Lynden -- Thumbnail History

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 1/20/2008
  • Essay 8393
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Lynden is located in the northwestern part of Whatcom County, approximately 15 miles north of the county seat, Bellingham, and only five miles south of the Canadian border. The area was long inhabited by residents of the Nooksack Tribe before the first non-Indian settlers arrived in 1860. Significant development began in Lynden in the mid-1880s, and the city was incorporated in 1891.  Industry in Lynden's  early years was dominated by logging, but by the turn of the twentieth century agriculture (especially dairy farming) was becoming prominent as the dominant industry. Much of Lynden's history has been shaped by the influence of Dutch and those of Dutch descent, who began immigrating to the area in the late 1800s. Today (2008) Lynden is a pleasant town with a population approaching 10,000. It is known as an orderly, conservative, religious community, proud of its Dutch heritage.

Early Days

The Nooksack Indians lived in the area they called "Squahalish" for generations before non-Indians began traveling through the area in the mid-1820s. After the Hudson’s Bay Company opened the Fort Langley trading post in 1827 on the south bank of the Fraser River (just north of today’s Langley, British Columbia), trappers and traders in slowly increasing numbers began using the old Indian trails through the region that ran from the fort south of today’s U.S.-Canadian border through Lynden east to Sumas and west to Bellingham Bay and Birch Bay.  Work on the International Boundary Survey between the U.S. and Canada in its westernmost regions in 1857 and 1858, as well as eager fortune seekers passing through the area in 1858 en route to southern British Columbia to try their hand in the Fraser Gold Rush, led to increased traffic through the Lynden area.  Some of these travelers recognized the farming potential of the Nooksack Valley and stayed.

The first Euro-American settler in what would become Lynden was James Alexander Patterson, a Tennessee native and self-styled “colonel” (although no evidence has been found that he actually served in the military).  In 1860 he built a rough log cabin located just south of 6th and Front streets, near the southwestern edge of today’s Judson Street Alley, and in view of the Nooksack River, which at the time ran farther north than it does today.  Patterson was accompanied by his business partner, Reuben Bizer, and together the two men started a cattle ranch. However, by most accounts, Bizer did not stay long: Soon after their arrival, he married a Native American woman and he and his bride moved downriver on the Nooksack and settled above Ferndale. 

Several squatters took up claims in the surrounding countryside during the 1860s. One such squatter was Daniel McClanahan, who settled on land two miles east of the Patterson cabin in the early 1860s and is also considered one of the earliest settlers in the Lynden area.  Joe Emerling, another early squatter, settled about a mile east of the Patterson cabin during the 1860s.

Patterson, described by his contemporaries as a distinguished, educated man of about 60 years of age in the late 1860s, had a Snoqualmie wife, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Kanim. In the years they lived in the cabin they had two daughters, Dollie and Nellie. Patterson maintained a cattle ranch and dairy farm on his land, which stretched south and west from his cabin nearly as far west as today’s Guide Meridian Road, and became known as the “Father of Dairy Farming in Whatcom County.”  He traded dairy products along the Nooksack River and, through his business relationship with Captain Henry Roeder (1824-1902), one of the founders of Whatcom (later part of Bellingham), met Holden A. Judson (1826-1899) and Phoebe G. Judson (1831-1926).    

This meeting would prove fortuitous for both Patterson and the Judsons. At some point in the late 1860s Patterson’s wife left him, and he began to search for a foster home for his two young daughters.  By this time he was a frequent visitor to the Judsons' home on Whidbey Island. Patterson made an offer to the Judsons to swap his cabin and land in what was then known among the new settlers as "Nooksack" or "Nootsack." (In his book Skqee Mus: or Pioneer Days on the Nooksack, Lynden pioneer Robert "Emmett" Hawley [1862-1946] explains that the Native Americans and early pioneers actually pronounced it “Nootsack,” but because the breathy guttural “t” in “Nootsack” was so difficult for the English speaking settlers to pronounce, later settlers began calling it "Nooksack.")   In exchange for Patterson’s cabin and land, the Judsons would care for his two daughters, Dollie (age 7 in March 1870) and Nellie (age 4 in March 1870) until they came of age. The Judsons agreed, and Patterson executed a quitclaim deed to his land in favor of Phoebe Judson in March 1870. The Judsons moved to what Phoebe Judson would famously refer to as her “ideal home” the same month.

