Over the past few decades, Kay Cardwell Davis’ two steamer trunks full of family artifacts accompanied her to New York, Kansas, Florida, and finally to Pendleton. Though not originally from Pendleton, Davis feels like she and the trunks have finally come home.

The story of how she found her way involves her love of family history, an internship at Penthouse Magazine and reconnecting with a lost love.

Davis, who grew up in Portland, moved to New York City after high school to study at the Parsons School of Design. Through friends, she met Kevin Stewart who attended the School of Visual Arts just down the street from Parsons. The two design students had much in common and they began a relationship.

The summer before Davis’ junior year, she won an internship at Penthouse Magazine as a mechanical artist. At the beginning, Davis felt some trepidation. The mid-1980s was a scandalous time, she said. Under pressure from religious fundamentalists, the parent company of the 7-Eleven convenience store chain stopped selling Penthouse and other adult magazines.

On her first day at work, “I didn’t know what to expect,” she said.

She found a culture that was surprisingly “respectful.” The company also had a dress code that required male employees to wear suits and ties and the women to don skirts, heels and stockings. Davis worked her way up to a full-time job as assistant art director and stayed three-and-a-half years.

“It was a job that helped pay bills and for my schooling,” she said. “I was a sponge. It was my first job out there in the real world. There are things I learned in that job that I still use today.”

At the end of college, she and Stewart broke up. They married other people and had families. Each of their broods features a set of twins.

Davis and her husband moved to Wichita, Kansas, where she worked as creative director for Koch Industries, a multinational corporation in which brothers David and Charles Koch have majority interest. When the economy tanked in the mid-2000s, she was laid off. A divorce followed in early 2014.

Stewart, who remained in New York City, had his own demons. He was reeling after his own divorce. In 2007, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Trunks come home

Kay Davis’s great-grandparents, S.J. and Jennie Cardwell, came west from Missouri in the 1890s.

Davis found comfort looking through her trunks of family artifacts and genealogy documents that she drags with her wherever she moves. The trunks represented her roots and some spellbinding family stories. Her uncle, Sid Cardwell, a genealogy buff who reveled in researching the family tree, had unearthed a multitude of family factoids.

“I listened to his stories,” she said. “I found it all really fascinating. He didn’t have children, so I asked my uncle, could I have his genealogy when he passes away. He said yes and I inherited boxes and a suitcase full of stuff. I am the keeper of the stuff.”

The history revealed a clear family connection to Eastern Oregon and Pendleton. As a kid growing up in Portland, Davis often came east with her parents and two siblings to Pendleton for visits. Her great-grandparents, Sidney (S.J.) and Mary (Jennie) Cardwell, farmed near Athena (among other spots) after coming west from Missouri in the 1890s. The trunks belonged to her great-grandfather and inside are some of his hand-tied fishing flies and a creel. Her great-grandfather also played the fiddle and he and his oldest daughter (who played the piano) traveled by horseback to play at barn dances. Though Davis never met them, she feels their presence.

Davis also has a rocking chair in which her great-grandmother rocked all 10 of her babies. Her great-aunt Ella, the youngest of the brood, got the chair and Ella’s husband, Watt Scroggin, later restored it at his North Hill home. She can still envision her uncle, with whom she shares a birthday, in boots, pressed jeans, western shirt, cowboy hat and fancy belt buckle. The rocker he refinished with his own hands is now part of the family “stuff.”

Trunks come home

Kay Davis sits on her great-grandmother’s rocking chair, part of “the family stuff” she has collected over time.

During her time of trouble, Davis found additional comfort in reconnecting with Stewart, finding him using classmates.com in 2004. They emailed on and off as friends for about 10 years. Finally, Stewart said, “If you aren’t doing anything else, come to New York.” She did and rediscovered love.

“It was magic,” Davis said. “All of the sudden, we were teenagers again. It was like putting on my favorite T-shirt.”

“I still feel that way,” Stewart said.

They are engaged to marry in the fall of 2020.

In the summer of 2017, the couple did a cross country road trip to Pendleton and back, visiting dozens of states along the way. In their GMC Yukon, they stopped at iconic locales and did photo shoots for Stewart’s shirt design company, of which Davis is now a part. They packed a vintage sewing machine to appear in various shots in corn fields, at the coast, in the badlands of South Dakota and other spots for a new line of American-made shirts called “Sea to Shining Sea.”

They arrived in Pendleton, settling in at the home of her cousin Judy Haguewood, and then headed downtown. As they walked down Main Street, Stewart made a comment that shocked Davis.

“I could live here,” he said.

“I just looked at him. I’m like ‘What? Really?’” Davis recalls. “He goes, ‘Yeah, there’s something about this place.’ I said, ‘Do you know how I’m connected to this town?’ I had never told him any of the family history.”

They discussed it all the way home to New York. Last April, they came west again to attend Davis’ father’s funeral. Afterwards they headed to Pendleton to find a storefront in which to locate a popup business during the next Pendleton Round-Up for their American shirt company. Instead they found a spot on Main Street where they could move permanently. About six months ago, the couple packed a small U-Haul and headed to Pendleton. Their shop, Old School Shirt Makers New York, will open on February 1.

“We had to have the store here,” Stewart said. “It was a no-brainer.”

The steamer trunks and her great-grandmother’s rocking chair will have places of honor in the store. In Pendleton, Davis feels at peace and closer to her family history than ever.

“It feels right,” she said. “I definitely have a sense of wanting to make my ancestors proud and that I’m paying respect and homage to what they did. They came here in the 1890s and it feels full circle. I’ve always felt an intense connection to this part of the family. If they were to come back and walk through the wall I’m hoping they would say they’re proud of me.”

Contact Kathy Aney at kaney@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0810.

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