It’s 1917 and suit-clad, wide-eyed boys, sit on the steps of the San Juan County Courthouse, in preparation to fight in what was known as the Great War.
That’s the scene in the first of six photos lining the Bait Shop’s walls, in a Friday Harbor walkway known as the breezeway between Spring Street and Sunshine Alley. The first installation of this outdoor gallery commemorates this year’s 100th anniversary of America’s involvement in World War I. The exhibit “We Gave All That We Could,” was hung by town officials in September.
“It’s a good way to tell the story and spread it along the entire length of the breezeway,” said Town of Friday Harbor Administrator Duncan Wilson.
Nearly five million American soldiers served in WWI, including 124 from the San Juans’ pastoral islands, 16 of which are captured in that first image.
The photos — taken between 1917 and 1919 — were collected from the San Juan Island Historical Museum and the American Legion Post 163 to give a local glimpse of a global war.
The timeline depicts images like island Red Cross volunteers collecting supplies, soldiers reading letters from home and, lastly, the nine who did not return. Each photo includes a description, gathered from local research like an essay about the county’s WWI experience by local Lynn Weber-Roochvarg.
“We’re all familiar with the battlefield stories of WWI, but we also wanted to show that people experienced the war in profound ways at home,” said Sandy Strehlou, historic preservation coordinator for the Town of Friday Harbor. “The war affected everyone, from children to adults.”
According to photo descriptions, at home, islanders knitted covers for amputated limbs and children searched for moss to use as bandage absorbents. The nation, the descriptions continued, lost 2.5 percent of its servicemen, Washington lost 2.75 percent, but the county’s small population of 3,600 lost 7.3 percent.
The text notes that the county presumably erected the first WWI monument in the state — Memorial Park. The tribute, in the roundabout on Front Street, commemorated local lives lost, about three years after a cease-fire was reconciled in 1918. Armistice Day came about a year after the U.S. entered the war.
Strehlou and the Friday Harbor Arts Commission conceptualized the exhibit’s theme when the outdoor art project was first discussed earlier this year. The high-traffic area, said Stehlou, has a wall reminiscent to a gallery’s space. Organizers used plastic coverings to protect the photos — which are copies of originals — and galvanized screws to hang them.
The copies were edited to tell the story, including adding text and color, as well as enlarging them. Five were produced by local artist Chris Minney of Tif & Gif Creative and the image “Letters” by another local artist Peggy Sue McRae.
The exhibit will be displayed for three months, said Strehlou, and hopefully replaced by another, if the owners of the Bait Shop building, Jeffrey and Alice Carnevali, agree. Wilson and Strehlou thanked both for offering their property for the public art experience.
“We want to bring excitement to the space,” said Strehlou. “We want people to revisit the space again and again.”
To learn more about the county’s WWI experience, read Weber-Roochvarg’s essay at www.historylink.org.