June and Farrar Burn: Homesteading in the San Juan Islands

  • By Lynn Weber/Roochvarg
  • Posted 11/02/2021
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21345
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June (1893-1969) and Farrar (1888-1974) Burn, newly married in 1919 and searching for adventure and the best place to start their lives together, consulted an atlas and decided that the San Juan Islands in the far Pacific Northwest was where they wanted to begin. They moved to Sentinel Island, the last available homestead in the archipelago, and it was the start of their decades-long love affair with the area. Throughout their lives they roamed the United States including Alaska, but they were always drawn back to the islands, first living in a tent on Sentinel and later building a rough cabin and eventually a substantial log home on Waldron. June Burn's 1941 book Living High brought national attention to the islands, and her account of their 100-day, 1946 trip through the Salish Sea was serialized in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to great acclaim. They were among the first to publicly campaign for preservation of island land and seascapes, and their enthusiasm for all that life had to offer and determination to make every minute count have inspired countless readers for decades.

Establishing a Homestead

Inez Chandler Harris was born in Anniston, Alabama, and very early decided, with characteristic independence of spirit, that her name henceforth would be June. After university, June worked as a McCall's magazine staff writer while living in a small cabin without electricity or running water in the woods near the Potomac River in Maryland. One day in 1919 she found a note pinned to her door from Ensign Farrar Burn, who had come upon the cabin in its beautiful setting and taken some photographs. When her roommate decided to move out, June advertised for someone to share the rent and was surprised when 30 women applied. She decided to have a tea and meet all of them at once and impulsively invited Farrar too. The only man at the gathering, Farrar easily slipped into the role of host, helping June with the refreshments, entertainment, and cleanup. They quickly found that they shared a strong wanderlust and a willingness to face risks to live life to the fullest with energy and good humor. They married just a month later.

Farrar resigned his naval commission, and they went to the public library to consult an atlas and decide where to start their new life together. "We thought we'd make a career of marriage and that it ought to be pursued in ideal surroundings. From the whole world we chose the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound as the most romantic looking place to live," June reminisced later in her scrapbook (Burn Papers). They wrote to the U.S. General Land Office in Seattle about finding a small island to homestead and were not deterred when informed that there were no more islands available. Instead, they wrote that they were packing up and beginning their journey west and that surely an island could be found. All along the way, they bombarded the land office with letters reiterating their determination and qualifications.

When they finally arrived and gave their names, the man at the land office desk "turned and opened the door behind him. 'Here they are!' he yelled, and the whole office force came out to greet [them] like kinfolks" (Living High, 12-13). And the good news was that an island had become available when the former homesteader didn't complete his patent. June and Farrar were to homestead Sentinel Island, 15 acres of grass, trees, and rock at 48 degrees 38' 22" North Latitude and 123 degrees 09' 03" West Longitude, off Speiden Island just north of San Juan Island and just east of the boundary with Canada in Haro Strait. The small island rose steeply from the water to an elevation of 141 feet.

June was later to describe Sentinel, which she nicknamed "Gumdrop Island," as "like a park on top with high grass, no underwood at all, no bracken, no salal, no Oregon grape. (Also no beach, no harbor, no water!) Just the stems of trees, high grass, deep moss, and wildflowers there. You can go to the top of Sentinel and leave the world behind" (100 Days, 113). Despite the obvious challenges ahead, June and Farrar were eager to get started, but had to delay for a few months of work to make enough money for initial supplies and equipment. Farrar took a job at the Roche Harbor Lime Company on the north end of San Juan Island; evenings they would sit on the shore where they could see Sentinel and make plans for life on their island. They at last set out for Sentinel in a rowboat borrowed from the lime company. Their first night on the island they watched the lights going out on the surrounding islands and thought "Our island. Our world. We had pulled the ladder up and nobody would come" (Living High, 22).

