In 1961, San Juan Island residents who shared an interest in preserving the community's historical documents and artifacts established the San Juan Historical Society. Society members immediately sought a facility in which to display the numerous artifacts from indigenous islanders and early non-Indian settlers that residents were eager to contribute. The gift in 1966 of a historic farmstead site in Friday Harbor, including four early buildings, offered ideal potential for exhibit space and museum programs. All initial activities were undertaken by volunteers, who continue to be essential to the society's operations. Over ensuing decades the society built a large nineteenth-century-style barn (which now houses a Museum of History and Industry), added more historic buildings, and acquired adjoining property where a resource center for research and administration was developed. Since its inception, the society has organized exhibitions; cooperated with other local organizations on varied projects; hosted school groups, families, researchers, and history enthusiasts of all ages; and developed an oral-history collection and an extensive photo archive. It continues to expand its offerings to fulfill its founders' commitment to keep the island's history alive for future generations.
In the 1950s many residents of San Juan Island in the far Pacific Northwest between the Washington mainland and Canada's Vancouver Island still remembered the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century development of this community of farmers and fishermen, loggers and lime-company workers and tradespeople. Homes and barns were filled with photos, documents, and artifacts from those early days. There was concern that post-World War II generations would never know what earlier life was like on the isolated island, long occupied by indigenous groups and, beginning in the 1850s, by increasing numbers of settlers coming, often from unsuccessful gold mining ventures, to begin new lives.
In 1953 the county prosecuting attorney suggested that there was space in the county courthouse for display of some items of historical interest. The proposal was immediately seized upon by Etta Egeland (1896-2002) of the pioneering Lawson and Lightheart families, who would, with immense dedication and energy, take a leading role in activities to preserve the island's history for the next half century. With contributions of shelving and display cases from island organizations, a small exhibit was soon prepared. Five years later, the editor of the local newspaper suggested that "a historical museum could be the most wonderful inheritance our coming generations could receive" ("San Juan Island Needs ..."). One couple was so favor of the idea that they contributed $7.50 to open a bank account toward development of a museum.
The Friday Harbor Primrose Society, an affiliate of the American Primrose Society (devoted to learning about, cultivating, and disseminating information about the many varieties of primulaceae), had evolved locally into a more socially active organization that, among other projects, supported development of island organizations. Some members were especially interested in forming a group focused on island history.
In early 1961 a brief notice in the Friday Harbor Journal announced that on February 17 the public was invited to "come and let us know if you think San Juan Island should have an Historical Society to preserve all those treasured articles and antiques so many of us want kept for posterity" ("Bicentennial Report," 4). More than 30 people attended that first meeting at the home of schoolteacher Julia Jensen (1886-1972). The president of the Primrose Society presided and presented a detailed proposal outlining what the purpose and activities of such a society might be. After several presentations and discussion, the gathering enthusiastically approved a first step: Julia Jensen, Etta Egeland, and Charles C. Schmidt (1928-1979), then county prosecuting attorney, were chosen to draft, in proper legal form, a constitution and bylaws for a new organization.
By the next meeting the project had been launched. The first officers of the fledgling San Juan Historical Society were selected: Julia Jensen, President; Cliff Dightman (1920-1991), Vice President; Burt Winne (1900-1980), Correspondence Secretary; Mitzie Rosenkranz (1907-?), Recording Secretary; and Al Nash Jr. (1924-2010), Treasurer. Five additional individuals, including Etta Egeland, were chosen for the governing board, and later in the year Egeland was also appointed historian of the society. Dues were set at $1.50 per year and a food sale was suggested as a fundraising activity, the first of many. At the end of 1961 the society had a bank balance of $348.20.
Much of the next few years was taken up with the search for a property that could house the growing number of items that society members and others wanted to contribute and also provide a meeting place and space for activities the group hoped to undertake. Then, in 1966, an unexpected gift provided an eminently appropriate setting for the society's activities. George Peacock, a local resident and former Detroit school superintendent with an interest in local history, offered to donate to the society what had been the heart of a late-nineteenth-century 445-acre farm owned by James King (1857-1932). The property, a 217-by-125-foot lot with a farmhouse, carriage house, milk house, and stone storage building for preserving fruits and vegetables, was located on Price Street just west of the center of Friday Harbor, the island's only incorporated town and the county seat of San Juan County.
