PIONEERS TO PLANES
By Harvey T. Hill
the first pioneers to settle Oak Harbor. His descendants are still
working the soil he homesteaded back in 1849. Marton Taftezon and
C. W. Sumner were the other two founders of the town.
When I first came to Oak Harbor, there were about 20 people here.
Among them, as I recall, were Edward Barrington and his family; L. P. Byrne;
Jerome Ely; and Cap Adams, who owned a trading schooner.
The site of Oak Harbor consisted of about 20 acres, platted by my uncle,
Emmett F. Hill, who was a surveyor and who owned a farm in Swantown.
In 1889, while Washington was still a territory, and Captain George Morse
was a delegate to the territorial legislature, he and Joe Snow, territorial
surveyor, were allowed $40,000 by the legislature for a survey bridge across
Deception Pass. They used about 20,000 of this amount, completing
the survey and estimated cost of the bridge, and locating the proposed
span at almost exactly the place is now occupies. The rest of the
$40,000 reverted to the state. In later years, the Oak Harbor commercial
club sent delegations to Everett, Bellingham, and LaConner--which was then
Skagit county's leading trading center--trying to raise funds to build
These efforts proved futile, so we took up the Deception Pass state park
project, and received permission from the government to improve the grounds
around that area.
About 1892, Oak Harbor began to see new faces sifting into town and new
businesses established, in what added up to a mild boom for the town.
Maylor Brothers and L. H. Smith erected a new store building and
Johnny and Joe Maylor bought property from Jerome Ely for homesites, situated
across from Maylor's store. The Smith family moved into town and
built a small house near the present-day telephone office. With the
addition of each new child to the family, a new room was added to the house.
T. B. Warring located here about that time, with his family, as also did
A Mrs. Werkman, from Michigan, was one of the first Holland Dutch to visit
the Oak Harbor area. He was an agent for an investment company, Judson
Starr, which owned considerable land in the vicinity of the new town.
Werkman was so impressed by the lush vegetation and fertile soil here--including
the fact that our potatoes grew a foot long--that he took samples of our
produce, including the potatoes, made a display of them on a railway coach,
and exhibited them again in Michigan. I helped him select the items
for the display.
Not long after this event, Hollanders--who were already plentiful in parts
of Michigan--began emigrating to this part of the country, and it was at
about the same time that these new and industrious neighbors built up the
community of Lynden.
Among the many Dutch families who settled here in those pioneer Oak Harbor
days and built up the community were John Capaan, a bachelor who brought
with him two nephews and a niece; the Elder family; the Heller family;
and Ed Vanderzicht, a skilled dairy technician who helped start a prosperous
creamery here. Ed and his wife Katie settled in town; she and their
children are still here with us.
Other prosperous businesses established in the early days included the
Zylstra and Straiting grocery store and harness shop, and the Eerkes store,
which stood where the Co-op department store is now.
James Neil came in and made use of some of the smaller Whidbey Island timber
by cutting poles which were shipped to Mexico for use as mining props.
He employed about forty men, all of whom were paid by check, and the cooperative
creamery and the Izett creamery were also issuing checks to its many customers,
which led to a situation in which the merchants were having difficulty
in keeping enough cash on hand, since Oak Harbor in those days had no bank.
A Mr. Fowler of Everett came into my store one day and asked what Oak Harbor
needed. The answer, of course, was "A Bank." A few days later
the president of an Everett bank dropped in for a talk, and a short time
later, on the same property where the bank now stands, the town had a Full-fledged
bank. J. T (Johnny) Rogers, first president and cashier, brought
his family to Oak Harbor, built a fine house, and soon became one of our
leading citizens. He was a "joiner," in everything in the way of
lodges and city groups.
how the Island County highway appeared back in horse and buggy days when
groups of Whidbey families took off for their square dance parties, spelling
bees or debating contests, the kiddies snugly bedded down in hay in the
back of the wagon.
