Guemes Gleanings




The author, Gertrude Howard and her husband Bob discovered the charm of Guemes Island in the mid 1940’s. They became Island boosters from the moment they arrived. The Robert E. Howard Fire Station honors Bob’s memory.

Gertie, as Mrs. Howard is affectionately known, became the Guemes Community Club historian since no printed reference to the Island or its inhabitants has she ever allowed to go unnoticed. Her garret attests to the fact that she is a one-woman clipping service.

In 1978 Gertie was asked to prepare this paper from her garret “gleanings. “ Its purpose was fulfilled when C.P. Stapp embellished it with his memories while reading it for the enjoyment of the Community Club members at one of their meetings. Later, to satisfy requests, the Club agreed to have it printed.

Gertie’s “Gleanings” is an unduplicated continuation of the first printed history, Elmore’s “The Isle of Guemes” published in 1973. In fact the history of Guemes Island is on going. We can expect further accounts as its devotees record their own memories and experiences.

Sylvia Carothers, President 1976 - 78 Guemes Island Community Club

First printing -1981

It is known that Indians gathered and lived on Guemes before the arrival of white settlers. Kitchen middens have been found on South and West Beach. There was also a large Potlatch house on West Beach. There are conflicting reports as to its size. One report says it was 250 feet long and 35 feet wide, and another says 999 feet long.

The Potlatch was a social function - usually held during the salmon run - with feasting and an exchange of gifts. There was speech making, singing and games, and the men gambled. I have read that the last great Potlatch on Guemes was held in the 1880’s; 1884, in fact, when the Anacortes paper stated that . . . “Great numbers of canoes containing entire families of Indians, the women and girls dressed in the brightest colors, passed Anacortes on their way home from the Potlatch held at their rendezvous on Guemes Island. “ But then there’s another report which states there was a Potlatch there in 1917. [See also The Samish Indians of Guemes Island, 1792-1986]

Guemes Island was discovered by George Vancouver in 1778. An interesting note here: Don Taylor told me he has read Captain Vancouver’s log. He Vancouver - left his anchor by the Yellow Bluffs on Guemes. He was anchored there, the tide was flooding, and it was impossible to get his anchor in.

I have read two different reasons for that name. One is that Henry Roeder and Russell Peabody who, in 1853, had started a lumber mill at Whatcom Falls, were bringing men and supplies in a sloop and stopped over night on Guemes. During the night a pack of wild dogs attacked the camp. These dogs had been left behind to roam and increase when the Indians left the island.

The other version: Before factory-made blankets, the Indians raised a breed of white shaggy dogs that were clipped, and the fur was then used for weaving blankets.

Our island is 7.96 square miles in size, and the highest point is 560 feet.

A man named Hall was the first settler on the island. He stayed long enough to build a small cabin and then left.

Jim Matthews - grandfather of Sarah Kingston and Maude Wooten - settled with his family on Guemes in 1865 and, according to one source, was the builder of the first house on the island. Sarah told me the family was flooded out on the Samish flats, came by boat, and landed on the south shore of Guemes about a mile east of the present ferry dock, where they homesteaded. The Hammill property in that area is part of that homestead.

At that time, Sarah’s father was four years old. A sidelight - George Kingston told me that when the Matthews ran short of water in the summertime they would take their dirty clothes to the springs area on the southeast, build a fire to heat the water, and do their laundry there. Sarah’s mother practiced folk medicine. She mixed natural ingredients such as roots from Oregon grape, licorice fern, etc. She cured one neighbor of consumption.

Humphrey O’Bryant settled on Guemes in 1866. He planted a large orchard of 400 apple trees and 225 prune trees. Ed Donnelly, who now owns the old homestead, told me that Mr. O'Bryant went by canoe to Victoria to personally pick out his trees. Humphrey O’Bryant is buried out on the point of the property he owned.