The entire community welcomed this generous gift, and society members immediately began planning fundraising activities to finance needed repairs and renovation of the farmhouse, while the local garden club and the Primrose Society offered to assist with landscaping the neglected grounds. Peacock himself later donated furniture, vinyl flooring, rugs, and other items and initially paid the taxes and insurance on the property to support the society's efforts.
Developing a Museum
A survey was undertaken to determine the state of the farmhouse and needs for immediate and long-term repairs. The society wanted to move into the building and use it as an administrative headquarters and for meetings, as well as to display the growing collection of artifacts. A chimney was found to be blocked, walls on the second floor had to be moved to open up exhibition space, a new porch was needed, and lighting improved. Every room needed painting or wallpapering. The plumbing and heating were suspect. Etta Egeland suggested that one upstairs bedroom be designated as the Lawson Room and she spearheaded efforts to prepare the space and set up an exhibit drawn primarily from her own large family collection. When the first rooms were ready to receive visitors, society members acknowledged Egeland's many contributions of work and furnishings and declared that "the Lawson Room has set the tone of charm and authenticity that we hope to maintain in all displays" (Minutes, September 16, 1968). The farmhouse was initially open on Sundays from 2 to 4 p.m., and some publicity was needed to inform the community of this new town attraction. The Primrose Society offered to organize a "silver tea" at the museum (as the buildings and grounds were soon popularly called) to help spread the word. It was a well-attended event that continued annually for more than 40 years, although after the first few years, historical society volunteers took over the planning and presentation.
In 1969 the society applied for tax status as a nonprofit organization. Progress was being made on the group's administration, property, and collections. After mowing and an overall cleanup of the grounds, shrubs and trees were planted to enhance the landscaping. In the summer of 1976 a University of Washington undergraduate student in museology and an assistant at the Museum of Science in St. Paul, Minnesota, undertook a thorough review of the artifacts and structures. They checked every item in the buildings, identifying, recording, and assigning numbers to each, and cleaned all the tools and farm equipment.
In 1981, the county's original jail joined the structures on the museum grounds, moved there from the courthouse property. The small two-cell jail, constructed in 1894 for $234.50, was basic in the extreme, but electric light and rudimentary plumbing had eventually been added. In 1966 the aging structure was declared "insecure, unsafe, unsanitary, and unfit for human habitation" (Welcome to ...), but it wasn't until 1971 that it was condemned by the county health department and no longer used. In 1985, not long after the jail's arrival at the museum, work began on a much larger addition to the property -- a substantial barn, built in nineteenth-century style, to provide storage and house large farm equipment donated to the collection.
Another structure was added to the grounds in 1988. The small cabin, acquired as a donation, had been built in 1891 near Mitchell Bay on the island's northwest side as the home of Edward Scribner (1865-1951), his wife, and six children. Three more children were born in the cramped dwelling (two rooms and a sleeping loft) before the family of 11 moved to Friday Harbor. Like so many of the old buildings, a new foundation, chimney, and porch were needed; the ancient structural logs required weatherproof caulking; and eventually the shake-shingle roof had to be replaced. Maintaining all the aged structures on the museum property has been a continual and expensive responsibility.
The museum site was expanded when the property immediately to the north was purchased in 1991. Several years later a building was moved there to be used as a resource center for administration, meetings, exhibits, a library, and centralized storage for the many items that were at the time scattered in cupboards and corners around the property. The structure had little exterior charm and seemed out of place with its nineteenth-century-era neighbors. Volunteers added attractive new porch railings and decorative period brackets to the tops of the porch pillars to provide a more compatible appearance. The building, named the Etta Egeland Resource Center in honor of the society's indefatigable volunteer worker and advocate, continued serving in the 2020s as an administrative, research, library, project, and storage facility.
In 1964, just three years after the society's formation, a note appeared in its meeting minutes that the roof and foundation of a log cabin on the county fairgrounds were much in need of attention, and the society board elected to take on responsibility for repairs. Among the initial buildings constructed when the fairgrounds were developed in 1924, the cabin had been built of logs provided by families of early settlers. While the historical society continued to take an interest in the pioneer cabin, it declined the fair association's 1976 offer to transfer ownership of the building to the society. However, by 1997 the cabin had fallen into such disrepair that it was in imminent danger of being condemned, and the society felt some responsibility to help save the aging structure. The following year it entered a five-year contract with the fair association detailing the responsibilities and rights of each organization concerning the cabin's maintenance and use; the contract was later extended to 2029. The society planned another major restoration project, slated to begin in 2023, with the support of grants and a historic-structures-rehabilitation program from the mainland.