A Community Is Born

Phoebe Judson was the first Euro-American woman to settle in Lynden, and she eventually became known as the “Mother of Lynden.” Not long after the Judsons’ arrival,  William Coupe and later his wife, Nellie, arrived and settled on land that is now part of the Lynden Fairgrounds (Coupe’s father, Thomas Coupe, was the founder of Coupeville on Whidbey Island). The first child born to the new settlers in Lynden was the Coupes' son Louis in 1875. In the early fall of 1872 the family of Enoch Hawley (1821-1889) arrived from Iowa. In 1875 the Hawleys opened the first store in the area, the Pioneer Store, on land in the Lawrence addition east of Lynden. However, since this was not technically in the town of Lynden, debate continues among local historians if the Pioneer Store can be considered the first store in Lynden or whether this credit should go to another store opened by Holden Judson soon after on the south side of Front Street between 7th and 8th streets.     

As the 1870s progressed a few more scattered settlers arrived and began gradually clearing out the heavy forest that blanketed the area.  Lynden’s first post office was established on March 17, 1873, with Holden Judson appointed postmaster on a salary of $12 a year. Judson maintained his post office in a desk in the front room of his home until the early 1880s.  Phoebe Judson was asked to select the name for the post office. She favored a name that she had heard from a poem, Hohenlinden, written by Thomas Campbell, which begins “On Linden, when the sun was low ... .” Phoebe Judson changed the “i” in Linden to “y” because she felt it looked prettier.  Lynden also held its first election in the fall of 1873, and Holden Judson was elected county commissioner.

Lynden was more a community of scattered settlements than an organized town during the 1870s, but nonetheless an organized community began to take shape. As the community grew, it was faced with a daunting but necessary task:  clearing massive log jams that blocked the Nooksack River in several places, making it impossible for steamers to navigate the river to Lynden.  The biggest one, near Ferndale, was cleared (in part through Phoebe Judson’s efforts to raise funds for the project) in 1876 and early 1877.  But other smaller log jams remained on the river closer to Lynden and it took the rest of the 1870s to clear them. It would be the 1880s before steamers began to make regular runs up the Nooksack River to Hawley’s Landing at Hannegan Road.

Growth Accelerates

Lynden continued to grow slowly in the early 1880s, but toward mid-decade the pace quickened.  Enoch Hawley opened a new store in 1882, and in December the town’s first school opened. But 1884 was a bigger year: George Judson (son of Phoebe and Holden) platted the town of Lynden that year. The first leg of the Guide-Meridian Road (now Highway 539) was finished in May 1884. Lynden’s first sawmill arrived -- by steamer, oxen and sled -- in February 1884.  Lynden’s first literary society was formed in March of that year.  Still, these changes were initially more subtle than obvious: Ed Edson, a future longtime resident of Lynden (and later owner of Lynden’s City Drug Store) passed through Lynden in May 1884 and famously quips in his autobiography “Rather odd to have two stores and a school house and nobody living in the town.”  But that was changing fast, and more people came to Lynden in the mid-1880s.

By the end of the 1880s Lynden was beginning to look like a real town.  The Northwest Normal School (later Western Washington University in Bellingham) opened in Lynden in October 1886 but closed in 1892, due primarily to a lack of state funding.  Businesses sprang up along Front Street, which in the 1880s was more of an obstacle course than a street because of the tree stumps that remained in the road. In 1887 alone at least nine new houses were built, a three-story hotel, a wagon shop, and a Methodist Church.  By 1889 Lynden could boast of (among other businesses) a newspaper (the Pioneer Press), two bakeries, two livery stables, five general stores, three blacksmith shops, a photographer, a drug store, a real-estate agent, a public library, and, by the end of 1889, the Judson Opera House, which became Lynden’s de facto community center.  There was no U.S. Census taken in Lynden in 1890, but population estimates in the town ranged between 500 and 1,000.

