Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell -- A Community's Diary

  • By Lynn Weber/Roochvarg
  • Posted 3/07/2018
  • Essay 20520

For more than 65 years "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," a much-loved column in the local weekly newspaper, recorded just about everything anyone would want to know about life on San Juan Island in the Salish Sea between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. Local readers eagerly learned not just who was vacationing off island or which families had visitors, but about the start date of schools, when the earliest daffodils were sighted, who was offering plumbing services, when local clubs were meeting, which local resident was producing especially large strawberries, and who had recently been hospitalized. Over the years, the mostly two- or three-line notes prepared by the newspaper editor or submitted by readers marked the changes in the isolated community and kept a scattered population informed and entertained. The column began with the first issue of the Friday Harbor Journal, was a feature that expanded during the more-than-50-year editorship of Virgil Frits (1882-1971), and survived changes in newspaper ownership into the 1970s. In 2018, older residents still spoke nostalgically of having looked forward each week to learning the latest news about their friends and neighbors.

San Juan Island's First Newspaper: The Islander

San Juan Island in the far Pacific Northwest is one of an archipelago between the Washington mainland and Vancouver Island. Non-Indian settlers first arrived in the second half of the nineteenth century. These pioneers farmed and fished and, by the 1880s, had begun to exploit the island's rich beds of limestone for a growing lime industry. The population was small and it wasn't until 1891, almost 20 years after San Juan County had been established by the Washington territorial legislature, that a weekly newspaper, The Islander, began publication at Friday Harbor, the county seat and largest community in the San Juan Islands, located on the east side of San Juan Island.

Together with national and international news, The Islander offered community notices, want-ads, business information, and even local social news. Rather than featuring separate columns for differing types of news, however, The Islander grouped the short notices into columns with general titles such as "Personal Points All Over," where readers could learn, for example, how many cases of salmon had been shipped from the cannery and that "Emmet Rougar, of the [steamboat] Evangel, has gone and done it, and he and his blushing bride are very happy" ("Personal Points ...," March 6, 1891), although it seems that no mention of the reportedly happy bride's name was considered necessary in this brief report.

By 1894, The Islander had several regular columns ("Local and General" and "Harbor Happenings" were just two) that included social news, brief notes about local industries, and news about launches and steamboats in the area, schools, businesses, and visitors. "Eugene Smith, one of Orcas island's solid citizens, spent Tuesday and Wednesday in Friday Harbor," announced the paper (Islander, September 20, 1894). Some editorializing added to the actual news functioned almost as informal testimonial or advertisement. The "Str. Buckeye is becoming more popular every day. She has lately been fitted with a nice ladies' cabin. She is an ideal boat for excursion parties," readers were informed (Islander, August 23, 1894).

By the early 1900s, The Islander had been purchased (and the title changed to San Juan Islander) by brothers Otis H. Culver (1862-1941) and Fred Culver (1867-1911), whose editorial views were much influenced by John S. McMillin (1855-1936), owner of the prosperous Roche Harbor Lime and Cement Company on the north end of the island. McMillin was widely acknowledged as the leader of the county's Republican Party, and his political power was deemed by some islanders as too pervasive and not entirely ethical. In an effort to offer the community a different perspective, Oscar G. Wall (1845-1911) and Gus A. Ludwig (1858-1932) established the Friday Harbor Journal in 1906 as an oppositional (although still staunchly Republican) newspaper.

The Journal's "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell" -- The Early Years

The first "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell" (a spelling that persisted through most of the column's history) appeared in issue number one of the newly launched newspaper -- perhaps in emulation of similar columns in the San Juan Islander. Like them, the Journal's "Nut-shell" included community news of individuals, businesses, and local events, and occasional comments on happenings around town. The column heading, which never changed during its entire existence, described the content as "The Week's Doings in the Shire -- Town of the Isles Beautiful. Personal, Etc." A year later in 1907, 24-year-old Virgil Frits (1882-1971) bought out Wall's interest in the newspaper and became its editor, a position that he would hold for 50 years during which "Nut-shell" became the most popular and eagerly-sought-out section of the newspaper. In 1914 the Islander ceased publication, and the Journal became the community's almost sole source of local, state, national, and international news, but it was "Nut-shell" that many readers enjoyed most.

