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Tales of ‘old Bainbridge’ for the telling

Bainbridge’s general store, where men gathered near the pot-bellied stove, may have disappeared, but old guys still find places to pass the time.

These days, they sit at the Rolling Bay Jiffy Mart, at Walt’s in Lynwood Center, or around Eddie Rollins’ desk at American Marine Bank on Winslow Way. Perhaps the most visible group can be found at the Town and Country coffee shop.

“We hang out together because it’s a holdover from the days when we hunted in packs,” old-time islander Don Beemer says. “Women don’t pack up like men do. It goes back to when men hunted the mastodon.”

The political party represented is more likely to be Republican than Democrat, but discord is kept to a minimum.

“We’re grown up enough to know we’re not going to change anyone’s mind,” says says Eddie Rollins, who presides over a circle at American Marine Bank – a group that formed while he was still postmaster, more than a quarter century ago.

“I’ll rib them and they rib me – it’s a friendly situation.”

Most of the men are island old-timers, who either grew up on Bainbridge or arrived in the 1940s. They remember life before Highway 305, when holiday residents were known as “summer people,” when a person had to go down to Miller Bay Road to meet a boat.

They remember when the Agate Passage Bridge was a toll span owned by the Black Ball ferry line – a pretty sweet deal for the ferry, the men say, making money at both ends of the island.

Their collective memory is long; they are the repository of an island’s anecdotal history that can’t be found in books, stories they share with one another and the fortunate passer-by.

Vices of yore...

They remember when Bainbridge was known as a hard-drinking island, a place where “liquid refreshment” was defined by alcohol content.

“The island liquor store used to have the highest per capita consumption in the state of Washington,” says Bob Jones, a member of the Town and Country circle.

“There were so many ‘summer people,’ and they’d load up a pick-up truck with alcohol three or four times. And, the navy would pull in on their shore boats. ”

Summer folk weren’t the only imbibers, however.

Beemer remembers an incident from 1950, soon after he moved to the island, when the mayor of Bainbridge – drunk – gave the town marshal a shiner, because the peace officer told him to move his car from a “no parking” zone.

Jim Burkheimer recalls the alcohol-induced plight of a man named Jily, also known as “Sausages.”

“He lived down by the water, an old German,” Burkheimer says. “When he came home on the ferry, he’d get kind of snockered between Bainbridge and Seattle. He’d get to his house, and flick the gate open – and drop the roast he had under his arm.

“He had a yard full of dogs, and those animals would grab that thing.”

Islanders not only drank hard, but played hard.

Burkheimer remembers horse races where the Filipino Hall stands today.

“There was another sporting event,” Beemer says, “and that was rooster fights. You could always tell when there was one, because a lot of people from Okanogan and Idaho would suddenly appear in town.

“And everybody’s goat would disappear.”

Beemer remembers a “floating” card game played in the men’s lounge on the ferry.

“The game had been going on so long,” Beemer says, “the game predated contract bridge – it was the old ‘auction’ bridge.”

Commerce on the island was simpler then, the old guys say.

Burkheimer recalls two stores near the ferry landing at Fletcher Bay.

“There was Pete Olson’s gas station, and Pete Earlson’s grocery store with bowling alley and a water slide near the dock,” he says. “People would go into Pete’s and sit by the pot-bellied stove chewing tobacco.

“Earlson would drag gravel out of the pit behind the store – and he’d have to close down to do it.”

Island folk were often named for what kind of work they did.

Everyone knew “Chicken” Anderson was the man to go to for live fowl.

Then there was “Horse” Winney, a hard-scrabble farmer from Texas, a real cowboy, they say.

“When he and his wife moved here in the 1940s, they thought they’d died and gone to heaven,” Beemer says. “Everybody here had work and food. Everyone was warm, dry and well-fed.”

Island life was defined by a relationship with water and boats that wasn’t confined to riding the ferry.

Those were the days when a man might set off for Seattle in a boat to pick up some last-minute groceries – and never return.

“Yep,” Burkheimer says. “A storm would blow up and they’d just disappear.”

Sailing vessels tied up beside the H.S. Anderson hardware store owned by Reilly’s uncle, where Pegasus stands today. Burkheimer recalls the Monongahela anchored there, a ship so large that the bowsprit stuck out into the street.

...And secret lore

Beemer tells a story about what happened down at that dock, one night 60 years ago.

A man he will only identify as a “prominent citizen of Bainbridge Island today,” used to sneak aboard the sailing vessels with other island kids.

One evening, the night watchman caught him climbing aboard.

The watchman tied a rope around the boy’s ankles and hung him upside down over the stern.

“That man was determined,” Beemer recalls. “He told that kid, ‘You’re not coming up until you crow like a rooster.

“And he was true to his word.”

The ferry ride was sometimes an excuse to rid oneself of unwanted items – Burkheimer says some fellows would take their garbage onto the boat and throw it over the side.

Those were the years, they say, when some summer people might drop pets overboard in a gunny sack at the end of the season.

Most stories the old guys tell are strictly local, but sometimes world events intersected island life.

Rollins first arrived on Bainbridge several days after the Japanese were sent to internment camps during World War II.

“A lot of people felt awfully bad, I can tell you that,” Rollins says. “The Japanese were quite a presence on Bainbridge.”

The late Walt Woodward, the Bainbridge Review editor who took a stand against the internment, is still a hero to these men – but his paper has taken a long downhill slide since, in their opinion.

“Walt would thrive on debates,” Rollins says. “He liked controversy. It stirs the imagination and gets things done.”

For several decades, the law on Bainbridge was represented by federal marshall Fred Grow, whose brother Walt was a local bootlegger.

The deputy sheriff was “Old Man” Johnson.

“If he had a first name,” Beemer says, “I never heard it.”

Government was less formal, and islanders tended to resist institutions.

“The state wanted to put a stop sign near the ferry,” Burkheimer says.

“The city council told them, ‘When Winslow gets to be as big as the State of Washington, that’s when we’ll put a stop sign there.’

While Winslow may not have grown on the hyperbolic scale of the city council’s figure of speech, changes to the island are not lost on these men.

Not all change is bad.

The island’s population is more ethnically and racially diverse than it was, and the old guys approve.

“Over the years, the language has changed,” Dan Reilly says. “You hear all kinds of accents now – southern, New England – where you only used to hear Norwegian.”

But for men whose Bainbridge was not only greener, but retained something of the pioneers’ feisty independence, the “new Bainbridge” is something of a stretch.

A watershed event for these men was all-island incorporation a decade ago, a move they adamantly opposed.

They’re also irked by rising taxes.

“I have two kids living on the island,” Rollins says. “I’d like them to be able to stay.”

But the most common complaint is creeping impersonality as the population grows. The old guys say that everyone once knew everyone else – but that’s no longer true.

“I could get on the ferry and not see one single face that was unfamiliar,” Burkheimer says. “Now, I may know almost no one.”

It may be that as the island grows less familiar, the old guys circle closer, and the daily meetings are a way to shore up memories of the island they love.

“I looked around when I got here in 1950,” Beemer says, “and I thought – ‘this has to be a good place to live.’ And it was.

“It was a fun place to live.”

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