The barn on the museum property, built in the 1980s primarily to house large farm equipment, was developed into the San Juan Island Museum of History and Industry (MHI). In 2001 a board member proposed using the barn for "permanent display of equipment and pictures of island industries including farming, logging, fishing, and the equipment and photos to explain the making of lime" (Dysart letter). Over the next decades, creative design and construction produced a visually appealing and educational introduction to the industries that were fundamental to the island's early economy. An informative interactive map of the island was installed in the museum's entry atrium. Among the most striking elements of the MHI exhibits are large photographs that bring the static equipment to life by showing islanders at work using it.
These photos are just a tiny sample of the society's ever-growing collection of historic local photographs, including formal portraits and informal snapshots of islanders through more than a century, scenes of daily life, landscapes, events, and celebrations -- nearly every facet of island living. Serious efforts to create an organized photo collection began in 1992 when a note in the society's newsletter invited readers to bring their photos to the museum to be copied or preserved as important records of island places and daily activities. The photographs quickly became a significant museum collection, even illustrating a "San Juan Historical Society Calendar" in 1993. Later they were the primary source of content for two books of annotated historical photo compilations coauthored by Mike (b. 1947) and Julia (b. 1954) Vouri and the society for Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series -- Friday Harbor (2009) and San Juan Island (2010). But it wasn't until 2017 that a major archiving project was begun. Before that year approximately 3,000 images had received basic processing; by early 2023 the collection had increased to more than 7,250 and was growing weekly. All photos were now scanned, edited, recorded, and numbered, with originals placed in protective archival sleeves and stored in disaster-proof files. The collection is an invaluable aid to authors, genealogical and institutional researchers, national and state park personnel seeking exhibition elements, and local commercial establishments looking for period decorative items. Along with the information files on local families, it is one of the museum's most popular and heavily used resources.
The 2017 Archive Project was an enormous undertaking that was not limited to photos. Through the decades artifact donations to the museum never stopped flowing, and because of limited director and volunteer time, many were never thoroughly evaluated and processed. In 2017 a large cadre of specially recruited volunteers reviewed more than 200 boxes of artifacts, ephemera, photos, and books stored in the resource center. Each article was individually described and recorded, and the box contents were re-sorted for further research, accessioning, or discard. The task took hundreds of hours over three months to complete and fostered continuing review and appropriate processing.
Among the island's most colorful characters in the early years of the twentieth century was Jim Crook (1873-1967), whose family settled at English Camp, near the north end of the island, where British forces had been stationed during the "Pig War" territorial dispute that ended in 1872 when the San Juan Islands were declared part of the United States. Crook was a farmer and prolific inventor of textile and farm equipment and machinery. When the National Park Service took over the English Camp site in the early 1980s, the society received the remaining artifacts and equipment from the Crook farmstead. Local weavers who formed a Jim Crook Society asked the historical society to loan the equipment for restoration and display, and eventually moved the items to their meeting space in a small building on the fairgrounds. In 1998 the Jim Crook Society disbanded and the next year the fair association announced that it needed the building and wanted the space cleared. The historical society decided that an extension to its barn, which was already under construction, could house the Crook equipment, and planning for a special, permanent Jim Crook exhibit began. A decade later the society was able to make some of the artifacts, photos, and documents from the Crook collection as well as other museum artifacts more widely known through its participation in the Washington State Library's Rural Heritage Initiative. The initiative helped organize and subsidized digitizing many artifacts and documents, which can be viewed on the Washington Rural Heritage website.
Since its inception the San Juan Historical Society has not only focused on buildings, artifacts, and photos, but has also sought to capture, before they are lost, the memories of those who participated in the island's early growth and change. In 1994, an oral-history project was begun to collect firsthand narratives from residents whose parents and grandparents had settled on the island. San Juan Island Grange No. 966 provided funds for recording equipment, and islanders were urged to apply to be interviewers or to share their memories for posterity. By the end of the two-year project, 32 descendants of early settlers had been interviewed by 12 volunteers. More than a decade later, many cassette tapes of those interviews were digitized. Then, with funding from the Washington Women's History Consortium, further background research was undertaken to support additional interviews with several more women, and later a few more island men were interviewed as well. These later interviews were video recorded and, together with the digitized earlier audio interviews, constitute an important museum collection. More recently, a few informal interviews have been conducted by students as school projects to record memories of island life in the 1960s and 1970s.