Timothy Mangan arrived in 1871. He built the first store in 1873. He established a small lumber yard, and he built the first dock. The first white child born on Guemes was born to the Mangans. The earliest dances were held in the Mangan kitchen, and later in his store. Nate Lewis and Louis Shoultz both played violins, and the Mangans had a small pump organ. In the winter the young people rode to the dances in a sled drawn by oxen. T.B. Mangan was elected Justice of the Peace in 1883.

John Shriver also came to Guemes in 1871 and took up a homestead. He lived here until 1918, when he died at 85. Two of his brothers were also Guemes pioneers - Sol and Jake. Jake was the grandfather of Sadie (Mrs. Horace) Hammill. Their homestead took in the area that is now Ocean Acres and the Hammill place.

Bill Payne was also an 1871 arrival. He took up a pre-emption claim which had belonged to that first settler, Hall. That farm was sold years later to the Bessner family, and he then built the house which is now just a shell on South Shore Drive. There is a story that he donated the North Beach Park to the people of Guemes, but that isn’t really so. When he died at age 79 in 1923, his heirs sold that land to the City of Anacortes for $275.00.

Lucius Blackinton came to Guemes in 1872. He had 160 acres on South Beach. He owned a store, and was appointed the first postmaster on the island in 1890. After three years there came a crash, and that ended the post office. During that period, there were about 100 people on Guemes. The store and post office were in a building that is now part of the Elden Palmer home. The building was moved up from the beach. Blackinton planted that large and lovely beech tree in the Benjestorf yard.

John Edens arrived in 1872. He was joined by three brothers and they built up a logging business that lasted several years. Oxen were used for logging at that time, and the Edens employed as few as ten and as many as twenty-four men. The Edens, of course, donated the school ground as well as most of the land for the cemetery. Their homestead was the area we now call The Hollow.

I am unable to pinpoint the exact year that Nathan Lewis and his wife, Florence, arrived. There are several dates given, but my guess would be that it was in the mid-1870’s. He built his house where Butch Kreiger now lives; however, Butch’s house is the second Lewis House. The first one burned. Mr. Lewis owned a great deal of the North Beach property at one time. Mrs. Lewis named their place Maplewood Farm. Like the other pioneers of these first years, they rowed to LaConner for necessary supplies, and when they were in need of a doctor.

"The remains of what is presumed to be a hideout of Pirate Kelly on the west beach of Guemes Island." - Chechacos All, Skagit County Hisotrical Society. Wallie Funk photo.

Another settler in the 1870’s was Lawrence “Smuggler” Kelly whose story has been told many times. His cabin was half way up the bluff on Kelly Point. For twenty-five years he smuggled Chinese laborers from Canada for as much as $500 per head. He also smuggled opium and some wool. He was arrested and fined many times. He even served time for his illegal deeds, but always came back to smuggle another day. His last days were spent in a home for Confederate Veterans.

Some of the other names in the early history of Guemes were Martin Wilfong, whose wife was the first white woman on the island; Amos Johnson, whose disappearance and murder caused quite a stir; William Whaley; C.P. Woodcock and James Murrow. And a very prominent early Guemes name is Causland. Mr. and Mrs. Causland arrived on the island in the mid-1880’s and took over a homestead - the land that is now the Veal farm. For the story about how the lumber and brick were acquired and brought to the site, read Helen Elmore’s “This Isle of Guemes”.

In the very early days the settlers were busy clearing land and building homes. Logging and shingle-making were the sources of income for some time.

There was also a “go” at mining. The first mention of such activity was in 1876 when a copper mine was opened. Tunnels were dug several hundred feet into the mountain, but there are no records of actual production. There was a write-up about reopening this mine in 1884 but, again, nothing about actual mine production. The mine was located not far from the waterfront on the H.P. O’Bryant place. There were talc deposits on Cooks Bay, and an excellent grade of Potters clay was found on the island. There was, supposedly, even a gold mine which, according to one oldtimer, was “salted” to sell shares.

