"The past actually happened but history is only what someone wrote down." A. Whitney Brown.

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San Juan Archipelago, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 650, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

01 December 2019

❖ THE CAPTAIN OF YELLOW ISLAND ❖

Lewis Dodd (1892-1960) and
Elizabeth 'Tib' Van Order Dodd (1895-1989)
New residents crafting their home on Yellow Island,
San Juan Archipelago, WA.
Photo courtesy of the Dodd family.


"Yellow Island remains the kingdom of the paradoxical man who sculpted its 11 acres into a monument to himself. From 1947 to his death in 1960, Lewis Dodd and his wife Elizabeth lived alone on Yellow, fashioning a way of life as unique as their home.
      Lew Ddd's whole life was an apprenticeship for the Yellow years when he wrought his masterpiece. Born in 1892 and raised on Long Island, New York, he ran away to sea when he was 15 years old to sail before the mast on square-riggers. He tried cowboying, served in WW I Navy, married Elizabeth ('Tib') in 1920, and became the first mate of merchantman before he went ashore in 1921 to try the real estate game in New York. Hating the confinement, he came west looking for freedom.
      The Dodds found it on Orcas Island, practicing subsistence agriculture until 1947. During these years Lew perfected his frontier skills, and Tib, too, learned the skills necessary to raise a family without electricity or plumbing.
      In a Northwest still wild enough for creating one's own niche, Lew's idiosyncracies molded their lives. He was determined to eschew all frills. Lew was always the captain often his way meant the Navy way. His daughter Sally Hall remembers him as moody, difficult to live with. He sometimes expressed bitterly his sense of entrapment by familiar responsibilities.
      Lew's portrait reveals a compulsion to be unique, whatever the cost. His family shared the joys and sufferings of a man who never quite grew up, a man who mourned the loss of the frontier so deeply that he re-created it in a self-imposed life of struggle; a mate so self-determined that one wonders if he wasn't running from doubt, a man so stamped by the sea that he imposed its harsh regimen of work and discipline on his family.
Arriving on Yellow Island with logs towed from
their Orcas Island farm.
1947.
Courtesy of the Dodd family. 
      By 1947 Lew Dodd was ready for Yellow Island. He bought the chip of wilderness for $8,000, sold his farm, and moved aboard. The poet was finally in the presence of his theme. After drilling a well, he and Tib camped in a tent for two years while they built their cabin. Except for hinges, nails, and windows, they beachcombed all the materials. Working from dawn to dusk, doing everything from scratch, was back-breaking, but Lew persevered because he would not allow himself the luxury of giving up.
Lew and Tib Dodd camping at home.
Yellow Island, San Juan Archipelago, WA.
  Dated 1947.
Courtesy of the Dodd family.
      Tib also exhibited high courage––enduring living conditions, lugging materials, and helping Lew lift the heaviest beams. Both had the will to succeed that the venture demanded.
      Lew accomplished much and visualizing lucidly what he wanted, his work is lasting and good. The cabin has needed no maintenance in 30 years. It fits so perfectly into Yellow's landscape that Frank Lloyd Wright couldn't have designed it better. It grows effortlessly out of the rock surface and wind-skewed madronas. The flow of line of roof and wall, door and chimney, has poetry that speaks volumes for Lew Dodd's sensitivity. The trails are laid with skills: even the outhouse has a millionaires' view.
      First, Lew paced of the 27-by-33-foot floor and leveled it with beach gravel. A level, rule, and square did the rest. Stockaded logs, planked on the outside and insulated with sod and cedar bark, form the walls, whose seams are caulked inside with twisted cedar bark. Adzed cedar rafters support a ceiling and roof of hand-cut shakes. The rafters rest on a huge oaken ridgepole that may be a catwalk washed down from a Fraser River mine. The floor and Dutch doors were hatch covers. There are snug bunks, rope-handled storage lockers fashioned of dynamite crates, a sewing box made from a wooden rigging block, stools fashioned from whale vertebrae, windows salvaged from a chicken coop, and a ship's identification timber built into a bench. The yawning fireplace is native stone cemented around a chimney of welded oil drums. the hearthstone is living rock. An iron wagon tire forms the fireplace arch, and the poker is a whaler's flensing tool for stripping blubber from whales.
Dodd cabin interior
with the native stone hearth.

Yellow Island, San Juan Archipelago, WA.
Photo courtesy of the Dodd family.
      All is of a piece with the man, the island, and the beach. Lew skippered Yellow like a ship: perhaps he chose it as the closest approximation of life on shipboard, the perfect solution for a seamen searching for a frontier. Every barnacled, worm-eaten surface is worn with love and age, and the whole forms an intricate montage of flotsam, jetsam, and craftmanship, pleasing the eye and reflecting Dodd's uncompromising individuality.
      Lew probably regretted finishing the cabin in 1949, for he continued salvaging. He was a generation before his time; every possession was recycled. Yet in other ways, he was of his time. He kept building with maniac energy. Robinson Crusoe tells us why: A marooned man of action must be doing! A root cellar, workshop, boathouse, guest cabin, several beach buildings rose simply from an obsession to use material. These structures share one feature––low doors. Lew was 5-ft 3-inches tall, and he wreaked a short man's vengeance on all who came later.
Dodd home on Yellow Island,
San Juan Archipelago, WA.
Dated 1948.
Click image to enlarge.
Courtesy of the Dodd family.
      The Dodd's full, natural life was not escapism. Their time was absorbed by living. In 13 years the Dodds rarely left the island. They both read hugely, and the cabin remains full of books. Viewed against his building achievement, Lew's lack of interest in any fiction except sea stories suggest that his imagination was confined to fantasies he could build. There is a fairy-tale quality to the cabins, hideaways, stone-cairned flagpoles, and the Jacob's ladder disappearing into a tall fir. Tib wrote poetry, studied birds, and botanized. Both kept journals. Lew's describes mainly the weather but reveals his healthy self-esteem and ready denunciation of other ways of living––the writings of a man reassuring himself.
      ' I don' want to sell my life for a jingling pocket, a stiff uncomfortable collar, flabby muscles, and a bilious complexation. I've chosen to live, however precariously, in the atmosphere of pure air and pebbly beaches. I think it is lovelier to come to the end of the trail through physical struggle surrounded by the things an outdoor man loves.'
      Lew's ashes are interred on Yellow in the meadow he named Hummingbird Hill. If you would see his monument it is neither here nor in his journals, but in Yellow's buildings and beauty, where he laid his heart. Tib lives in Seattle. She no longer visits Yellow, but daughter Sally said her husband Joe spend their summers there.
      The family has given The Nature Conservancy a year's option to purchase Yellow because they would rather ensure it will be preserved with the gentleness Lew Dodd's memory deserves than chance the heartache of private sale. The Dodds reveled in the thought of passing their island on to posterity and now that dream may be realized in a more lasting way than even Lew hoped. Another generation that has come around the wong way to values Lew Dodd presciently understood may now inherit his dream."
Source: Robert A. Stafford, Pacific Search. Nov. 1979. From the archives of the Saltwater People Historical Society.
Thank you to two supportive San Juan County friends, one who donated this 40-year-old article and another who provided an introduction to Sally, Jo, and family. 
For more up to date information on the preservation of the island please click here

4 comments:

  1. Oh, great read! Thanks for posting this bio along with the photos.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi KPool,
      Thanks for stopping by to read about this special place! I just added an update of a link to the present caretakers. Enjoy.

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  2. Thank you, great friend and archivist for the wonderful post on this.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for reading the Log. This was a long, happy story for us to carry forward in the history books. The islands were blessed to have these folks among us.

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