In 1910 the population of Friday Harbor was approximately 400 with perhaps another 1,200 on homesteads or employed throughout the island. The Journal office was the place in town to go for information on local happenings or to offer news to be shared in the column with neighbors and friends, or even just the place to stop by for a chat with Frits and others who might drop in.

A single column in the February 6, 1908, issue provides an early sample of the diverse items that were presented each week: "The Journal is in receipt of a letter from a party wishing to rent a small ranch with the option of buying within one or two years. Must have orchard and small fruit and be not too far removed from school." Since no further information was given, anyone having a place available needed to stop in at the Journal office and obtain the details about whom to contact. Frits frequently included personal observations in the column, often commenting, as in this issue for example, on good workmanship when reporting a new project underway in town ("A. McDonald is doing a very neat job of painting the cabinet for the horticultural exhibit at the courthouse)" or on seasonal community activities ("The touch of winter brought with it just enough ice for skating, and young and old, fond of the sport enjoyed the pastime highly"), and even an advertisement -- still in the same column -- could prompt a smile: "Wanted, -- A cook, with a view to matrimony. Must be capable of boiling potatoes with the skins on, and willing to support a man comfortably. Apply to Buchanan Brothers or at Bachelors' Hall, Richardson" ("Nut-shell," February 6, 1908). Reading the variety of interest-catching items appearing in a single issue was always rewarding.

Personals and the Social Scene

From the very first columns, the emphasis was on the social news of the island. Announcements were inserted for upcoming parties, dances, picnics, club meetings, church services, box socials, school events, and other community gatherings. Holiday activities were always included: "Santa Claus will be at the Kindergarten room, Tuesday December 18 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Any child who would like to talk to Santa is welcome to come," the paper assured local families ("Nut-shell," December 12, 1956). After events, readers could frequently find in the "Nut-shell" brief notes on who had been in attendance, what kind of activities had taken place, and even what food had been served to the participants or guests. "A recent bride, Mrs. James Lang (Sonya Arend) was honored at a miscellaneous shower held Friday evening at the Study club hall. Many beautiful and useful gifts were received by the guest of honor. The hall was beautifully decorated with daffodils and yellow and blue tapers ... A delicious lunch was served to about 50 guests. The hostesses were Mrs. Harold Guard, Mrs. Wm. Buchanan, and Mrs. Charles Wirth" ("Nut-shell," April 11, 1946).

Every issue included a lengthy list of short reports concerning islanders who were traveling. Maude Frits (1890-1964), who worked at the newspaper office with her editor husband, was said to have met steamboats and, later, ferries to see who was coming or going, and that she would then contact the travelers to find out their reasons for travel and destinations. "Mr. and Mrs. Hollis Hassell and Mrs. H. Dean spent Sunday in Bellingham, going over to visit the ladies' mother, Mrs. George Stoney, who is at St. Joseph's hospital on account of illness" ("Nutshell," April 6, 1944).

Also in each issue were notes concerning visitors to the island and whether their visits were for business or social or other reasons. Birthdays and, especially, anniversaries were celebrated. Individuals who had had an accident or been ill or hospitalized were identified -- sometimes with a request for visitors or cards -- and often short statements concerning the current status of their health were included. "Art Erickson is recovering from the effects of a recent fall which cracked his collarbone and had kept him confined to his bed for about 10 days. He is able to be up part of the time now. His many friends wish him a complete recovery very soon" ("Nut-shell," January 10, 1957).

It was an excellent way for residents around the island to stay informed about what was happening in the personal lives of friends and neighbors whom they might not have many opportunities to spend time with. It's interesting to realize that these types of items continued to be the mainstay of "Nut-shell" columns long after all islanders had access to telephone service and easier travel on improved roads. Indeed, in the last few years of the column's existence, a decade after Frits had retired, these were the kinds of notes that dominated each issue's "Nut-shell," even as more general news items were no longer included.

