Fossil remains have been discovered over the years on Whidbey Island. These include ammonite, perhaps deposited by glacial ice a million years ago, and the tusks, teeth, and bones of wooly mammoths. Both the Island County Historical Society Museum in Coupeville and the South Whidbey Historical Society Museum in Langley display some of these finds. As the climate warmed and glaciers retreated, animal and plant life flourished. Abundant rainfall and a temperate climate grew dense forests, with a rich undergrowth. Deer, bear, elk, mink, otter, raccoons, and rabbits were plentiful as well as a variety of birds and marine life. The waters surrounding the island were abundant with fish, particularly salmon. The island was a haven for the region's first humans.
Snohomish Tribal Villages
While the northern portion of Whidbey Island was home to the Skagit tribe, land from above the head of Holmes Harbor to the southern tip of the island was Snohomish tribal territory. Three permanent Snohomish villages were located on South Whidbey:
D'GWAD'wk or Digwadsh ('in the basket' or 'lots of a certain species of crabs'), was the largest and most important of the three. Surrounded by a cedar palisade, the village had six or seven longhouses, two cemeteries, and a potlatch house visited on occasion by people from the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes. It was abandoned about 1870 when the residents relocated to Tulalip.
TSEHT-skluhks ('ragged nose'), was located at Sandy Point, east of downtown what is now Langley. This village had a potlatch house and clam beds which drew visitors from as far away as the Samish. Captain George Vancouver noted in his journals that Master Joseph Whidbey (the island's namesake), on their visit in 1792 saw two hundred people at this location.
SHET'LH-shet-lhuts ('burnt leaves'), on the west side of South Whidbey Island, at Bush Point in the Freeland area, had three longhouses, a potlatch house, and a cemetery.
Across Saratoga Passage on Camano Island was WHESH-ud (splashing water), another Snohomish village location. Residents at TSEHT-skluhks told of witnessing the earthquake and great slide of 1825 when the southern tip of Camano Island slid into Possession Sound. After this, WHESH-ud was used mainly for seasonal clamming.
"We didn't make money but we had a good time"
The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 drew homeseekers and adventurers west and the earliest non-Indian settlements on Whidbey Island date from that time. Whidbey Island's first white settler was Isaac Ebey (1818-1857), who claimed land on the central part of the island in 1850. In the next decade, he was joined by other settlers near what became the town of Coupeville on the middle portion of the island. Central Whidbey offered an excellent cove, a stand of old growth trees, and open prairie land for farming. But the southern portion of the island, with its heavy forests and dense undergrowth, was settled more slowly. The earliest settlers on South Whidbey seem to have been reclusive loners or claimants who took land for the purpose of logging.
Jacob Anthes, who would pioneer Langley's early development, left his home in Gross Gerau, Germany, in 1879, when he was 14, to avoid compulsory military conscription and begin life in a new land. Anthes and a friend, George Miller, arrived in New York and set out for Topeka, Kansas, to visit Miller's mother. Anthes worked in the stockyards there for a short time but soon set out alone on the transcontinental railroad for San Francisco. From there he headed north, in 1880 arriving in Seattle where he met a businessman who had a homestead claim on South Whidbey Island. Anthes agreed to move onto the property in order to hold down the man's claim. He occupied a rustic cabin built by a previous settler and began cutting trees to sell as cordwood to Mosquito Fleet steamboat operators. He is reported to have cut about 35 cords a day, with the help of loggers that he hired. Anthes also planted a large vegetable garden, with plenty of potatoes that he sold to loggers and other workers on the island. And he began exploring the southern portion of Whidbey Island on foot, writing diaries of his experiences.
In 1889 Anthes married Leafy Weeks, a woman from Seattle, and the following year he purchased a homestead tract on a bluff overlooking Saratoga Passage, built a house, and began planning a town. When Washington gained statehood in 1889, the establishment of townsites in the region reached a state of madness as entrepreneurs awaited the arrival of the Great Northern Railway and speculated where it would first touch West Coast tidewater. Anthes placed his hopes on South Whidbey Island's location and resources and sought backing for town development. With financial support from Seattle Judge James Weston Langley, C.M. Sheafe, James Satterlee, A.P. Kirk, and Howard B. Slauson (1861-1933), Anthes formed the Langley Land and Improvement Company and deeded property to the company for development. The town plat of Langley -- named for the judge -- was drawn in November 1890 and officially recorded on April 9, 1891.
