The Great Orcas Island Bear Hunt

“Higgy” was a cute little guy when he first arrived at Olga, on Orcas Island, in 1910. Brown, furry, and cuddly, “Higgy” was a Kodiak bear cub (Ursus Arctus Middendorfi) which had been given to Mrs. Rice, proprietress of the Olga Park Inn, by her good friend Ella Higginson, a famous eastern author.  Kodiak bears are the largest bear species in the world, attaining a height of ten feet when standing on their hind legs  —  but little “Higgy”, at two months of age and weighing about one hundred pounds, quickly became the pet of the community.  Everybody loved adorable litte “Higgy” . . . . until he got away.

   When he slipped his collar and headed for the hills near Olga in October of 1910, “Higgy” was four months old and weighed about 150 pounds.  The newspaper reported her loss, and requested anyone spotting him to notify Mrs. Rice so she could retrieve her pet bear.  As time passed, and the bear grew, public sentiment about “Higgy” began to change, as evidenced by a newspaper article of September 1911 which reported a sighting of “the varmint” when he raided a crabapple orchard on the Norris place.

   A mere month later, in October 1911, “Higgy” had become “a monster, with a gray face and an ornery disposition” with breathless newspaper articles reporting that he was now hundreds of pounds heavier than the year before, and that from now on it was “open season on bears, and anyone may go after the big bear on Orcas Island.”  The article added the heartfelt plea “Mrs. Rice would like to have the bear’s pelt if it weren’t too mutilated by the rifle balls and bowie knives”.

   Various hunting parties pursued “Higgy” for two years, with the reports of his sightings related in increasingly hysterical terms.  The final report, on June 29th 1912, told of the slaying of the “huge 1100 pound Kadiak (sic) Grizzly which had terrorized the eastern side of Orcas Island for the past two years”. The article continued with “. . . great stories of the monster’s predations . . . . tales of him carrying full-grown steers in his mouth across Doe Bay Mountain . . . . he was said to pull up apple trees and hold them in one paw while he plucked the fruit with the other.  Half a dozen sheep were nothing for one meal . . . . “.

   “Higgy” was, so far as is known, the only Kodiak bear ever to reside on Orcas Island until five shots from a .22 gauge rifle, fired by Sam Lightheart, brought “this terrible monster” to an end, and along with it the only bear hunt Orcas Island has ever known.

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Olga Resident Remembers Famous 19th Century Showman

Doris Boyer lived in the same house in Olga, on Orcas Island, since 1938 until she needed to move to the mainland in her later years.  In October of 2003 she was interviewed for our Oral History project.  Among the many interesting tales of her early life, she recounted the following story of a train ride taken when she was a young girl of 5 or 6…

“My sister, Lucille (Willis), and I were riding in a Pullman car with our Mother when I became interested in the gentleman seated behind me. As you may know, Pullman car seating was back-to-back; the person seated behind you faced the other way. This gentleman had beautiful white hair, and at the back of his head the hair was gathered up with bobbie pins. I thought this was very unusual, and resolved to remove the bobbie pins, which I proceeded to do to the utter mortification of my Mother.

As Mother began apologizing profusely to the elderly gentleman, who by now had turned to see just who was removing the bobbie pins from his hair, he smiled at me and told her he didn’t mind. He had a wonderful smile, and was very friendly to us as he introduced himself and his sister. Later, she took my sister and I to the baggage car, where we examined some of the interesting things they had with them. They made the trip very pleasant for us. I don’t recall her name, but the gentleman whose bobbie pins I removed was Mr. William F. Cody, who is still better known as Buffalo Bill.”

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The School Bell Rang

Education has always been dear to the hearts of Orcas Islanders, and never more so than in 1873 when the first island school district was formed.  School was in session in Eastsound, at the head of what was then called Buck Bay, in a cabin of hewn logs.  The seats were rough, hand-cut planks locally famous for a high degree of discomfort at 28 “scholars” between the ages of 4 and 21 (!) sat attentively at studies that first year.

The first district (#5), in Eastsound, offered classes to all students on the island despite the common awareness that most students were too distant to attend the school. In some cases travel was simply too dangerous to attempt every day, and certainly not worth the risk in winter.

As settlement increased on Orcas Island, the corresponding increase in school-age children in the little population clusters scattered along the shores and harbors of the densely-forested island, nearly totally lacking in roads, stirred local movements to create schools for children.

