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How the Irish built Oak Harbor
By Peggy Darst Townsdin
Special to the News-Times
Again as St. Patrick’s Day arrives we must remind ourselves that it really was indeed forward-thinking Irish businessmen and their families who established the town of Oak Harbor. Not the Dutch and not the Navy.
Although the town was founded in 1851 by the three donation land claims of Sumner, Taftson and Freund, it wasn’t until the Irish-English Captain Edward Barrington bought the Taftson and Sumner claims that the first store was opened. Barrington built the first store/saloon and small pier on the waterfront, circa 1855.
Next the Irish business- man L.P. Byrne came to town, buying a piece of land from Barrington. He built a fancy store/saloon/hotel as well as a far reaching dock on the east side of town about the year 1880.
Soon the Irish Maylor brothers, who had settled here in 1851, built a large dock and store. Their store still stands on the corner of Dock St. and Pioneer Way.
Not to be forgotten, Irish businessman and historian, Harvey Hill also built a nice store, circa 1880’s, on Pioneer, which was named Barrington Ave. for over 100 years, until at some point a small group of folks in town hall decided to change the name of the street. Hill’s store still stands as one of the oldest wooden buildings left in town. It is home to Mr. Music now and was for years the popular Masten’s Variety store. The first mayor of Oak Harbor, Jerome Ely, a Civil War veteran, held the first town council meetings in the Hill store.
You will often read incorrect information printed in various places, stating that the Irish “came to farm and fish” and then the Dutch built the town, when in reality the exact opposite is the true history of Oak Harbor. The Irish built the first stores and businesses, schools and churches, although the Dutch made later contributions.
In 1894 the first group of Dutchmen arrived to farm and fish. They farmed the rich soil of Clover Valley, which was taken over in 1941 by the U.S. government to build Ault Field. They also set up fish traps on the bay and the west side of the island. Their crops were brought to the docks and stores, which the Irish built 40 years before their arrival, for sale and shipping.
Let’s also remind ourselves that the harbor first belonged to the Native Americans who resided on the shore. Captain Barrington became a great friend and helper to the local tribe and he protected them from the fierce Northern tribes. When the territorial leaders divided the land into reservations, the chief of the Skagit tribe requested his reservation to include Barrington’s house in Oak Harbor.
Barrington’s wife, Christina McCrohan, a self taught nurse and midwife, often rode horseback in the night to assist in the birth of the Indian babies. Later, she delivered the first Dutch baby born on the island, Ben Ronhaar.
Have a safe and happy St. Patrick’s Day and let’s not forget our first town builders. the Barringtons, McCrohan, Nunans, O’Learys, Byrnes, Maylors, Elys, and Hills.
Peggy Darst Townsdin is a local historian, the great great-granddaughter of Capt. Barrington, and author of “Step Back in Time” and “Spirit of the Island,” two self-published island photo history books. She will be at the Wind and Tide bookstore from 2 to 4 p.m. March 17 before the parade signing her books. There will be cookies and cupcakes there as well. Contact her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.