One of the company's first projects was building a 999-foot dock, at a cost of $5,000. Anthes opened a general store and post office across the street from the dock. In the hard times following the financial Panic of 1893 most of the Improvement Company's plans had to be set aside. In addition, the dock had been poorly located and fell victim to heavy tides and storms. When severe storms destroyed it in 1894, the company did not have the means to rebuild and, for a time, large vessels were unable to dock at Langley.
Klondike Gold Rush dollars and a national economic recovery renewed Langley's prospects in the late 1890s. Anthes was granted a contract to supply brush needed for shoreline development in Everett and Seattle. In 1902 the Langley Land Company deeded land back to Anthes and he began building trails and roads to the interior of the island and a road to connect Langley with Clinton. He also constructed a new dock, a quarter of a mile east of the original wharf, in a partially protected cove. Langley became South Whidbey's trading center for loggers, fishermen, and farmers, with steamers connecting to Everett, Seattle, Camano Island, and Whatcom (now part of Bellingham).
Having started with almost nothing, Anthes now owned the town's general store, its water system, a post office, and a bunk house and cook house for workers. He was also becoming prosperous from his real estate holdings, not only on Whidbey Island but also in nearby Everett. Polk's City Directory listings link Anthes to a hotel in Everett as early as 1904 and by 1908 the Anthes family had moved from Langley to the riverside of Everett. The directories list Anthes in Everett from 1908 to 1939, the year he died.
Anthes continued to own a large amount of property in Langley as the 1900s began but the town had grown and diversified. In 1910 the U.S. Census listed 142 families in town. One was that of Ed and Clara Harris, who arrived in 1901 and soon rivaled Anthes for town dominance. Harris built a store across from the Anthes store and began other businesses as well. The coup was complete when Harris was chosen postmaster in 1904, supplanting Anthes. The rivalry continued, perhaps due to different visions for the new town. One oldtimer recalled that Anthes did not want buildings on the Saratoga Passage side of First Street, in order to maximize the water view. In 1911, the Anthes store was burned under suspicious circumstances. Three weeks later, the Harris store was burned, under equally suspicious circumstances.
The young town's governing body was Island County, with the county seat at Coupeville. Given the small population of all of South Whidbey at the time, Langley's needs were a low priority for county officials, and Langley citizens began discussing incorporation as the way to control and develop their town. An attempt to incorporate in 1910 was unsuccessful, but three years later the issue was placed on the ballot. Citizens voted to incorporate Langley as a fourth-class town on Tuesday, January 28, 1913, and the incorporation order was filed with the Secretary of State on February 26, 1913.
Voters elected Frank Furman as mayor and James C. Langley (1874-?), a nephew of Judge Langley, Edward Howard (1863-1927), Henry J. English (1847-1931), William H. McGinnis (1864-1933), Angus C. McLeod (1847-1931), and Isaac M. Bainter (1859-1937) as councilmen.
The newly elected council began preparing a town budget. Its early decisions also included declaring the Langley Islander (begun in 1910) as the town's official newspaper, accepting the gift of the town cemetery from the Woodmen Camp, and dealing with the ongoing problem of wandering farm animals on town streets and roads.
Langley gained national attention in 1920 when an effort to clean up city hall, and following passage of the nation's women's suffrage act, led the community to elect of all-female administration, making Langley the second town in the U.S. to do so. (The first was Kanab, Utah, in 1911).
The County Fair
Roots of the Island County Fair go back to 1912, when it was established at Coupeville by a private company, the Island County Fair Association. But the fair needed to draw its audience from all of Whidbey Island, and for South Whidbey residents the trip to Coupeville was difficult and expensive. Traveling by horseback or carriage, it was a 20 to 30 mile journey, which necessitated an overnight stay. Excursion boats brought passengers from Camano Island and various points on Whidbey Island but fair attendance remained poor and the fair died out in 1916 for lack of support.
