Crook, James (1873-1967)

  • By Lynn Weber/Roochvarg
  • Posted 12/18/2023
  • Essay 22840
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James (Jim) Crook was only a toddler when he arrived on San Juan Island with his family, who had come to homestead property previously occupied by British Royal Marines during a dispute between Britain and the U.S. over the island's sovereignty. During the next 90 years Jim only infrequently left the homestead but still became well-known both to islanders and to travelers visiting the historic military site. A skilled carpenter and enthusiastic inventor, Crook was happiest when working on one of his projects. He built a spacious home and farmed the homestead whose island address continued to be simply "English Camp." He was hired by the British government to maintain a small cemetery dating from the British residence and undertook some maintenance on a few of the remaining military buildings before the property became part of the San Juan Island National Historical Park in 1967. In the 1980s local textile workers formed the Jim Crook Society and restored some of his extraordinary inventions. By 2023 these and other items were featured in a permanent exhibit being developed at the San Juan Historical Museum, a fitting tribute to one of the island's most memorable characters.

A New Home at English Camp

Jim Crook's father, William Crook (1837-1901), a Yorkshireman, arrived in North America at New Orleans in 1856 but soon made his way north to Ontario, Canada. He met and married Mary Forrest (1840-1899), a Scot, in Seaforth, Canada. In 1867 the couple began a journey west by ox-drawn wagon, seeking a place to establish a homestead. The trip first took them south to the Oregon Trail, and they stopped for long periods while William, who was an experienced carpenter and builder, took employment building houses in growing communities. They had only reached Nebraska when their daughter Mary (1871-1959) was born. By the time their son James (or Jim, as everyone called him) was born in 1873, they were in Evanston, Wyoming. And it was there that they first learned, from British soldiers heading east, of an excellent homestead opportunity that would soon be available on San Juan Island in Washington Territory just across Haro Strait from Vancouver Island.

Beginning in 1859 San Juan Island had been occupied, peacefully, by both the American military and British Royal Marines while the United States and Britain argued about which nation had sovereignty over the island (and, indeed, the entire San Juan archipelago of more than 170 islands). In 1872, an arbitrator had declared in favor of the United States, and the military camps were soon abandoned. The British had been occupying a waterside site on the northwest side of the island that for millennia was home to several groups of Coast Salish Indians. There, well-supplied from Fort Victoria just across the strait, the marines had established the comfortably appointed English Camp. And with their departure, the site was reverting to American government control.

The Crook family slowly continued west to Washington Territory, finally reaching Olympia in November 1875. There William made homesteading inquiries and the family then traveled by schooner north to San Juan Island to see the English Camp property. What awaited them must have been far more than they could have imagined. During their 13 years of occupation the British had erected 27 buildings, including officers' housing on a terrace above the main encampment, barracks, storage buildings, a library, a blacksmith shop, a commissary, a blockhouse at the shore of the bay, a mess hall, a hospital, and other structures. A large parade ground offered cleared space for planting. Even a formal garden had been created for one of the officer's wives. In January 1876, William Crook filed a homestead claim for the English Camp land. The claim did not include most of the structures, which were put up for auction the following month. The terms of the auction included a clause specifying that the structures purchased must be removed within 60 days; when many of the buildings were not moved within that time, Crook claimed ownership and became involved in a lengthy lawsuit over their disposition. Ultimately, most of the structures remained on the site.

The family probably first lived in the deserted barracks building but in 1878 moved into an officer's house (a 36-by-32-foot, six-room frame structure) and were still residing there when a second daughter, Rhoda (1880-1972), was born. William, who considered himself primarily a carpenter (and so identified himself on the first census taken after they arrived), found most of his time now devoted to farming. He established an apple and cherry orchard on the former parade ground, and also raised pears, plums, peaches, and apricots. A potato patch and large vegetable garden were planted. Fields were fenced; cattle, chickens, sheep, and pigs were added to the homestead. When an overheated stove ignited a fire that destroyed their home in 1894, the family first moved into the former library, and then moved again back into the more spacious barracks. William added a two-story barn to the property and a long pier to the water of Garrison Bay. Some of the unused buildings were dismantled or destroyed. In 1895 the Crook property was assessed as having 197 acres and $400 in improvements. By 1900 the family had 65 lambs and was selling 500 pounds of cherries a year, as well as wool and eggs.

