We Need More Island History

We have an historical void here in the islands. There probably few communities in the United States as drastically separated from their history as are the communities in the San Juan Islands.

The islands have gone through three phases of historical succession each marked by a drastic disconnect with its predecessors. There was the Indian/aboriginal phase, succeeded by the farmer/settler phase which, in turn, was succeeded by the present leisure/recreational phase of island history. None of the phases has had any appreciable relation to its past or influence on its future.

The Indian era dates from antiquity but began to come to an end with the arrival in the islands of the Hudson Bay Company about 1850. By 1880 the Indian era was essentially ended.
Of all the successive phases of Island history the Indians have had the least impact. With one exception there is absolutely nothing in our current society that shows Indian influence. The one exception is when the skeletal hand of the dead past reaches out to trip up some unfortunate person who inadvertently expects to build his house on a shell midden. Then the draconian laws relating to Indian artifacts take over with the archaeologists in charge. Our intense focus on Indian history seems to be a manifestation of politically correct guilt over what is assumed to be our treatment of the Indians. Beside that, with no artifacts of ancient history we have to do something to provide work at home for the archeologists the colleges are turning out.

And the Indians today? The few remnants of the Indian period are some families of pioneers who married Indian women and the reef net method of fishing. Of course there are the professional Indians who have to make the gesture of re-enacting their cultural heritage by going out and hunting a whale, these days with a modern high powered rifle in a canoe driven by an outboard motor. Others are seeking more efficient ways of separating gamblers from their cash or selling cut price liquor and gasoline to the palefaces.

Focusing on the Indian history is relatively easy. There is a huge amount of material on that subject. It is readily available, and it has little or nothing to do with us.

What I think of as the farmer-settler or farmer-fisherman period began with the arrival of the Hudson Bay Company, the collapse of the Fraser River gold rush in 1857, and the Indian wars of that time.

What would be worth study would be to learn more about the early settlers who quickly displaced the Indians without being much influenced by them, except for the few who married Indian women. Where did those settlers come from, why did they come to the islands, and what resources did they bring with them?

Some seventy years ago Dr. Norman S. Hayner wrote a paper on ecological change, that is the human ecology, in the San Juan Islands. It is odd that with all the interest in history no one has followed up on and expanded Dr. Hayner’s work. While we are heavily focused on ecology today, the human ecology is seldom considered although that is the most interesting part. In fact ecologists these days seldom consider we human as part of the ecology except as a destructive force. (Dr.Hayner’s family still own that little house with the sign “Plum Ducky”across from the Museum.)

The farmer-fisherman period prospered moderately until about 1920 due in large part to the advantage the island had in shipping farm produce to market by cheap water transportation. A nationwide slump in the farm economy starting in 1920s was made more severe in the islands when mainland farms began to get faster and cheaper access to markets by railroad and automobile. The island economy was buoyed considerably by the expanded fishing industry but farming declined almost to subsistence farming. But 1970 farming as an economically sustainable proposition was finished. Fishing essentially came to an end by 1980 when the Boldt decision gave half of the declining stocks of salmon to the Indian tribes and Bumblebee Seafood sold the last remaining facility for fishermen to a real estate developer.

Aside from a few buildings like the Center Church, some farmhouses, and water towers, we have no historic buildings to remind us of the past and the few we do have are being radically redirected to new uses. The one thing we do have to remind us of the past, and which has some influence on us today, is the pattern of the farm landscape. It is an historical artifact and that too is being changed to new uses. What slowly and laboriously was created by manpower and animal power now can be quickly, radically, and permanently altered by heavy machinery.

Here on Lopez we have essentially no relationship whatsoever with the community and culture that existed here sixty of seventy years ago other than as an object of curiosity or nostalgia. Over the past fifty years or so the islands have been completely colonialized creating an entirely new culture based on leisure – occasional (tourists), part time (absentee owners) and full time (retired).

The publication of Lopez Island: Images of America has done a nice job of publishing pictures and notes of some of the old time island residents. But that hardly skims the surface. There is little published about how they lived and why they came here. They have collected a good bit of information on the Farmer-Fisherman period. I have written included a few snippets of earlier times in my book An Island Fantasy but there is much more to be written about.

But the next part of the job, and the part that has the most influence on us today, remains to be done. I am talking about what might be called the “Leisure Period” since it is focused primarily on retirement, recreation and tourism. The economy is totally different. There are very few people left who lived here during that time or are descendants of people who lived here during those times.

As an example, I came to Lopez Island in 1965. There were about 450 people living here full time then, although there were an unknown number of part time residents. A few years ago I did an informal head count of people who were living here then and update it from time to time. So far as I can tell while we have about 2,500 residents there are only thirty four of those people left. There may be another forty or so who are descendants of people who lived here in that earlier period or who left before that and have now returned to retire. So it appears that 2,400 people have arrived on Lopez Island and have totally overcome the then existing population. Actually, the impact is even more dramatic since there also have been an unknown number who have come and gone in that period of time. Plus, we have added an unknown number of part time residents. To look at it another way, we have almost as many people living on Lopez today as lived in the entire county sixty years ago.

Assuming that the Leisure period began somewhere around 1960 there was an overlap of maybe fifteen or twenty years with the Farmer Fisherman period. We lived here then and I want to tell you it was a neat time. But the islands have changed dramatically in the past fifty years. Here are some indicators:

In 1960 total property sales in the county amounted to $2,655,998. In 2005 when sales peak they totaled $414,733,957, 156 times the sales volume of 1960 if adjusted for inflation the 2005 sales would be only 21 times as much.

Real estate prices escalated greatly. In 1960 acreage could be had for $200 per acre. In 2010 it was around $10,000 per acres, fifty times greater. Nice waterfront that sold for $50 per foot now commands $ 3,000 or more.

There are other interesting indicators. In 1960 we had one bank with a main office and one branch. Today there are eight. In1960 we had two lawyers in the county. Today there are forty five, which may be the most striking example of how affluent we have become. Lawyers are expensive.

Who are all these people, what has caused all these changes? What came about with all these changes, and how did we respond to them and try to cope? It is the task of history to find the answers to those questions, to find out and record the forces that drove those changes and are driving the changes that are occurring today. It is our institutional memory and with the volatility of the population that is a very shallow memory.

That struck me the other day when I received a telephone call from Teresa Nash in Friday Harbor. Her father used to own the drugstore there. The Friday Harbor port was planning to honor flyers who have made a significant contribution to the community. She had nominated Dr. Heath. Dr. Malcolm Heath served the islands for thirty years and was well known as the flying doctor of the San Juan Islands. But the majority of the people involved in the selection didn’t know who Doctor Heath was. They had arrived in the islands long after Dr. Heath was gone. Teresa wanted me to help with some examples of how he had served island families.

Beloit College each year puts out a list of the state of mind of the new class arriving. The class of 2014, for example, has never used a card catalog to find a book, and, to them, there has always been a computer in the Oval Office. We are in a somewhat similar state of mind – a very short institutional memory.

Bob Myhr, a former county commissioner and county councilman, thinks that the generally prevailing state of public opinion changes about every fifteen years. I think it may be less than that, but it is an indication that our collective institutional memory is fairly short. Yet we are making public decisions based on that shallow memory.

What I am suggesting is that the historical society, here and on the other islands as well, could do a great service to our community, and to our future by engaging in a program to develop the history of the past fifty years. No community in the state is more volatile than ours. As a consequence, no community in our state has a more urgent need for recent history. We ought to have the motto:

You can’t get to where you want to go if you don’t know how you got to where you are.

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