A SEATTLE MAN WHOSE GRANDPARENTS WERE CARETAKERS RECALLS WHAT LIFE WAS LIKE THERE.
Written by Don Holmes. Edited by Russell Neyman.
My grandparents were the caretakers of Blake Island and the former Trimble estate in the 1930’s and 40’s, so I spent a lot of time there when I was a boy. I have a keen sense of the place and remember it fondly, especially the summers, when everything was green and the place was full of adventure. If you have ever read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, you can relate to my experience there.
To get to Blake Island, my parents, brother and myself rode the streetcar from our home in the Mount Baker area of Seattle to Fauntleroy in West Seattle. We boarded the ferry and rode to Vashon. Depending on the weather, we had the ferry’s captain give two toots on the ferry’s horn to alert our granddad that we were waiting for him at Vashon or at Harper, a dock that is a few miles north of the present ferry dock at Southworth. Hearing the toots, my grandfather would get into his boat and come to the place where we were waiting to bring us back to the island.
“He was made a deputy sheriff so he could arrest trespassers if he needed to.”
Before the United States became involved in World War II, Blake Island was owned by four men, who lived in New York. This was after William Pitt Trimble owned the island and abandoned it, devastated by the death of his wife. The New York men hired a representative, a gentleman named Buff, who lived in the Seattle area, to handle their interests in the island. Buff hired my grandparents, LeRoy and Elizabeth Holmes, to oversee the daily care of the island. They worked and lived there for about ten years and I cherish the memories of visiting them there.
There were two houses in the general area of where the Tillicum Village Center is today. A small, two-bedroom house was for the caretakers. Both of the houses, which were located high above the beach, had magnificent views of the water and of Seattle to the east. Below the houses there was a workshop, boathouse where extra outboard motors, spare oars, and a selection of tools were stored for use when repairing and maintaining the boats. Close by was a dock, which was used mostly to fish from.
The other house, the so-called Trimble Mansion, was an adventure unto itself. If several of us — brothers, sisters, cousins — came at once, we stayed in there. It had many bedrooms, a few with their own bathrooms, and some with fireplaces. For the time, those conveniences were extraordinary. It was a very elegant home for the exclusive use of the owners on the rare occasions when they decided to visit, but when they were away – which was most of the time — the Holmes family had the run of the place.
The mansion had several big bedrooms, a library, an office, a huge kitchen, and a front room loaded with unusual things. For example, there were two coats of chain mail, suits of armor, and a fireplace large enough to stand in. The house was furnished with large pieces of furniture, more fun to look at than to sit on. The porch was enormous, plenty big enough for swing sets, chairs to relax in, and lots of room to run around on. A patio off the kitchen was a place to be as the sun went down and the bats emerged seeking bugs to satisfy their hunger. We enjoyed watching them flying all around us.
We younger ones spent our days fishing, exploring the island, building forts among the logs on the beach, and relaxing. During the time that my grandparents were on the island, there were very few restrictions for us kids. We treated the island as if it were our property. We built forts, walked around the island, rode in the boat around the island, played tennis on the tennis court, swam a lot, and had a barrel of fun. Boredom was a word we had yet to be introduced to. Although there was a tennis court, we were more interested in running, chasing, and rowing boats. We learned to row logs, row boats, and go swimming without adult supervision and without life jackets. My grandfather always had a burlap bag of clams hanging from the dock. We used the clams to catch shiners (pogeys) and we used the shiners as bait to catch cod. We fished a lot from the dock.
After a full day of playing and eating dinner, we would sit down and listen to the news with our grandparents. There were always lots of books to read so we spent many evenings reading by the light of the kerosene lamps. Our grandmother often delighted us with fresh-baked biscuits and warm, fresh milk from the cow.
A small dirt walk joined the mansion and the caretakers’ house. Not far from the mansion was a farmyard with a barn, pigpens, and chicken coops. Grandparent’s Holmes had a horse, a cow, a few pigs, and several chickens. The cow was milked regularly and Grandma Holmes churned her own butter and separated cream from the milk. The chickens provided plenty of eggs, and occasionally, a pig provided roasts, chops, and other favorite cuts of meat.
Close by was an orchard full of fruit trees, berry vines, a vegetable garden, and a beautiful variety of flowers and decorative plants. Grandpa Holmes had been a farmer in North Dakota before moving to Washington State with his young family. So he was very much at home growing things and caring for the animals.
