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Turn of a Century: A look back

"The lights went dim at 6 p.m. every night in the little island town of Langley as the year 1899 clicked over into 1900.That’s because, the old Island County Times reported in 1951, chicken house lights were turned on from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. every night, and there wasn’t enough power to light chickens and people at the same time.How times have changed.As the 20th century shifts to the 21st, islanders are riding electricity into cyberspace, putting businesses on the World Wide Web and communicating instantaneously with people around the globe.High-tech jets and patrol planes based at Whidbey Island’s Navy base can reach virtually any corner of the world.The island’s fields are cultivated by fewer and fewer farmers, while more and more residents clog its streets and highways to keep up with work, shopping and the frenetic lifestyles of modern kids.Technology has definitely gotten better in the last century. But has life?We asked some of Whidbey’s long-time residents to tell us what they think of that question, and to share their memories of the island’s past this week as the calendar turned to a new era. This is what they had to say:LEONE AND RUSS ARGENTLeone Argent first came to Central Whidbey in 1918 when she was 5 years old. She says the changes on Whidbey have not necessarily been for the better.“I think it was much nicer before,” she said. “We didn’t have electricity, we didn’t have running water and we didn’t have plumbing, but we had very close relationships with our family. We just enjoyed being together.”It was a slower time.“The roads weren’t much, but we really didn’t need them because we seldom went anywhere. And we didn’t need speedways because the Model Ts didn’t go very fast.”Argent actually looks back fondly to a time around the Great Depression because of the way people used to pull together.“We knew practically everyone on the island,” she said. “Everybody had a garden and a cow and maybe a pig or two, so we had things to share. Everybody helped everybody else.”Argent met her husband Russ in the early 1930s when he “came to the door” delivering bread. Though it wasn’t fancy, they were able to build their first home out of wood that they found.“Money was hard to come by and there wasn’t really any lumber. At that time you could get stuff off the beach,” said Russ, who at 91 still tends the acreage around the old family homestead. Among the Argents’ strongest memories of island life are clearing land with a team, raising chickens and Welsh ponies, teaching in the local schools and one unusual incident shortly after Leone arrived.“I remember at the end of World War I people said they were going to walk down and burn the Kaiser,” she said. “I was only five at the time and I wasn’t sure what it was all about, but I can remember thinking that his head was just a pumpkin.” JIM ARNSBERGERJim Arnsberger first came to Whidbey Island in 1948 when he worked for the U.S. Postal Service in Washington D.C. He said he found a charming, rustic village with a few scattered stores serving the local “pioneers.”“It wasn’t very overwhelming,” he said. “The farms were small but nice. There were some beautiful barns. One of the things that bothers me most when I get older is that a lot of them are falling into disrepair.”Arnsberger, who’s now 83 years old, liked the Oak Harbor area so much that he vowed to come back to live in the city someday. And sure enough, in 1972 he retired here.Since then, he said the city has “grown by fits and starts — mainly fits.” While he and most of “the oldtimers” have been amazed by the amount of growth in the city, he said they shouldn’t have been. All the signs were there.“When we were crowing about everything we have and that we live in the best place in the world, it never occurred to us that a lot of people will want to join us here,” he said.PAUL BAKKENThough many visitors and newcomers look at Whidbey as a rural paradise, Paul Bakken of Greenbank says they should have seen it in the old days. “My opinion is that it’s been ruined,” he said. “And it’s getting worse.” Bakken was born in Greenbank during the 1920s. He remembers a time when Whidbey was full of “wide open spaces.”“There’s nothing prettier than native country,” he said. “And there’s nothing uglier than a bunch of houses.”Bakken says the pressures of growth happening all over the world are taking their toll on Whidbey as well.“There’s no shortage of good people, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “It’s just too much development. It’s the story of the times.”AL KOETJEThe 15-year-old boy who swept the floors at Oak Harbor City Hall in the early 1950s had no idea that he would help mold the city as an older man.Koetje says he remembers growing up in a town where you knew all your neighbors, children had chores and most everyone had a big garden and a few farm animals within the city limits. As a child he hid from the strangers who walked downtown in Navy uniforms. Today’s world is very different for his grandchildren, two of whom live in Oak Harbor. But even with the changes, Koetje said he’s proud of the growing city he’s helped build.As Oak Harbor’s mayor for 24 years, and a council member for eight years before that, Koetje played a large hand in shaping the city through the last quarter of the century. Koetje’s administration brought mainland water to the city and built the marina, the senior center, the new city hall, the police department, city shop, fire station and many city parks. It also survived a base closure scare, and oversaw a good deal of urban growth that drew detractors as well as fans.The character of city politics, Koetje said, has changed greatly. There weren’t “all the environmental issues and permits and what not” to deal with when he was mayor, he said, and council members were agreeable and didn’t try to usurp power from the mayor. “If there were any complaints, we got behind closed doors and worked things out,” he said. “Now they criticize each other and even employees in open meetings.”“It was a lot less complicated to accomplish anything,” he said.NELLIE WILLIAMSNellie Williams and her husband moved to Oak Harbor in 1944, just two years after the Navy base opened. She said the Navy was still “building like mad,” and any type of affordable housing was impossible to get. But they somehow managed to get a fixer-upper near downtown Oak Harbor and raised a family.Over the next 56 years in the house, Williams watched the city and the base grow up together. “It’s amazing how fast it’s changed from a little village,” she said. “The Navy really made the difference.”Her address has changed three times. When her children were young, Williams said she could see from her house, which is on what’s now S.E. Eighth Avenue, “clear to the water” over fields that were her children’s vast playground.She was “surrounded by the Dutch.” Her neighbors had thick Dutch accents and “you would still come across couples who couldn’t speak English.”Now, she said, it’s unfortunate that the area’s become “city-fied,” but it’s not as bad as other areas of the state. One of the best things about the development, she said, is the mainland water. “Oak Harbor water was so hard,” she said. “It was just awful.” She went to work for the Oak Harbor News in 1956 and saw the paper go through several transformations, both good and bad. Today at age 91, she still works part-time at the Whidbey News-Times."

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