By Mary Mead Smith
“Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?”
Thornton Wilder, Our Town
Dear Readers ~ last week, Austin Reese of Fly Guys Construction stopped by our 46 year old house to assess the need for a new roof. He and his crew have a sterling reputation for installing an entire roof start to finish in one day! Anyway, we got to chatting … I told him how we’ve lived on this island for almost 51 years, and that my husband, Smithy, built our log home. Austin was interested in what brought us to Friday Harbor, and encouraged me to write a little history and share our “San Juan Story.” So, I’ve taken a few days of dredging up some very old memories … here goes:
It was 1972 when we moved to Friday Harbor. I was the new teacher in town. Smithy was 24, and I was 22. We found the one and only rental available through Fanjul Reality (where Haley’s Bait Shop is now). It was on Brown Island for $75.00 a month. We quickly found a rowboat, and began our twice-daily crossing. The trip took about ten minutes from Brown to the dock on Warbass. We then hopped in our 1948 Chevy (which Dale Marble bought years later) and drove to school. My first year’s teaching salary was a whopping $7,400!
Just to name a few of my beloved little Kindergarten students … Janet Turnbull Scheffer, now works at FHHS and is a grandmother! Adam and Jason Suhl own Greenman Landscaping business, Tami Mason Hayes is the Harbormaster at the Port. Edward Leche is an Episcopal Priest, Kathleen McElhenie teaches in Spain, Joan Hudson teaches near Bellingham, and Steve King is Superintendent of Coupeville School District. I loved each and every one of my students.
Back in the day, newcomers really stood out. We were considered “hippies” because we both had long hair! Locals had deep roots and knew everyone. In my mind, all the “Pioneer Families” were relatives, and it didn’t take too long to find out who was related to whom. There were several cousins in my classroom. The town was much smaller back then, Most roads (out of town) were not paved yet. Friday Harbor was not the tourist destination it is now.
We were able to buy some acreage, and Smithy built our home. He cut trees from the property, let them set, then “peeled” them. He hand dug the foundation and poured the concrete. Denny Martel let us use his boom truck to help place the upper logs. We thought about having a basement, but it would have cost an extra $100. to have Roger Sandwith excavate it! Don Johnson built the stone fireplace as my husband worked alongside him, learning the trade. Property in those days was $1000. an acre.
In 1975 we had the first of our four children; two boys and two girls. Our youngest was born before the oldest was five years old! Living on this island was a perfect place to raise a family. We had daily field trips! I operated a Daycare out of our home for 8 years. I then worked at St Francis Church for 17 years as their first parish Secretary. Around 2000, I went back to Substitute Teaching (grades K-12) for the San Juan School District. I still have the privilege of working there several days a week. I cannot say enough about the outstanding staff at all three schools. By the way, Holly Wehner, the Principal of the FH Elementary School, was in my Daycare!
Now that I’m in my early 70’s, I’m becoming more and more aware of how fragile and precious life can be. Of course I notice the “Posters of Passing” at King’s Market and the Post Office. Whether I knew the person or not, I catch my breath, realizing that they were important in some way to Friday Harbor. Most of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the pioneer families we met upon our arrival have left this earth. Each person made a deep impression on us.
It seemed as if they would always be with us. Al & Priscilla Nash, The Sundstroms, Rosaia & Donovan Wilson, Charlie & Betty Nash, The “Bergman Girls” (May Boyce, Edith Martel & Mickey Cahail), The Gubelmans, Doris & Howard Hartman, The Tartes, Shirley Neilson, Nate & Helen Benedict, just to name a few. That incredible generation that was so involved in the daily life of Our Town, has mostly disappeared.
“We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars … everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”
It’s important for me to take a moment every now and then, stand in the midst of everyday life and be grateful for my many blessings. I count my huge family, my wonderful friends, this amazing community, and kind people everywhere. The days have been packed, and the years have flown by. Thank you for this opportunity to share a little glimpse (from my perch) of our history on San Juan Island.