Emelia (Lee) Bave presents first version of her San Juan Saga stage show on April 3, 1959.

  • By Lynn Weber/Roochvarg
  • Posted 9/30/2020
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21106
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On April 3, 1959, in honor of San Juan Island's Pig War centennial, Emelia Bave (1910-2008) produces a variety show for the school P.T.A., highlighting island history and the events leading to that territorial dispute between the U.S. and Britain. The program, with its cast of local residents, is a resounding success. In 1965 audiences will be treated to an inventive new version, with just a few live actors and an array of costumed store-mannequin characters. That production will remain a popular annual summer entertainment for islanders and visitors for 20 years, after which the costumed mannequins will continue on display in a museum created to house them. For more than 40 years Lee Bave will make numerous contributions to local arts and activities, refurbishing and bringing to life theater spaces, organizing classes, fostering the nascent Whale Museum, and enthusiastically participating in parades and events, all while operating a favorite island resort with her husband Milton (1918-1985). Years after her death she will be remembered by local residents as passionately dedicated to the island's history and culture, a woman of great warmth and character, and a truly unique member of the community.

Youth, Military Service, Marriage, Family

Until she was almost 50, Emelia Bave was barely aware of the existence of the San Juan Islands in the far Pacific Northwest between the Washington mainland and Canada's Vancouver Island. Emelia Wurzbach (or Amelia, as she is listed on her birth certificate) was born in 1910 to parents who had separately immigrated from Switzerland and Germany to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon) community in Salt Lake City, Utah. By her late teens the family had moved to southern California, where for a decade she enjoyed the casual lifestyle, activities with friends, and her first performance experiences with a trio that sang at events around Los Angeles.

In her early thirties, soon after America's entry into World War II, she worked for a year at Douglas Aircraft before deciding in 1943 to enter the U.S. Coast Guard Women's Reserve, also known as SPARS, a term related to the Coast Guard's motto: "Semper Paratus" ("Always Ready"). The organization was formed to provide women under military direction who could free up men for service at sea. Emelia enlisted partly to contribute to the war effort, but also to learn secretarial and typing skills that would equip her for a good future job and aid the story-writing she so enjoyed. She was initially assigned to be in charge of mail and personnel and serve as a radio dispatcher in Miami, but found the climate there and the "huge cockroaches and rats ... running around the food that was left ... to eat during the midnight-to-morning shift" intolerable ("Golden Memories," Bave papers). She requested a transfer to Portland, Oregon but was instead assigned to Seattle. She got there by hitching rides across the country on military planes including B-17 and B-25 bombers (where she was sometimes relegated to sitting in the bombing bay or gunner's turret) and C-54 transport planes. One B-17 pilot even let her try flying the plane which, she quickly discovered, didn't operate quite like a car.

Emelia Wurzbach arrived in Seattle in April 1945. Two weeks later Milton Bave, a Coast Guard engineer, was transferred to the Seattle base. Emelia was again serving as a radio dispatcher, and when her equipment developed problems, Milton was the person sent to make repairs. They soon were spending their free time together, and Milton made it clear that he wanted to marry her. Now 35, Emelia had not thought that she would ever marry and was reluctant to commit herself. But after writing out separate lists of all the negative and positive aspects of the potential marriage she found that the positive list was much longer and more compelling than the negative. She called and asked if he would like to get married.

When the war ended, Emelia and Milton settled in Portland. Milt (as he was known by colleagues and family) and two friends formed a company, Tektronix, to develop and market oscilloscopes to graphically display and facilitate measurements of various electronic signals. Emelia Bave built cables, did wiring, and assembled the first 15 oscilloscopes while helping support the household by selling the World Book Encyclopedia. The family expanded with the arrival of two sons, Peter (1949-2019) and Brent (1951-1955).

In 1949 the Baves visited friends in Spokane and brought home an unusual souvenir. Just before the return trip, Emelia saw in a shop window a shiny nineteenth-century German military helmet. Although she had absolutely no use for it, she had a very strong premonition that she should buy it. Her $62 purchase was promptly put in a box and stored away at the back of a shelf, all but forgotten.