Then our commercial club decided it was time to count noses and apply for
a town charter. A committee of T. B. Warring, Charlie Gillispie and
Johnny Rogers canvasses the area, and reported 401 residents within the
proposed town. We applied for and got our charter, and organized
a town council, with Jerome Ely being our first mayor. Meetings were
held in my store building.
The town put in the first sidewalk, a wooden affair made of lumber purchased
from Lovejoy's, of Coupeville, for six dollars a thousand. It extended
from Maylor's dock to the H. T. Hill store building, and for a long time
was the only sidewalk we had, until the Ladies' Improvement club got busy
and raised funds for some cement walks, many of which are still in use
here. One of them is the walk leading up the hill to the schools,
which was built with funds raised mainly by food sales.
up Oak Harbor's main street from a vantage point on the Maylor store building,
in 1911, left to right: Oak Harbor State Bank; Barney Nienhuis' clothing
store; Arends Bakery; Tom Maylor residence (large house set back from
T. Rogers building, (first home of Oak Harbor News, 1911); Farmers' Trading
Company; and old Barrington residence (white house behind Farmers' sign).
Further up the hill are: Ladies Aid Hall (dark building behind bakery);
Zylstra residence; old MWA hall, now IOOF hall (large dark building).
In connection with the development of Deception Pass state Park through
the efforts of local citizens, Cranberry Lake was developed into a public
picnic grounds by the Oak Harbor commercial club with the help of many
community-minded farmers. Through the early years of the century,
this proved to be a popular spot for the old Farm Bureau picnics, with
all day gatherings enlivened by the presence of leading politicians and
Years later, in the 1930's the federal government took over development
of this beautiful area through the Civilian Conservation Corps. Stationed
at Coronet Bay, the "CCC" boys, most of whom were eastern lads who had
never worked in the woods before, labored like beavers. They built
buildings from native timber and stone, made rustic furniture, and by the
exercise of remarkable ingenuity and with the will to work for the public
good, they converted the area into one of the country's best playgrounds
for the enjoyment of the public.
For many decades Oak Harbor enjoyed gradual growth and solid prosperity
as the center of a rich agricultural region. Its population hovered
around 500, and the people lived a tranquil life.
All this changed in the early forties, when the government became interested
in North Whidbey as the site of a big naval base. Your correspondent
had had a day dream on this very subject, and had written a column explaining
the good points Whidbey Island had to offer for the location of a permanent
air base. Not long after this article appeared in The Farm Bureau
News, I met a group of government surveyors marking the light poles near
"We aren't surveying private property," one of them told me in answer to
my question. "We are surveying for the government."
I enjoyed the feeling that perhaps I had had a small part in this.
It wasn't long after that that the government stepped in and purchased
huge acres of farm land in Clover Valley and other North Whidbey areas,
in many cases dispossessing owners who had been born there and whose pioneer
fathers and mothers had cleared the land. Heavy machinery rumbled
into the formerly tranquil Oak Harbor; laborers arrived from all parts
of the country. Business boomed. A man had to stand in line
to get a meal in a restaurant; everyone had his pockets full of money;
everyone was working.
Two huge airports were constructed; buildings mushroomed about the landscape;
uniformed men were everywhere. The long, sad war years came to an
end, and the town, which tripled in population between 1940 and 1946, is
adjusting itself to its new, larger size and its increasing responsibilities.
NAS Whidbey is permanent, and as this is written still another boom is
in the offing, with $18,000,000 to be spent here on airport and other facilities
for the Navy. More new people will come in, and some of them will
stay on and build homes here.
Could the pioneers we have mentioned--Ely, Byrne, Morse, Hill, Barrington,
Warring, Emmett Hill, Rhornton, Rogers, and many others--gather together
and see Oak Harbor as it is today, they would shake hands and congratulate
one another, and would perhaps remark that the ball they started rolling
should be likened to a snowball rather than a rolling stone.
For myself, I say, "God Bless Oak Harbor, and may it treat all of you as
well as it has me and mine!"
Island County || ALHN