Lee's Whidbey: The Irish Were Not Here First

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So the Irish were not here First
by Lee Brainard

On March 17, grab something green . . . hat, coat, scarf, car, whatever . . . and join the O'Carbor St .Patrick's Day Parade. It leaves Midway Blvd. at about 4 p.m. and walks/rides west down Pioneer Way to City Beach Street, then on to the Dutch Windmill and the Irish Blarney Stone.

This yearly celebration is for everyone and is more of a participator event than a spectator one, probably because it is often cold and wet in March and it's warmer to move along than to stand still!

We Oak Harbor Irish like to say we were here first . . . before the Dutch and before the Navy . . . but we were not really first. The first three homesteaders on North Whidbey were a Swiss, a Yankee, and a Norwegian. Ulrich Freund, C. W. Sumner and Martin Toftezen were disappointed gold seekers from California. They came to Whidbey in December 1849 by Indian canoe from Olympia looking for the next best thing . . . land!

The Tulalips on the canoe weren't getting along with the local Skagits at the time, so they landed their riders at Big Spring, where the cliff rises above Crescent Harbor on the Seaplane Base. The three adventurers left the canoe, climbed up the cliff . . . and saw their future!

The three filed Donation Claims, but right behind them were the Irish: Samuel and Thomas Maylor, who took their claim on Maylor's Point, which is Navy property today, and Sea Captain Edward Barrington, who started the town's first business.
Ulrich Freund's Donation Claim made up the west quarter of the city, which now includes WalMart and Island Plaza where Safeway is. Freund's is the only one of the three first homesteads where members of the family still live. Sumner took the middle part of Oak Harbor where downtown is now and Toftezen took the eastern part, including what is now Skagit Valley College's Whidbey Campus and the new Navy housing.

Charlie Sumner didn't stay here long . . . he is reported to have said that when he could see the smoke from his neighbors cabin, it was getting too crowded and it was time to move on.

Toftezen married an Indian woman and fathered two boys. His is a rather tragic story . . . he had to travel to Olympia for supplies, a 5 day trip, and instructed his wife under no circumstances should she contact the Indian medicine man if the boys got sick, but should call on the white doctor, who, at that time was Dr. Richard Lansdale.

The boys got sick, possibly the measles as they were going around having been brought by the white settlers, and the frantic mother couldn't find the white doctor. She took them to her native village where they received the standard Indian treatment. That consisted of being sweated in a hot tent, then plunged into the cold waters of the Sound. (Sounds like a treatment straight from Norway!)

The young boys died, and when Toftezen returned home and got the news, he was in a rage. He drove his wife out and became an embittered man. His sons are said to be buried beneath a large oak on the hillside above the Toftezen cabin, probably about where SE 9th is now. He sold his claim and moved away, but returned years later to live out his life on Scenic Heights.

His body rests in the Lutheran Cemetery at Stanwood, which at the time was the largest Scandinavian settlement on Puget Sound. A marker later erected by the Pioneer Historical Society and the Sons of Norway, acknowledges Martin Toftezen as the first Norwegian settler in what is now the state of Washington.

But back to the Irish, because it is still March. The potato famine of the 1840s sent thousands of immigrants from Northern European countries to the New World, and brought the Irish halfway around the world to Whidbey Island. How they knew where to go or how to get here or what awaited them when they did get here . . . no one knows.

But they did get here before the Dutch. The first Hollanders didn't get here until 1894, and the Navy didn't come until 1942 (officially, that is). Builders were here earlier, pushing the Maylors off their Point and filling in the causeway to build the Seaplane Base. In the first year or two there was just one Navy engineer lieutenant to oversee and two sailors who didn't have anywhere to sleep. They were taken in by the Austin Company construction crew and slept in their barracks. There was only one cafe in town, and that was really crowded with all the hungry men here. But the townsfolk rallied 'round, and found food and quarters for those who needed them. Cafes sprang up and chicken coops were remodeled to make sleeping quarters.

So Oak Harbor has been . . . and still is . . . an Irish town, a Dutch town, and a Navy town. Take your pick . . . many of us are all three!

Here's an old Irish recipe for longevity:
Leave the table hungry.
Leave the bed sleepy.
Leave the tavern thirsty.
That's pretty close to what my grandmother used to tell me, except she left out the tavern part.