Milt sold his share in Tektronix in 1952, and the Baves moved across the Columbia River to Vancouver in Clark County, settling into a comfortable home with a separate guest house that Milt could use for projects and a swimming pool for the family, which soon also included daughter Marsha (b. 1953). When Milt was asked by a friend to travel to Orcas Island to inspect a cabin there that was being considered for purchase, he enthusiastically reported to Emelia about the beautiful San Juan Islands area. They visited and soon purchased a cabin and property on Shaw Island with the intention of using it for summer visits. But 1955 brought tragedy to the Bave family and a loss from which Emelia never fully recovered. Brent, their loving and active four-year-old son, drowned in their backyard swimming pool one afternoon when his parents were momentarily distracted.

A New Life on San Juan Island

Two years later, on a ferry on their way to visit their Shaw Island property, the Baves were approached by a real estate agent who said they looked like people who would relish a challenge and that he knew of a resort in a beautiful setting on San Juan Island that needed some upgrading but that they might really enjoy owning. They were persuaded to visit, and Emelia immediately fell in love with Mar Vista. Located on the island's southwest shoreline, the property included an old homestead house and five cottages on a bluff overlooking False Bay and an extensive beach below the bluff. The tranquil setting and potential of the old resort were so appealing that they purchased it just two weeks later.

Within a year Emelia had persuaded Milt to move there permanently. The Baves worked hard to restore, expand, and enhance the property, and Mar Vista became one of the island's most-sought-out vacation destinations with visitors who returned year after year to enjoy the beauty and serenity of the environment and the Baves' friendly hospitality. Almost as soon as they had taken over ownership of the resort, Emelia Bave decided to promote it by contributing a column to the local newspaper headlined "Mar Vista Memos" (under the byline "Mela") in which she wrote about some of the resort's visitors.

The column brought Bave to the attention of readers around the island and, in February 1959, just weeks after the Baves began fulltime residence at the resort, the organizers of an annual school PTA variety show asked if she would write the script and help create that year's program. Because it was the centennial year of a local incident that precipitated an important historical dispute between the U.S. and Britain, the show, scheduled to be presented in just two months, was to focus on this colorful period of island history.

Pig War Pageantry

In 1859 tensions between Britain and the United States over who controlled the San Juan Islands archipelago were brought to a head when an American settler killed a prized British boar that had invaded his potato garden. When he would not pay the price demanded for reparations, the British farm manager threatened to seize the American and send him to Victoria on Vancouver Island for prosecution. American and British military forces arrived to support their respective citizens, and a serious conflict was only averted when cooler heads prevailed. A joint military occupancy was established until the question of sovereignty could be resolved. It wasn't until 1872 that a mediator decided in favor of the U.S.; this 13-year period famously became known as the Pig War.

Bave agreed to take on the task of preparing the program but as a new resident she knew nothing of this history. Undaunted, however, she plunged immediately into a flurry of research. She combed libraries in both Washington and Canada, visited the local cemetery to gather information from tombstones, and went to the parliament building in Victoria. She met Etta Egeland (1896-2002), a local woman from a pioneer family who was extremely knowledgeable about the island's history and introduced Bave to surviving settlers whose stories and reminiscences she recorded on the large tape machine she lugged around the island. And she knew that she had made the right decision to undertake this task when she remembered the old military helmet that she had felt so inexplicably drawn to purchase a decade earlier; it was just what was needed for the costume of the mediator who ultimately decided the islands' fate -- Kaiser Wilhelm I (1797-1888) of Germany.

Bave worked feverishly in the brief period before the performance, writing scenes for the two-hour show, assembling costumes, and helping with production details. The characters in the story were to be played by community members; even a live pig joined the cast. But filling all the male parts was apparently a challenge. "Any and all men who have a bit of actors' blood in their veins are asked to attend dress rehearsal to take the part of soldiers" ("Variety Show ..."), Bave pleaded in the newspaper.

The production, A Satire of San Juan, presented on April 3, 1959, was a huge success. Indeed, a few months later, when the chamber of commerce needed a 45-minute show to present at the August county fair, those responsible asked Bave to adapt her production for presentation during the annual event. This time recruiting cast members was even more difficult, and she resorted to standing on the sidewalk outside the drug store in Friday Harbor (the only town on the island) trying to snag passers-by and persuade them to participate. The revised presentation, the San Juan Pageant, was a hugely popular fair entertainment.

