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Whidbey Island author puts heart and soul into book

Peggy Darst Townsdin kneels down with Jessie, left, and Sheba in front of the Darst Barn off West Beach Road. Her grandfather Glenn Darst began using the barn in the 1930s when he bought the land. Peggy’s father Gerald Darst later farmed it for 58 years.   - Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times
Peggy Darst Townsdin kneels down with Jessie, left, and Sheba in front of the Darst Barn off West Beach Road. Her grandfather Glenn Darst began using the barn in the 1930s when he bought the land. Peggy’s father Gerald Darst later farmed it for 58 years.
— image credit: Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

When Peggy Darst Townsdin was a little girl, she remembers sitting around her grandmother’s dining room table and listening to stories about her family’s deep-rooted Whidbey Island history.

Her grandmother, Madeline Fisher Darst, would cover the table with well-preserved black and white photos, albums and hand-written letters that dated back to the 19th century.

As her grandmother spoke, Darst Townsdin soaked up stories about her ancestors, dating back to Capt. Edward Barrington, her great-great grandfather and one of Oak Harbor’s prominent early pioneers.

“When my grandmother passed away in 1983, I volunteered to be the keeper of all this historical stuff,” Darst Townsdin said recently from her home located at the site of the old Darst farm off West Beach Road.

“All of this has been lovingly taken care of generation after generation in the family.”

It was no mystery when a book publisher began inquiring about an author to write about Oak Harbor’s history that Darst Townsdin was the natural choice.

In February, Arcadia Publishing will release the latest edition of its Images of America series on small towns with the spotlight on Oak Harbor.

It will be the third book related to Whidbey Island history produced by Darst Townsdin, who self-published “Step Back in Time” and “Spirit of the Island” a decade ago.

“I just couldn’t turn it down,” Darst Townsdin said.

She almost had to it give it up.

When Darst Townsdin signed a contact with the publisher to produce the book, she had no idea how much the stress would impact her health.

She had already been dealing with a rapid heart rhythm known as supraventricular tachycardia. Once she started the book project, her condition went into overdrive with episodes coming more regularly.

“You’ll just be talking to somebody, and be walking along minding your own business, and your heart flips to about 300 beats per minute,” Darst Townsdin, 58, said.

“You feel faint. You think you’re going to die. It’s really terrifying.”

After several emergencies and paramedic visits, Darst Townsdin consulted specialists, leading to a date with an electrophysiologist at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Bellingham to correct the heart rhythm issue.

She underwent a cardiac ablation on June 11, a procedure where electrical energy is delivered through a catheter inside blood vessels in the heart to create scarring that stops the rhythm problem.

Darst Townsdin’s health issue caused her to miss the book’s original June 1 deadline.

“I said, ‘I have to get my heart fixed first, then I’ll do the book,” Darst Townsdin said. “They moved the deadline up to August for me.”

With help from her husband Michael Rattray and friend Scott Hornung, the project was completed and shipped to the publisher in August.

Following the format seen in all Images of America series on small towns, including ones about Coupeville and Langley, the book is largely a pictorial made up of vintage images with extensive captions of Oak Harbor’s people and places.

The 128-page book is made up of 10 chapters, retelling history in chronological order.

It starts with a chapter on Native American inhabitants, covers the early pioneers and Dutch and Irish influences, and breaks into chapters on San de Fuca, the Deception Pass bridge, the Navy’s arrival and ultimately modern day Oak Harbor, including a photo of the new downtown mural.

Darst Townsdin’s home contains plastic bins full of papers and images of north and central island history. Outside of her family’s own vast collection, she has gathered more material from researching books, old newspaper articles and obituaries. She credited the book, “De Ja Views: Historical Pictorial of Whidbey Island” from late writer and historian Dorothy Neil as an important source as well as and other books on local history.

Thanks to her husband’s help scanning photos, she said she has more than 2,000 images of mostly North and Central Whidbey history.

She felt this book was her calling, and felt honored to produce it.

“I think it’s part of my legacy,” Darst Townsdin said. “These books are going to be around for years. These books are going to be something a lot of people learn from and enjoy. To me, it feels like a big responsibility. I hope I did a good service for Oak Harbor and that it will be something everybody in Oak Harbor is proud of.”

As a descendant of a signficant Oak Harbor pioneer, she feels an even bigger responsibility on her shoulders when it comes to retelling history. What is currently Pioneer Way was once named Barrington Avenue for more than a century.

“I feel like I’ve been led around spiritually,” she said. “I don’t want to sound weird. It’s a lot like a sixth sense. I just feel like they know I’m doing these books.”

 

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