Life on the Homestead

Jim Crook grew up in a family that worked hard, and everyone had a long list of necessary tasks. He learned carpentry skills from his father and from a young age loved to tinker in the workshop, so much so, his sister Rhoda recalled many years later, that his father had to frequently lock up the workshop and tools so that Jim would get his farm chores done. The homestead was a full day's round trip from the island's only town, Friday Harbor, so a wagon ride there was a major expedition, and the family had to be largely self-sufficient. When something disintegrated or broke, a replacement or repair was crafted on the spot from remnants and spare parts.

In 1897 Jim's sister Mary married Herbert H. Davis (1867-1929) of Lopez Island. Davis operated steamboats and tugboats among the San Juan Islands, including the Roche Harbor, a tugboat owned by the nearby lime works. After the wedding, the couple joined the rest of the family at English Camp. Two years later Jim's mother died, and in 1900 Rhoda Crook married Fred Anderson, chief engineer on the Lydia Thompson, a mail and passenger ship plying the waters of Puget Sound. The couple moved, first to Alaska, and then to the Washington mainland. It was decided that better accommodations were needed for the altered family circumstances.

Jim and his father began to construct a comfortable large house to accommodate Mary and her husband and any family they might have, and William and Jim and perhaps his future family. It was built on a rise to the northeast of the orchard and other buildings with a beautiful view out over the bay. Sadly, William did not live to see the project completed, as he died in 1901, probably from a heart attack, while doing his farm work. William had prepared a will in which he evenly divided the estate among his three children, but Mary and Rhoda each soon signed a quit-claim deed, leaving the entire estate to Jim. William's death also set off a treasure hunt that was to occupy Jim for the rest of his life. His father had told the family that, to keep it safe, he had hidden a container of gold coins and money; unfortunately, he neglected to tell them where it was hidden before he died. Although Jim searched throughout his life, he never did find the missing hoard.

Jim purchased additional land and expanded the farm, adding a chicken house, smokehouse, sawmill, garage, and other outbuildings. And he continued to tinker in his workshop. In March 1905, The San Juan Islander, one of two local newspapers, noted on its front page, "James Crook came around from English Camp Monday in what is, perhaps, the most unique gasoline launch on the Sound -- a big Indian canoe equipped with gasoline power" (San Juan Islander, March 4, 1905). Later that same year his transport was a streetcar, and the outcome was almost a disaster. Crook, who rarely left the homestead, had decided to visit the much-heralded Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland (Oregon's only world's fair). The streetcar he was riding was full, and Crook was standing on the inner running board when he leaned out just as another streetcar was passing in the opposite direction; he "was struck and hurled to the ground with great force," sustaining so severe a head injury that he was bleeding profusely and "out of his mind when police arrived on the scene" ("Jas. Crook ..."). He was taken to a hospital, but just two days later, when his sister Rhoda wired to find out how he was doing, he had already checked out. The Islander reported the following week that the hardy adventurer was home, feeling as though he had been just a bit battered about but suffering no serious consequences of his mishap.

By 1911 the Crook farm had expanded to 272 acres, and personal property included three horses, a wagon and carriage, and four yearling cattle as well as agricultural machinery valued at $155 and boats worth $50. Two years later, an Englishman visiting the island, who knew of the one-time British occupation, arrived asking to visit the tiny military cemetery of six graves where five soldiers and a civilian storekeeper who had been accidentally shot by his brother were buried on a hill overlooking the bay. Crook was a helpful guide, and news of his rudimentary care of the cemetery reached the British authorities, who offered him a salary of £10 a year to tend the graveyard. Crook later said that the "tending" consisted mostly of building a fence and stile and painting them and, when those wore out, repeating the process in addition to keeping the grass and weeds down and gathering up the leaves a few times a year. To add to the family income, Crook also built barrels that he sold to the Great Northern Fish company for 95 cents each. And he occasionally worked on the county road crew.