A routine was soon established. In the morning both would write the stories, poems, and other articles that they sent out for possible publication. But the afternoons were devoted to all the work necessary to establish themselves and their homestead. At first, they lived in a small tent, but then built a rough cabin of wood brought to them by the tides. They prepared the island's few patches of soil for spring planting. They fished, and often could sell some of their catch at the Roche Harbor store patronized by the lime company workers. Because they had no fresh water on the island, they had to row across to Speiden to fill 10-gallon containers and then haul the heavy load up to their campsite when they returned. But all was not work, and they took time to explore their island, sun naked on the rocks, and build warming driftwood fires in the evenings where they talked about the adventures that they were sure lay ahead. They lived very frugally, and if, for example, Farrar sold a poem, that $3.50 check meant that they could purchase coffee, 100 lbs. of wheat (which they hand-ground for hoecakes, porridge, and other basic foods), lard, butter, sugar, and even stamps for submitting more manuscripts. They worked hard but found their life fulfilling and fun. Nevertheless, just a year later both were ready for something new and seized the opportunity to take a temporary teaching assignment on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska.

While in Alaska, June became pregnant, and as they wanted the baby to be born in the San Juans, they returned to Washington in 1921 when they'd completed their year's assignment. They brought back memories of a fascinating culture and people and an outstanding collection of photos and native arts and handwork that they had purchased or been given as gifts. Many of the items are now in Smithsonian Institution collections in Washington, D.C., and New York.

On arriving in Seattle, they picked up $2,000 in salaries, more money than they had ever had at one time, and went shopping for, among other items, a big army tent (feeling that the small shack on Sentinel would not be large enough when the family had a new member) and a washboard, tubs, and wringer and clothespins for the anticipated diapers and baby clothes. They acquired rifles so that they could supplement their dinners with fresh duck. And they added chickens to the household hoping for a regular supply of eggs, and a goat for milk. They also bought large barrels in Seattle to use for catching and storing rainwater; it then was easy to keep supplied with fresh water in the winter, although Farrar still had to transport water to the island in the dry summer months. Even the new water supply was not sufficient for doing a full clothes wash, however, so when dirty clothes had accumulated, the homesteaders made an expedition to Speiden and did the washing at a sheep-watering well; Farrar took on the heavy tasks, and June helped with the rinsing and did the hanging out.

Along with the daily chores, getting ready for the infant's arrival was a priority activity. Farrar, always inventive, built a snug crib from a chicken crate. The baby was born on a night so stormy that the doctor was unable to arrive in time from the mainland, and the little boy was delivered by Farrar and a neighbor from Speiden. The decision to name the child "North" had been made well ahead of his arrival, and during her pregnancy June had written letters to the new life she carried. The letters recorded their views on parenting and what they felt was most important for their children: "We would bring them up to ... love the earth, simple pleasures, independence of action" and to be "free of the wantingness which is the destroyer of men" ("Living High," 149-50). Unfortunately, just a few months after North Burn (1921-1980) was born, Farrar's mother became critically ill in Arkansas, and the Burns sold everything to pay for the long trip back east. It would be almost seven years before they returned to the Pacific Northwest.

Years of Adventure

After Farrar's mother died, both he and June were ready for a new undertaking. Their philosophy was simple if decidedly unconventional: The proper way to make the most of one's life is to retire first and do all those interesting things when one has the energy and freedom from responsibility to do them. It is when children need to be in school and expenses and responsibilities increase that it is time to settle and have steady work to provide more regular income. Following their own dictum, they first took a trip in a donkey-drawn cart as far as Ohio, then traveled to Bethesda, Maryland, where June worked and Farrar stayed home with the baby until he could find employment as a lecturer, song writer (he wrote thousands during his lifetime), and entertainer in New York. Their second son, South (1924-1994) -- who decided as a child that he wanted to be called "Bob" -- arrived, and the family was separated for a while when June took the children back to the San Juan Islands for a brief, idyllic time on Johns Island in 1927. June took a job in San Francisco and then joined Farrar, who had finally found work at a large market in Sacramento, California, to pay off the debts accumulated while they were in the East.