In about 1909 the island was well into becoming a farming community. The forests had been cleared and the soil was fertile. By 1912 farming was a serious business. The orchards that had been planted some years earlier produced good quality fruit. Excellent berries and vegetables were grown, and there were a number of dairy and poultry farms. Charles Gant wrote in his paper about potatoes weighing one pound each, three onions adding up to four and one-half pounds, and plums that would make duck eggs look like Tom Thumb peas.

Before coming to Guemes Island, Charley Gant worked on papers in Bellingham, Mount Vernon and Anacortes. Before that in about 1901 - he published a paper in the Grays Harbor area that he called “Gant’s Sawyer.” Charley himself admitted in his writings that he was addicted to the Demon Rum, but somehow that didn’t affect those writings. He had an astute command of the English language and a beautiful way with words. He was a natural poet, and his writings seemed to come out in rhyme, whether intended or not. Charley loved Guemes and wrote many verses about the island and its people.

The first paper on Guemes was the “Tillikum.” Lee Lewis was the publisher and Charley Gant the editor. The first issue was dated April 8, 1912. The “Tillikum” was written and printed on North Beach. The partnership of Lewis and Gant lasted until the following February when Charley really fell off the wagon and went on a destructive spree. On February 14, 1913, he became sole owner of the “Tillikum.” Lee Lewis left the island to go to work on a steamboat in Tacoma. It was at that time this column appeared in the paper: “There is no use wasting your time roasting the Editor of the “Tillikum “, my dear. Just go right on with your quilting and knitting, sweetheart, and let us tell you what a disreputable, baldheaded old beast we are when we go sauntering down the road to hell arm-in-arm with John Barleycorn. We have been both up and both down the sunny and shady sides of life, yet the only reflection we have ever seen of life’s other side came the other day. We looked into the mirror. Sorry looking sight, honey, beautiful brown eyes all red with rum, and intellectual brow all wrinkled like an old maid’s convention. Yes, we are a degenerate son of a drunken sire, darling, good at times, and bad between times. But don’t waste your time in roasting us, dovey - we are not worth your while. Just go ahead with your knitting. “ Some weeks following that, the “Tillikum” came to an end.

But Charley came back in 1916 as the sole owner of the “Beachcomber.” His first office was in the vicinity of the shipyard location. Later, he moved to a building east of the ferry dock and across the road from where Bud Hanson now lives. This office must have been fairly large dances were held there. The “Beachcomber” was published for about seven years. When Charley Gant died in Bellingham, he was 67 years old. A book is being written about Charley, and will be published this summer.

In the early spring of 1912, N.B. Lewis cleared and beautified land on North Beach and called it Idlewild Park - a resort park with room for about 100 tents. It was very popular because it had the warmest bathing beach on the island. This was because the smooth bottom and the shallow tides received the warm sun the entire day. By May of 1917, there were two-roomed summer cottages for rent.

North Beach in the 1920s.

That same summer - 1912 - Henry Howard established a similar spot on South Beach, which he called Kentucky Treat. He put in foundations and floors for tents, and families from off the island located there for the summer. There was a place for large picnics too, with contests, foot races, tug of wars and baseball.

Paul Jones Park came into being on South Beach in 1923. It was also a place for picnics, baseball games and 4th of July celebrations.

The women of the island organized a Social Club in February 1912 with twenty-five charter members. The club was formed for the purpose of raising money to build a social hall. They were a great group of ‘,’go-getters”. They raised money by having bazaars, lunches, dinners, dances, ice cream socials, box suppers, etc. They pieced and raffled quilts. Their dances were sometimes advertisedby putting notices on slides at the Rose Theater in town. The money-raising process, though, was slow. By June 1913, they had $104.50 in their treasury. Again, a quote from Charley Gant: “The Ladies Social Club deserves great credit for the efforts being put forth to secure for the people on the island a public hall. No body of women anywhere, with no greater opportunity, has done more to advance socially and morally the community in which they live.

