Woman's Club honors Keysers' citizenship


December 14, 2017

Diana Zimmerman

Helen and Ralph Keyser have received Citizen of the Year honors from the Cathlamet Woman's Club.

Puget Island residents Ralph and Helen Keyser were recently named the Womans Club Citizens of the Year for their community service.

Ralph Keyser and Helen Loberg were born and raised in Wahkiakum County and they wouldn't have it any other way.

I have no desire to go any place else," Helen said. "You know so many people and you feel safe in a small community. I'm not a city girl."

As youths, both were raised on farms.

"We lived clear out in the Elochoman," Helen said. "We were the first kids on the bus in the morning and the last ones off at night."

Her father worked for Crown Zellerbach, and they raised their own food on the family farm. There was a railroad track running right through their property, which began a lifelong love of trains, a love she shares with Ralph.

"Living on the farm, we felt like we were missing a lot," Helen said. "We had to come home and work to keep things going. It was a good life out there. My sister and I reminisce about it all the time. We thought it was hard, but we learned so much. Learned how to take care of things, how to take care of yourself and others. Learned good work habits."

Ralph's family arrived in the county in 1927. They came from Sioux City, Iowa in a caravan--five Model Ts and a Model A.

"My folks came west in 1926," Ralph said. "My dad was working for a street car company in the city, but he gave up a good job to come out here. Longview was just growing. They were building the mills."

It was in a cedar shack on Beaver Creek that Ralph began his life.

He was the fifth of six kids. His four older brothers and sisters were already grown when Ralph arrived. They found work elsewhere, while Ralph and his younger sibling helped mom and dad with 700 laying hens, a dozen cows, and more. Ralph even raised over 100 rabbits, and kept the local market supplied.

At the time, Keyser Farm was one of several egg suppliers in the state for Washington Co-op, which was operating in Longview.

After Ralph graduated from high school, he worked at the theater in Cathlamet as a projectionist. During the day he worked on the farm.

In 1951, while his parents were traveling to Iowa, Ralph received his draft notice in the mail.

"Boy, I was supposed to report on the 28th," Ralph said. "When are they going to get home?

I got snowed in. I was taking care of the cattle and the chickens. Who was going to take care of the stock if they didn't get home? Fortunately, the snow didn't last long and the folks got home on the 21st or so. I was really sweating it by then."

He served in Korea in the Army Signal Corps for two years. When he returned, there was an opening at the theater for his old job. The current projectionist had been thrown in jail for some transgression.

Ralph was supposed to fill in until they found someone, but they never did. He worked at the theater until it closed in 1955.

He and his dad built three shops/storage units in Cathlamet and Skamokawa. His hard work on several projects led to an opportunity to work for the County Road Department.

"There are parts of him all over the county," Helen laughed.

Helen, who is 10 years younger than Ralph, remembers seeing him when he was in high school. She met him when she was 14 or 15 and he was logging on her father's property. It wasn't until she saw him a couple years later on a motorcycle that he turned her head.

By the time they started dating, he had lost interest in the motorcycle, much to her disappointment.

The couple have been married for 58 years. They raised two kids, and now have three grandkids and one great-grandson.

"That's when I'm happiest," Helen said. "When I'm with my kids and their kids."

Ralph worked in the county road department for 28 years, plowing snow and moving furniture in the courthouse.

"I enjoyed that job, because every day seemed a little different," Ralph said.

He plowed with the Cat back in those days, with only a canopy for cover.

"I made him mittens and hats out of wool," Helen said. "You put the mittens over gloves for warmth and if they get wet, you're still warm."

Helen can knit, crochet, and sew. She's the family mender, and even the grandkids are learning to bring her items that need fixing.

Those very skills make her a valuable asset to the Children's Hospital Auxiliary, to which she had been a member for years.

The couple also like to contribute to the fair and to Lions Club bingo.

"I want them to hang in there," Helen said. "It's hard in a small community to get help. I think people have to get to a certain age to realize how important it is to keep some of the stuff going."

Ralph, who is retiring as a volunteer from the Wahkiakum Historical Society after 28 years, got involved in the organization when he became friends with a gifted jack of all trades who was instrumental in starting the society.

When the Keyser TV needed repairs, he would visit Ivan Jones. That troublesome TV brought the two together so often, they became friends. When Ralph retired from his county job, Ivan had him talked into joining the Wahkiakum Historical Society.

And at the very first meeting Ralph attended, he was elected president.

"He was hoodwinked," Helen laughed.

Ralph has been serving the society ever since. He helps with curating and research, maintaining the building and grounds, and fundraising since the county stopped supporting them. This includes driving the children's train at events.

"I enjoy the train and the kids," Ralph said. "They are a real hoot."

He is retiring from the society at the end of the month.

"They are already asking me to come back" Ralph laughed.

His interest in local history led him to write a volume on a subject near to his heart: old railroad logging in the county. It hasn't been published, and he considers it more of a reference guide, but Helen is proud of him.

"I did a lot of research on that," Ralph said. "I knew so many old timers. I'm the old timer now. If I have a question, there is nobody to ask any more, but people can ask me."

He did a lot of walking in the summertime and spent the winters looking at maps and other source materials in the courthouse.

"It would surprise you how many small railroads ran up these creeks and around the valleys and have been forgotten," he added. "The tracks are mostly gone. Crown Zellerbach turned a lot of the old railroad grades into truck roads. It can be difficult to verify that it was a railroad grade. There is no evidence of Simon Benson's logging in Cathlamet, but where he came into the county from Mill Creek, the camps were pretty much undisturbed. A fire had gone through and burned the buildings, but I found a pile of cross cut saw blades, broken dishes and more."

The only thing that might pull the couple away for a short time is their shared love of trains. It could be a train ride to see Christmastown, a train trip to California, or to check out the miniature trains in Brookings. They may have even parked their RV next to the train tracks in Reno, Nev., just to see and hear the trains as they went by.

But the trips are never for long.

"Cathlamet has been the best place to live," Helen said. "You know that you are loved. You love. If I'm feeling blue, or tired or depressed, or worried about somebody, I can go in my car, go over town, and go to the grocery store. There is always somebody there that needs a hug. Or I need a hug."

This is home.


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