By 1928, however, the couple realized that being tied to a large company with all the attendant strictures and schedules was not how they wanted to live, and the Pacific Northwest beckoned. North was ready for school, June was hired by the Bellingham Herald newspaper to write a daily column titled "Puget Soundings," and the family moved to Bellingham in Whatcom County. A friend had found a two-acre site (now part of the grounds of Fairhaven College on the Western Washington University campus) on which they set out creating a home. Farrar first built a kitchen cabin and later a study/living room for June with a tiny bedroom attached. June traveled extensively around Puget Sound gathering stories for her column, whose topics ranged widely from interesting people to forest-fire stations, farming, poetry, resorts, rivers, sea and land birds, flowers, a soapstone mine, a fish hatchery, and some of the indigenous peoples in the area, especially the Lummi and Samish. Numerous columns were devoted to descriptions, resident portraits, and the history of the San Juan Islands with articles on, for example, Waldron and Speiden islands, San Juan Island's University of Washington Oceanographic Laboratories at Friday Harbor (now Friday Harbor Laboratories), the Roche Harbor lime industry, and several Orcas Island communities, with stories related by older residents concerning times past. Often a topic extended over a whole week of columns.

Depression Years and The Puget Sounder

As the Great Depression took hold in the 1930s, June's salary was reduced just as expenses were rising. But June learned that a dream property on Waldron Island had become available, and, using the first half of Farrar's $600 World War I service bonus, they purchased a 22-acre plot at Fishery Point and an additional 22-acre parcel. The Sentinel Island patent had been duly certified in 1922, so now they owned both their beloved "Gumdrop Island" and 44 acres on Waldron, which boasted beaches, fresh water, daily boat service, roads, a school, a store, and a population of almost 50. June and Farrar decided in 1932 to move back to the islands where, they calculated, they could manage on a very minimal income. On Waldron, Farrar constructed a living cabin for the family, and then he and the boys surprised June with an eight-by-nine-foot cabin of her own to be her study, with a view out over the water, a fireplace, a bunk bed over built-in storage for files and papers, a closet, and shelves. It was situated high on a bluff and so far from the main cabin that its isolation became a family joke. They called their property Sundown Farm.

They discovered that it was possible to eke out a happy if very simple family life on Waldron in those difficult times. In addition to supplies purchased before leaving Bellingham, they had apples from abandoned orchards, fruits and vegetables given by generous neighbors, a cow for milk, and cans of Bellingham-garden vegetables. Fish could be caught not far from their door. Meals were largely the same day by day, but June later insisted that they never tired of them. Breakfast was a pot of ground-wheat mush with rich cream and glasses of whole milk; lunch would include scones of ground wheat with unsalted butter, possibly an egg, and an apple; dinner would be a hot hoecake drenched with butter, fresh salad or greens, and often fresh-caught fish or canned meat with canned fruit or raw apples to round out the meal.

After two years, however, June and Farrar felt they needed to return to Bellingham so that North could finish out grade school with his classmates. They found that their renter had much improved the cabins in their absence, and Farrar soon added another cabin of their own for North and Bob, to the envy of their classmates. But June did not want to return to the Herald, and she and Farrar decided to develop their own newspaper. In 1935 they launched The Puget Sounder. So many people enthusiastically remembered her Herald columns that the paper had 750 subscriptions (at $1 per year) sold before the first issue was off the press. When asked what the policy of the paper was and if it had political leanings, June wrote that the policy was "two-fold: to increase the gaiety of nations or anyhow the gaiety of Puget Sounders as much as we can and to tell the wonderful story of its flowerlike land to everybody who will listen. Isn't that enough for one paper to do?" ("Must We ...?"). The Sounder was a labor of love but consumed enormous amounts of time and resources and soon became a source of endless stress. Advertisements never were sufficiently lucrative, and, trying to bolster income, the Burns moved the paper to Seattle. The islands were never far from their minds, however. An August 1938 issue, for example, included a long article on their Sentinel homestead with the rather wistful comment, "We just set to work loving that island as it deserved, and we never stopped" ("Homesteading ..."). The article was the first of a series that continued for almost a year. But by 1939 it was clear that the paper would never be financially viable, and publication was reluctantly suspended.

Farrar had developed a good reputation as an entertainer and touring lecturer, and, wanting to erase the debts incurred by The Puget Sounder, he again traveled east to New York, entertaining and sending money back to June along the way. June was unable to find work and, always restless, she proposed that she and Bob take a walking tour through California after settling North in his room at the University of Washington where he was starting college. In four months during 1940 June and Bob hiked and traveled 4,000 miles, after which they joined Farrar in New York. But a promised contract for Farrar fell through, and 16-year-old Bob decided that he wanted to return to Puget Sound. Hitchhiking his way west, he arrived on Waldron in six days; the trip had cost him $5. These adventures and all those from the previous two decades were to provide the heart of June's acclaimed book Living High, published the following year.

