Ethan Allen, Waldron Island, WA, 1943.
Original photograph from the S.P.H.S.©
Ethan Allen, the grand old man of the San Juans smiled up at me. He was sitting on the porch of the log cabin which he had built himself some thirty years ago, or, rather added to the fifty-year old cabin which is still his bedroom. It faces the shimmering waters of President Channel that flows between Orcas and Waldron islands. Turtleback Mountain on Orcas is a wavy green line against the deep blue sky.
He smoothed back his white hair and surveyed the rolling pasture with eyes which had lost little but gained much with the passing of the years.
'I've had seventy-two birthdays--but none of 'em have took yet. I like Waldron Island real well. But I've only lived here forty-five years and I haven't really located yet. Someday, I'm going to settle down--mebbe.'
This old patriarch with his friendly smile and his sly humor is a tradition of the San Juan Islands. He is loved as much today as he was respected back in '95 when he was Superintendent of Schools of San Juan Islands. He was one of the first homesteaders of Waldron Island and knows how history is made because he has made a lot of it himself.
'No, I don't get lonesome, people are always dropping in. My little cove is a perfect harbor for cruisers. Lots of folks come to see my Indian things. News seems to ravel, too, for when this Bing cherry tree is going great guns, I'm almost swamped with guests. Seems like I'm one of the sights to be seen around here!'
He is. Yachtsmen all over the Northwest swap stories of his hospitality. He is as entertaining as he is instructive. Waldron Island can boast of no ferry service, electricity, or telephone among its ten families, and newspapers are a week old before they get there. But Ethan Allen can tell you what Hitler has just done and, moreover, what he is going to do next!
He settled his powerful back against the log doorjamb and gazed out across the waters--and the years. 'Back in '95, I got a homestead grant here on the island, six dozen eggs, two incubators, and a wife. I had intended to raise chickens, but when the eggs hatched out, I was sort of discouraged. Running around her were eighty-two varieties of chickens, some two kinds and some three. So I took the job of school master here at Waldron for the summer. Three months was all that the law required in those days. Kept me busy, teaching school and running a farm. But I managed to slash twelve acres of timber in my spare time that summer.
Later, when I was appointed Superintendent of Schools of San Juan County, I received one hundred and fifty dollars a year for the job. I would have been in the white collar class--if I'd had a collar! But I earned it. Every Friday, come fair wind or foul, I had to row to Friday Harbor to report at the office. That's only about ten miles as the crow flies but a rowboat ain't a crow. Of course I always took advantage of the tides but now and then, the winds took advantage of me. Once it took me three days to row home. There was three inches of snow on McConnell Island when I beached the boat for night and ate some apples that were all I had with me. I made Spring Channel by the next night--and ate apples. The next night the remaining apples and I spent in the old lime kiln on Orcas. When I finally got home, the crows tried to drag me off to the corn field!
But that was a regular rest-cure compared to the time I was swamped off Bald Point here on Waldron. It was freezing cold December night and I was rowing like mad trying to get home as there was good reason why I didn't want my wife left alone that night. The boat was topping the huge waves like a herring gull until I hit the point. There the tides meet. But I didn't have any time to worry about it for the next thing I knew, I was gulping down saltwater. When the boat cracked up against my head, I grabbed the gunwale--and hung on. I figured the tide would carry me ashore if I could only hang on long enough. There was no swimming in that wild water and, anyway, the snow was coming down so fast that I couldn't tell where land was. It must have been about two hours later when I felt sand under my feet. After I had made shore, I was so cold that when I fell down, I didn't know if I fell on my face or on my back. My clothes froze stiff on my back as I fought the blinding snow all the four miles home. Worst of it was, I couldn't even chew tobacco, 'cause I could't get my jaws apart. I'd be a gentleman today if I hadn't thawed out.
I chopped half an acre of timber next day before I limbered up right. I kept one eye on my wife and the other on the tide but it was eight o'clock before I could put her in the rowboat, and start out for Anacortes. That was a tough trip for both of us but a certain Washington college would be shy a professor today if I hadn't pulled on them oars mighty hard!
Next day I had a son and the son had to have a cow so I started figuring how to get the beast over to the island. Wasn't hard landing a cow and her calf at the town of Orcas. But it was plenty tough walking them around some ten miles of beach that night, had to do it when the tide was out. 'Bout sunrise, I tied 'em up at West Beach on Orcas Island which is right across the channel from my farm on Waldron. Now all I had to do was to get those critters across three and a half miles of rough water!
Worked all day building a raft of driftwood and by sunset I had the beast stalled up on it. Now, I had rowed that stretch of water lots of times in twenty minutes, but a cow, a calf, and a log raft, can sure slow a man down!
But I enjoyed those years. The winters were sort of long but we never once missed have a Spring! Visiting twenty-six school districts by rowboat tends to keep a fella out of trouble. Then I had the farm to run. I cut wood to pay for the few staples we needed. I've rowed many a barrel of flour over from the mainland.
Life's been hard. In the old days it took a class 'A' man to prove up a claim. It took a hard head and a strong back to make these islands give you a living. The first white men to really settle here were tough timber all right. They were the Hudson Bay Co. fur traders. They cleaned up every beaver on the islands but left a lot of descendants with funny French names to remember them by.
I asked Allen about the Indians of whom he knows so much--those Lummi, Skagits, and San Juans. Did they make good neighbors in the early days?
'Yes, they did for those who had 'em. Orcas was sort of a meeting place for them, 'round Coal Point because the salmon were there. I've seen a mile stretch of beach packed with their canoes. They never stole a thing and if you ever gave them any firewood they wouldn't forget. Every once in awhile you'd find a salmon on your porch. Only after their debt was paid would they be your friends. That's just one of the things they could teach to white people.
But after 1850 there weren't many Indians around here--smallpox cleaned 'em out. No wonder, for the native treatment was a trifle severe. When an Indian was suspected of having the disease, his friends placed him on blankets in a pit dug some three feet in the ground. Slender poles secured over the top caged him in--also the evil spirits causing the trouble. From then on, once a day a raw salmon on the end of a long stick was poked at him. When he couldn't reach out and take it, he was considered dead and was covered with the handy pile of dirt already beside the pit. But those Indians weren't so stupid in all things, though. Look here!'
He showed me two arrow tips with a hair-fine line running through them.
'See? These stone arrow tips have been mended by the Indians with heat-proof cement just as strong as anything on the market today. When I found this tip, it was broken, but as you see, not in the place where it was mended. George Vancouver commented on this type of cement in his journal back in 1792. No one knows the secret.'
Sitting there in the sunshine, shading my eyes against the reflected sunlight on the water I was entranced with stories of the days when $1.50 was tops for cutting and delivering a cord of wood. He told about the Robinson brothers' trading sloop which serviced these islands in the days of '63 when kerosene was $2 a gallon. There were stories about the forty-niners who settled in Victoria when they dared not return to the southern states because all personal fortunes were being confiscated by the North.
He makes history live and breathe again. So, when cruising in the Northwest, and looking for a port of call, drop anchor for a while in that lovely cove on the Northeastern side of Waldron Island. Ethan Allen will be there to meet you with a smile."
Above text by author Beatrice Cook
Formerly of Seattle and Orcas Island, WA.
Published in Pacific Motor Boat