in 1975, it was time to retire from teaching, but not from work; Robin changed careers and became a collector. "I don't mean collectibles," she says.

As a member of the Payco collection agency staff, Robin worked in the office and liked getting people to pay their bills. She doesn't believe that she was "the world's greatest collector," but she still managed to be named "Collector of the Month," she recalls.

A profile of Robin Elford would not be complete without mentioning that she was married briefly; but in fact, it's not a subject she cares to talk about.

The two areas she does want people to remember her for are the two that have captured so much of her attention and continue to absorb her passionately: the Seattle Fire Department and the Order of Eastern Star, a nondenominational social and philanthropic organization.

While her interest in Eastern Star seems natural enough-her mother was a member before her-her enthusiasm for the SFD is an interest that isn't quite so easy to pin down.

Her initial acquaintance with the fire department dates back to 1932 or '33. At about age 4, Robin was visiting her grandmother one day when a fire broke out in the chimney. Naturally, specific details have faded in her memory, but she does remember being carried out of the house, and that she developed a fear of fire sirens for a while.

Nevertheless, as childhood incidents sometimes do, this one apparently helped trigger her later interest in the fire department.

Over the years, Robin has visited all 48 fire stations in Seattle, and since 9/11, she has delivered cookies to the firefighters of Station 2 at Fourth and Battery every month. She has a collection of pictures and memorabilia related to the department, has ridden in fire trucks, and in 2004 she received a treasured letter of recognition from the current Seattle fire chief, Gregory M. Dean.

As a member of Eastern Star, she helped collect teddy bears that were donated to the SFD for distribution to needy children. Still active in Eastern Star after 57 years, Robin has served in nearly every official capacity for the organization. Indeed, she credits the group as the main thing that has kept her going throughout her life.

She actually became involved at the age of 10 because of her mother's participation. "I couldn't wait to grow up and join," she says, "but I didn't join until I was 20. I've lived and breathed Eastern Star. I don't know what I would have done without it."

One wonders whether such a solid Seattleite ever wanted to do anything else with her life, or live somewhere else. For a time, she says, she thought about teaching in Canada. She used to spend nearly every summer in Victoria, B.C., where a street was named after her grandfather.

Somehow, that adventure never came to pass, but it would seem Robin Elford has had plenty of adventures right here in the city where she was born.[[In-content Ad]]