Meanwhile Mary was busy maintaining the household and, in the kitchen, putting up the abundant produce of the garden and orchard as well as salmon and venison. Mary's hope to raise children of her own was never fulfilled; she had four, but tragically all died at birth or in infancy. Her husband retired from his work on ships in 1920 and began a new venture, founding the H. H. Davis Lumber Company on the Friday Harbor waterfront. When he died in 1929, Mary stayed on at the homestead to maintain the house for Jim, who had remained a bachelor. The commodious home must have felt very large for just the two of them.

Inventor and Tour Guide

Whenever he could get away from farm or other responsibilities, Crook was to be found in his workshop tinkering with machinery or working on some new project. He was persistent and thorough whether the project was something that would increase the efficiency of the farm operation (he developed an attachment for the tractor that raked the soil while it was being plowed, for example) or just a project to eliminate a single small chore from his life such as the ingenious mechanism he created to make his bed in the morning (and it also tucked him in at night). He also created a rabbit trap consisting of a box with a trap door concealed in a hole dug in the ground; when a startled rabbit dove for cover into the nearest hole, the trap was sprung. He developed a method for training pea vines using pipes and slats that he would raise as the plants grew. He built a boat hoist that could be operated with one hand. He even told people that he had been working on plans for a machine that could fly and was disappointed when the Wright brothers had theirs in the air before his could be finished.

But it was his textile machines that would be among his most complex and time-consuming undertakings. It all started when Crook decided that he should not have to pay for a store-bought new wool suit when he had a flock of sheep that could supply the raw material. What was needed was a wool carder to prepare the fibers. A commercial carder could cost $20,000, so Crook searched out pictures and diagrams and set to work, copying a machine that would still be used by the Pendleton Woolen Mills into the 1980s. Two wheels from a manure spreader; maple wood from the property for lagging and rollers; a frame of oak, fir, cedar, maple, and apple; dried steer hide to lace belt ends together; and homemade string, gears, and chain were used to create a 20-feet-long, 7-feet-wide machine that weighed almost two tons. It took three years to make and when completed could produce 72-by-90-inch batts of wool. He admitted, however, in a 1948 Seattle Times interview "-- and with no little vehemence -- that had he known how many consarn parts it takes to make a carder, and how much hair a fellow can pull just figurin' what apple tree to cut down for the next part, hanged if he wouldn't have gone to town and bought the suits" (Peterson).

And then, of course, he still had to build a wool picker, spinning jenny, a loom, and a spool rack. He ultimately produced two complete wool suits (one black and one white) -- testaments to his ingenuity and years of determination.

But while his efforts in the workshop satisfied his creative nature, the work of the farm continued for him and for his sister. Challenges increased as they aged. Jim lost an eye in an accident when a dense tree knot flew up and struck him as he was splitting wood. A tool shed behind the barn collapsed on him, trapping him all one day and half the night until Mary found him and got help.

From time to time, visitors who had learned about the dispute between Britain and the U.S. concerning the island arrived at the former encampment to see what remained. Especially in the 1940s and following decade, Mary (who sometimes dressed for the part in an old-fashioned apron and poke bonnet) and Jim were often asked to be tour guides, and they were cheerful and enthusiastic about sharing the property's history; they sometimes even earned a small fee for their hosting. Jim undertook a few repairs on the remaining military buildings including re-shingling the roof of the blockhouse. In 1956 Mary told a reporter that she would sometimes guide up to a hundred visitors a day and delighted in showing off Indian and military artifacts that they had found on the property over the years.

The Later Years

Life on the homestead changed when, in December 1959, Mary, driving her Model A Ford on the way home from Friday Harbor, slammed into a parked vehicle on the side of Roche Harbor Road and was killed. It was speculated that she had suffered a medical incident prior to the accident, but there were no witnesses. Her obituary in the Friday Harbor Journal noted that "during her long residence on the Island, [she] almost became a legendary figure" to both islanders and tourists and was renowned for her kindness and hospitality ("Well Known Lady ..."). Jim, now in his mid-eighties, was suffering from arthritis so debilitating that he used two canes to walk, but he and Mary had resisted selling the homestead for years, and he did not want to leave. His younger sister Rhoda, now age 80 and a widow, moved back to the island to care for her brother and the home.