Encouraging Arts and Culture

The show seemed to have, at least temporarily, run its course, but Bave's dedicated work and interest in the arts had been widely noted in the community, and she was soon very much in demand for help in broadening the island's cultural horizons. A group of residents asked if she could organize some ongoing cultural activities, as the school and community had no programs and even the old movie theater had been closed for years. The first task was to find a place where events and other activities could take place, and the Baves decided to purchase the 1892 building that originally served as home to the International Order of Odd Fellows fraternal organization. The site, next to the American Legion on First Street just north of the center of town and across from the county courthouse, was convenient for visitors as well as the community since it was not far from the ferry landing.

The Baves poured hours of work and substantial financial investment into refurbishing the old hall. They even paid for a sidewalk and curb to be installed. The upstairs was to be let out for visual and performing-arts classes and projects, and the lower floor would be the site of performances, square dances, and community events. Bave called her new facility the Island Gallery. She sought out teachers of ballet and watercolor, oil, and portrait painting, among others, to offer classes for interested islanders. A teen club met upstairs for some years, and a guitar instructor taught students. In 1960 Bave incorporated a group she called MADD, for Music, Art, Drama, and Dance. Shares in the group could be purchased for $1, and its goal "was to develop and stimulate interest in the creative and cultural arts" (untitled typescript, Bave papers). She continued to work on the annual school variety programs and fashion shows.

In addition, in 1961 Lee (as Emelia had rapidly become known among friends and neighbors) and Milt were persuaded to purchase the 1915 movie-theater building on Spring Street, the main road through downtown, to be used for both live theater events and movie showings. Once again they had to undertake a substantial renovation project when they found, for example, that it was possible to step right through the rotted floorboards on the stage. When the theater reopened as the MADD Playhouse, Lee herself often operated the projector during movie showings, and she was known to cover the projector lens with her hand if she felt a particular scene's visuals were inappropriate for youngsters or more conservative members of the audience. The playhouse became home to a professional repertory group, the Straights of Juan de Fuca, and a youth-oriented company called the Madhatters. Milt was often in charge of designing and overseeing lighting for the productions.

The San Juan Story Reimagined

In 1965 the National Park Service issued the first press releases about the possibility of establishing a national historical park on San Juan Island to preserve and interpret the story of the events leading up to and through the Pig War years. Bave had long wanted to revive her history program and this, she felt, was the perfect time. But once again the problem of finding enough actors was acute. A few loyal community members volunteered and the entire Bave family was involved, but the cast of characters was large and the group small. Bave was used to facing challenges, however, and she came up with a truly inspired solution -- clothing mannequins that could be transformed by makeup and costumes into historical characters. A few live actors would help animate the production. A taped narration would carry the story along and explain the scenes.

Bave went on a quest for mannequins in stores and mannequin-repair shops from Canada to Portland. Female mannequins were no problem, and even children's mannequins were available, but male mannequins were extremely difficult to find. Ultimately some male characters were hybrids of a male mannequin top half and a female half on the bottom; after all, she reasoned, when trousers had been put on the mannequin, who would know? She was frugal and inventive. Everything from feathers to horsetails to dog hair was used to detail beards and eyebrows, for example. Performances were to take place at the Island Gallery, and Bave painted a local landscape on the back wall and took out of storage the coffin boxes she had obtained from a mortuary and painted as backdrops for scenes in the original production. The mannequins were put on well-concealed wheels so that they could be moved from place to place throughout the drama. Milt designed and operated the lighting that focused audience attention as the story moved from scene to scene around the stage area.

Performances of the show, now named the San Juan Saga, garnered an enthusiastic reception from island residents (some of whom attended again and again throughout the years) and visitors. Bave, in costume, greeted audience members as they arrived and prepared them with an introduction to the show. During the production she assumed roles and moved and redressed the mannequins as the story progressed. Bave had written and recorded a script that told the Pig War story but also included other locally important historic characters and events. After the performance she explained how some of the effects and details had been achieved and answered questions. Audiences were encouraged to leave comments on large boards created for the purpose.