Lynden began the 1890s as a logging town, with sawmills continuing to clear the abundant forests in the area, but by the end of the decade the dominant industry was turning to agriculture, particularly dairy and berry farms. Vegetables, (beans, carrots, and beets), grains (barley and oats), and hops were also a staple of Lynden farmers. On March 6, 1891, residents voted to formally incorporate Lynden as a town of the fourth class and elected Holden Judson as the new town's first mayor. The railroad reached the area the same year, although, to the disappointment of all in Lynden, the nearest depot was in Clearbrook, more than six miles northeast. This lack of a railroad -- which killed many small towns in the late nineteenth century -- and the depression of the mid-1890s resulted in a dramatic drop in Lynden’s population during the decade. The 1900 U.S. Census put Lynden’s population at only 365, and that was several years after the town had begun to recover from the worst effects of the depression.  

Thriving People and Businesses   

But Lynden refused to pass away, and in fact, two businesses began during the 1890s that survived until the second half of the twentieth century: Ed Edson’s (1860-1944)  City Drug Store in 1891 (although the store itself had actually been established in 1888 by F. S. Wright), and, in 1897, W. H. "Billy" Waples's (1875-1962) Lynden Department Store. The Lynden Department Store would grow and prosper until it became known as one of the best department stores in a town of its size in the West. 

This growth continued during the first decade of the twentieth century, with two other businesses starting during these 10 years that are still in business in the first decade of the twenty-first century. In 1906 Ed Austin started Lynden Transfer, a freight-hauling company, with a pair of horses and a freight wagon. The company has grown and expanded to become an international transport corporation, with more than 1,300 employees and gross revenues of $330 million reported in 1999. 

And in 1908 the Lynden Tribune was born.  Lynden’s newspaper had operated under several different incarnations since 1888, but in 1908 the paper was renamed the Lynden Tribune. In October 1914 Sol Lewis (1888-1953) bought the newspaper, and it has remained in the Lewis family since. Sol Lewis served as editor and publisher until his death in 1953. He was succeeded by his sons, Bill (b. 1920) and Julian (b. 1926) as publishers, with Bill serving as editor. When Bill retired in 1984, brother Julian took the reins as editor. Julian retired at the end of 1991 and in January 1992 his son Mike Lewis became publisher.  The newspaper has been consistently well-written over the years and has won numerous awards. The Tribune’s business has  expanded beyond the newspaper to include additional publications, including numerous books about Lynden’s history.   

Social organizations also sprang up in the first decade of the twentieth century that  live on today. The Clam Diggers Club was organized in 1909 by Charles Cline (1858-1914?). Membership in the club was originally limited to those living in Washington Territory before it became a state and, later, to their descendants. The annual meeting date, complete with clam bake dinner, was fixed as November 11, the day Washington was admitted to the Union. The club still meets in Lynden each year, although its numbers have declined.  Also in 1909, a modest street fair began in Lynden, which grew into the Whatcom County Fair in 1911 and in 1923 became known as the Northwest Washington Fair.  Now held during the third week of August, the fair in recent years has attracted more than 200,000 visitors.

The Hollanders

But something else happened near the turn of the twentieth century that would change the direction of Lynden’s future. In the waning years of the nineteenth century, a small trickle of Dutch citizens and citizens of Dutch descent, attracted by the area’s favorable farming conditions, began settling in and near Lynden.  One of the earliest Dutch settlers was D. J. Zylstra (1859-1943), who arrived with his family in Lynden in 1898. Zylstra played a large role in the early history of the town, and particularly for the Dutch that began coming to Lynden in increasing numbers starting in 1900.  He helped the Dutch assimilate into the Lynden community, and according to one Lynden historian, his house on Front Street was the first place that newly arriving Dutch families stopped when they got to Lynden.  He was one of the founders of the Christian Reformed Church in 1900, and 10 years later was one the founders of the Lynden Christian School. The "Hollanders," as the non-Dutch citizens of the town often called them, had a dramatic effect on life in Lynden, and they gradually formed what one Lynden historian refers to as a “society within a society” (A History of Lynden, p. 103).

