—Sappho of Lesbos, circa 600 BC
It’s sad but true. When we read Sappho, the Lesbian poet of seventh century BC, we find fewer poems than pieces. They are mostly teasing little bits, like “Eros arrived from heaven wrapped in a purple mantle,” or “with what eyes?” It’s not a lot to go on.
We know that Sappho was born in about 630 to an aristocratic family, was orphaned at six, had a daughter named Kleis, and died in around 570. She is said to have been short, dark, and ugly. While her woman-centered poetry was widely known, very little survived the Dark Age.
But the poet’s memory happily lives on at Sappho Junction, a little town in the Olympic Peninsula at the intersection of U.S. 101 and Highway 113.
Here, behind the Texaco, stands one of the more unlikely literary monuments in Washington State: a chainsaw sculpture of a toga-clad, dark-skinned woman with pouty lips and big wide eyes.
“I needed something for the tourists,” admits Texaco owner Sam Gaydeski. “I could have had a fish or a bear or something, but Sappho being Sappho, I had her carved instead.”
Sappho, population 13, could have been the shipping center of the upper Quillayute valley, or so hoped town founder Martin Van Buren Lamoreaux, who moved there in 1889. After Seattle’s Great Fire, Lamoreaux decided his land near Lake Union was a bust and took a chance on the middle of nowhere.
Lamoreaux, his wife, and their eleven kids took a steamship to the Pysht Indian Village on the Straits of Juan de Fuca, hiked through 20 miles of wilderness, and homesteaded their claim. In Lamoreaux’s town, each member of his family had a good job: postmaster, hotel owner, general grocer, hospital administrator, and so forth.
According to several sources, Lamoreaux named the town Sappho because he felt Sappho’s poetry, with its “intense but controlled emotion expressed in everyday, down to earth language,” struck a nice tone for building a life in the Olympics.
The town founder was jailhouse lawyer as well as an amateur classics scholar. Locals called him “The Judge.” Despite his lack of a law degree, he became Justice of the Peace.
Lamoreaux died in 1901. His family gave it up and split for Vashon in 1909.
Yet Sappho persisted. It was a timber town of sorts, and hosted a logging camp from the 30s forward. By the early 70s, the advent of the logging truck rendered the railway, and the town of Sappho, more or less obsolete. That’s when the post office and the town tavern closed down for good.
Now Sappho is Sam’s Texaco, a junk shop about a mile down the road run by a guy named Biff, and a nice old couple who raise Australian Sheepdogs. “It’s not much of a town really,” says Sam. “Just a big old name on the map.”
But what a name. On any map of the Olympic Peninsula, you’ll find Sappho, just a big as Forks, or even Port Angeles. There isn’t much left, but we at Classics Corner are happy she’s there.