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Island County Economic History
The following was excerpted from two sources, A History of Whidbey's Island by George Albert Kellogg and South Whidbey and Its People by the South Whidbey Historical Society. 
      Before the advent of white exploration and settlement, Native Americans moved throughout what is now Island County. The principal tribes were the Snohomish, Skagit, and Kikialos. The Snohomish were mostly in the southern parts of Whidbey and Camano Islands; the Skagit in the central and northern parts of Whidbey Island; the Kikialos in the northern half of Camano Island. The small Clallam tribe lived near Penn Cove on Whidbey Island. 
      Each tribe maintained several permanent villages on the islands. The villages typically included a potlatch structure (the social and political center of tribal life) surrounded by several large longhouses (multi-family quarters). Most villages were enclosed by a wall of cedar poles. The tribes maintained temporary summer dwellings near the shore in addition to their permanent villages. 
      Not surprisingly, the mainstay of local tribal economies was fishing. This year-round pursuit was performed mainly by trolling offshore with handmade nets. The tribes supplemented their diet by gathering a variety of roots, berries, and nuts. The spring brought cattails, salmonberries, and sprouts in abundance. By summer, the harvest included strawberries, blackberries, salal berries, service berries, thimble berries, huckleberries, wood fern, bracken, wild carrots, rose hips, tiger lilies, hazelnuts, acorns, and crab apples. Shellfish, especially clams, were an equally important part of their diet harvested during the spring and summer. Deer, duck, and seal accounted for the game caught now and then during the spring and summer.
      The chief item of tribal trade and commerce, however, was the blanket. Used as both bedding and decoration, blankets were traded frequently between neighboring Island County tribes (and later with white trappers and traders). Native Americans are thus established as having engaged in the region's earliest forms of commerce. In 1792, an expeditionary party led by Captain George Vancouver of the British Navy discovered Puget Sound, thus signalling the advent of white exploration in the region. In June of that year, Ship's Master Joseph Whidbey of the HMS Discovery (the other ship was the HMS Chatham) charted a recently discovered island -- which Captain Vancouver later named "Whidbey" in his honor. Contact was made with local Indian tribes, but the party quickly continued on its voyage down the Sound. 
      White presence in the islands was not recorded again until 1830 (perhaps as early as 1820), when scouts and trappers for the Hudson's Bay Company were known to have explored the islands in search of potential fur trapping grounds. Finding little, they moved on. There is also some evidence that Catholic missionaries ventured ashore around the same time. 
      In June 1841, the U.S. Exploring Expedition under the command of Captain Charles Wilkes sailed into Penn's Cove (Whidbey Island). The expedition was there to chart this part of Oregon Territory -- which at the time was still under joint U.S.-British occupation -- in anticipation of future American settlement. After naming a number of landmarks, Wilkes and his party left as they came -- as observers. 
      American settlement of Island County got more or less underway in 1850, primarily around the Oak Harbor and Penn's Cove areas. Central Whidbey Island seemed to be the destination of choice; the south end was paid little attention. Many of the claims were filed by sailors and the like who happened across the islands on past voyages. Most, however, did not stay long. Island County got its first permanent white settlers -- Colonel Isaac N. Ebey and his wife -- in 1852. Other permanent settlers followed and by early 1853 the county numbered six families and 18 bachelors. 
      With the emergence of permanent settlements came local commerce and industry. In 1853, B.P. Barstow & Co. opened for business at Coveland (at the head of Penn's Cove), thus becoming the first trading post or store in the county. Other trading posts soon followed -- including one established by Isaac Ebey himself. By the mid-1850s, the range of businesses included harness makers, coopers, and dock operators, among others. Island County got its first grist or flour mill in 1868. Before that time, flour (including many other provisions) was obtained directly from trade vessels anchored in the harbor. The mill was operated by James Buzby near Penn's Cove until 1870. In 1877 or 1878, Friend Wilson re-established grist mill operations at Penn's Cove. Other settlers attempted to establish sawmills as early as 1853, but were unsuccessful. 