Most of the Dutch were Calvinists, following the theological beliefs of John Calvin (1509-1564). They were generally conservative socially and theologically, with the church serving as the foundation for both their religious and social life.  In 1900 they formed the Christian Reformed Church in Lynden, and held the earliest sermons and classes in the Dutch language.  (It was not uncommon to hear Dutch spoken on the streets of Lynden early in the twentieth century.)  But as the years went by the children of these Dutch settlers, who adopted English as their first language, made it necessary to form an English-speaking Reformed Church. As a result the Second Christian Reform Church was organized in 1920.

As the community grew, the Dutch chose to establish a religious school, and in the fall of 1910 the Lynden Christian School opened, offering classes from first through eighth grade. The school grew rapidly and by 1921 some 200 students were enrolled.  In 1945 the school began offering high-school classes (and completed a building for the high school the following year), and the school expanded further during the rest of the twentieth century. In 2008 the Lynden Christian School has 1,100 students attending preschool through high school in campuses both in Lynden and Bellingham (the Bellingham school, known as the Evergreen Christian School, serves students only through sixth grade).   

Most Lynden historians write that the early Dutch settlers got along well with the non-Dutch, particularly in the business community, where it was advantageous for all to work together in order for the community as a whole to thrive economically. Socially the two cultures tended to be more isolated from each other. This dichotomy of Dutch and non-Dutch culture inevitably produced some tension, though it seems to have been more covert than overt.  Nonetheless, it had an impact on Lynden society.  For example, Dutch Calvinists do not work on Sunday, and by the 1940s, most businesses, including restaurants, in Lynden closed on Sunday.  Ed Nelson, a longtime Lynden native, describes the resulting social impact on the Lynden community during this time in his book A History of Lynden.  He writes of traveling to Bellingham on Sundays for lunch and encountering some of his fellow citizens coming out of a tavern. “This had its awkward side ... . If they saw us, they would not acknowledge us” (A History of Lynden, p. 115).

 Other writers, including Nelson, describe the influence of the Dutch community on non-Dutch who married within the community.  “Outsiders were welcomed if they allowed themselves to be absorbed [into the Dutch community]” (A History of Lynden, p. 106). If the non Dutch-partner wished to remain independent, the other option (provided the partner of Dutch descent agreed) “was to leave town and to live somewhere not predominantly Dutch. Many chose this route” (A History of Lynden, p.106).  

The Dutch migration to Lynden continued, and a second surge in the late 1940s and the 1950s -- both European Dutch who had been displaced as a result of the changes brought by World War II, as well as Midwesterners of Dutch descent -- pushed the percentage of those of Dutch descent in Lynden past 50 percent during the 1950s. As a result, the Dutch influence in the town grew.  Lynden’s first mayor of Dutch descent, Irwin LeCocq, Sr., assumed office in January 1948.  The Christian Reformed Church continued to expand as well.  By the mid-1950s there were four Christian Reformed churches in Lynden, and by 1990 there were nine:  five Christian Reformed, two Reformed, one Netherlands Reformed, and one Protestant Reformed.  There were also seven other non-reformed churches in Lynden in 1990, and at one point in the last half of the twentieth century Lynden held the world record for most churches per capita in a town.

Later in the twentieth century, Lynden began to embrace its Dutch heritage.  “Holland Days,” a Dutch festival, started in 1985.  This two-day festival, held in the spring, features costumed shopkeepers and Dutch Klompen dancers, and Dutch food is served.  During the 1980s Lynden also remodeled part of Front Street in a Dutch theme, complete with windmill, and there is today a Dutch bakery and Dutch restaurant in the town. When Lynden celebrated its centennial in 1991, the town gave serious consideration to adopting an all-Dutch theme to its celebrations, but it did not actually go that far. 

Lynden Today  

Changing social norms in the past several decades, a surge in population (Lynden’s population increased by nearly 60 percent during the 1990s alone), as well as an increased Hispanic presence in Lynden beginning in the 1980s, has resulted in some lessening of the Dutch influence in the town today as compared to 50 years ago. Still, Lynden retains a unique Dutch ambiance that isn’t found in many other American communities, and it remains home to Washington state’s largest Dutch community.