The earliest island schools were “subscription” schools held in private homes.  John Bowman taught a subscription school at Peter Morress’ property near Olga which continued operating after the “common” schools were formed, as did others, but they eventually faded with the increase in public school districts.

Since local taxes and levies provided the funds needed to operate the schools, and pay the teachers, downturns in the local economy dramatically affected the schools. (No school was in session in Olga in 1877 owing to a lack of funds, although by the next year, 1878, having the sum of $43.25 on hand meant they could pay Thomas McKenna $20 to teach for two months.)

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Economic Ecology of Orcas Island

When Professor Hayner of the University of Washington published a paper entitled “Economic Ecology in the San Juan Islands” in 1927, he was interested in examining the history and future prospects of our local economy.  The good professor was a nephew of Mrs. Davis, the first white woman who lived on Lopez Island, so he knew something about these islands and their history.  His interest was in the progression of the economy as the local settlements grew, and the changes brought by the succeeding ‘stages’ of economic life in our islands.  Hayner postulated three ‘stages’, or phases, of economic life in the San Juans: the ‘Pioneer Stage’, the ‘Village Stage’, and the ‘Island Unit Stage’.  The ‘Pioneer Stage’ began with the first white settlements in the late 1850’s, and lasted until 1881.  In this era, the economy relied only on available natural resources, such as fishing, lime production by the lime kilns, and logging. By the time the ‘Pioneer Stage’ ended in 1881, the settlements were well established, mail routes, schools, and small businesses were in place, regular commerce was conducted with mainland points, and the islands had transitioned to what the professor called the ‘Village Stage’.

The ‘Village Stage’ saw the rise of the “Orchardists” on Orcas Island, when nearly everyone old enough and able to work was engaged in fruit farming, commerce was booming, there were several steamships making daily stops at Eastsound, and the first ‘Excursionists’ (now referred to as tourists) began visiting the island.  This was the era of road construction, building docks and wharfs to facilitate shipping, and an increasingly active social life.  Visitors began camping on the beaches, and sport fisherman started to become interested in certain seasonal activity in the local waters.

The ‘Village Stage’ lasted until 1910, when the island had reached a sort of saturation point for that existing economic base of small trading villages and primarily seasonal agricultural output and employment.  The islands next entered what the professor referred to as the ‘Island Unit Stage’.  Lopez Island focused on agriculture and fishing; San Juan relied on business, county government, and outfitting the fishing fleets; and Orcas Island saw Eastsound firmly established as the commercial center, hotels and small resorts began operation in a few locations, and the schools were consolidated.  Fish traps and lime kilns ended their work, and canneries entered a decline.  By the late 1920’s, when the professor wrote his paper, this ‘stage’ had also ended and Orcas Island had firmly entered what we can call the ‘resort stage’, which peaked in the late 1940’s with more than 25 resorts and ‘camps’ in operation on the island.

One of the final lines in the professor’s paper spoke tellingly of future changes when he recounted the words of a local farmer on Orcas musing, as he looked over his land, on “… how attractive a nice tourist resort would look there, in place of that orchard.”




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Let’s Dance!

Dancing was historically a very significant form of community entertainment on Orcas Island, and dancing remains popular to this day. Dance halls were built in many island communities, including Doe Bay, Olga, Orcas, West Sound, and Deer Harbor.  There was even a covered dance pavilion on top of Mt. Constitution, which could be reached by trail from Cascade Lake.  The more intrepid dancers could travel to Cascade Lake, stay overnight at Mrs. Cox’s boarding house, and climb the mountain the next day to dance all night.

Islanders would travel by boat, foot, horseback or wagon to congregate at the dance hall. It was often easier to go by boat due to the state of the roads, although changing weather and excessive consumption of liquid refreshments occasionally made the trip home more adventurous than desired.  Dances were popular community events where news and gossip were traded along with recipes and new dance steps, islanders could visit with remote neighbors and friends, and newcomers were eagerly welcomed.  Many an island family had its start with a first, hesitant whirl around the dance floor.

Dances included the Two Step, Three Step, Schottische, Foxtrot, Waltz, Polka, and various types of Square Dancing, as well as others.  Music was provided by a wide range of instruments including the fiddle, guitar, drums, horns and piano. Occasionally an entire band would come over from Mount Vernon to play at Deer Harbor.  More than one young girl had her first dance atop her father’s boots, and dancing ability was widely admired by young and old alike.