The club didn’t always run smoothly, though. At one point the vice president was ejected from the club because she was neglectful of her duties, and guilty of harmful gossip. She accused the club president of using club money when she had no right. There were also other ladies forced to resign over a period of time. There was even a time when there was talk of deeding the property back to Mr. Kidd. But at the January meeting in 1914, it was recommended that a hall 30 x 60, with a smoking room upstairs, be built. They borrowed $300 from Jack Kidd, who had already donated the land. The men cut and piled the brush on that piece of property, and the women burned it. Then a crew of men, headed by C.H. Dunn, went to work on the building and finished it in March 1914. There was a dedication, of course, with speeches and a social.

The first big dance was held April 15, 1914. The couples from across the channel paid $1.00 per couple. The islanders paid fifty cents per couple because they furnished the refreshments and did all the work. The sum of $94.90 was received from the dance, with 10 cents found on the floor, making it an even $95.00! From then on dances were given and attended regularly at the hall.

It was October 1914 when men were invited to join the Social Club, and fifteen of them did. After that the men took over the dances. They also formed an athletic club and a basketball team.

In January 1915, the hall and property were deeded to the trustees of the Booster Club in trust for the island people.

The Social Club was still meeting in February, 1916, but there are no records after that. It should be mentioned that the ladies of that organization made two U.S. flags - one for the new hall, and one for Charley Gant’s office. They also contributed money towards two shed-barns, one on each side of the ferry dock, to hold the teams and horses while their owners went across the channel.

Volunteering - both financially and with labor - has been part of and contributed to the growth of Guemes since the beginning.

Here are a few examples.

The schoolhouse was built in 1885 on an acre of ground donated by William Eden. A contribution of $160.00 was made from public school funds. The remainder of the money, and the labor, were donated by the people on the island. When the building was finished, more money was needed, and was given, for desks and seats. The building, by the way, was also used for such island activities as church, meetings, dances and parties.
The cemetery deed was executed in 1904; the land donated by the Edens. The gate columns were erected in 1934. The money for this project was raised by subscription, and the labor done by volunteers. More cemetery land was also donated by Henry Howard and William Payne.

In 1912, one of the first jobs of the newly-formed Improvement and Booster Club was the clearing of the road for rural mail delivery. Also, that spring they cleared the school yard so as to make a larger play area for the children. At that time there were 42 children in the school.

In 1913, the club raised $152.00 toward building a more substantial ferry dock. They also slashed the road from the ferry dock to the schoolhouse, making it straighter and widening it to 50 feet. Property owners on each side of the road donated enough property to make this possible. Even as late as 1918, the residents were donating labor and money for new roads.

A great deal of volunteer labor and money have gone into the little church too - from the beginning up to the present time. It started when the Ladies Aid raised $40.00 to buy the one half acre of land. Gertrude Magill even asked the merchants in town for donations to help build the church.

In 1955, sixty-two of the island residents contributed $305.00 towards drilling the well, the pump, etc. Volunteer labor dug the ditch for the pipe from the hall to the church. It was 1958 when the “powder room” was added.

In 1964, the hall underwent extensive remodeling. Some of the labor was hired and paid for, but there was also much volunteer help. It was a time of a new roof, new foundation and a new floor. The stage was removed and a furnace installed. The memorial funds of H.W. Whicker and Lage Wernstedt, supplemented by the club, were used for renovation and remodeling of the kitchen. In 1965, the memorial fund for Bob Howard was used to buy the light fixtures in the hall. The siding was put on and painted in 1966.

Volunteer labor was also used to build the fire hall. That was in 1963. That property was bought from Dot Graham. A class for the volunteer firemen was conducted in 1964 by the State Vocational Training Program. It was a six-week course, and each week the women took turns, in groups of three, preparing hot lunches for the men.

