the Irish were not here First
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
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
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
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
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.