Living High and 100 Days in the San Juans

Living High, narrated in June's lively prose with interesting details and observations on her family's life, was an instant hit. When it appeared in 1941, the country was just beginning to climb out of the Great Depression but facing the possibility of war, and the book's energetic tone and June's always-upbeat outlook were just what readers needed. The review in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was typical: "Deliberately, and with sheer joy in choosing new worlds to conquer, Farrar and June Burn left the encumbrances of civilization and set out to live life simply and live it whole -- on an island of their own" (O'Neil). The book went through four printings and was reissued in 1958 with an update since so many readers had wondered what had happened to the family in the intervening years.

In the summer of 1941, when North Burn was attending a conference at the summer home President Franklin (1882-1945) and First Lady Eleanor (1884-1962) Roosevelt, a friend of the conference host gave Eleanor Roosevelt a copy of the newly released Living High. She was so entranced that she later called June, wanting to spend an afternoon discussing the Burns' approach to life and their experiences; the afternoon's discussion continued in a warm and friendly correspondence over many years. The book was a huge success and was recommended for Christmas gift-giving in 1941 not just in local papers, but throughout the country, including in the New York Herald Tribune.

To capitalize on the book's enthusiastic reception, June and Farrar began a lecture tour that took them around the country to many of the cities where the book had been so well received. Audiences flocked to the lectures and programs, most often on the theme "How to Be Happy Anyway," during which June explained, among so many entertaining details, that the Burn family traveled light but always with a typewriter, dictionary, Roget's thesaurus, guitar -- and cooking utensils. June acquired a new job as the assistant editor of Magazine Digest, a Canadian publication, and she was the featured speaker at numerous programs in the Seattle area. She taught briefly in the English Department of the University of Washington.

But June always kept in touch with the islands, and in 1944 she was instrumental in publicizing the need for and obtaining a postmaster and teacher for Waldron Island. Her letter to a Post-Intelligencer reporter described the residents as "all rugged individualists" whose main occupations were "farming, selling dogfish livers, writing books and painting watercolors, and sitting around admiring the scenery," and who enjoyed living on Waldron despite the island's primitive living conditions (Welch, "Here's Pretty ..."). In response to her letter and a follow-up article, approximately 60 applications were received to June's considerable astonishment.

The following year, in an open letter published in the Friday Harbor Journal, the only newspaper in San Juan County, she asked the county's 3,200 residents to aid her by providing information to be used in a possible book about the islands. She and Farrar proposed to travel through the islands the following year, meeting people and gathering stories of the islands' history and character. She also needed permission to have fires and camp on private beaches. The Post-Intelligencer offered to serialize the story daily in the newspaper, and in the summer of 1946 the intrepid travelers started the 100-day trip in a $5 surplus Coast Guard lifeboat dubbed The San Juanderer, powered by small homemade sails and Farrar rowing the craft from island to island. Currents, tides, and weather dictated frequent changes in itinerary. Often several days were spent on one island, and the landscape, industries, history, and residents were all colorfully described for readers who followed the series avidly, as letters to June and the newspaper attested. The book she hoped to write was never to be, but in 1983, based on a set of the newspaper columns preserved at the Lopez Island Historical Museum and photographs in the Seattle P-I archives, the stories were finally gathered for a book published as 100 Days in the San Juans. Along with entertaining readers, June focused on the unique character of many of the islands, and she advocated, strongly and often, that some should be preserved for posterity as public lands.

The Closing Chapter

June and Farrar developed an interest in nutrition and organic farming and spent many years studying and experimenting with varieties of crops at their home on Waldron. Their travels to investigate aspects of this new interest took them around the country and to England, and they briefly lived in several communities between stays on Waldron. In 1962 Farrar developed cancer, and they moved to Florida for his treatment and easier maintenance of a special diet. In 1967, however, they decided to return at last to the place where the saga of their life together had begun -- Sentinel Island. However, now in their seventies, they found, with dismay, that they were no longer able to meet the challenges of living on an island without water, in minimal shelter, and where even the most basic everyday activities were so physically demanding. With great regret, they gave up their dream of ending their days in the islands and moved to a small farm near Fort Smith, Arkansas, Farrar's hometown. June died there in 1969 and Farrar in 1974.