I never did see any deer, but I heard the adults talking about them getting into the garden; deer that had probably swum over from the mainland. A man named Bud Rose did trap mink on the island. He trapped, skinned, and prepared the pelts near the mansion for the market. I suppose he had permission from Mr. Buff. At the back entrance to the mansion was a cement patio. In the evening, we used to try to catch one of the numerous bats that flew around, but we never were successful. On the northern side of the island, about two-thirds of the distance between the east and west points was a settlement of seals, probably harbor seals. They were often sunning themselves. When we were walking to the northwest part of the island, they headed for the water when we approached. The northwest point had a long and sandy beach, so the water was really warm when the tide was coming in. A great spot for swimming! We walked there every now and then.
Grandfather was made a deputy sheriff so that he could actually arrest anybody who landed on the island without permission. I don’t think he ever did arrest anyone, but he did run his boat around the island twice each day unless the weather was too bad. There was an Oakland touring car, too, but I never saw it run. He watched for fires, people who may have been stranded, or any problems that might have developed. His primary duty was to keep people from coming ashore and doing damage.
One of my chores was to smash all of the empty eggshells and take them to the chicken coop to spread around for the chickens to eat. I also collected the eggs from the nests. When we made our weekly visit to Port Orchard, we rode in an old Chevrolet my grandfather kept parked in Harper, near to the old Shell gas station there. When we returned and had everything loaded into the boat, we would return to the island and haul the groceries to the house. We always enjoyed our weekly visits to the mainland.
There was no electricity on the island. All of the light in the houses was provided by kerosene lamps; heat was from stoves or fireplaces that used wood and lots of bark that was readily available on the beach; irons used to press clothing were put on a hot stove to heat up. But there was plenty of clean, fresh water from wells or springs. Television, of course, had yet been invented so the Holmes family listened to a broadcast of the “Alka-Seltzer News” program over a battery-operated radio each evening.
They were very happy and contented with their life on Blake Island but when the United States became involved in WW II in 1941, the U.S. Army decided that they would use Blake Island as an ammunition depot. They lived in the mansion. We were on the island for several months with the soldiers, who we thought were very nice, but, according to the rumors, were soldiers with discipline problems. On an island and isolated, there was no chance of getting into trouble. There were about nine soldiers, as I recall, and perhaps an officer or two. The soldiers were messy and careless. It wasn’t long before the two houses were damaged beyond repair, the boats were damaged, and the general condition of that area of the island was damaged beyond repair. It seems to me that most of the soldiers were from the Midwest and not well acquainted with water, which is probably why the boats that remained on the Island didn’t survive very long. The army did provide a covered inboard motorboat that the soldiers used to transport groceries and other things to the island. With the Army in control and the place no longer in need of caretaking, my grandparents left about 1943.
After the war was over, Blake Island was turned over to the State of Washington and eventually made into a State Park. The state contracted with the Indians and today we have Tillicum Village.
We all missed Blake Island when it was taken over by the army, and we all have very fond memories of spending so much of our time growing up on Blake Island. Remember when you are visiting Tillicum Village, you will be walking in the same area on the island where I spent a lot of time when I was your age.
Editor’s Note: Don Holmes forwarded a series of letters, notes, and emails that discussed his visits to Blake Island to the Yukon Harbor Historical Society. Those pieces were edited, put into context, and used to create this article. Photos provided by the Holmes Family.
An expanded history of the island and the houses is contained in the feature story, “60-Year-Old Mystery Solved!” below. LeRoy and Elizabeth Holmes, moved to Seattle from North Dakota in 1918 with their three children. Don Holmes, their grandson, was born in 1931 and lived in Seattle until he joined the Navy after high school. He attended Seattle Public Schools and then graduated from Seattle University in 1957. Today, Don lives with his wife, Susan, in Edmonds, Washington. He has two children, Scott and Susan, and four grandchildren.
And these notes about the island’s wildlife, from a recent interview by the SEATTLE TIMES with Don Hall, who is the Blake Island State Park ranger:
“In addition to eagles, the island is home to a nesting pair of great horned owls and barred owls, as well as red-tailed hawks, falcons, and pileated and redheaded woodpeckers.
“‘River otters have dens all around the island,’ said state park ranger Don Hall. Best places to see them? ‘You’ll see them where they let you see them,’ he said. ‘but best chances are in the early morning.’
“At least 80 deer live on the island, which has food resources to support only 15.”