Friday Harbor’s 100th birthday party begins

In 1909, several noteworthy things happened in Friday Harbor and on San Juan Island.

Friday Harbor’s centennial celebration continues until the 2009 county fair

In 1909, several noteworthy things happened in Friday Harbor and on San Juan Island.

The town suffered an earthquake, which knocked bottles off shelves in Dr. Wright’s drug store. Sportsman’s Lake froze to an 8-inch depth. The first “moving picture” came to town and was shown in the Oddfellow’s Hall, now the Whale Museum. Cost to get in: 15 cents.

That same year, the Inter-Island Telephone Co. received its franchise to operate a phone system on the island. A one-year subscription to the Friday Harbor Journal cost $1.50.

Some things then would seem familiar to islanders today. In May 1909, the Baseball Club threw a dance and oyster dinner, with all proceeds benefitting the Baseball Club. Sound familiar?

Oh, and Friday Harbor residents voted to incorporate their one-square mile community as a fourth-class town, with a vote of 70-55. Big news it may have been, but the story was covered in one 17-line paragraph, with a list of newly elected town officials, on the top of the front page of the Friday Harbor Journal. The San Juan Islander carried the story in four short paragraphs.

During this year’s San Juan County Fair, the town will kick off a year of events commemorating the town’s centennial. Events include a beard-growing contest, community photo, a full-on birthday party Feb. 9 (the vote to incorporate was cast Feb. 2, 1909, but took effect a week later after the election results were certified), theater productions, “Paint the Town” art competition, and a public mural. Readers get three guesses as to what next year’s Fourth of July parade theme will be.

Mike and Julia Vouri and the San Juan Historical Society are producing a photo history, “Friday Harbor,” to be published by Arcadia Publishing Co. in time for February.

The 100-year mark is significant to us mostly because it’s a big, round, base-10 number and we’re graced with 10 fingers. But for town historians, the year 1909 is rather arbitrary, as the town was an established and thriving community with a population of around 500 and an island population three times that.

“It wasn’t as if the town incorporated in 1909 to become a place. It was already a place,” said Kevin Peterson, local architect and member of the town’s Historic Preservation Review Board.

Peterson and other local historians have put together a 10-panel historical exhibit tracing the town’s development through the past 10 decades. It’s part of the town’s display at the fair.

Already here, Peterson pointed out, were many things that islanders hold dear today, among them the park at the foot of Spring Street (now Memorial Park), the Arcade Building at Front and Spring streets, the Bay View Hotel (it’s now Sotheby’s real estate), the San Juan County Bank building (it’s now Coldwell Banker), the Oddfellows Hall (now the Whale Museum), and the county courthouse.

The basic town plat was in place, ensuring the walkability the town enjoys. The “Bug Station,” as locals called the University of Washington’s marine science facility, was established in 1904, overlooking what is now Capron’s Landing.

In many ways, Feb. 9, a hundred years ago, came and went like every other day.

Since that time, the population has increased, certainly, but proportions haven’t changed much. A whole lot of other things have, though. Who knew what was in store for islanders in the intervening years?

The Town Council voted to regulate saloon hours. The regulations included a prohibition against “loafing and loitering” around saloons, as well as gambling.

The water pump at the top of Spring Street, right where Argyle Avenue splits off, was removed when town leaders did the outrageous: bring water in from far-off Trout Lake in a 10-inch water main. “Ten inches!” naysayers said, never thinking for a moment the town would need a pipe that size.

After the Great War, the country let loose in the 1920s. Prohibition came, closing down the landmark Saloon Best along the waterfront but giving rise to the new lucrative local sport of smuggling hooch in from Victoria.

Businesses came and went along Spring Street. The sidewalks then were made of wood, the streets of dirt.

A period of quaint stagnation set in as the last of the old island industries died out, as mainland markets could move the same products to market cheaper: peas, milk and butter, timber and salmon. The island’s limestone deposits once supported three working quarries. But even that was a thing of the past.

Two enormous wars would affect the town but in different ways. A memorial to the first big war — only five years after incorporation — would list the names of nine county servicemen who died, including Walter Heidenreich, Charles Lawson and Fred Hackett, all of Friday Harbor.

The Great Depression hit the island economy terribly hard, and the unforeseen effects of dams along the Columbia River would mean major change in the state’s agricultural economy.

“When all of eastern Washington’s farms were irrigated, the mass production undermined the ability of the small island farmer to compete,” Peterson said.

“Simultaneously, we had a change in the transportation system. Before that, it was easier to transport goods on boats. Then it became easier to transport goods on cars and trucks, which reinforced the cost effectiveness of eastern Washington’s bigger farming plots. They were able to get their goods to markets cheaper than smaller, more remote farmers. This community was limited to shipping their goods to market by water. We had not other choice.”

And then people went off to war, again, both to fight in it and to find jobs in a war-based economy that had become Seattle. “They were producing destroyers in downtown Kirkland,” Peterson muses. “It’s really weird to think of it now.”

Several fires would help shape the town, particularly the corner of Spring and First streets. JoAnne Campbell of the San Juan County Health Department tells of a fire in 1943.

“The story in my family is that my mother was up on the roof, very pregnant – with me — trying to keep the house from burning down. She was fighting the fire up on the roof and people were worrying about her. She said it was a big fire, fanned by winds from the northeaster that was blowing right up the street and blowing burning shingles all over.”

Her mom had included “started at the waterfront” in her note for a history project on the fire, but in pressing for detail, “the fire started in one of the businesses very low on Spring Street (not the waterfront) and took out several buildings up to the corner of Spring and First streets on the east side of Spring (I remember the vacant lot),” Campbell said.

“A strong dry northerly wind blew burning cedar shingles far up town. She was living in a house on Argyle Avenue (along where the building with Radio Shack is located), seven months pregnant, and had to be up on a ladder with a hose to keep the embers from burning her roof and a neighbor’s roof. This was in the spring, about April, of 1943.”

For most of the next 30 years, until the mid ’70s, the island’s population and economy remained essentially flat.

But tourists would still come, but no where near the numbers that local merchants have come to expect and depend on. Islanders remember the town being served twice, maybe three times, per day by state ferries headed for Anacortes with three or four cars on them.

Seattleites would send their children to the islands to a number of summer camps: Nor’wester, Four Winds and, oldest of all — older than Friday Harbor by three years — YMCA Camp Orkila. Island sights, smells and experiences were permanently ingrained in young memories as they moved into adulthood.

It didn’t take locals long to figure out ways to capitalize on off-islanders’ wishes to spend quality time with their families here. Roche Harbor became a full-fledged resort after the Tarte family bought it in the 1950s and began to make it into a destination.

Things began to change in the mid-1970s, perhaps in response to changes in urban areas in the 1960s. Seattle’s character changed and people began looking for different places to spend different sorts of time.

The winds of change, this time coming decidedly from Seattle to the southeast, brought a new tourism-based prosperity, and a building boom to accommodate people happy to retire here.

The San Juan Lions Club has produced a limited-run centennial edition calendar with photos from the San Juan Historic Museum. It’s filled with interesting little snippets of history from the past 100 years. The Lions Club will be selling the calendar in several locations in town, with a portion of proceeds going to benefit their club’s service activities and scholarships. Look for it at the fair.