For years developers had made determined efforts to acquire the property, but it was not until 1963 that Crook finally accepted that he was no longer able to maintain the farm. Wanting to protect the site's history, he first sold 100 acres to the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission. At the same time, however, Senator Henry Jackson (1912-1983) was introducing legislation in Congress that would establish the San Juan Island National Historical Park in 1966, to preserve for public enjoyment and education the environment and history of the dispute between Britain and the U.S. and its peaceful resolution. In October 1967 the state park commission deeded its English Camp property to the National Park Service (NPS). Jim had died just seven months earlier. Island resident Jerry Jameson, reminiscing years later, perhaps eulogized Crook best:

"It has always been difficult for me to tell where English Camp ended and Jim Crook began. Jim was every bit as much of English Camp as the fir, maple, salal, fern, moss and cedar. ... He moved with casual ease through the seasons and seemed truly content with his life" (Jameson).

The NPS purchased the remaining Crook holdings and began an inventory and assessment of the property. Rhoda was granted a lifetime tenancy in the family home and surrounding three acres. She had mentioned her father's hidden cache of gold to NPS employees, but it was still a surprise when a detailed examination of the barracks in 1970 revealed the container stashed in a panel behind the trapdoor to the attic. Jim Crook probably had lifted that door hundreds of times, but apparently he never thought to look behind it when it was open. With considerable ceremony, the NPS staff presented Rhoda with the container and its treasure, which was found to be $1,395 in gold coins and currency.

Rhoda died in 1972 and the remaining property reverted to the NPS. Left behind were more than 10,000 Crook household and farm items that needed disposal as the English Camp site was being developed. Among them were sheds and other structures housing Crook's inventions (including the textile equipment) that were prey to vandalism, weather, and aging but were not forgotten by the island community.

Jim Crook Society and San Juan Historical Society and Museum

A decade had passed when members of the San Juan County Textile Guild, San Juan Historical Society, and San Juan County Lamb and Wool Producers met to consider how these unique textile machines could be rescued, restored, and exhibited. The result was the formation of the Jim Crook Society, a nonprofit organization whose sole purpose was to restore and exhibit Crook's hand-built textile equipment. The NPS was glad to have the machines moved off the site and properly cared for. The San Juan Historical Society was granted ownership of the machinery in conjunction with the Jim Crook Society, and local philanthropist Paul Whittier (1904-1991) offered to provide funding and space for the restoration in his workshop if the county would provide a permanent exhibit space. In 1989 the 600-square-foot Jim Crook Building, housing a display of the restored equipment, Crook's wool clothing, and other items, was dedicated at the county fairgrounds in Friday Harbor. Nine years later the Jim Crook Society disbanded, and ownership of the exhibit reverted to the San Juan Historical Society. Just a few years after that the fairground board declined to renew the building lease (although the building's name has been retained), so the Crook equipment and materials were moved once again and much of it put in storage.

In 2013, the National Park Service opened the Crook house at English Camp for tours, the only time that the public has been invited to view the home that Jim and William Crook built for their family more than a century earlier. Photos of Crook's family, some documents, and inventions were digitized for a Jim Crook Collection as part of the Washington Rural Heritage/San Juan Island Heritage project and are available online. The San Juan Island National Historical Park website also includes articles on Crook and the Crook home. The San Juan Historical Society and Museum has offered popular large exhibitions of some of the Crook collection; presentations on Jim Crook and his life and activities have introduced new generations of islanders and visitors to him. And after years of planning and preparation, in 2023 the Crook equipment and many personal items were gathered for an informative permanent display at the historical society's Museum of History and Industry in Friday Harbor. Set to open in 2024, it will let visitors learn about the fascinating individual who a museum director called "an island original," adding "He embodied that spirit of ingenuity and independence that is the best of American values and island values" (Day Vincent). Jim Crook well deserves to be remembered for his devotion to the family homestead and the historic site it occupied, his indomitable character, and the abundant evidence of his creative genius.