The ferry tale could be turned into a large volume - maybe two. And most people know the ongoing story.

Rowing, of course, was the popular mode of transportation for the settlers. Most owned a canoe or rowboat. However, steamers stopped fairly regularly on Guemes in the early 1870’s for passengers, mail and freight. These steamers also picked up wood for fuel for their vessels which some of the pioneers cut and sold for $1.75 per cord.

The first mention I have been able to find of a ferry to Guemes was in the 1890 paper. The small notice said: “W.C Pyle, our genial ferryman is chuckfull of good nature and accommodation. When you wish to cross over to Guemes fail not to call on ferryman Pyle.“ About 1910, there were two small passenger-carrying boats - one called Sunny Jim and the other, Glide.

In 1912, a launch named Elk was put into passenger service to and from Guemes. This boat was owned and skippered by Harry Rickaby, who had come west from New Jersey in 1882. The Elk made six trips daily. The contract Was given by the county at $105.00 per month, and the fare was five cents each way. The boat carried 35 passengers. Frank Taylor, Don Taylor’s father, was in partnership with Mr. Rickaby for a time. By 1916, Mr. Rickaby also offered “Scow and Freight Service, and Excursions and Picnic Parties anywhere, at any time.”

That year Charley Gant wrote: “There may come a time when the county will give us a free ferry to Guemes, but that time is not now. And there may come a time when the county will give us no ferry at all. The slogan of the settlers of Guemes and the merchants of Anacortes has been: A five cent ferry making five trips daily. We have secured a five-cent ferry making six trips daily, and it is the best service Guemes has ever had.“


The ferry Guemes was built in 1917 for a private group who called themselves Guemes Ferry Co., Inc. Bill Bessner bought the boat January 1, 1922, and ran it for 28 years. The Guemes changed hands twice more before the Almar replaced it. The Almar made its first official landing on Guemes at 1:00 p.m., January 5, 1960. The county bought the ferry in 1963 for $36,000. An item of interest: from 1955 through 1969, Sandy Bernsen received a $775.00 monthly subsidy from the county for county trucks and equipment, and for the school children.

Bits and Pieces at Random

The first school on the island was built in 1873. It was a log building located about 3/4 of a mile from the present ferry landing - a short distance in back of the half-torn-down little cabin east of the now Pat Palmer place. The school at the crossroads, as I’ve said before, was built in 1885. Guemes residents voted for school consolidation in 1948. At that time, children through the 4th grade were kept on the island - the remainder were bussed to the Anacortes schools. The Guemes school was closed in 1962.

The Indian children were sent to the Chemewa Indian School near Salem, Oregon. This is where Sarah and George Kingston first met. George didn’t like it at the school, so he ran away and came home. Mary Merchant and the older Blackinton children were also among the children who went to that school.


The first rural mail delivery was in 1913. In the beginning, the mail was taken back and forth in a rowboat.  Some of the familiar names among the Guemes mail carriers were: Herb Causland, Robin Gould and George Pinneo. Our present postmaster, Lavern Deane, was also once a Guemes carrier. The delivery was done first on foot, then by horseback, then by horse and cart, until the auto finally arrived on the scene.

In 1914 the population on Guemes was about 300, and there were 30 children in school.

Sarah Kingston seemed to think the winters were colder when she was young. She remembered that the ponds were frozen over and that nearly everyone skated and had skating parties.

Shrimp fishing in the channel was profitable about 1912. The Guemes residents would row out to the shrimp boats and buy fresh shrimp.

During World War I, soldiers were stationed on Guemes in barracks on the south slope of the island.