     Additional settlement of Island County commenced in the 1860s. With their arrival on south Whidbey Island came early logging operations. Most arose out of necessity as the newly-arrived homesteaders found their property covered by virgin timber. The timber harvesting usually involved several men and a team of oxen. The hand-felled timber was yarded (or pulled) to the water by ox-teams, the path having been laid with greased skids. The logs were then rafted to mills in Port Ludlow or Port Townsend to be sold for cash or traded for supplies. By the 1880s, though, organized logging companies such as Puget Sound Pulp and Timber Company (later Pope and Talbot) had purchased much of the uncut timberland from homesteaders. 
      South Whidbey Island thus became the site of large-scale logging operations in the 1880s. During the spring and summer, logging camps provided seasonal employment to large numbers of men. Most of the timber was converted into cordwood used to fuel steamers that plied Puget Sound. Completion of the Great Northern Railway to Bellingham in 1894 made virtually obsolete the steamers which for 20 years had depended on Whidbey Island cordwood. As steamer runs faded, so did the county's logging and lumber industry. 
      Once cleared, an individual's property was, more often than not, converted to any of a number of farmland uses. Of the wide variety of items produced, the most prevalent were hay, grains, and potatoes. As farms became larger and more sophisticated, the pressure to employ cheap labor grew. From the mid-1880s through 1900, Island County farmers found this labor in the form of the Chinese sojourner. Chinese were hired for labor-intensive tasks such as cultivating and digging up potato crops. By the 1890s, however, local sentiment turned violently against the visiting workers. An anti-Chinese race riot in Tacoma served as the final straw. In 1900, the Chinese were forced out of Island County. 
      By 1910, the county population was 4,700. As farm families and town entrepreneurs settled into defined communities, a fledgling newspaper industry emerged. The Island County Sun, established in 1890, became the county's first paper. The Island County Times emerged within the year to compete with the Sun. The two merged under the latter's banner in 1894. The Whidby Islander (1900) and Oak Harbor News (1911) followed in due course. 
      The post-World War I period brought renewed prosperity to Island County as local farmers saw new foreign markets open up to their agricultural products. Construction of the Deception Pass Bridge in 1935 provided a highway link to the mainland and fostered more economic development within the county. 
      And then there was the military. The military played a vital role in Island County's economy long before plans for Whidbey Island Naval Air Station were conceived. In 1860, the War Department commissioned a study for the defense of Puget Sound. President Andrew Johnson -- impressed by the study -- set aside 24 parcels of land as Puget Sound military reservations in 1866. In 1896, Congress appropriated funds for the construction of a triangular system of fortresses to defend Admiralty Inlet -- the entrance to Puget Sound. One position -- Fort Casey -- was sited at Admiralty Head on Whidbey Island (the others were Fort Worden and Fort Flagler in Jefferson County). 
      Fort Casey was heavily fortified and manned during the First and Second World Wars and the Korean Conflict. It was also used to a limited extent for troop induction and training. Personnel stationed there contributed tremendously to the local economy, particularly in Coupeville and Keystone. Another defense post -- Fort Ebey -- was established near Oak Harbor during World War II as an artillery bunker. Fort Casey was deactivated in 1953 when airpower proved a more effective means of defending the Sound. It is now a state park. Fort Ebey is a state recreation area. 
      Whidbey Island Naval Air Station was established in late 1942 at the height of World War II. It was the site of sea-plane patrol operations, rocket firing training, torpedo overhaul, and recruit and officer training. In late 1949, work began to upgrade it to an all-weather airfield. The conversion was accompanied by more personnel. As a result, Island County's population soared from 6,029 in 1940 to 11,000 by 1950 -- an 82 percent increase. This far eclipsed the 7 to 10 percent growth rates usually experienced over the course of a decade. To be sure, the tremendous influx of military personnel also boosted local commerce. 
      Today, the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station is home to all the Navy's electronic warfare squadrons that fly the EA-6B Prowler -- a carrier-based tactical jamming aircraft. It is also the west coast training and operations center for the A-6 Intruder attack bomber squadrons and the northwest site for Naval and Air Reserve Training. 
      Island County's economy is based largely on government jobs -- principally military -- as well as a large retail sector, a fast growing services sector, and tourism. 
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