For 10 years the production was offered each weekend during the summer, and for another 10 years it was presented on all the major summer holiday weekends, often at English Camp on the island's northwest side. By the last scheduled performance in August 1985, Bave was well into her 70s, and moving the mannequins around together with all the other activities was becoming too taxing, especially as she had been feeling less and less well for some time. And earlier that year she had lost her beloved husband and partner in all her activities. Milton Bave suffered a fatal heart attack at home at Mar Vista in January and was buried in Valley Cemetery near the little nineteenth-century church whose carillon bells he had personally restored to use.

The Whale Museum, the Pig War Museum, and Beyond

In 1979 Ken Balcomb (b. 1940), a marine biologist who headed a group studying whales (especially those in local waters) had visited the Baves at Mar Vista and asked if the second floor of the Island Gallery could be rented for development of a whale museum. Although a bit dubious at first, Bave quickly became a staunch supporter of her upstairs tenants. When locals suggested she was housing a bunch of hippies, she later recalled, she would "scold them and say 'Just because they had long hair and some bearded faces didn't mean they weren't intelligent,' and I am sure NOW everyone is proud of their accomplishments and being known thro'out the world for all the Knowledge they have of ALL Whales, but especially the Orca ... " ("Where and How ...," Bave papers). After Milt's death, however, Lee wanted to shed some of her responsibilities and to find a buyer for the Island Gallery building. At first she struggled to help the Whale Museum find a new home to rent, but the museum was eventually able to gather funds and purchase the property from her in 1989. A new chapter in the building's history had begun.

But now Bave was faced with what to do with all the mannequins, costumes, props, coffin-box scenery, and more from the saga. She just couldn't face disposing of items that had been so important a part of her life for so long. She identified a property at the corner of Tucker Avenue and Guard Street north and west of the town's center, sold a piece of the Mar Vista beachfront to obtain funds, and worked with the town, engineers, an architect, and others to create a museum to display, with appropriate backdrops, the characters she had devised so many years ago. She even acquired a stuffed 300-pound boar to enhance a key scene. The Pig War Museum opened on Bave's 80th birthday in 1990, and she was often there to talk to visitors about the historical events and the performances that had brought them to life. She hoped that rentals of the large reception space would help pay the expenses.

More and more often now, however, Bave felt too unwell to leave home. In 1986 she had been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome brought on by stress, and the condition became increasingly acute as problems mounted. The playhouse had been sold years earlier after it was found that a partner had declared bankruptcy and hadn't been paying the bills. MADD had disbanded. The new museum was draining money because she couldn't afford to pay personnel to keep it open, but she couldn't bear to sell the building. Resort expenses and maintenance needs continued. By 1992 she was bedridden much of time, depressed, and still haunted by the death of her son so many years ago; she often felt isolated and lonely. It was frustrating for a woman used to an abundance of energy and activity and a positive approach to life. Writing poetry and reminiscences of happier times brought solace, as did visits from friends.

Bave rallied in 1994, however, when she was chosen to serve as the grand marshal of San Juan Island's always popular-and-well-attended July 4th parade. She had been an enthusiastic entrant in the local parade for decades, sometimes preparing several floats for different organizations in a single year's parade. One of the articles profiling her on the occasion of her selection marveled that "listening to [the] grand marshal for the Independence Day Parade is like being pelted by a verbal downpour liberally spiked with humor that won't quit" (Gottlieb).

And Bave frequently noted that she made a real effort to see the humor in situations as a way to help overcome life's challenges. She had always claimed that her mind and mood were strongly affected by the phases of the moon, and now she often passed days in considerable physical and emotional distress. But she had good days too, took great comfort from her Mormon faith, was happy to have visits from friends, and was especially thankful to be able to remain at Mar Vista. She died there peacefully on March 6, 2008, at the age of 97. The resort operated for five more years, closing in 2013 after the property was sold. The following year, the Washington State Legislature approved naming a small island at the mouth of False Bay that Bave would have seen from Mar Vista as "Lee Island" in her memory.

The story of Lee Bave and the San Juan Saga also lived on. In 2017 it became the basis for a new play when the Bellingham Theater Works produced Mrs. Bave Presents the Pig War, in which Bave's mannequins come to life and threaten to quit the show if she doesn't make some changes to the script. The play, which the Bave family had approved, was presented to appreciative audiences in Bellingham and Friday Harbor. Many who had known Bave were reminded once again what a remarkable member of the community she had been and how much she had enlivened it for so many years.