Cooks Bay was named for E.S. Cook, a wealthy and prominent business man who owned that property and had quite an estate there - two houses, barns and other outbuildings, and also a swimming pool. Fred and Jennie Pinneo became caretakers of Bonnie Brae, as Mr. Cook had named it and, while there, sold water from the springs on the place to the Ice Company in town for use in making pop. They rowed across the channel with the water in milk cans - about 50 gallons each time. The end to that enterprise came when they were caught in a strong westerly coming back to the island, and the boat crashed against the rocks on the beach and was damaged beyond repair. When the Pinneos wanted to cross on the ferry they would first have to row from Cooks Bay. There were no through roads at that time.

Another Jennie Pinneo story: when she and Fred moved to the Cook place, Jennie had her piano moved over. The men who brought it in a boat or scow, unloaded it on the beach and left. The piano sat there all night - fortunately above high tide - until the Pinneos could get help to move it the next day.

The first 4th of July celebration on the island was held in 1876 at the Wilfong place, which was on South Beach in the area where the Mills now live. The first 4th of July parade was held on North Beach in 1938.


The first telephone service was in 1908 when a 3,450 foot cable was laid across the channel.

Electricity became a reality in 1949.

The first community Thanksgiving was held in the hall in 1914.

Our road signs were put up in 1960, and garbage service was started that same year.

Potluck suppers were started on a permanent basis at community club meetings in 1953.

Until 1955 the hall was heated by a large pot-bellied stove.

The Country Store at the Salmon Barbecue began in 1958.

Frank Taylor told me about a stem wheeler - a passenger and freight vessel - that caught fire at the city dock about 19 11. It was cut free and floated across the channel to a point near the now Donnelly place, where it, sank.

A proposal for Guemes in 1950 was a Federal Government experimental station for hoof and mouth disease. And in 1954 the state was looking for a site for a corrective school for boys 10 to 14 years of age to relieve the congestion at Chehalis. Senator Luvera suggested Guemes Island. Neither proposal, of course, materialized.

The rafters in the first fire hall came from the old barn on the old Frank Lopp place, and were donated by Wade Gilkey. That barn was located on the farm where Jeff Winston now lives.

In 1948 there were 135 houses on the island and 76 mail boxesThe assessed valuation of Guemes Island in 1950 was $96,265.00 and now, in 1980, it is $20,073,983.00.

In 1921 William Kager (the present Kager’s grandfather) settled on West Beach. He drained the swamp or pond there, and planted wheat, had a truck garden and a turkey farm. At that time there were only two houses on that beach, and the road ran in front of those houses along the beach.

The P.T.A. turned the salmon barbecue over to the Community Club in 1955, the amount taken in was $49.80.

Charles Stapp, one of our long-time, hard-working islanders, was chairman of the Park Committee in Anacortes when it was decided, in 1919, that Mr. LePage should build the rock work at Causland Park. And, of course, the park was named for another islander, Harry Causland, who was a World War I hero.

William Lowman planted the cherry orchard - 1,000 trees about 1910.

Land values have changed over the years. Here is an ad that appeared in the “Tillikum” in 1913.

“56 acre ranch on Guemes Island, 25 acres under cultivation, team, wagon, buggy, harness, farming implements, 6 milch cows, 2 calves, pigs, cream separator, new 7-room house, barn 30 x 50, young orchard, small fruit, 500 cords of shingle bolts (238 cords cut). This is waterfront property. Price: $5,000. 00.“

And in 1923 - “5-room cottage, 1 acre of land - $900.00.

Also in 1921 -- The shipyard property was sold to a Tacoma man who dismantled the buildings and removed all traces of the Guemes industry that had been built in 1917. The total property, including 28 acres, was sold for $6,000.00.



A verse from one of Charley Gant’s poems:

“I don’t want to go out to encounter gales On waters uncharted, unknown Where here I can follow the calm, love-lit trails With friends and not travel alone. I want to stay here where the gorgeous dyes Of the rainbows can ever be found Over ever blue seas, under ever blue skies In the ever Green Land of Puget Sound."

[Photos, not included in Guemes Gleanings, courtesy of the Guemes Island Historical Society.]

Tags: history