If you live in the Pacific Northwest, then you know that the 172-named San Juan Islands and reefs are stunningly beautiful. But did you know the rich history about San Juan Island? Next time you visit Friday Harbor, you need to visit the San Juan Historical Society and Museum. You will gain a whole new perspective on the human history that made the vacation destinations of Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor what they are today!
In July of last year, my best friend Janine and I visited the San Juan Historical Society and Museum and met with the museum’s Executive Director, Kevin Loftus, for a full tour of the museum grounds and an in-depth history lesson! If you are a history buff like me, then keep on reading to learn how the island started out exporting commodities all over the world and is now a tourist destination that imports many of its supplies in!
The San Juan Historical Museum has been open for 51 years and sits a quarter mile down from Spring St. on Price St. in Friday Harbor. The property has eight buildings, with four buildings coming from the original 445 acre farm that stood on the grounds in the 1800’s. The museum is currently adding new exhibits and will soon be opening a museum within the museum, the San Juan Island Museum of History & Industry. The museum covers the four major industries of the San Juan Island’s past, fishing, farming, logging and limestone. The collections include artifacts, over 3,000 photographs, documents, letters, diaries and an oral history of 30 subjects who were recorded over two stints in the 1990’s.
The still active church (not part of the property) was built in 1882 and the original farmhouse and jail were built in 1894. The jail was used all the way up until 1971, but was condemned as being the worst jail in the state of Washington before it closed! The jail contained three different cells and one day, 23 people were staying there!
The museum’s cabin was built in 1891 and used to belong to the Scribner family who came to Friday Harbor from Maine. Mom and Dad Scribner with their 9 kids lived in the small cabin! Today the cabin resembles an 1896 classroom!
A new foundation for the Carriage House that sits on the museum grounds was restored for $72,000 (through grant money and community donations). The original foundation of the house were tree stumps! One of the carriages in the house belonged to the county’s first Sheriff, Mr. Boyce and his wife who happened to be the town’s mid-wife. Ms. Boyce helped deliver 500 babies in Friday Harbor!
The wooden rudder that sits outside the Stone Store House was salvaged from a giant ship wreck, when a three-mast sailing ship loaded with a shipment of coal sank to the bottom of the Puget Sound on the other side of San Juan Island (and it still sits there today). The Lime Kiln Lighthouse was built five years after that as a way to warn other ships!
The four wings of the new museum will interpret the different histories of the island, with the center section being the welcome area. The comprehensive map that sits in the center of the welcome area is composed of fiber-optic lights and was created with a CAD program that merged satellite imagery that sculpted the island. The custom built cabinet that the map sits on was built from wood from the island. To understand how much it costs to build a museum, Kevin told Janine and I that two of the museum wings cost $50,000 and the map was $23,000. Much of the funding was raised by the surrounding community and much of that fundraising comes from Kevin and his team introducing their museum concepts at the San Juan County Fair, pitching the idea and getting the community involved. For $250, you can help with the funding of the expanding museum and have your own personal brick laid down on the museum grounds!
Take a tour of each of the museum’s wings and learn about the four pillars of human history that shaped San Juan Island.
The wing dedicated to fishing goes into the history of Cannery Landing. Ten Cannery Landing in Friday Harbor rests in the footprint of the old cannery and had fish netting operations all over the island. The cannery had a secondary whistle which blew to let people know they needed more help in processing the large fish hauls. After WWII, the canning industry waned because of a depletion in the numbers of fish, changing consumer tastes (fresh/frozen instead of canned) and transportation costs.
Another wing is dedicated to farming. Farming was done throughout the island, but San Juan Valley was a dominate agricultural area. Dairy farms fed product to a creamery located in Friday Harbor, which used the cream in the making a various dairy products, mostly butter. The island was also filled with a mainstay of crops includeing apples, cherries, pears and plums. The fruit industry collapsed in the 1930’s when Eastern Washington began to improve their irrigation systems and no longer needed to import fruit from the island. Green peas used to be one of the main crops on the island, but were wiped out by the pea-weevil during the Great Depression that decimated and destroyed the crops.
The logging wing shows a visual history of Native American and early Euro-American methods used in cutting trees. Timber was processed and used as cord wood as a fuel source, a building material and an export commodity.
One of the wings is dedicated to the island’s rich limestone history. There were various limestone operations on the island, but two were quite large. The Cowell Lime Kiln was a bit more rough and tumble than the other big mining operation at Roche, and was successful from the mid-1872 to the 1950’s. The island contained very pure limestone veins with little other elements and was the perfect setting for limestone quarrying. Again, as the island used to be an exporter of commodities, much of the limestone was not used on the island itself.
Much of this wing was funded by Roche Harbor Resort. Roche Harbor was largely a company town for its first 50 years (1886-1937) where limestone was quarried. Much of what employees and residents paid for was in scrip and had to purchase what they needed at the company store (although they were able to get cash withdrawals for items not available at the store).
There was a push in the 1930’s to unionize quarry workers throughout the state and there were much larger operations in Everett and Tacoma. Roche Harbor was included in that push. They went on strike for three months in 1937 and returned as union employees.
Another parallel story in the wing is that of John McMillin, a limestone barren who ran the industry on the island for over 50 years. He often wooed investors by bringing them to the island on chartered ferries and often had professional photos of himself taken to capture his business operations in their best light! After he passed away in 1937, his son took over operations but lacked the business acumen. In 1956, the Tarte family from Seattle purchased the limestone operations and began the process of turning the site from and industrial site to a resort or “Boatel” as it was originally termed.
Next time you visit Friday Harbor, I highly recommend checking out the San Juan Historical Society and Museum. Janine and I learned so much about the history of the island which actually answered many questions we had while visiting, one being why Roche Harbor looked the way it did. Now we know!
San Juan Historical Society and Museum
323 & 405 Price St.
Friday Harbor, WA 98250