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Oak Harbor's fabled metal horse ring to be saved

Amateur historian Peggy Darst Townsdin holds up a 1920s photograph of horses pulling wagons down SE Pioneer Way. She and many others believe a single metal ring in a sidewalk in front of Paint Your World was once used to tie up horses. Oak Harbor officials have promised to preserve the ring when new sidewalks are put in next year.  - Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times
Amateur historian Peggy Darst Townsdin holds up a 1920s photograph of horses pulling wagons down SE Pioneer Way. She and many others believe a single metal ring in a sidewalk in front of Paint Your World was once used to tie up horses. Oak Harbor officials have promised to preserve the ring when new sidewalks are put in next year.
— image credit: Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times

Measuring barely 3 inches in diameter, it’s easy to miss the rusty little metal ring that sticks out of a sidewalk on SE Pioneer Way.

In fact, people probably walk by it all the time, never realizing what it is or just how large a role it may have played in Oak Harbor’s history. But its importance isn’t lost on everyone.

Amateur historians and downtown merchants with an eye on history believe they know what it is. They’re also more than a little nervous that it will be lost forever when construction begins on the SE Pioneer Way improvement project in February.

“It’s a significant piece of the history of our town,” said Peggy Darst Townsdin, a local historian, author, and the great-great-granddaughter of Oak Harbor pioneer Capt. Edward Barrington.

The piece of metal in question is the last of a series of rings, made of steel or iron, anchored into the sidewalk in front of what is now Paint Your World. Most, including Darst Townsdin, believe the rings were installed so people had something to tie their horses to when the building was first erected in the early 1900s.

“It would be sad to see it gone because it’s part of the atmosphere down here,” she said.

But contrary to rumor, city officials have confirmed that the ring will be preserved. According to City Administrator Paul Schmidt, before work on that portion of sidewalk begins the ring will be carefully cut out from the concrete. It will then be reinstalled, in the same location, into the new sidewalk.

While it’s not yet clear whether a plaque that explains its significance or history will also be installed, Schmidt did say the city is well aware of the “legend” of the ring and has every intention of preserving that part of the city’s history.

“We’re going to put it right back where it is,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt’s use of the word “legend” may refer to the fact that the ring’s true purpose is somewhat under debate. While Darst Townsdin swears it’s a horse ring, Pioneer Way merchant Ron Apgar said he’s been told that it’s nothing more than a tie-down for an ancient awning that once spanned the sidewalk.

“That made sense because why would there be horses if there was only asphalt?” he said.

Darst Townsdin is adamant that rings were in fact used for horses. The building was originally the Oak Harbor Producers Co-op, and was frequented by farmers in horse-drawn wagons bringing in produce from all over North Whidbey.

The overwhelming majority seems to agree with her.

“They are horse rings,” said Les Bense, owner of Oak Tree Antiques and Collectables.

More than once he’s been regaled with tales from customers who claimed their parents actually used the rings to tie up their horse and buggies. Other downtown merchants, such as Jim Ducken, have similar stories. He said he grew up hearing about the rings from his father and that they were once common on SE Pioneer Way.

“They were all along both sides of the street,” Ducken said.

Ed Boonstra, a longtime former city official, is 83 and moved to Oak Harbor in 1955. While he said he is not so old that he ever saw the rings in use, he has always heard that they were never used for anything else but horse tie-ups.

“That was the story,” he said.

The strongest evidence of all may be in old photographs taken around the 1920s, Darst Townsdin said. In one, Obert Dykers, an early Crescent Harbor farmer, can be seen riding a horse-drawn wagon down what appears to be a dirt street during a parade. While it doesn’t show them tied up to the rings, it indicates that horses were still traversing the downtown area.

“It only makes sense there would be horse tie-ups for the big work-horse wagons taking produce and seed to and from the Farmer’s Producer’s Co-op building,” she said.

In the end, however, Darst Townsdin said all that really matters is that the ring is preserved. People all over town grew up hearing about it, and most believe it’s a part of Oak Harbor’s history. It may be just a little rusty piece of metal, but it’s a link to our past.

“It will be really nice to have it in the new sidewalk,” Darst Townsdin said. “That’s all anyone ever wanted.”

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