"Well Known Lady Summoned by Death," Friday Harbor Journal, December 17, 1959, p. 1; "Services Held Sunday for James Crook," Ibid., March 16, 1967, p. 8; Jo Bailey, "History Buffs Hope to Save Farm Relics," Journal of the San Juan Islands, February 24, 1982, p. C-1; Ilene Anderson, "Jim Crook Society Pledges to Restore Old Carder," Ibid., December 31, 1986, p. B-12; Lucile S. McDonald, "Island History Surrounds Jim Crook's House," Ibid., May 6, 1987, p. 4-B; "Crook Building to Be Dedicated at County Fair," Ibid., August 2, 1989, p. 8-B; Allison Arthur, "Carder Islander Made and Used Will Be Preserved," Ibid., August 9, 1989, p. 2-B; Ann Carlson, "Jim Crook Society Disbands," Ibid., August 4, 1999, pp. A-1, A-2; Mark Anderson, "A New Home for a Well-known Wool Carding Machine," Pilot-Island Record, November 1982, pp. 2-3; "Roche Harbor News Briefs," The Islander, June 9, 1898, p. 3; "Sudden Death of Wm. Crook," The San Juan Islander, September 5, 1901, p. 3; "San Juan Island," Ibid., March 4, 1905, p. 1; "Jas. Crook Badly Hurt," Ibid., August 5, 1905, p. 1; "San Juan Island," Ibid., August 12, 1905, p. 1; "Mitchell Bay," Ibid., October 14, 1910, p. 5; H. Gardner Peterson, "San Juan Pioneer Makes Own Clothes," The Seattle Times, May 16, 1948, Magazine Section, p. 5; "Jim Crook Society Annual Meeting: 1987 Meetings in Review," typescript, Jim Crook Society Scrapbook, San Juan Historical Museum (SJHM) files, Friday Harbor, Washington; "Agreement Between San Juan Historical Society and Jim Crook Society for Permanent Loan of Crook's Spinning and Weaving Equipment," typescript dated July 21, 1989, SJHM files; Kris Day Vincent, "Why the Jim Crook Collection Matters," 1999, SJHM files; "Jim Crook, 1873-1967," information label for exhibit at San Juan County Fair, undated, SJHM files; Michael Vouri, "The Crook Family: Caretakers of English Camp," unpaginated presentation script, San Juan Island National Historic Park, 2008, SJHM files; Jerry Jameson, "Jim Crook Memories," typescript dated 2008, SJHM files; Emelia L. Bave, San Juan Saga (Friday Harbor: self-published, 1976), 16-21; Lucile S. McDonald, Making History: The People Who Shaped the San Juan Islands (Friday Harbor: Harbor Press, 1990), 62-64; Mike Vouri, The Pig War (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2008), 82-7, 89, 114; Mike Vouri and Julia Vouri, Images of America: San Juan Island (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2010), 14, 25, 38, 42, 73, 82, 85, 123; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Lyman Cutlar touches off Pig War between U.S. and Great Britain on June 15, 1859" (by Kit Oldham), "San Juan Island Pig War -- Parts 1 and 2" (by Kit Oldham), "Emelia (Lee) Bave presents first version of her San Juan Saga stage show on April 3, 1959" (by Lynn Weber/Roochvarg), and "Washington Territorial Legislature establishes San Juan County on October 31, 1873" (by Lynn Weber/Roochvarg), (accessed October 10, 2023); Angel L. Rios, "Crook House: A Home with a View to the Past," December 7, 2018, updated September 10, 2020, Island Histories website accessed October 3, 2023 (; "By Hook and by (Jim) Crook," The Journal of the San Juan Islands, February 25, 2011 (; "Jim Crook," National Park Service website accessed September 30, 2023 (; "Crook House," National Park Service website accessed September 30, 2023 (; Outline of interview with Mary Crook Davis (ca. 1935), Washington Rural Heritage website accessed September 29, 2023 (; "Royal Marines' Cemetery -- San Juan Island National Historical Park," Royal Marines History website accessed October 6, 2023 (; "Jim Crook Building," San Juan County Fairgrounds website accessed September 30, 2023 (; Tim Dustrude, "Crook House Open for Tour," May 16, 2013, San Juan Island Update website accessed October 5, 2023 (; Patricia Erigero and Barry Schnoll, "Historic Structures Report, Crook House, September 1984," Washington Rural Heritage website accessed September 28, 2023 (

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