Volunteers, Fundraising, and Activities
As a community nonprofit organization operating on a tightly constrained budget, the museum could not function without enthusiastic volunteers who do everything from construction and cleaning to assisting with research, projects, and programs; introducing the public to the museum; writing monthly newspaper columns on local history topics; and helping with exhibit planning and presentation. Indeed, for many years the museum was run entirely by volunteers. The first paid executive directors worked just a few hours a week and, through the years, all of the dedicated directors have generously given many hours of their personal time to assure the museum is maintained, funds are secured, good public relations are cultivated, activities go smoothly, and all the myriad details of administration are carried out.
Having sufficient income to support the museum and activities has been a constant concern. Almost since the society's first meeting fundraising has been an essential and continuing activity, because it must rely largely on non-public income sources. In the 1970s a society craft guild began to produce items for sale especially at the holiday season in support of the museum. Membership dues and memorial gifts, food sales, donations at the silver tea and other events, have all contributed to keeping the museum operating. Lee Bave (1910-2008) contributed some of the proceeds from her popular San Juan Saga performances in the late 1960s and 1970s. Beginning in 1997 and continuing for almost two decades, the museum director and volunteers worked on the annual San Juan Island Celebrity Golf Classic for a share in the funds earned for local nonprofits.
Numerous tour groups including thousands of visitors through the Road Scholar program (formerly Elderhostel) and schools from around the state have provided important income. Rummage sales, historic-home tours, auctions of antiques and furniture, garage sales, an old-fashioned ice cream social, a pork-barbecue dinner, and even a rock-and-roll concert have all added to the coffers. And many museum projects have been funded by grants whose complex applications required hours of skilled preparation. Other local organizations pay fees for the use of the museum property. For example, "Music on the Lawn," an annual concert series sponsored by the island's park and recreation district, has been a favorite summer offering on the museum's grounds for many years. And important assistance to the society since 1988 has been provided by contributions from the county's lodging-tax funds, designated in part for tourism marketing and support of tourism-related nonprofits.
Among the most popular and well-attended longtime museum activities was the annual Fourth of July Pig War Picnic, named in honor of the dispute with Britain over ownership of the San Juans. The event was held at the museum beginning in 1996. That first year the picnic was organized by the town's restaurants, but next year the museum board, director, and volunteers took over managing the lively gathering. It was an enormous amount of work -- planning involved organizing bee control, dumpsters, gates, signs, haybales, bands, children's activities, a liquor permit, food concessions and handling, food grills, warming dishes, and countless other details. Pat O'Day (1934-2020), island resident and legendary Seattle DJ who was a society board member in 2003, noted that while it was an effective fundraiser, "the more important goal was that we wanted people to know who we are and where we are, which we have done successfully" (O'Day memorandum). After 10 years, however, the board reluctantly decided to discontinue management of the event in the face of volunteer burnout and decreasing income. With a different sponsor, the picnic continued to be held on the museum grounds until 2018 when overwhelming crowds and their stress on the property prompted a move to a larger nearby venue.
Not all activities have been devoted to buildings and collections or fundraising. Offering learning and fun experiences for all ages has been a priority of the society since the first silver tea and program. Fireside Chats with descendants of old island families; Show and Tell nights at the public library featuring the museum's latest projects and interesting findings from recent research; a Young Pioneers program; and a Living Country School program recreating a one-room schoolhouse experience for youngsters, with costumes to wear, lessons to learn, and games to play, have all been enthusiastically received. Lectures on subjects as varied as homesteading, early law enforcement, ethnic dolls, and the contributions and lives of Native American women; special exhibits and events such as a 2022 show of antique and working tractors on the museum grounds; and presentations out in the community have all stimulated interest in the island's past and enriched and entertained diverse audiences of residents and visitors. The director and volunteers often prepare a float for the Fourth of July parade, a highlight of the Friday Harbor summer season. Another well-attended event for many years was an evening Christmas party, when the buildings were decked out in lights; visitors could enjoy roasting chestnuts, seasonal foods, and hot drinks; and festive decorations even included a model train set up in the resource center. Every year the society cooperates with other local organizations on events and projects and warmly welcomes community participation in the many activities on the museum calendar.
For more than 60 years the San Juan Historical Society has been the keeper of the island's history -- preserving buildings, documents, and items of everyday work and life, providing context, and interpreting their significance. It has assured that current and future generations of residents and visitors can learn about those who came before -- Coast Salish groups who were on the island for millennia and those who much later migrated to the island to establish new lives for themselves and their families. Through the society's buildings, artifacts, records, photographs, oral histories, information files, library, scholarly and popular commentaries, and many programs, their stories live on.