Lynden’s population in the 2000 U.S. Census was 9,020. It is an attractive town, with particularly wide streets (one anecdote says that when the town planners planned the streets, the streets were made extra-wide so horses with carriages could easily turn around) and manicured lawns.  And, though Lynden is a border town -- its crossing into Canada is less than five miles north of the city on SR 539 -- it seems to have escaped much (though not all) of the crime and other problems that can be associated with border crossings.   

Lynden remains today a religious, conservative community. Most businesses are still closed on Sunday. It seems to be an especially orderly town when compared to many other towns of its size. But what particularly stands out about Lynden is that it seems to have been blessed during most of its history with an above-average share of hard-working, visionary, and disciplined residents determined to make the town successful and a good place to live.


Robert Emmett Hawley, Skqee Mus: or Pioneer Days on the Nooksack (Bellingham:  Miller & Sutherlen Printing Company, 1945),  xviii, xix, 31-32, 35, 47-48, 52-53, 93, 165-166, 179;  Mildred Hersman, “Lynden’s Street Fair,” “Whatcom County Fair,” and “Northwest Washington Fair” in Gems from the Past ed. by Phyllis Huestis (Lynden: Lynden Tribune, 1984), 12-23;  Hazel Husfloen, “The Lynden Christian Schools” in Treasures from the Past by Phyllis Huestis (Lynden: Lynden Tribune, 1981), 101-106;  Phoebe Judson, A Pioneer’s Search For An Ideal Home (Lincoln, NE:  University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 234; Dorothy Koert, Portrait of Lynden, (Lynden: Lynden Tribune, 1976), 61-62, 140; Dorothy Koert, The Wilderness Days: Lynden, 1858-1904 (Lynden: Dorothy Koert, 1989), 2, 6, 13, 59; Mary Michaelson, Memory Book:  Friends of Aunt Phoebe Reunion (Lynden: Lynden Pioneer Museum, 2006), 24, 51-52, 57; Ed Nelson, A History of Lynden (Lynden: Lewis Publishing Company, 1995), 103, 108-111, 115, 142;  Lottie Roeder Roth, History of Whatcom County Vol. I (Chicago: Pioneer Historical Publishing Company, 1926), 841-842, 845, 848, 950; Hermina Vogel, “The Christian Reformed Church in Lynden” in Gems from the Past ed. By Phyllis Huestis (Lynden: Lynden Tribune, 1984), 67; P. R. Jeffcott, “The First County Dairy Was Scene Of Romance and Despair,” Bellingham Herald, June 1, 1966, 38-40; “Hayburners, Birchbarks Took Place Of 100 Horsepower Jalopies In ‘90s,” The Lynden Tribune, May 17, 1951, Sec. 1, p. 5;  “Lynden In 1889 Had Large Hotel,” Ibid., May 17, 1951, Sec. 1, p. 6; “Lynden Wore Long Pants Before First Cannonball Express Roared Into City,” Ibid., May 17, 1951, Sec. 4;  Vanessa Orr, "Lynden, Inc.: In it for the Long Haul," Alaska Business Monthly, December 2000, website accessed November 20, 2007 (;Christopher Key, “Lynden, Inc. keeps on truckin’,” Whatcom County Business Pulse, December 2002, website accessed November 12, 2007, (; online encyclopedia of Washington State History, " Edson, Edward (1860-1944)" (by Phil Dougherty), (accessed November 17, 2007);  “Fort Langley National Historic Site of Canada,” Parks Canada, website accessed November 13, 2007,;  “Lynden Christian Schools,” website accessed November 23, 2007, (http:// www.; “Northwest Washington Fair,” Lynden Chamber of Commerce,  website accessed November 20, 2007 (;  “,” website accessed November 23, 2007 (; “Washington State Historical Decennial Populations for State, County, and City/Town: 1890 to 2000,” website accessed  November 18, 2007 (; Phil Dougherty interview with Mary Michaelson of Lynden Pioneer Museum, July 7, 2007, Lynden, Washington.    

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