Roots run shallow, deep -- Wilson

Gordy and Chris Wilson stand in their grove of holly trees. They live on land that has been in Gordy Wilson’s family on Bainbridge Island since the late 1800s. He makes ends meet with his job at the ferry maintenance yard at Eagle Harbor.  - JULIE BUSCH photo
Gordy and Chris Wilson stand in their grove of holly trees. They live on land that has been in Gordy Wilson’s family on Bainbridge Island since the late 1800s. He makes ends meet with his job at the ferry maintenance yard at Eagle Harbor.
— image credit: JULIE BUSCH photo

Few families have been here as long as farmer Gordy Wilson’s.

Gordy Wilson has quite the view from his house on North Madison Avenue.

There’s the Cascades to the east, the Olympics to the west, rows of holly trees to the north and an expanse of Doug Firs to the south.

But Wilson sees more than this.

“When I look out, I see my dad planting the holly trees when I was 6 years old, putting in so much work to clear the Scotch broom,” he said, staring out his dining room window. “I see the neighbors that used to live here, the special things they always did. Mrs. Yeo and her special cookies. Mr. Yeo, who made fish swivels and who kept his woods like a park, raking the needles and pruning the huckleberries. I look out and the people are right there.

“The history here, it’s a part of daily life.”

Wilson’s family has lived on this 10-acre spread for four generations. His grandfather, who drifted to the island from Norway, eked out a subsistence from the land while working as a janitor at Rolling Bay School.

“He never had money, but he had enough food,” Wilson said.

Wilson points to the wall where a small photograph, bronzed with age, shows a modest house that isn’t showy about its fine craftsmanship. Wilson then points outside, where the same house’s pitched roof peeks from behind a hill covered in holly trees.

“He built it in 1895,” Wilson said. “He farmed and he was self-sufficient. That’s where my dad was raised.”

Wilson’s father worked as a metal fitter at the Hall Brothers shipyard during World War II. He planted the property’s first holly trees in 1955.

“He thought he could make money,” Wilson said with a laugh. “Lots of people were planting holly then. He tried to make money with it, but it didn’t always work.”

Holly never became a cash crop, but Wilson still maintains his dad’s trees and has planted more.

His Island Holly Farm, now with 400 trees, is a steady-running business with the entire family chipping in. His wife, Chris, a Poulsbo native, helps with bookkeeping and has taught their three children how to craft the Christmas wreathes the family ships across the country.

The Wilson clan has always been agricultural experimenters. Lavender and ginseng were attempted on the property about 60 years before these herbs dominated the shelves of health food stores.

Wilson continues the tradition with a hillside of 700 young blueberry plants that promise their first substantial harvest this summer. They have three varieties planted, including the Chandler blueberry, which grows as wide as a 25-cent coin.

“We’ll be in trouble if nobody on Bainbridge comes to pick blueberries,” said Chris Wilson, who also grows flowers for sale at a roadside stand. “If summer comes and we’re pulling our hair out, you’ll know how that went.”

Fortunately, Wilson has a second job at the Eagle Harbor ferry yard that supports his passion for “watching things grow.”

His work in the maintenance facility’s machine shop is yet another vocation that follows in his father’s footsteps, but Wilson isn’t nostalgic about it.

“I’m just turning nuts and bolts and getting greasy,” he said.

While he doesn’t so much identify with the work, Wilson identifies with the class it puts him in.

“It’s blue collar,” he said. “There’s not much blue collar left here.”

Wilson bristles when talk turns to sentiment that the ferry yard is an “incompatible use” of the harbor’s waterfront.

“It’s the people that moved in and built big waterfront homes that are ‘incompatible,’” he said. “Everybody says they want a theme for Bainbridge. What is the theme for Bainbridge? Our heritage is boats. It’s part of our history. Ferry boats are a part of that, with the Mosquito Fleet. And everybody still uses them. They’ve got to be repaired. They talk about putting the yard somewhere else, that it’s not a good use of the harbor. But you can’t repair ferry boats on High School Road.”

The disdain for the living parts of the island’s industrial past has grown as blue collars have faded to white over the last few decades, Wilson said.

“Pretty much everybody worked places like that,” he said. “They went from the island and worked for the Navy at PSNS in Bremerton, at Wyckoff (doing) creosote treatment, at the Hall Brothers.

Now there’s more attorneys. It’s more upper-class. No one wants the blue collar people around.”

That’s a shame, said Chris Wilson.

“Remember the parties we had?” she asked her husband. “We had the best parties, a really eclectic mix of friends. White collar, blue and in between. It made for interesting conversations.”

Wilson agreed.

“I probably want to keep the blue collars because I am one,” he said. “But you need a mix of people for any community.”

The Wilson family’s practice of two dying island trades – the agricultural and the industrial – is the only way they can keep their land intact.

“If we weren’t also doing agricultural, there’s no way we could hold on to this,” he said.

With property taxes rising, Wilson says the pressure to subdivide and sell out is always there.

“We do have the developers knocking on the door sometimes,” said Wilson.

“They say, ‘How’s it going for you? How’s the farming going?” Chris added.

Rather than fight change, Wilson views growth as an inevitability. Challenging it through ordinances or other means teeters ominously over rights Wilson holds in high esteem.

“I don’t think other people should dictate what I do on my property,” he said. “The way I look at it, people have been settling here and trying to stop other people (from doing the same) for years and years. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do. If I tried to stop it, I’d step on someone else’s rights.”

Besides, he said, more people means a stronger customer base for the blueberries, flowers and holly.

“It’s good for business, and we like all the people that stop by and bring their kids,” he said, as his wife nodded.

“The island’s busier, with more and more houses,” Chris said. “But it’s OK as long as we can keep our 10 acres in the middle of it and have our piece of heaven.”

* * * * *


These profiles are part of an ongoing series on Bainbridge families and individuals, coinciding with a new project called Islandwise that’s looking for shared community values. To get involved in fireside chats on community values and vision, call Dwight Sutton at 842-3011, Rod Stevens at 780-1444 or Connie Waddington at 842-9483.

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