Historic Photo Above: Oak Park Free Camp, later known as Smith Park. Courtesy Peggy Darst Townsdin.

Oak Roots:

History of the Garry Oak in Oak Harbor, Whidbey Island, Washington

By Laura Renninger, February 2016

The broadleaf tree Quercus garryana Douglas ex Hook (Garry oak) was named in 1839 by David Douglas to honor Nicholas Garry, secretary and later deputy governor of the Hudson Bay Company.[1] Oak Harbor, Washington, was a village location of the Skagit Tribe.[2] It is speculated the presence of Garry oaks originated from native people and encampments of northern visiting parties. According to an oral history given in 1979 by Cyrus James, of Upper Snoqualmie descent, the people of the Cowichan Tribe of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, were on friendly terms with a mix of local tribes that lived on or traveled through Whidbey Island, even intermarrying with them. [3] It is conceivable that acorns were brought from the abundant supply of Garry oaks on Vancouver Island, effectively reseeding the oaks of Whidbey for hundreds of years.  Though bitter in taste, acorns were a reliable source of protein for native people.  The natives also managed the Garry oak meadows on Whidbey through the practice of controlled burns. This allowed for cultivation of the blue camas bulb, bracken fern, and other important sources of carbohydrates for the native people.[4]

1850 marked the year that donation land claims were made available to promote homestead settlements in the West. In 1851, three men staked donation land claims in Oak Harbor: Zachariah Martin Taftezon, Clement Sumner, and Ulrich Freund. [5] A legal description of the land claimed by Mr. Taftezon stated, “This claim contains 170 acres of prairie and oak openings. Soil first rate. The balance, or north 150 acres, is timbered with fir. Soil poor.” [6] One can imagine impressive Garry oak groves and corresponding meadows, with the rich array of plant species, mammals, birds, and butterflies, succumbing to the ax and plow as cabins were built and clearing of land began.[7] The craggy dignity of Garry oaks became the natural symbol of our community later that same year when Dr. Richard Lansdale named the small bay bordered by oak trees Oak Harbor. [8]

The 1855 Treaty of Point Elliot legitimized ownership of the land claimed by American settlers.[9] The period between initial donation land claims and the late 1800s afforded a slow but steady influx of people of American-European descent. Irish homesteaders, who arrived in 1852, were followed by a migration of industrious Dutch who began arriving in 1894. These two ethnic groups settled in and around Oak Harbor, started up businesses along the harbor waterfront and established farms. This expansion likely meant Garry oaks continued to be cut down in large numbers for building fence posts, homes, furniture, agricultural implements, and burned for fuel. The close-grained, hard oak had long been valued as shipbuilding material.[10] In 1869 Garry oaks in Oak Harbor were harvested to fashion a 62-foot long sailing vessel named the Growler. [11]

While using the “limitless” resources the land provided was generally considered the right of every pioneer, not everyone at that time agreed with the practice of land development and logging. On a reconnaissance mission for the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1869, journalist and entrepreneur Samuel Wilkeson made note of the many beautiful small harbors he visited. He lamented, “…the lumbermen of the sound have found them-they, and the officers of the Coast Survey Service. And they are the loveliest bits of creation. One stands entranced on the deck of a vessel within their circles. Would that I had the wealth to covenant with man never to bring into these paradises of harbors the axe! The ideal sacrilege of chopping through the Garden of Eden to feed a saw-mill is realized daily here by the remorseless Americans who feed the hungry gangs of the Sound mills with the king trees and the queen trees of the world.” [12]

This magnificent form of oak species became living monuments for early Oak Harbor citizens when loved ones were dramatically lost. Two documented examples exist of pioneers burying family members under Garry oaks. Martin Taftezon, of the aforementioned Donation Land Claim, had a union with a Native American woman, which produced two sons. The young boys took ill with measles and died while Martin was gone on a trip to Olympia, Washington, for supplies. A heartbroken Martin buried the two little boys under a Garry oak tree nearby his cabin.[13] Irish pioneer Grace McCrohan and her son David, along with her son in-law Maurice O’Leary, drowned when stormy seas overcame a dugout canoe they were in on Penn Cove in 1864. Prior to the accident, Grace had pointed out a fine Garry oak tree in Oak Harbor and told her family she wished to be buried at that spot when the time came. As the Irish families and others in the close-knit community mourned, all three victims of the tragedy were laid to rest under Grace’s Garry oak.[14]

A symbol of nobility combined with strength, Oak Harbor’s oaks were part of a vivid description of the early landscape by author F.B. Hawes in his 1913 book Island County, A World Beater:

The town of Oak Harbor is located most beautifully on a gentle slope rising from a wide beach of pure white sand-an ideal summer bathing resort-where for four miles circling around the harbor the beach stretches in smooth regularity; it affords a charming view indeed.  Scattered about over the town site are beautiful oak groves, affording refreshing shade and pleasing to the eye.

