TOP O' THE MORN: Canoes important to island history

In the 1890s, Tom Martin, an Indian canoe maker, lived in a fairly roomy frame house built on the beach near where Flintstone Freeway intersects Pioneer Way. He made a fair living making canoes since water travel was the only way on or off the island. There was no bridge, not even a ferry from the island. A steamer came twice a day to the island bringing mail, passengers and freight. Water travel was often the easiest mode of travel around the island as well and people hired small boats to get here and there.

Tom Martin was well-liked by the community. He went everywhere barefoot: the skin on his feet was said to be an inch thick. His other attire included an overcoat, a scarf and a white man’s hat.

Vince Stroops, who came as a boy to Oak Harbor in 1891, worked at a waterside store. One night in November he was working late and heard something blowing and snorting out in the bay. He investigated and found it was Old Tom who said he took a dip in the bay every night, winter and summer. Tom was known as the healthiest man in Oak Harbor as he lived out his long life on the beach.

In Coupeville two Indian canoes — Telegraph and Tillicum — are displayed next to Alexander Blockhouse near the museum. Charles and Dick Edwards, Swinomish Indians from LaConner made the Telegraph in 1910. The Telegraph, an 11-man canoe, was one of the first winners at International Canoe Races in Coupeville. The craft’s recorded average over a three-mile stroke was 60 strokes per minute for 22 minutes, 30 seconds.

The smaller canoe, Tillicum (old time friends in Chinook) was made by Indian Aleck Kettle in Coupeville in 1933. It was a two-man tip-over canoe used in competitions when paddlers would stand and used padded poles to push competitors into the water.

In 1975, Harriette Shelton Dover, a Snohomish Indian, told of days when her family paddled to Whidbey island in a great canoe for camping, fishing and hunting.

“My parents told me about great hunting and fishing on the island,” she said. “The salmon would come here by the millions. They said there were times when they would be in a canoe and run into a school of salmon. The water would ripple and the canoe would rise out of the water. My mother said the salmon were dancing because they were happy, happy they were coming home.”

Dover’s grandmother told her how to live the good life: “Don’t frown, keep good thoughts, and follow all that you are told, then you will grow old gracefully.”

Harriette Shelton performed traditional dances at the Indian Water Festivals Coupeville held in the 1930s.

Dorothy Neil has been writing and recording Whidbey Island history for more than 50 years. Her books chronicle local life and times.

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