In earlier years, however, much practical news also made it into the "Nut-shell." People wanting work used the popular column to advertise their services, and reading the items today creates a picture of island activities and culture through the years. In early decades, for example, one woman offered piano lessons and others offered dressmaking and laundry and pressing services. In 1931 a mechanic advertised, "Introducing hardtime prices in car repair work. All labor done at half-price, at your home or mine ... All work guaranteed" ("Nut-shell," June 11, 1931), while still, that same year, a local garage advertised "blacksmithing, and horseshoeing, forging and acetylene welding. First-class work" ("Nut-shell," May 14, 1931). The drugstore recommended the latest in all-purpose remedies. Doctors from off-island announced the dates when they would be in Friday Harbor for consultations.

Islanders not infrequently used the Journal office as a drop-off spot for a variety of items, and the column sometimes provided a "lost and found" service. "Gentleman's coat has been left at the Journal office, found on the beach. Owner can have by identifying and paying for this notice" ("Nut-shell," July 3, 1930). People left all sorts of things at the office from eyeglasses to a roll of copper tubing to local produce, and mention of every item made it into the paper. Sometimes a note would facilitate the return of a lost item to its proper home. "A stray female pup has come to my place. The pup apparently is some child's pet. Owner can have by calling at the Eric Erickson farm" ("Nut-shell," May 16, 1940). Even in the 1940s it was unnecessary to provide precise directions or an address, as the farm was a known location in the small community.

San Juan Island News

"Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell" also was the place where brief statements of more serious news were inserted. It was here, for example, that note was made of the first islanders to reach the battlefields of World War I. Throughout that war, the Journal made an effort to record each enlistment and initial duty assignment, and the terse notes were often included in the "Nut-shell," as were reports of injuries and soldiers' visits home. Special efforts on behalf of the community were acknowledged, as when in 1911 the drugstore installed a bright gasoline arc light outside to help islanders navigate the dark streets when the town had no electric service for several years. And occasionally an islander's tangle with the law was made very public. "Charged with driving a vehicle while intoxicated, Andy Johnson was hailed into justice court Friday of last week, and fined $50 and costs" ("Nut-shell," May 30, 1929).

Frits was a great advocate for improving the community and making it more appealing to visitors and potential investors as well as residents, so there were frequent notes of buildings being painted, gardens being planted, and debris being cleared from empty lots. He reported when the local market installed a new refrigeration cabinet or when a new home began to be erected or when the grange members needed helpers to clean the fairground before the county fair. He actively promoted the community -- "Break down and squander a penny. Mail a San Juan folder to a friend back east" ("Nut-shell," July 10, 1941) -- and was keenly aware of the growing importance of visitors to the island. "The advent of the summer tourist season was noted Friday evening by the arrival of a car bearing a Montana license plate .... Several cars bearing California license plates arrived on Saturday evening and were over-Sunday visitors on the island," he announced with evident satisfaction ("Nut-shell," May 21, 1931).

Information on local activities was an important feature. Schedules for baseball and basketball games and other sports contests were regularly included. The movie theater advertised the showings for the week. Fishing reports appeared with the season. "The blackmouths [juvenile king salmon] are showing up in San Juan Channel in good numbers and several good catches are reported this week. However, the fish are still small, the largest one caught so far being a 27 1/2 pounder snagged off Point Caution ... The big boys should be showing up any day now as the herring are running in Friday Harbor" ("Nut-shell, May 16, 1940). And Frits was always eager to pass on positive news about the island's agricultural bounty whether it was the superior pear harvest, the impressive size of chrysanthemums or flavor of raspberries brought into the Journal office by proud gardeners, or the outstanding number of hay bales produced on a local farm.

The Later Years

For the more than 50 years that Frits edited the Friday Harbor Journal, the "Nut-shell" recorded the life of the San Juan Island community. The column grew over time until it filled much of a full-size page of every weekly issue. Items submitted by local residents supplemented Frits's reports and comments, and he did his best to ensure that the news was always timely. He knew that readers counted on this, and when circumstances prevented inclusion of every available item, he made sure to explain the omissions. "Due to the electricity being off for two hours this Wednesday morning, it was necessary to leave out several late items, which will appear next week," he apologized ("Nut-shell, November 21, 1957). Social-news columns for communities on other San Juan Islands (Olga, Doe Bay, and West Sound on Orcas, or Richardson and Port Stanley on Lopez, for example) appeared each week in other parts of the newspaper, but Friday Harbor and San Juan Island were always the focus of the "Nut-shell" columns.