The City of Oak Harbor was incorporated in 1915. Establishment of the town proper, however, had not eliminated one Garry oak grove in town. This was land owned by Christina McCrohan Barrington, daughter of Grace McCrohan and widow of Captain Edward Barrington. According to her descendant, Peggy Darst Townsend, it was Christina’s intent that the land, which had been used as a park by pioneers since the 1880s, would continue to be preserved as a public park.[15] The locals called this special place Oak Park, or Oak Park Free Camp. It is presumed this was chosen as a park over other spots because the Garry oaks offered a twisted protective canopy, yet enough open space to accommodate crowds. In 1894 a big Fourth of July celebration took place in the park. This event was a coming together of all the people in the community at the time. This gives us a significant glimpse into Oak Harbor’s culture, a co-mingling of both the original keepers of the land and the new landowners. Surviving native peoples, who were very few in number by then, and pioneer settlers alike attended this party in the park, enjoying a picnic and a clambake. They listened to speeches and musical performances and participated in other traditional July Fourth activities.[16] Other community activities and celebrations took place under the Garry oaks on this site, such as last-day-of-school picnics, club events, and musical performances.[17] Eventually, a Mr. Lewis Smith came to acquire the property containing the oak grove. In 1916 Mr. Smith deeded the 1.5 acres of Garry oaks to the town “In consideration of the community to improve and beautify” Oak Harbor. Thus Smith Park came to be the new name of Oak Park.[18]

With completion of the Deception Pass Bridge in 1935 and the construction of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in 1941, big growth exploded upon Oak Harbor. Suddenly the need for local housing became critical. Harvey T. Hill, who came to Oak Harbor in 1889, wrote of this time, “…airports were constructed and buildings mushroomed about the landscape….”[19] Meadows were paved over as the Navy built the Sea Plane Base on Maylor’s Point. More Garry oaks were likely removed as the population rapidly increased. Ironically, one housing plat built in town during this time was given the name Shady Oaks, joining the plat named Oak Grove. [20]

Post WWII-era Oak Harborites developed deep affection for oak trees in the community as they grew up. For recreation some homeowners added rope swings or hammocks to the Garry oaks in their yards. Scott Hornung fondly remembers the hammock in the backyard of his family home off SE 6th Ave. Two Garry Oak trunks in his mother’s backyard were the perfect distance apart for the hammock. According to Scott, “It was tradition to hang the hammock by Mothers’ Day and put the hammock away for the winter after Labor Day. The hammock was available at family gatherings throughout the summer. That usually meant the hammock was occupied by one of the grandkids, swinging, as everyone picnicked in the backyard or by one of the adults, napping, following a big picnic meal.”[21] The three Shepherd boys, of whom the author is related, built a tree fort in a mature Garry oak that stood in the middle of the street across from their home on SE 8th Ave. The author remembers the fall ritual of raking oak leaves as a child at Grandmother Shepherd’s house with her father, Doug. The final reward for this work was being allowed to run and jump into the fluffy accumulated piles. She and her little sister also collected acorns from Grandmother’s spacious lawn at one cent per acorn. The resulting payout enabled a bountiful trip to the penny candy counter at Masten’s Variety Store downtown. Jim Cope, a friend of the Shepherds, remembers that neighborhood children collected acorns as ammunition for “many acorn fights.”[22] Susan Carskadden Starr recalls her favorite oak tree on her grandparents’ farm, the Keister place. She said, “The old tree was climbed on by myself and my sister, and our mother before us, as an early “jungle gym” and sometimes as a quick place to escape an angry bull. It was sought for times of solace and peace, too.”[23]

Garry oaks, aesthetically pleasing with rugged bark, thick, gnarled limbs and a shaggy crown, also became part of the local vocabulary in Oak Harbor. Oak Harbor High School’s yearbook had already been named the Acorn and business names such as Oak Bowl and Oak Tree sprang up. Advertising graphics in a local publication, the Spindrift, frequently featured sketches of Garry oaks or oak limbs, as well as feature pieces or photographs about the special oaks.

The late 1980s brought another wave of development to the town with construction of several large apartment buildings and condominiums to meet the continued need for affordable housing. In August of 1990 citizen outcry over slaughtered oaks brought the issue to the front page of the Whidbey News-Times, in an article titled, Save The Oaks. The people of Oak Harbor considered Garry oak trees an integral part of the city’s heritage and protested vigorously against the indiscriminate removal of several majestic and mature oaks. Citizens such a Mike Dougliss, whose family arrived in Oak Harbor in 1874, spoke against the cutting of so many old oaks. Moved by the vigorous opposition to destruction of oaks, officials with the City of Oak Harbor enacted new protection for the Garry oak within city code.

