Family hopes to preserve homestead farm

The fields have lain fallow for years. But the short trek to an inviting tree perched at meadow’s edge still yields a small crop of island-grown goodness: cherries.

“Just like pie cherries are supposed to taste,” says Edith Ostrom, sampling the fruit from the homestead on which she grew up so many decades ago.

“They’re not sweet.”

And that was just fine for Ostrom, her daughter Brita and other family members who visited the North Madison Avenue farm Friday. It was the sort of warm summer afternoon for which cherry-pickin’ was perfect.

Family members believe there’s still great potential in the fertile soil – and in the 19-acre property itself, most of which they hope to sell to the city through the new Open Space Commission.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable selling it off into development,” said Brita Ostrom, a California resident who returns each summer to pick “gallons of blackberries” and look out toward the Olympics.

The parcel is one of more than 50, totaling at least 340 acres, that have been offered to the Open Space Commission during a month-long solicitation period.

That total ballooned at the cut-off date Monday, as landowners lined to get a slice of the $8 million authorized by island voters last fall for open space purchases.

The properties, commission chair Andy Maron said, cover a range of categories including waterfront, forested lands, greenways and trails. Many would fit comfortably under more than one heading.

“Not many farms,” Maron said. “But that’s not surprising, because there aren’t many farms (left).”

Apparently not included, but not out of the running, is the Wyckoff property, which as of last week had not been formally submitted for consideration.

Now begins the process of evaluating the properties and their potential for passive recreation or simple conservation. Maron said the seven-member commission would like to give would-be sellers some sort of answer – yes, no, or not right now – within 60 days.

Their work is complicated somewhat by the fact that some properties are already on the open market.

Some owners are anxious to sell, while others are more willing to let the process run its deliberative course.

The commission will make allowance, Maron said, if particularly desirable properties look like they might be lost.

“If we can avoid rushing, we’re going to do that,” he said. “But if we have to move quickly, we will.”

Likewise, while some owners would prefer to keep their dealings with the commission under wraps, “others almost want to put up a sign and rally the neighborhood,” Maron said.

In the latter category would certainly fall the Williams/Ostrom family, which has recruited a national land trust to work as advocates and contacted the local media to announce their intentions.

And their Rolling Bay-area property is rich in island lore.

The land was purchased around 1915 by Finnish immigrants Amanda Maki and Frank Lehtonen, who after coming to this country changed their last name to Williams. At that time, the island’s central valley was widely known as “Finn Hollow.”

And being good Scandinavians, the Williamses built their sauna before they built their farmhouse. The latter, with timbers hewn by the family members themselves, still stands.

Edith Ostrom grew up there, before moving to Vashon in 1942. But the property stayed in the family and was the lifelong home of her brother, Frank “Alfred” Williams Jr.

A neighborhood fixture, he came to be known as “the Marshal of Rolling Bay,” raising and lowering the flag outside the post office there each day.

Among Williams’ other achievements was an unmatched attendance record set by going through all 12 years of school – plus a 13th, required of Finnish students by a second-grade teacher, to perfect their new language – without missing a day.

He graduated from Bainbridge High School in 1935, and served in the Army in World War II before returning to the island to work as a carpenter.

Williams died in June 2000 at age 83; the property passed to his heirs, who now intend to sell.

But while real estate agents have advised they would get the best return from “tasteful development,” the family is looking first to the open space process.

In its favor, the parcel sits on the island’s “wildlife corridor,” and is directly across North Madison from the five-acre Ted Olson Nature Preserve.

An upper seven acres is still forested; the lower eight acres includes a spacious meadow, ringed by alders and firs, and sloping dramatically to the west toward a brilliant view of the Olympics.

The highway below hints an innocuous wash of white noise, against which songbirds chime.

The four acres on which the farmhouse stands probably would not be sold to the city.

The national Trust for Public Land has stepped in as an advocate for the farm, as well as two other parcels under consideration – the five-acre triangle bounded by Blakely Avenue and Odd Fellows Road, and another property near Blakely Harbor.

Of the Williams farm, TPL field representative Jeanne Wallin said, “There’s nothing like it on the island,” citing the property’s continuous family ownership and ties to island settlers.

“I think it’s a really good example of ‘early Bainbridge,’” she said.

Brita Ostrom said she would like to give Bainbridge Island what it gave her forbears: opportunity.

“If if could be a place where people could come in and do some kind of farming, I think that would be great,” she said.

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