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Drive aims to honor Oak Harbor founders in steel

Oak Harbor resident Sue Karahalios holds up a conceptual drawing of an art piece that she hopes to have constructed on the waterfront at the end of City Beach Street. The piece would honor the city’s three founding fathers. - Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times
Oak Harbor resident Sue Karahalios holds up a conceptual drawing of an art piece that she hopes to have constructed on the waterfront at the end of City Beach Street. The piece would honor the city’s three founding fathers.
— image credit: Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times

Nearly 160 years ago, three men filed land claims that would lead to the founding and eventual incorporation of Oak Harbor.

That was a full year before Capt. Thomas Coupe filled his 1852 land claim that would lead to the founding of Coupeville, which is often credited with being one of the oldest towns in Washington. Yet Oak Harbor has never enjoyed the same reputation as a historic town.

Sue Karahalios, a former city councilwoman and state representative, is hoping to change that. With public art, she is hoping to bring the city she considers her “adopted home” some of the recognition it deserves while at the same time honoring its earliest pioneers.

“I would like us to acknowledge our founders and our history,” Karahalios said.

Over the past few months, Karahalios has been navigating the city’s various committees and commissions to get permission to have a monument 9-feet, 5-inches high made of Corten steel, paid for by private funds, erected near the waterfront at the end of SE City Beach Street.

All have approved the project but the Oak Harbor City Council, which will hear the proposal for the first time as a single group next week. The meeting is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 21, at City Hall, 865 S.E. Barrington Drive.

Karahalios said she got the idea to recognize the city’s founding fathers, Ulrich Freund, Clement Sumner and Zakarias Taftezon‚ several years ago. Her hopes couldn’t be realized at the time but this past summer, Mount Vernon publicly celebrated its 120th anniversary and Karahalios said she was more than ever resolved to seeing similar recognition in Oak Harbor.

“They threw this big whoop-de-doo and we’re 40 years older,” she said.

There is a metal plaque at the end of City Beach Street now that commemorates the three pioneers but, located on a rock under a tree with bushes in front, it’s very difficult to see. City officials have acknowledged the problem. During a recent standing committee meeting, City Engineer Eric Johnston said he had trouble locating the plaque even knowing where it was.

Adding insult to injury, Taftezon’s name is misspelled. While there are several spellings that show up in historical documents, historians seem to agree that Taftezon is correct as it is the spelling that appears in the original land claim.

“I would agree that Taftezon would indeed be correct,” said Peggy Darst-Townsdin, an amateur local historian and author.

Darst-Townsdin is an actual descendent of Capt. Edward Barrington, who was another of Oak Harbor’s earliest pioneers. In fact, SE Pioneer Way was named after her great, great grandfather for more than a hundred years until it was changed about 60 years ago, she said.

Her ancestor also had dealings with Sumner. Darst-Townsdin claims that Barrington, who was in the lumber business, hired the man to take a shipment of timber cut from Oak Harbor forests to San Francisco. But while the lumber made it to California and was sold, Sumner apparently absconded with the money and never came back.

“He ripped off my great, great grandfather,” Darst-Townsdin laughed.

Should the City Council approve the project, Karahalios said she hopes to commission Oak Harbor artist Richard Nash to construct the piece. The three straight-edge prongs of the structure would represent the founders equally as there are no known pictures of Sumner, which makes it impossible to make statues of the three pioneers’ likeness.

Gathering funds to pay for the approximately $20,000 project could take months or even years, but Karahalios said the end result will be worth it.

Darst-Townsdin agrees. The city has never really gotten the recognition it deserves for being a historic town, and this will go a long ways towards righting that wrong.

“It would really celebrate the founding history of Oak Harbor,” Darst-Townsdin said.

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