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Central Whidbey celebrates 30 years of Ebey’s Reserve
When Col. Issac Neff Ebey claimed a square mile of Central Whidbey prairie in 1850, he became the first permanent resident of European ancestry on Whidbey Island.
Things didn’t end well for Ebey — who was shot and beheaded by upset Indians — but his land has taken on a life of its own. About 120 years after his death, a large chunk of his farmland, bordering what is now called Ebey’s Landing, became the center of a controversy that divided and consumed the Central Whidbey community for most of the 1970s. There were lawsuits, angry meetings, hurt feelings and millions of dollars at stake.
But in this case, things did end well. Thirty years ago this fall, Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve was born. As the nation’s first historical reserve, it was sort of a grand experiment created largely to prevent a housing development from going up on some of the most scenic and historically important land in the Pacific Northwest. But the vision has become much more than a simple stopgap measure.
This weekend, the Trust Board of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the reserve with the Ebey’s Forever Conference in Coupeville. Reserve Manager Mark Preiss describes it as a “show-and-tell” event, with field trips, speakers, breakout sessions, a meal of local food and even a barn dance.
“What we want to do with the conference is gather people together to celebrate the last 30 years and honor the work that’s been done, but also look forward,” Preiss said. “It’s really important that the community feels a sense of ownership and pride in the reserve.”
Agriculture is still the key
Trust Board chairperson Jan Pickard feels that one of the best ways to protect the area is to continue educating people about its history. Not just the history of the likes of Ebey, Samuel Crockett and Capt. Thomas Coupe, but the blood, sweat and tears that were shed by people like her brother, Ken Pickard, in the years leading to the creation of the reserve.
“If it wasn’t a historical reserve, it would be a suburb today,” she said. “People want to build their home here, but don’t have an awareness of where they are and all that the community went through. It was a pretty tough time.”
Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve is made up of 17,572 acres of rich farmland, stunning scenery, glacial kettles, many miles of beaches, saltwater marshes and a cove, as well as a celebrated collection of historic buildings. The jagged boundaries of the reserve encompass lands just north of Penn Cove to the Navy’s Outlying Field south of Coupeville. It’s managed in a unique partnership of the National Park Service, the state Parks and Recreation Commission, Island County and the town of Coupeville.
The very idea of the reserve was unique. Unlike a typical national park, it was envisioned as a “cultural landscape” in which farmers continue to work land that remains in private ownership. Today, 85 percent of the reserve in owned privately.
“The key to maintaining the cultural landscape is ensuring that agriculture is viable,” said Fran Einterz. He and his wife, Joyce, purchased the historic Jenne Farm in order to protect it, but also because they wanted to farm the 150 acres.
The couple has become immersed in the culture of the reserve and have become models for the vision. They restored the beautiful old barn, the large home and other buildings built by Ed Jenne exactly 100 years ago. They raise hay, grain, cattle, pigs, chickens and a spare goat or two.
Farming has been viable on Central Whidbey for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years. The prairies and comparatively dry climate of the area — in the rainshadow of the Olympic Mountains — brought the Coast Salish tribes. They burned and cleared the land to cultivate camas and bracken fern, according to “Land Use, Environment, and Social Change: The Shaping of Island County, Washington.”
In 1850, Isaac Ebey received his land under the Donation Land Claim Act and went about raising potatoes and wheat. He also took advantage of the low area and wide beach on his property to build a dock for commercial traffic. It became a popular spot for travelers to cross the waters to Port Townsend and eventually became known as Ebey’s Landing.
The land was quickly settled by farmers and loggers and the town of Coupeville was established. But remarkably little changed over the next 100 years. Preiss points to a panorama photo taken of Ebey’s prairie taken in 1900 that looks nearly identical to what is there today.
Developers eye Ebey’s landscape
Al Sherman, a member of one of the oldest farming families on Central Whidbey, said development pressure started eating up farmland in the 1960s, but nobody seemed to care at first.
“The commissioners liked subdivisions because it brought in more taxes,” he said. “It got to be kind of a circus. There was a lot of subprime development.”
But Sherman said a couple of proposed projects eventually got people’s attention. Brothers George and Knight Smith, along with their wives Marion and Roberta, farmed the property that included a large portion of Ebey’s land claim and one of the island’s most prized pieces of open space. The brothers both died in the early 1970s, leaving their widows with debt and inheritance taxes. The widows teamed up with a developer and made plans to build a housing development.
Near Fort Casey, the same developer proposed building a larger housing project at Keystone Spit.
Sherman was among the first to speak out, but he was soon joined by others. Concerned citizens formed the activist groups, including Friends of Ebey’s and Save Whidbey Island For Tomorrow, to prevent the development. Both groups filed lawsuits that went all the way to the state Supreme Court.
Georgie Smith, granddaughter of Roberta Smith, said her family was somewhat vilified at the time by people who were upset that the development was even proposed.
“(The widows) were worried that they were going to lose the whole farm, which is basically the legacy of the family,” she said, explaining that they felt they could hold onto part by selling part.
The dispute lasted for years and years. In the end, it took an act of Congress to create something new, a national historical reserve, in 1978. Two years later, the National Park Service agreed to purchase 293 acres of the Smith farm from the developer and the Smiths for $2.4 million.
The point of the reserve was to keep farmland with farmers, so the Park Service worked out a deal with Al and Roger Sherman, brothers who farmed the adjacent farm. The Shermans got most of the Smith Farm, but it was encumbered with easements that prevents them from developing the land. In exchange, the Shermans gave up the development rights on their land.
The purchase of conservation easements is one of the most important tools that is used to protect the reserve. The federal government, and groups like the Whidbey Camano Land Trust, purchase the rights to development off of critical pieces of land.
Protection still isn’t assured
But Preiss said one of the biggest misunderstandings that people have is that the reserve is completely protected. To date, about 3,000 acres of the reserve is protected, which is less than a quarter of the land.
The reserve contains more than 350 contributing historic structures that are of national importance. There are iconic barns, rustic blockhouses, the stately Victorian homes, and perhaps most famously, the Ferry House. Ebey’s sons built the Ferry House in 1858 as a place for travelers to stay overnight after arriving at Ebey’s Landing. The lonely building still stands as one of the oldest and most important historic landmarks of the reserve. It even was featured in the movie, “Snow Falling on Cedars.”
But the buildings are disappearing. Over the last 30 years, Preiss said 30 historic buildings have been destroyed. And as Pickard points out, the battles continue over development that is intrusive or out of place on the reserve.
“It doesn’t get any easier because it keeps happening. It’s happening right now on Wanamaker Road,” she said, referring to a 5,000-square-foot home slated to be built on a historic property.
But perhaps the biggest challenge to the culture of the reserve is ensuring that agriculture continues to be viable, though there’s a lot of optimism. The key, many people think, is to find a way to market local food locally.
“The future is very grand for agriculture in reserve area,” Georgie Smith said. “We’re in a perfect storm situation for creating more of a local-based food system here.”
Georgie Smith runs one of the 18 farms in the reserve, which range from Wilbur Bishop’s 600-acre, grain-and-hay operation to a two-acre you-pick raspberry farm. Smith and her family live on the Smith homestead and the 20 surrounding acres. She raises produce on what she’s dubbed Willowood Farm.
In the heart of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, Smith can be found riding a tractor or weeding on summer days. Sometimes tourists stop to take her photo.
“I feel luckier than Paris Hilton to be born to this land and this place,” she said.