A whole new generation was introduced to the Burns when Living High was republished by a San Juan Island bookstore in 1992 with the 1958 postscript and a further update from their granddaughter on Waldron. Their conviction that the simple life was the best and their enthusiastic promotion of reserving parts of the San Juans as public lands were harbingers of conservation and preservation efforts to come. Their cherished Sentinel Island is now preserved by the Nature Conservancy along with Yellow, Goose, and Deadman Islands. State parks have been established on Sucia, Matia, Jones, Turn, Posey, James, and other islands. The San Juan Preservation Trust and the San Juan County Landbank have conserved many dozens of miles of shoreline and hundreds of acres of land that June and Farrar visited and celebrated. A 2017 television story on the Burns characterized June as "'Our Lady of the Islands,' the free spirit who came to represent the individuality, nonconformity, and natural rhythms of our region's island time" (McConaghy). June and Farrar Burn hold a special place in the twentieth-century history of the San Juans and are remembered for their unique approach to life and their staunch advocacy for the islands they so loved.


June Burn, Living High (Friday Harbor: Griffin Bay Bookstore, 1992); June Burn, 100 Days in the San Juans (Friday Harbor: Longhouse Printcrafters & Publishers, 1983); Lucille S. McDonald, Making History: The People Who Shaped the San Juan Islands (Friday Harbor: Harbor Press, 1990), 190; June Burn, "Puget Soundings" Bellingham Herald, October 6, 1929, pp. 1, 3; Irene M. Hawkins, "Play While Young, Work Later, Says the Burn Family," Detroit Evening Times, November 2, 1942, p. 11; Irene M. Hawkins, "On Waldron Island," Ibid., January 9, 1943, p. 15; "Open Letter to Journal Readers," Friday Harbor Journal, November 15, 1945, p. 1; "Journal Readers Asked to Contribute," Ibid., November 29, 1945, p. 1; "Letters Arriving About the Islands," Ibid., December 13, 1945, p. 1; "June Burn Extends Thanks for Help," Ibid., January 17, 1946, p. 1; "Island Author Dies in Arkansas," Ibid., September 18, 1969, p. 1; William Ristow, "The Resurrection of '100 Days': A Long Project," Journal of the San Juan Islands, June 29, 1983, p. 1; William Ristow, "'100 Days': An Island Classic Reborn," Ibid., June 29, 1983, pp. 1-B, 5-B; Anita M. Garrett, "Memories of June Burn: A Remarkable Woman," Ibid., December 21, 1983, p. 1-C; "Must We Have a Policy?" The Puget Sounder, May 30, 1935, p. 4; "Wanted --," Ibid., June 14, 1935, p. 7; "Homesteading an Island," Ibid., August 1938, pp. 1, 4; "Author Interviews Our Art Centers for Copy," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 27, 1935, p. 12; Advertisement (Puget Sounder), Ibid., December 13, 1935, p. 34; "Local Events Summarized in Magazine," Ibid., February 11, 1936, p. 10; Helen O'Neil, "Burn Writes Fine Tale on the Art of Living," Ibid., August 24, 1941, Music, Art and Books section, p. 9; "These Books Are Readers' Favorites as New Year Comes In," Ibid., January 4, 1942, Music, Art and Books section, p. 6; Douglass Welch, "Here's Pretty Kettle of Fish, Waldron Islanders Assert," Ibid., October 20, 1944, p. 17; Douglass Welch, "Would-Be Teachers, P.M.'s Swamp Waldron," Ibid., October 30, 1944, p. 6; "Soroptimist Lunch Next Wednesday at Olympic," Ibid., August 5, 1945, p. 19; "100-Day Small Craft Odyssey in San Juans," Ibid., June 2, 1946, pp. 1, 12; "June Burn Off for Odyssey," Ibid., June 23, 1946, p. 1; Hector Escobosa, "The Voice of the People," Ibid., July 12, 1946, p. 14; "Saga Over, Burns Plan Lecture Trip," Ibid., November 13, 1946, p. 7; Walk-a-Little-Faster," The Seattle Times, September 7, 1941, Fashions/Society section, pp. 2, 15; "Burns Turn Life Around; Retire First, Then Go to Work," Ibid., September 18, 1941, p. 8; "You're Invited to Meet June