Emelia Bave papers, Bave file, Local Families Collection, San Juan Historical Museum, Friday Harbor, Washington; John Goekler, "Living in the Past: A Guide to Historic Houses," undated photocopy, Bave file, San Juan Historical Museum; John Goekler, "The Marshal of Mar Vista," 1994, and "Milton Marsh Bave," January 1985, news clippings, Bave file, San Juan Historical Museum; "Mar Vista Resort" (brochure, ca. 1968), Bave file, San Juan Historical Museum; Emelia Bave interview, partial transcript, undated, pp. 14-23, Bave file, San Juan Historical Museum; "Variety Show Dress Rehearsal," Friday Harbor Journal, April 2, 1959, p. 1; "Mela" (Emelia Bave), "Mar Vista Memos," Ibid., May 21, 1959, p. 7; "Show Planned for Fair," Ibid., July 30, 1959, p. 1; "Notice: Public Meeting Regarding Proposed U.S. Park," Ibid., April 8, 1965, p. 1; "Art Classes," Ibid., April 15, 1965, p. 4; "The MADDers Are at It Again," Ibid., May 6, 1965, p. 5; "One -woman Show 'San Juan Saga' Series to Start," Ibid., June 30, 1976, p. 27; Allison Arthur, "Lee Bave Returns with Saga One More Time," Journal of the San Juan Islands, July 3, 1985, p. A-11, Lee Bave, "The Whale Museum Needs to Move Soon," letter, Ibid., July 10, 1985, p. B-3; Lee Bave, "Lee says Boo! Hiss! to Sexy Melodrama," letter, Ibid., July 31, 1985, p. B-5; Lee Bave, "Lee Bave Will Give Just ONE More Show," letter, Ibid., July 4, 1986, p. B-10; Lee Bave, "Saga Shows Will Not Appear on Tape," letter, Ibid., July 16, 1986, p. B-8; Lee Bave, "Hope for More Interest in Pig War Museum," letter, Ibid., August 23, 1989, p. B-11; Paul Gottlieb, "San Juan's July 4th Grand Marshal Made Life a Parade," Ibid., June 29, 1994, pp. B-1, B-3; Heather Spaulding, "A Tale of War, Pigs, and Mannequins," Journal of the San Juan Islands, October 6, 2017 (https://www.sanjuanjournal.com/life/a-tale-of-war-pigs-and-mannequins/); Cindy Stewart Bjorklund, "San Juan Saga: A One-Woman Show," in San Juan Islands Almanac, vol. 11 (Friday Harbor: Longhouse, 1984), 32-33; "Milt Bave, a Tek Founder, Dies at 68," Tekweek, February 15, 1985, p. 2; Scott Rasmussen, "Hooray for the Theater!" July 3, 2015, San Juan Update website accessed August 20, 2020 (https://sanjuanupdate.com/2015/07/hooray-for-the-theater/); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "San Juan Island Pig War," Parts 1 and 2 (by Kit Oldham) and "Tourism in the San Juan Islands," Part 2 (by Lynn Weber/Roochvarg), http://historylink.org/ (accessed September 2, 2020); "SPARS: The Coast Guard & the Women's Reserve in World War II," United States Coast Guard Historian's Office website accessed August 13, 2020 (https://www.history.uscg.mil/Browse-by-Topic/Notable-People/Women/SPARS/); "Appendix -- Determination of Geographic Names," Ch. 237-990, Washington Administrative Code, Washington State Legislature website accessed September 7, 2020 (https://apps.leg.wa.gov/wac/default.aspx?cite=237-990); Peggy Sue McRae, "Emelia Lee Bave -- The Pig War Museum," October 29, 2007, On San Juan Island blog accessed September 7, 2020 (http://onsanjuanisland.blogspot.com/2007/10/emelia-lee-bave-pig-war-museum.html); "Comedy about Lee Bave's Pig War Presentations Onstage in Bellingham and Friday Harbor," August 20, 2017, San Juan Islander website accessed September 5, 2020 (https://sanjuanislander.com/news-articles/people/25519/comedy-about-lee-bave-s-pig-war-presentations-opens-in-bellingham-sept-8).     

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