Numerous efforts were made for Garry oak conservation. One local nursery potted acorns and sold them for a dollar each, with proceeds going to the community food bank, Help House.[24] Diane Nunn Holmly remembers her father, Ralph Nunn, loved Garry oaks. Diane shares, “He planted acorns and advertised in the local paper that they were free for the taking.”[25] Matt Klope, retired Navy Biologist, recalls a partnership with the Oak Harbor Garden Club in the 1990s for planting. He recalls, “Fifty four-inch Garry oak seedlings were planted at the site of military family housing at Crescent Harbor. Of those, only fifteen survived to be around ten feet tall. After some years passed the Navy undertook extensive remodeling of the housing area and decided the trees were in the way. The oaks were then dug up and transplanted to the site of military housing on Maylor’s Point, where unfortunately they all died.”[26]

Among a steady decline of Garry oaks in Oak Harbor due to storms, evergreen crowding and invasive ivy, was the Keister / Post Office Tree. This locally famous old Garry oak, at the current site of the Oak Harbor Post Office, was a prominent landmark in town for decades. In 1902 Herman and Augusta Keister, who had ties to the Zylstra clan, came to Oak Harbor and established a farm on the land, located on the site of the Sumner Donation Land Claim. Their acreage included a marshy area, fruit orchards, pasture land for dairy cows, fertile vegetable gardens, and an old Garry oak. They put up a farmhouse and barn. Later, a second home was built by the Keisters very close to the old oak tree. Susan Carskadden Starr, Keister’s granddaughter, remembers, “People from the University of Washington came to measure and study the old oak.” Legends were told of the venerated tree, which cannot be substantiated, but drifted around Oak Harbor nonetheless, and added to the mystic reverence of it. The Keister grandchildren were tasked with measuring their oak annually while Grandfather Keister proudly looked on.[27] According to the late historian Dorothy Neil, a prominent California artist, Greer Newcomb, painted the beautiful tree in the mid-1960s.[28] The great tree, estimated to be the third biggest in the state, was on track for removal in 2003 by the city of Oak Harbor, as some individuals in city administration believed it was unhealthy and posed a liability to the public.[29] Prior pruning practices, pavement, and root compaction from parked vehicles had stressed the tree. A group of citizens, calling themselves Harbor Pride, intervened and the tree was spared. In 2008 some of those from Harbor Pride, led by Oak Harbor’s naturalist educator, Melissa Duffy, established a native plant garden and worked the soil around the oak in hopes of promoting overall tree health. [30]However, several heavy limbs fell from the tree and the Mayor of Oak Harbor, Scott Dudley, issued an order, unbeknownst to the public, for the giant oak to be eliminated. In a move still considered highly controversial, the City of Oak Harbor removed the old tree early one Sunday morning in 2014. Ring counts of the tree’s stump reveals its age to have been approximately 330 years.[31]

Recognizing the need to ensure the viability of the slow-growing Garry oak in Oak Harbor, the Oak Harbor Garry Oak Society was formed in the spring of 2015.  A handful of local citizens make up this group, whose mission includes a commitment to the stewardship of Garry oak trees in Oak Harbor, through outreach, education and preservation. Among other things, the Oak Harbor Garry Oak Society conducted a first-ever inventory of the Garry oaks that remain within the city’s boundaries, helped remove invasive ivy from threatened oaks on a main thoroughfare, and planted oak seedlings in Oak Harbor.[32]

To mark the Centennial of the City of Oak Harbor, and to celebrate the distinctive native oak in the community, Centennial Grove was planted with 100 Garry oak saplings on an 18-acre parcel of land at the northern entrance to the town at the junction of Highway 20 and Fakkema Road. Key employees from the City of Oak Harbor such as Brad Gluth, Hank Nydam, Arnie Peterschmidt, and Rich Tyhuis worked behind the scenes to plan the Grove and acquire administrative permission. Local citizens, including some from the Oak Harbor Garry Oak Society, came together with the four men and other hardworking city employees for the planting of the new Grove in the fall of 2015.[33]

Garry oaks stand out today as a species of merit, and indeed, as survivors, against the ubiquitous evergreen trees that surround them. According to a 2008 publication by the USDA, “Pacific Northwest Oak Communities” as much as 99 percent of the oak communities historically present in some areas of the Pacific Northwest have been lost. Island County lists the beautiful Garry oak and some of its ecosystem plants “priority habitat” under the 2014 Washington State Department of Natural Resources National Heritage Information System.[34] In the changing world of the 21st Century, native oaks lend historical significance and give Oak Harbor a distinctive place among other Whidbey Island communities. The endangered Garry oak is now considered a precious asset as its striking appearance and drought-tolerant features contribute to the unique landscape of Oak Harbor.

