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Joe and Nellie Crowe enjoyed the life they built together

Nellie Crowe in 1945. She met her husband at a dance.
 (Photos courtesy of family / The Spokesman-Review)
Nellie Crowe in 1945. She met her husband at a dance. (Photos courtesy of family / The Spokesman-Review)

Nellie Crowe was an Idaho mountain girl, shelling peas for 15 cents an hour in a Moscow cannery when her husband, Joe, entered her life.

He spotted her at a local dance and literally waltzed away with her.

“She was dancing with somebody else and dad grabbed her off the dance floor,” said Clara Knudson, recalling a courtship story her mother, Nellie, told her not long ago. “He told her she wasn’t going to dance with anyone else anymore.”

Time proved Joe Crowe right. From the night of that dance in the throes of the Great Depression to Nov. 1, when Nellie died at age 90, she was Joe’s girl. They migrated to California and back, raised three children in Spokane Valley, built two houses with their own hands and made beautiful music in their spare time.

It was no wonder then after 69 years of marriage, that Joe Crowe wasn’t long for this world without “Mother,” as he called Nellie. She called him “Daddy.”

Joe died Dec. 13, just 43 days after Nellie Crowe’s death. He was 92.

They were products of the worst economic times in America’s history, the Great Depression. And they were masters of making something out of nothing.

After chasing the promise of jobs and family to Venice, Calif., in the years leading up to World War II, the Crowes moved back to the Inland Northwest because their daughter, Clara, had ear problems. Doctors suggested moving to Spokane’s drier climate would benefit Clara, the second of the Crowe’s three children.

Joe built a collapsible, camp trailer with cloth sides for the journey, and they set out for Spokane. They bought two and a half acres on East 12th Avenue in Spokane Valley, just north of Pines Cemetery. The cost of the land was well under $2,000. The Crowes made a $600 down payment and went to work building a house before winter came.

They lived in their collapsible tent during the home building. Joe landed a job at Brown Trailer, a manufacturing company. He spent his off hours searching for buildings about to be razed, in hopes of salvaging wood for his own home. Nellie Crowe cleaned the lumber her husband found so Joe could build new walls.

“Mom used to say, ‘Well, I straightened the nails,’ ” Clara Knudson said.

Joe pounded their house together with whatever hardware Nellie gave him. Initially, the couple had no indoor bathroom, their son, Don Crowe said. And there wasn’t water within a block of the home.

Paying someone to run a water line to the house from Pines Road, where the pipe lay buried, was out the question for the Crowes, Don said. So, Joe Crowe dug the required trench by hand so the family could hook up to Modern Electric and Irrigation Co.’s pipe.

Clara Knudson likes to comment on how much people could get done without the distraction of television. Her parents were proof of that, she said. In addition to the countless hours of home labor her parents performed after work, Knudson’s parents managed to catch enough fish on the weekends to feed the family.

The Idaho limit on fish at the time was 50 per angler, per day. Joe and Nellie Crowe would head to a local lake most Saturdays and catch 100 fish between them. Whatever they caught was salted and then smoked in a barrel smoker still located today behind the couple’s home.

Neighbors who dropped by were always offered a jar packed with smoked fish to take home, Don Crowe said. When Joe and Nellie really put out the welcome matt, visitors were treated to old time music played on Nellie’s organ and Joe’s harmonica and banjo. One of their favorite songs was “All Around the Water Tank, Waiting for a Train,” a Jimmie Rodgers standard about the hobo life so popular with the youth of the Great Depression. Joe Crowe could play banjo and harmonica at the same time and could also push the wind though an accordion when called upon.

Their Crowes’ real love, however, was restoring antique cars. They loved Fords from the 1920s. Clara Knudson speculated the cars probably attracted her father because his family didn’t have one when he was a child.

The cars were also practical, easy to assemble and easy to repair. Joe Crowe would scour the hillsides and classifieds for a car he and Nellie might restore. A tattered list creased in the pages of a scrapbook suggests the Crowes worked on at least 30 antique cars, but the yellowed paper and deep creases indicate the list was written long ago. The Crowes restored cars right up to the end of their lives. Joe did the body and mechanical work. Nellie sewed the upholstery on a pedal-driven White sewing machine.

Seldom did the Crowes miss a parade. Their cars escorted local royalty in Spokane Valley parades and wowed crowds at the Lilac Parade.

The Crowes worked on cars even after age and declining health prevented them from driving in the last years of their lives. Clara Knudson took over driving duties after her Joe suffered a heart attack a couple of years ago. Late in life the Crowes took to slot machines and gambling at Northern Quest Casino, which is where they were planning to go the day Nellie died.

Joe’s sweetheart of 69 years died at the kitchen table waiting for their ride. She died so easily Joe Crowe didn’t even notice right away, Knudson said.

Joe Crowe wasn’t really able to go it alone without Nellie. His oldest daughter, June, came up from Texas and stayed with him for a couple of weeks and then Joe moved into a rest home.

Before his death, Joe could be heard quietly singing beneath his breath as Clara helped him sip some water.

He sang, “Had a drink about an hour ago,” the third verse from “Show Me the Way to Go Home, I’m Tired and I Want to Go to Bed.” The dance of his lifetime had ended.