Opinion

Downeasters up the bay | Opinion | June 5

In 1867, President U.S. Grant granted the site of today’s Strawberry Plant Park to Capt. William Renton and his Port Blakely mill partners. Loggers harvested its trees. and in 1891 mill owners sold the land and 10 adjoining acres to Capt. Alvin Oliver, and his wife, Mary.

The Olivers and their 9-year-old daughter, Inez, must have marveled at its gently sloping sandy beaches, protected waters, sunny exposures; artesian spring, clear creeks that crossed the property.

The Olivers were from Bristol, Maine. Alvin developed sea legs as a fisherman in his teens. Old-timers recalled, “Oliver was a real product of ‘Yankee-land.’ His jovial boom of ‘I Gorry’ and his body shaking laughter – about 200 pounds of it – was a pleasure to remember.”

From the easily accessible, sheltered beach near the head-of-the-bay, the Olivers built a landing float and shoreside store. They farmed and built small boats.

Between 1894 and 1904, Oliver made weekly trips to Seattle, transporting neighbors and bringing back supplies for them and the store. They served folks throughout the harbor and inland central island.

In the early 1890s, Eagle Harbor’s first community building was a one-room shelter used as both school and Congregational Church. When the small impoverished village raised funds to build a parsonage (before the church), Oliver sailed to Port Madison Mill for the lumber.

Oliver’s landing consisted of a long log float with decked cedar logs that extended toward the deepest part of the shallow bay. The float ran south from his west property line for about 150 feet to a row of piling to which he moored his boat while unloading. Remains can be seen at low tide protruding from the mud in a 1911 photo.

Before 1903, many depended upon Oliver and his schooner’s weekly weather-dependent voyage to Seattle. Would-be passengers signaled him from shore. A neighbor would row passengers out to join him.

A 1908 photo and 1911 lease indicate a substantial boat yard and haul-out on the site. A schooner, likely Oliver’s, is seen in the photo. It is along the east side of a small cove between two natural berms formed by year-round parallel creeks. It was this cove that later sited the strawberry cannery. Who knows what other marine structures exist beneath the mud in this cove?

It’s not surprising that wooden structures, buried in our beaches without creosote or exposed to the air, are preserved. Both Port Blakely and Winslow Hall Brothers’ marine ways foundations, and Billy DeShaw’s Agate Point Trading Post pile, are buried in the beach.

Silt, mud and debris from the 1997 cannery fire hide history that should be cleaned up, studied and treasured. Excavation and creating neo-landscapes obscure the cultural roots and destroy the “sense of place”.

The gently sloping beach at this site gave a favorable mechanical advantage to folks trying to haul or launch a boat.

This was a favored place for such in the decade before Hall Brothers’ moved to Eagle Harbor and steamer service by Eagle Harbor Transportation Co. began operating in 1903 a mile east.

Oliver’s’ store is seen facing south near today’s existing building. It is partially obscured by sailboats in the 1908 photo taken by Oliver’s son-in-law, Fred Grow. A building running north-south sits behind the boats.

From Oliver’s ownership (1891-1912) there were several noteworthy buildings on site: the store, residence, a large shed, two other residences and a carriage house that still stands.

Two old-timers ages 88 and 92 recall the board-and-batten house in the park site and the Oliver residence were painted the same – yellow with cream trim – similar to The Four Swallows, which was the home of Fred Grow’s brother in 1885 home.The home of Grow’s parents is today’s Harbour Pub.

Capt. Oliver (1852-1911) died a few months after he and his wife leased the park site’s waterfront acres to “J. T. Wilkin.” Mary E. Oliver sold her properties to Harriette and Capt. Benjamin T. Tilton. Anybody remember him?

Take a walk in the park. Feel the history!

Historian Gerald Elfendahl is among a group of islanders who have filed an appeal of the city ‘s determination of nonsignificance for the Strawberry Plant Park.

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