[1] Lyons, C.P. (1999) Trees and Shrubs of Washington. Auburn, WA: Lone Pine Publishing. pp. 50-51

[2] Hudson, Dee Travis (1962) “Principal Indian Tribes and Villages on Whidbey Island, Washington.” The Society of the Pacific Museum of American Anthropology and Archeology, 1, (1), p. 6

[3] Pembroke, Timothy (1981) “An Ethnohistorical Report showing the presence of the Snohomish and Snoqualmie Indians Prior to 1855, Ancestors to the Tulalip Tribes.” pp. 69-72

[4] Deur, Douglas (2002) “Rethinking Precolonial Plant Cultivation on the Northwest Coast of North America.” The Professional Geographer, 54(2), pp.140-157

[5] Neil, Dorothy (1989) By Canoe and Sailing Ship They Came. Oak Harbor, WA: Spindrift Publishing Co. p. 27

[6] Island County files, recorded June 6, 1876, Island County, Coupeville, WA

[7] Island County Historical Society (1995) Bow to Plow, Agriculture and Logging in Island County. Coupeville, WA p.11

[8] Neil, Dorothy (1989) By Canoe and Sailing Ship They Came. Oak Harbor, WA: Spindrift Publishing Co. p. 27

[9] http://www.goia.wa.gov/Treaties/Treaties/pointelliot.htm 2016

[10] Pitts, Frank (undated poem)“The Garry oak”, engraved on stone in Beacon Hill Park, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

[11] Darst, Peggy Christine (2004) Step Back in Time. Oak Harbor, WA: Self-Published by Author. p. 103

[12] Wilkeson, Samuel (1869) Wilkeson’s Notes on Puget Sound. Seattle, WA: Facsimile reproduction the Shorey Book Store. pp. 8-9

[13] Neil, Dorothy (April 1965) Spindrift p.6, Neil, Dorothy (1989) By Canoe and Sailing Ship They Came. Oak Harbor, WA: Spindrift Publishing Co. pp.28-30

[14] Darst, Peggy Christine (2004) Step Back in Time. Oak Harbor, WA: Self-Published by Author. pp. 57-61

[15] Darst, Peggy Christine (2004) Step Back in Time. Oak Harbor, WA: Self-Published by Author. p. 111

[16] Neil, Dorothy (1989) By Canoe and Sailing Ship They Came. Oak Harbor, WA: Spindrift Publishing Co. pp. 181-182, Kellogg, George (1934) A History of Whidbey’s Island. Oak Harbor, WA: Farm Bureau News 1933-1934. p. 89

[17] Neil, Dorothy (1975) My Whidbey Island. Oak Harbor, WA: As seen and reported in the Whidbey News-Times 1946-1975. p. 7

[18] Recorded property deed, filed February 14, 1916

[19] Neil, Dorothy (1989) By Canoe and Sailing Ship They Came. Oak Harbor, WA: Spindrift Publishing Co. p. 283

[20] Gilkey and Wright, Inc. (1948) Map of Lot 12, Plat of the Town of Oak Harbor, Fakkema and Kingma (2003) Map of Lot 4, Plat of the Town of Oak Harbor, section 2

[21] Hornung, Scott (2016) personal email to Laura Renninger

[22] Cope, Jim (1988) personal letter to Evangeline Shepherd

[23] Starr, Susan Carskadden, (October 2015) phone interview with Laura Renninger

[24] Neil, Dorothy, (Spring 1995) Spindrift, p. 10

[25] Holmly, Diane Nunn (2006) “Eulogy to her Daddy” via email to Laura Renninger

[26] Klope, Matthew (April 2015) phone interview with Laura Renninger

[27] Starr, Susan Carskadden (March 2004) letter to City of Oak Harbor, (October 2015) phone interview with Laura Renninger

[28] Neil, Dorothy, (March 1965) Spindrift p. 7

[29] http://www.whidbeynewstimes.com/news/22102819.html, 2016

[30] http://www.whidbeynewstimes.com/lifestyle/19617004.html, http://www.whidbeynewstimes.com/community/1996115681.html, 2016

[31] Stensland, Jessie (March 2014) “Oak Harbor leadership cuts down 330 year-old tree in secret plan.” Whidbey News-Times

[32] Newberry, Ron (April 2015) “Group aims to save Garry oaks.” Whidbey News-Times, http://www.ohgarryoaksociety.org 2016

[33] Stensland, Jessie (November 2015) “A hundred oaks.” Whidbey News-Times

[34] http://www.dnr.wa.gov/natural-heritage-program, 2016