Langley resurrected the fair in 1917 on the town's waterfront. In 1922 it was moved to the town's school gymnasium and the following year the fair was organized as a nonprofit organization funded by memberships. By the 1920s there were better roads and auto travel. The fair prospered and in 1934 -- one of the worst years of the Great Depression -- the fair association built a pole building on property adjacent to the school. Using support from the WPA (Works Progress Administration), the association purchased a six-acre chicken ranch near the school and construction began on a large fair building, completed in 1937. During the next three decades, horse barns and exhibit halls were added.
The fair association deeded the fairgrounds to Island County in 1962 with the understanding that the property could not be sold without a majority vote of the island's pioneer descendants. The Association continues to operate the fair (held annually in August) and members are proud that no tax dollars support it. The fairgrounds are is located at 819 Camano Avenue in Langley.
The 1902-built Langley dock supported a small shingle mill, as well as two lumber mills and the Whidbey Island Canning Company. In 1912 the Jensen family purchased the dock and kept it until 1926, when it was sold to Willis Nearhoff (1879-?).
From 1911, the Island Transportation Company ran passenger ferry service from points on South Whidbey Island to the mainland and in 1919 it added car ferry service. From 1919 to 1923, Nearhoff operated his own ferry from Clinton to Everett and for a time had much of the ferry business. But to the delight of Langley residents, in 1923 the Island Transportation Company put in a new ferry, the Whidbey II, which made a ferry stop at Langley, and Nearhoff began losing business. He purchased the dock in 1926 in order to control the road leading to it and angered the town when he tried to close access to the road. A bitter fight began which continued in public hearings until May 9, 1928, when Nearhoff sold his holdings to the Puget Sound Navigation Company (the Black Ball Line) which was purchased by Washington State Ferries when the state agency was formed in 1951.
Artists and Land-clearing
Whidbey Island's natural beauty and island remoteness have appealed to artists for decades and Langley has a long history of supporting the arts. Two artists of special early prominence were Peter Camfferman (1890-1957) and his wife Margaret Gove Camfferman (1881-1964), nationally known painters in the modernist tradition. The couple met at the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts, married in 1914 and continued their art studies. Margaret attended the New York School of Applied Arts & Design and both she and Peter studied with Andre L'hote in Paris. Margaret was the niece of Helen Coe, mayor of Langley in 1920 and the Langley librarian. The Camffermans moved to the Coe property, off of Saratoga Road in Langley, and built an artists' colony called Brackenwood with cabins for visiting artists. The colony was active through the 1930s and 1940s under the Camffermans, who dedicated their lives to painting and teaching. There are Camfferman paintings today in major art collections. Locally, the Langley Library has several. A Langley gallery (at 302 First Street) continues the Brackenwood name.
By the 1920s, about two thirds to three quarters of land in Island County had been logged, leaving behind a waste of slash and stumps. This land was unproductive and tax revenue stagnant. The logging business suffered as the supply diminished and island farmers began losing the competition with mainland growers due to the cost of transportation to and from the island. Over the decades that followed, much logged-off or formerly farmed land was sold for development. Housing and business blocks were built and, by the 1970s, large development corporations threatened the rural lifestyle of Whidbey Island residents.
Port of Langley/Port of South Whidbey
In 1961 voters in the Langley area approved formation of a public port district. The port district included Langley and portions of the rural precincts of Sandy Point, Saratoga, and Useless Bay. By this time Langley was no longer a working port due to the cost of transporting goods to the mainland. The new Port of Langley emphasized building a 400-slip small-boat marina that would serve all of South Whidbey Island.
Beginning in 1965, the Port began planning the proposed marina at the base of Anthes Street and secured a tentative commitment from the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the harbor and build a breakwater. However the Port could not provide the required 80-percent occupancy at the marina and plans were put on hold. To increase its tax base, South Whidbey voters on November 5, 1968, approved the Port's expansion to encompass most of the southern third of the island. Although it now covered a much greater area, the Port retained the Langley name until 1979 when it officially became the Port of South Whidbey.