Virgil Frits finally retired at the age of 75 in 1958. His legacy in the community was assured, and the new owners of the Journal, who kept his name on the masthead as emeritus editor, initially made only minor changes to the paper. "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell" continued to be a weekly feature, and an attempt was even made to maintain the personal character of the column with the new editor in one instance commenting how much he enjoyed receiving notes from subscribers about their favorite or least-enjoyed parts of the paper and in another column, with evident annoyance, that "when it was discovered the tulips planted at home were practically black and so beautiful, they were transplanted to the Journal flower boxes to be enjoyed by all who pass by. We hope those that were picked the other night are being enjoyed by someone" ("Nut-shell," May 11, 1967).

Within a few years, however, the column was becoming ever shorter and almost exclusively devoted to social news, most often submitted by readers. In late 1968 there was even a plea from the editor lamenting that during the Christmas season "everyone was so busy getting ready for their homecoming family or preparing to go to the mainland for the holiday, that our 'Nutshell' column is pretty blank. We can only hope that each of you will share your news of your guests with us for the next issue. It is our belief that if you want it in the paper, you will write it up and drop it through our door" ("Nut-shell," December 26, 1968).

By 1970 new owners of the Journal were committed to updating the layout and focus of the newspaper, and in 1971 a diminished "Nut-shell" briefly ran parallel to another column called "View from Spring Street." The "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell" title was modified, discarded, and then, for a short time, revived as a history feature with brief notes from columns of years long past, but the much-enjoyed "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," as it had existed for 65 years, disappeared from the paper. As a rich and wide-ranging diary of decades in the life of an entire community, however, the "Nut-shell" will continue to fascinate and inform historians and others for generations to come.


"Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Friday Harbor Journal, February 6, 1908, p. 5, April 28, 1910, p. 5, October 5, 1911, p. 5, March 18, 1915, p. 5, April 29, 1915, p. 5, June 10, 1915, p. 5, August 19, 1915, p. 5, September 30, 1915, p. 6, January 3, 1918, p. 5, June 4, 1925, p. 3, March 21, 1929, p. 6, May 30, 1929, p. 6, July 3, 1930, p. 5, May 14, 1931, p. 6, May 21, 1931, p. 6, June 11, 1931, p. 5, October 29, 1931, p. 6, November 9, 1933, p. 5, February 23, 1939, p. 5, May 25, 1939, p. 5, August 10, 1939, p. 5, May 16, 1940, p. 5, January 9, 1941, p. 5, April 24, 1941, p. 5, July 10, 1941, p. 5, April 6, 1944, p. 5, April 11, 1946, p. 5, August 23, 1951, p. 5, May 6, 1956, p. 5, December 13, 1956, p. 5, December 27, 1956, p. 5, January 10, 1957, p. 5, November 21, 1957, p. 5, December 19, 1963, p. 4, January 9, 1964, p. 4, February 6, 1964, p. 4, February 27, 1964, p. 4, February 17, 1966, p. 4, May 26, 1966, p. 4, May 11, 1967, p. 2, August 17, 1967, p. 2, April 4, 1968, p. 2, December 26, 1968, p. 2, June 17, 1971, p. 7, August 5, 1971, p. 6, February 24, 1972, p. 4; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "San Juan County -- Thumbnail History" (by Kit Oldham), "Advertising Goods and Services to the San Juan Islands Community, 1909" (by Lynn Weber/Roochvarg), "Frits, Virgil (1882-1971)" (by Lynn Weber/Roochvarg), and "World War I: The San Juan County Experience" (By Lynn Weber/Roochvarg) http// (accessed January 25, 2018); "Personal Points All Over," The Islander, March 6, 1891, p. 3; "Harbor Happenings," Ibid., March 6, 1891, p. 3; "Local and General," Ibid., August 23, 1894, p. 2; "Local and General," Ibid., September 20, 1894, p. 3; David Richardson, Magic Islands: A Treasure Trove of San Juan Islands Lore (Eastsound: Orcas Publishing Co., 1995), 37-39; Michael and Julia Vouri and the San Juan Historical Society and Museum, Friday Harbor (Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2009), 57; Lynn Weber/Roochvarg interview with Jeri Ahrenius, Friday Harbor, Washington, April 15, 2016.

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