Burn" (advertisement), Ibid., September 29, 1941, p. 5; Virginia Boren, "'June Burn, Writer, Has Pattern for Full Life," Ibid., November 23, 1941, Society section, p. 4; "Christmas Books," Ibid., December 17, 1941, p. 4; "Walk-a-Little-Faster," Ibid., December 21, 1941, pp. 2, 6; "Listening Around," Ibid., January 13, 1942, p. 11; "About People You Know," Ibid., September 5, 1943, p. 7; "Library's Book-Week Dinner to Honor N.W. Authors," Ibid., November 12, 1944, Section 3, p. 1; "All Local Talent," Ibid., November 26, 1944, p. 3; "Want an Island? Writer Catalogs Those Available," Ibid., June 21, 1953, magazine, p. 14; "New Edition of 'Living High' Updates Story," Ibid., July 20, 1958, magazine, p. 17; "June Burn: Lady of the Islands," The Seattle Times, September 1, 1996, clipping, San Juan Historical Museum files, Friday Harbor; Lorraine McConaghy, "The High Life," Crosscut.com, February 2, 2017, print copy, San Juan Historical Museum files; "San Juan Islands Region," Washington State Parks website accessed September 14, 2021 (https://parks.state.wa.us/844/San-Juan-Islands-Region); "San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness Area," America's Parks: State Parks website accessed September 14, 2021 (http://www.stateparks.com/san_juan_islands_national_ wildlife_refuge_and_wilderness_area_in_washington.html); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Elvin H. Smith settles on the San Juan island where he will become known as the 'Hermit of Matia Island' in April 1892" (by Kit Oldham), "University of Washington's first marine sciences summer session, forerunner of Friday Harbor Laboratories, begins in June 1904" (by Kit Oldham), "San Juan County -- Thumbnail History" (by Kit Oldham), "San Juan County Land Bank" (by Elizabeth Anderson), "Roche Harbor Lime Works (San Juan Island)" (by Boyd C. Pratt), and "San Juan Preservation Trust (San Juan County)" (by Lynn Weber/Roochvarg), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed September 10, 2021); "San Juan County Land Bank Annual Report, 2020," San Juan County Landbank website accessed September 14, 2021 (https://sjclandbank.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/REVISED_FINAL_SJCLB_AR20.pdf); "What We Do," San Juan Preservation Trust website accessed September 14, 2021 (https://sjpt.org/what-we-do/); Noel V. Bourasaw, "Living High, an Unconventional Autobiography, and June and Farrar Burn," Skagit River Journal of History and Folklore website accessed September 15, 2021 (http://www.skagitriverjournal.com/WA/Library/Burn/Burn01-BookBios.html); "Sentinel Island, WA," Lat-Long.com website accessed September 15, 2021 (https://www.lat-long.com/Latitude-Longitude-1508221-Washington-Sentinel_Island.html); Hannah Burn, "How Sentinel Island in the San Juans Came to be Owned by a Newlywed Couple 100 Years Ago," KNKX Public Radio website, August 29, 2020, accessed September 15, 2021 (https://www.knkx.org/other-news/2020-08-29/how-sentinel-island-in-the-san-juans-came-to-be-owned-by-a-newlywed-couple-100-years-ago); Matt Axling, "San Juan Islands -- Yellow Island and the Islands Beyond," November 12, 2019, Washington Nature Conservancy website accessed September 15, 2021 (https://www.washingtonnature.org/fieldnotes/2019/11/8/san-juan-islands-yellow-island-and-the-islands-beyond); Note acknowledging 1922 Sentinel Island land patent certification, June 1, 1928, Folder 2, Box 14, Sub-series 3, Series I, June and Farrar Burn Papers, Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, Western Libraries Heritage Resources, Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington; Scrapbook of Early Life, 1920-1940; Folder 14, Box 16, Series II, June and Farrar Burn Papers; Journal, 1946, in 1938 Private Appointments Desk Diary, Folder 5, Box 8, Series I, June and Farrar Burn Papers.

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