Arts and a Sustainable Economy
In the 1960s and 1970s artists and counter-culture folks discovered South Whidbey. Many were ecologically minded and, while they met the resistance of some long-term residents, they were welcomed by others who wished to to preserve the island's remaining forests, waterfront, and prairies and, in general, keep Langley's natural assets. But South Whidbey Island also drew developers who planned large-scale housing subdivisions and malls. A Langley-based group calling itself the Whidbey Environmental Action Network successfully fended off a large development project in the late 1980s and continues to work on environmental issues that impact Whidbey Island.
In 2012 Langley continues to support its arts organizations, craftspeople, performing arts venues, galleries, studios, musicians, video/filmmakers, bookstores, specialty shops, ecologists, educators, and architects. Each year artists open their studios to the public for tours and sales. Choochokam, the Langley Festival of the Arts, is an annual event held in July on First Street. The Clyde Theatre, a movie house built in 1937, continues to operate after more than 75 years, offering movies and live performances, and Whidbey Island Center for the Arts (WICA), begun in 1996, presents plays, readings and musical performers and events. Djangofest Northwest is a popular annual WICA production that draws musicians from around the world who perform jazz music in the style of legendary gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt.
Langley is the home of several architecture and design firms that have been recognized nationally and internationally. These include Ross Chapin Architects, Island Design, Flat Rock Productions, and Hemperly & Babbage Designs. Most work in contemporary design, applying green construction methods.
Hedgebrook (2197 Millman Road) is a women writers' retreat with an international reputation and Langley's closeness to Clinton connects it with the Whidbey Institute at Chinook and the Whidbey Island Waldorf School. In the 1980s and 1990s South Whidbey was an important location for speaker forums on ecology and environmental issues, bringing speakers of world importance to the island.
Preserving Langley's History
The South Whidbey Historical Society incorporated in 1981 and gained nonprofit status two years later. The group was first affiliated with the Island County Historical Society in Coupeville but became independent in 1991, allowing it to focus on South Whidbey history. The society first set up displays in the old Langley High School but soon outgrew the space. The donation of the historic Anthes brush cutters' bunkhouse in Langley gave the society a permanent home. Utilizing volunteer help, the building was refurbished and turned into a museum. The historical society operates the museum, conducts educational programming with the South Whidbey School District, and also maintains several historic buildings that are now on the Island County Fairgrounds: the McLeod Cabin, the Brooks Hill Log House, and the Ray Gaelien Sr. Barn. The museum draws more than 1,000 visitors each year, most from off-island.
The City of Langley has a Historic Preservation Commission whose duties include surveying and listing the town's historic properties. Langley's famous Dog House Tavern (vacant in 2012) is a National Register property and the Langley Register of Historic Places lists the following: Langley City Hall, 112 Second Street (1948); Langley Library, 104 Second Street (1923); Langley-Woodmen Cemetery, 1109 Al Anderson Avenue (1902); South Whidbey Historical Museum, 312 Second Street (1902?); Wylie Hospital/Birthing House, 321 Edgecliff Drive (1910); Pole Building, Island County Fair Grounds, 819 Camano Avenue (1936-1937); and the Beachum house/Lovejoy house, 402 Anthes Avenue (1908).
A big boost to preservation was the establishment in June 2011 of the Historic Downtown Langley Main Street Association, formed by town merchants to keep and promote Langley's small town heritage. The group is modeled after the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Main Street program, which was designed to protect and revitalize historic downtown commercial districts.
The Langley city council partnered in an agreement with the Langley Main Street Association to designate in 2012 the sum of $45,000 to be disbursed to the Association for Langley’s Main Street program.
The Village by the Sea
The City of Langley recently drew a new comprehensive plan for development. While officials want the city to grow and attract new investors, new projects will be coordinated with the Main Street program. Planned City of Langley projects include redevelopment of Second Street, support of the Port's marina expansion, collaboration with the school district to allow other uses in vacant school facilities, and building an all-season RV park at the fairgrounds.
Janet Ploof, president of the Langley Main Street project, reflected the feelings of many Langley residents when she told a South Whidbey Record reporter in March of 2012, "It's about marketing what Langley is: a small, historic, artistic town of independent people" (Burnett).