How’s this for an idyllic childhood? A large family with seven kids — four girls, three boys — moves from an increasingly crowded Seattle suburb to an abandoned Army fort on a rural island, where they live in a large, three-story Victorian home and romp on their own private playground the size of a football field with sweeping vistas of mountains and sea.
That’s what Doug Kroon’s family did back in 1965. The abandoned Army facility was Fort Casey down the road from Coupeville, and the beautiful family home with oak fireplace mantels, five bedrooms and ornate iron radiators was an old senior officer’s quarters built before World War I.
THE YEAR BEFORE, Doug’s dad Mel Kroon had been hired by Seattle Pacific University to manage the old fort as a retreat center and educational camp for youngsters.
Renamed Camp Casey, the decommissioned fort had been acquired by SPU from the federal government a few years before. Included in Mel’s contract was a sweet deal for his and wife Iris’s seven kids: they were given free college tuition at SPU in return for helping out at Camp Casey on weekends and in the summer
Today, Doug Kroon may best be known in Central Whidbey as the talented baker who back in 1973 started a local business on Front Street that created one of the Rock’s iconic products — a gigantic, more-than-one-person-can-eat cinnamon roll. Originally, it was a small bakery stall in Mariners Court; one of Doug’s sisters came up with a cute name for it: the Knead and Feed
Since 1976, the Knead and Feed has been housed in an historic building up the street that the Kroon family bought, dad Mel remodeled, and Doug still owns. He’s also this year’s president of the Coupeville Lions Club.
Doug and I recently spent a morning walking through his boyhood home, now used as a Camp Casey guesthouse, and he recalled some treasured memories.
“It was just a great place for a kid to grow up with all those little places to play and hide and run down the long halls,” he said. “The dining room was big enough for all of us to sit at one table. We had huge Thanksgiving dinners. My dad would cut down these giant Christmas trees right next to us on the property and they’d go from the main floor almost to the top of the second floor staircase.”
FOR AWHILE, Doug shared a bedroom with another brother. But then he wanted his own room, so cleared a space in the attic. “We had bats up there and I had to get rid of them before I could move up,” he recalled. The views from that third story room through an ornate round window are spectacular, showing the row of officers’ houses with Admiralty Inlet and the Olympic Peninsula in the distance.
But in the summer, the Kroon kids were mostly outdoors – working. “I hauled garbage and scrubbed bathrooms in the old barracks,” he said. “That was really a challenge when we’d have boys basketball camps staying there.”
The old army parade field, which looks so perfectly mowed now for everything from soccer tournaments to the Whidbey Kite Festival, wasn’t always so well manicured. “My dad did all the mowing but for the first couple of years, we let the parade field grow and a local farmer came and did the first cut and hauled away the hay.”
HIS MOTHER IRIS also worked. In the morning, she was the attendance secretary at Coupeville High School. In the afternoon, she did the correspondence for Camp Casey and handled all the reservations. The camp office was in the Kroon family home. The single-story building that SPU uses as the office today was at that time used as a worship space for two groups of Jewish children and their chaperones who had camp there for several summers.
“I remember when Whidbey was trying to build a hospital back in the late 1960s, and the state at first rejected the proposal because it said the island didn’t have enough population to support a hospital,” he said. “So my dad told them they should count the hundreds of kids who came to Camp Casey every summer – they really swelled the local population. So they did and the plan was approved.” (Whidbey General Hospital, now WhidbeyHealth Medical Center, opened in March 1970.)
The camp swimming pool was built before the Kroons arrived and in the summer of 1969 Doug was the lifeguard. “It was the most boring job in the world,” he remembered. “That’s why the next summer I took over the cooking in the mess hall.” And that decision changed his life.
“I MOSTLY COOKED breakfasts for dozens of campers. I drafted one of my sisters to flip pancakes as I poured batter ahead of her so we could make enough. Unfortunately, my dad had redone the kitchen and made everything electric, so griddles were really slow to heat up.
I had to get there at the crack of dawn and turn everything on high and then wait.”
What he discovered was that he loved cooking for lots of people. When he graduated from SPU in 1971, the Pacific Northwest was in the midst of the “Boeing depression,” and jobs were few. Doug moved back to Camp Casey; he was a substitute teacher at Coupeville Elementary and got hired full time under a three-year federal grant. But then the grant ended.
So, in late 1973, he rented that stall at Mariners Court and put his cooking skills to work making cinnamon rolls and other treats. The Knead and Feed was an instant hit. The next year, he was asked to move the business to an unused lower floor below an antique shop at No. 4 Front Street.
“IT WAS A BIG STORAGE space and it was covered with Chinese writing,” he recalled. (Chinese laborers worked for farmers in Ebey’s Prairie in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and may have lived in the space.) However, Doug knew it would take a lot of money to turn it into a bakery-restaurant with a commercial kitchen – money he didn’t have.
To get it, he took a job in the winter of 1975 as a baker at the camps for workers building the Alaska oil pipeline. By then, his dad had left his job at Camp Casey and the family had moved to a home in Coupeville. “I sent down the money I was making in Alaska and dad remodeled the storage space into a bakery-restaurant.” It opened the next summer; in a couple of years, Doug and his sisters bought the entire Front Street building and opened both floors as the bakery-restaurant. All four of his sisters also became cooks and managers.
THE BUSINESS DID WELL from the start – but not nearly as well as today. Most customers were locals. “Coupeville wasn’t a tourist mecca yet. There was plenty of parking on Front Street; when I took driver’s ed in high school, we had to learn parallel parking but we had to do it with only one car because that was the only one parked on the street.”
But, as the Knead and Feed grew, Doug became restless.
He moved to Seattle and started substitute-teaching, coming back to work weekends at the restaurant. In 1986, he took a full-time teaching job in Moreno Valley, a community east of Los Angeles.
He taught there for 28 years, always returning in the summers to work at the Knead and Feed. He moved back to Coupeville when he retired from teaching in 2013.
Last year, he attended the 50th reunion of his Coupeville High School class of 1967.
“I came from Bothell High School in 1965 and it was very overcrowded and kind of anonymous. There were 32 of us in the class of ’67 in Coupeville. We did everything together and it was so much fun.”