Snohomish’s Famous Architect

Frances Wood

Around 1910, Ben and Nettie Morgan commissioned J.S. White to design and build a beach cabin on Whidbey Island. The story is told in the endearing memoir, “Down to Camp,” by Frances Wood, who is pictured above with the family cabin.

snohomish storiesBy 1890, it was the summer tradition among several Snohomish families to shutter their city home and board a steamship loaded down with enough supplies to last a generous part of August camping on a beach across Possession Sound. Since, for many years, the journey began by going down the Snohomish River, the annual event became known as going “down to camp,” well into the age of the automobile. At first platforms with tents were set-up on a relatively narrow shelf of land between the water and a steep bluff, then modest cabins sprouted up year after year, all in row, along a foot path still referred to as “Camper’s Row.”

Ben and Nettie purchased a lot in 1902 and around eight years later, commissioned White to build a cabin to replace their tent, a choice perhaps based on his association with Ben’s father. They christened the structure “Camp Illahee,” a word of the indigenous people carrying “a sense of home, and connections between people and living place,” according to Frances.

snohomish storiesCamper’s Row on Whidbey Island, 1914, Camp Illahee is the cabin with the flag in the center, note tents to the left. The steep bank was vulnerable to land slides, as the one pictured here, and in 2015 a major slide left the historic cabin filled with mud.

Three decades later, Frances tells us, her grandparents purchased Camp Illahee from Nettie, then married to a Taylor, who described the cabin in a letter: “… it could be rolled over and over and not come to pieces.” Regardless of this vivid pitch, Frances’s grandparents got the cabin for a low-ball offer of $1,100.

The cabin was renamed to “Drift Inn” by Frances’s parents when it was passed on to them. Fast forward through a childhood of summers spent at the beach cabin to the 1970s, when Frances and her sibling’s families are enjoying summer months at Drift Inn and the discussion of modifying the cabin comes up. The conversation involves three generations, including her grandmother Inez, the daughter of Nina and Charles Bakeman, who owned the furniture building that burned in 1893, sending the homeless city council members to White’s then-new building.

In a telephone conversation, Frances shared with me the family lore that White was given the commission because he was down on his luck and needed the work. She also remembers Inez advising the grandchildren, when remodeling, to not change the “lines” because it was designed by the famous Snohomish architect, J. S. White.

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This is an excerpt from my book in progress, “J.S. White: Our First Architect.

Let’s Go Down-to-Camp Again!

snohomish stories

While the 2014 Oso mudside got all the attention, a smaller slide destroyed one, maybe two, historic beachfront cabins on Brighton Beach, Whidbey Island, which shares historic roots with the city of Snohomish reaching back to the 1890s. The photo above is from the Ferguson family album documenting their summer days at the beach. Let’s revisit a story I wrote in August 2009, about going down-to-camp.

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Just as the leading families of Early Snohomish would do, we are going “down-to-camp” for the month of August.

Perhaps beginning as early as 1890, all three Blackman families would board a steamer at Snohomish and head down river loaded with tents, cots, and 30 days worth of supplies. The boat would head out into Possession Sound, past Hat Island, and aim for the sunniest beach on Whidbey Island. The overdressed passengers joyfully set up a row of tents along a narrow beach hemmed in by an unscaleable bluff of thick green woods.

The name “Camper’s Row” remains to this day. Even though a very steep road now allows the contemporary camper to park closer to the beach, it’s still necessary to walk-in, past several cabins to reach your destination.

I am looking for the cabin called “Drift-Inn” where I am to meet co-owner and author Frances Wood. We became acquainted several years ago when she visited the Blackman House Museum and introduced me to her book, “Down to Camp: A History of Summer Folk on Whidbey Island.” The story begins when Nina Blackman arrives in Snohomish to begin teaching school and she stays with her cousin Hyrcanus Blackman’s family in the home that is now our museum. But her stay was short, for within the year, she married Charles Bakeman, an early Snohomish furniture maker who responded to the demand for coffins by becoming an undertaker. Saving that story for another time, the union gave birth to Inez who is Frances’s grandmother.

Frances’s story reveals another wonderful fact about our famous Blackman brothers: they had an older sister, Mary Ursula. With her husband Eugene and their son Elmer, the family arrived in Snohomish around the same time as Nina. Trained as a civil engineer, Elmer landed a job immediately as the city and county surveyor. Next, Elmer met and married Sylvia Ferguson, Emory and Lucetta’s eldest. With the birth of their only child, Norman, the Lenfest family eventually out grew tent camping and built a cabin on the beach around the time their son turned eight.

snohomish stories
Brighton Beach at Clinton, Whidbey Island, 1914.
Several tents are visible in this image, which is how the habitation of this summer place began. Off the left hand frame are the cabins of the Blackman Families, still in use though expanded and updated over the years. The first structure in view on the left is the Lenfest Cabin, built in the early 1900s by Elmer and Sylvia. Elmer was the son of the Blackman sister, Mary and Eugene Lenfest; while Sylvia was the first daughter born to Emory and Lucetta Ferguson. In the center, is the cabin built by the Morgans, Lucetta’s parents, currently owned by descendants of the Bakeman family. The image documents a dramatic slide of the hillside behind the cabins, one of many through the years.

Online: “Clinton landside claims another Brighton Beach cabin.” Includes close-up image of the Wood family cabin.

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