Dances promoted community values, gave island neighbors an opportunity to visit friends and meet newcomers, and served as important venues for the strengthening of neighborhood and community ties, no doubt in much the same way that earlier dances, now lost in the mists of time, created and cemented relationships in native communities.

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Catch the 6:15 From Mount Constitution

Homesteading on Orcas Island was never a simple affair, but it was always hard work. Just getting here, in those early days of haphazard transportation on ill-kempt and often leaky vessels piloted by captains of dubious ability, could be a thrilling and dangerous endeavor. The earliest white pioneers arriving in the 1850’s and 1860’s couldn’t legally homestead, but after the end of the Pig War and settlement of the international boundary question in 1872, homesteaders on Orcas Island were able to ‘prove up’, or patent, their land filings and receive clear title to their property.  Clearing the land, building a rough cabin for the family and shelter for the few farm animals, planting the gardens in ground that had never seen a plow — doing all of this and struggling to keep a growing family clothed and fed on a remote, cash-starved island made for difficult times.

While much of the arable land here had been claimed by the end of the nineteenth century, a county land office print showing the locations of government land on Eastern Orcas Island in 1907 might well have excited interest among local citizens.  For this map showed, along with the holdings of the well-known homesteading family names such as Willis, Viereck, Bowman, Robinson, Morrow, Langell, Tulloch, Grey, and others, the applicant’s name on a recent claimant filing for 240 acres extending nearly to the summit of Mt. Constitution:  the Northern Pacific Railway Company.

Filing a ‘Lieu’ land claim on the upper reaches of a mountain on an island miles from the nearest railhead might strike some as fairly odd behavior for a major western U.S. railroad, but the devil, as they say, lies in the details.  The Railroad Act of 1852 gave the major railroads alternating sections of land along their tracks, but also provided an ability for the railway companies to file on other available land ‘in lieu’ of trackside land that may have been restricted or otherwise unavailable.  The Act also allowed the railroads to file on and claim land up to fifty miles from their railhead, or end of the line.  Land along the upper reaches of Mount Constitution was open and available, and, to the surprise of many locals, was claimed by the Northern Pacific.

The initial flush of excitement at the prospect of a shiny new railroad station atop Mount Constitution no doubt last a very short time, if at all, as it quickly became obvious to any interested parties that a ‘deal’ had been in the works regarding the Lieu Land Claim filed by the railroad.  By that year of 1907, Robert Moran and his brothers had acquired between two and three thousand acres of land between Cascade Bay and Mount Constitution.  Former owners of the largest shipyard on the west coast, it may be supposed that the Moran Brothers had a bit of influence with the railroad that hauled the tons of steel and other materials they used in building battleships for the U.S. Navy.  The railroad’s claimed acreage was soon sold to Robert Moran, incorporated by him with the rest of his holdings, and eventually given to the State of Washington as part of Moran State Park.  So, while we sadly lack the attraction of a railway station atop our highest mountain, Orcas Islanders make do very well indeed with the myriad attractions of our wonderful Moran State Park.

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Napoleon in Olga?

Historically it has been customary to memorialize the passing of people, famous or otherwise, in various ways.  One way was planting a tree at the grave site and, subsequently, after the tree had grown, taking shoots from that tree to start other trees.

Following the Emperor Napoleon’s death in exile on the remote island of St. Helena in 1812, a weeping willow tree was planted at his grave site.  Shoots taken as a memento from this tree eventually were used to start a weeping willow tree at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home in Virginia.

The tree thrived, and a custom arose of taking shoots from this tree at the home of the Father of our country and using them to start new willows at special locations in the United States.  The weeping willow tree at Pioneer Hall in Seattle was started using a shoot from the tree at Mount Vernon.

This tree also thrived, and shoots taken from the willow at Pioneer Hall were used to start the weeping willow tree located in the yard of Jane Barfoot-Hodde in Olga.  Visitors to Olga can still see the willow tree, majestically shading the yard of a quiet residence in a small hamlet on another remote island, many miles and many years from the ancestral tree at Napoleon’s grave site on St. Helena.

*editors note:   This article is posted in honor of Jane’s 97th birthday, which is December 8th.

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