Rock In a Hard Place: An elegy for much more than a barn

The Smith barn burned down this week. Pretty much all of us on the Rock knew it. Whizzing through Coupeville on Highway 20, we could enjoy a quick look at its peaceful, century-old expanse in the gauzy distance. Hiking along the Ridge Trail, we and our visitors could marvel at its sheer rural majesty, like a rough-hewn palace dead center on Ebey’s Prairie, offering us a moment’s reassurance that at least a few things in our fast-paced world don’t disappear.

And, if we were lucky, as I was several times, we could get up close and go inside.

I met Georgie Smith, the fourth generation Smith family member to farm on Whidbey, when I moved here eight years ago. Like me, she has a journalism degree and once worked for a newspaper. She still has a reporter’s tenacity and love of the truth. But she gave up journalism to return to the family farm. As I remember, she talked about that decision almost as a “calling,” as if to a religious vocation. In the years since, she has played a key role in helping to keep small farming alive on Whidbey.

She was a pioneer and a cheerleader in growing the type of fresh vegetables the new foodie culture taking hold in Seattle restaurants and on Whidbey demanded. Every week, she delivered her garlic, salad greens, onions, parsnips, beets, squash and Central Whidbey’s famous Rockwell beans to chefs increasingly proud to list them as “fresh from Whidbey Island” on their menus.

The Smith barn, some form of which was first built in the 1880s, once housed work animals and hay. Under Georgie, the barn became a storehouse for drying garlic and beans, a work shed for preparing fresh vegetables for delivery, a training school for young farm interns, and a place to house a plethora of second-hand equipment and odd, jerry-rigged inventions created just for her special kind of new farming.

Even more, the barn was a community-gathering place in Central Whidbey, where neighbors visited, farm tours kicked off and fundraisers were held, including a sit-down, farm-to-table dinner for several dozen people to benefit historic preservation on Ebey’s Prairie.

To me, though, it also looked like a place where dreams were dreamed and some even came true. More than once, Georgie told me about her big dream to hold a Rockwell Bean Festival in her barn, with Lyle Lovett’s band playing and local cooks preparing their own special Rockwell recipes. That never happened and now the barn is gone.

The Smith barn was more than old weathered wood with a new metal roof. It stood as testimony by a family and a community that, against the odds, had preserved its rural-agricultural heritage by creating the Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve 40 years ago. The barn was a living space filled with memories and dreams and the day-to-day struggle to make a living from the earth.

There has already been an amazing response. People are talking about an old-fashioned community barn-raising to replace the Smith Barn. What a beautiful sight that will be! A fundraising page has been created online at gofundme.com/never-finished-farming-smith-barn. Peoples Bank in Coupeville is accepting checks made out to the “Smith Family Benefit Account.”

Perhaps, out of these ashes, the entire Whidbey Island community will rise up as neighbors and build something that unites us all.

Harry Anderson is a former journalist with the Los Angeles Times who now calls Whidbey Island home.