Found this fascinating article in our archives about Omer Porter, which was written by John Watkins and which appeared in the South Whidbey Record on October 7, 1980.
It gives a glimpse into what life was like on South Whidbey around the turn of the last century.
Omer’s father, Nathaniel Porter, settled at Mutiny Bay in 1869.
His mother, Louisa, was the daughter of William Johnson — an even earlier South Whidbey settler at Double Bluff (then known as Johnson’s Bluff), and his wife, Zah-toh-litsa (aka Jane Newberry, Ho-tela, Jennie, and later known as Jane Johnson Oliver or Grandma Oliver). Zah-toh-litsa was of the Snohomish tribe, related to one of the tribal chiefs.
Ten years after Washington became a state, Omer Porter was born at Mutiny Bay.
There weren’t many settlers on South Whidbey in 1899. From the present site of the Mutiny Bay Resort to Bush Point there were only four houses.
The town of Austin at Mutiny Bay consisted of the Porter family and a storekeeper and school teacher named Morris.
Most of the settlers were at Langley, but the school was at Mutiny Bay. Omer describes the school as having 40 students, eight grades and one teacher.
About half the students in that school were Indians, and many were Germans whose parents had settled in Freeland.
Omer’s father, had settled on Whidbey Island in 1869, the year before his mother was born. Freeland was settled in 1906.
The Freeland settlement was a socialist group.
“There was a Freeland in every state in the union at one time. Eugene V. Debbs was their leader,” Omer said.
They weren’t well accepted at first, because of their political views. They ran a full ‘”slate of socialist candidates for county posts, but never succeeded in electing anyone to office. The county was strictly Republican.
Omer tells an amusing story about how the Widow’s Walk house, a Freeland landmark, got its cupola.
He said that the builder and owner of that house, William Sandford, loved to read. He built the cupola so he could climb into it, pull up the ladder, and not be bothered while reading.
Sandford had to be jailed in the 1920s while surveyors mapped the route for SR 525, he said. He wanted the road on the waterfront, to keep up the dyke, so he cut the surveying chain with an ax. He was jailed for 10 days and the surveyors finished their work unmolested.
Another thing he remembers from his early years is the graves. Mutiny Bay was named after a real mutiny, and while Omer can’t give the details of the event, he remembers the grave of the murdered captain very well.
He also remembers the graveyard in which the founder of Freeland, a man named Daniels, was buried. Like the grave of the buried captain, it can no longer be found.
“The newcomers didn’t care,” Omer said, explaining why the graves were not maintained.
The Indians, he recalls, lived in cedar shake houses. They were given (allotments) on reservations, but found they were forested. There was no place for a garden, so they went back where they came from, to the cedar houses on the shore, close to a supply of clams and fish.
The Indians left after World War One, drifting off the larger population centers. Their houses were burned. Settlers would burn them “just to watch them burn,” and to get rid of them once the owners had left them, Omer said.
Omer graduated from eighth grade in 1915 then went to work on the family farm. He tried to get some high school when advanced grades were offered, but found the teacher didn’t have time for the high school students.
He dropped out when he found he wasn’t learning any more. “Most of us did,” he added.
In 1919 Omer started working in the logging camps. It was a rough business then, and if a man couldn’t move fast enough to keep up with the pace he could easily die.
“A man’s life didn’t mean any more than a fly on a biscuit,” and an injured man had to be really badly crippled to be sent to the hospital, he said.
Omer tells a story he heard from another logger (working in the Columbia Basin area), about the kind of brutal business it was. The steel line from the donkey engine, which was used to drag out logs, snapped and killed three men.
“They set them on a stump and kept working. They didn’t even take them back to the camp. Then the line knocked the bodies off the stump and the crew quit.”
Omer quit logging in 1929 when “I got a step too slow.” He had two accidents in a year.
He worked as a loader, and twice he was caught in log piles.
“I jammed my hips. The doctor told me I’d have been better off if they had broken.” Omer said he could tell a change of weather from the pain in those hips until he stopped going out in the weather to work. He worked for the State highway department, keeping the roads clear and the signs up, until he was 70.
The pace slowed down only when the labor movement came along.
“It was the Wobblies that slowed it down so a decent person could work,” Omer said, referring to the International Workers of the World, IWW.
The IWW was a union which had sometimes violent confrontations with its opponents; the timber barons were a rough lot. (WEBMASTER NOTE: the Everett Massacre of November 5, 1916, has been called the bloodiest labor confrontation in Northwest history. On that day a group of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as Wobblies, traveled from Seattle to Everett aboard the steamers Verona and Calista, intending to speak at the corner of Hewitt and Wetmore avenues in support of a strike by local shingle-weavers. A group of citizen-deputies under the authority of Snohomish County Sheriff Donald McRae refused to let them land. A shot was fired, followed by several minutes of gunfire that killed at least five Wobblies and two deputies.)
Omer was never a member of the IWW, and even today he refuses to comment on the politics of that once controversial organization.
He said his father always stayed neutral on subjects like that to avoid making enemies, “and that rubbed off on us kids.”
When he worked in the logging camps he married a Whidbey Island, Blonche Inlay, in 1921. She bore his first two sons, Omer and Bob. She died in 1929 after getting sick while Omer was at a logging camp.
“Langley didn’t have good doctors in those days. When we got a doctor down from Oak Harbor he said it was just too late.”
After he quit logging Omer picked up work wherever he could. He was working in a cannery in Everett later in 1929 when he met Tena, his present wife. She came from Holland when she was three years old, living first in Oak Harbor, until her family moved to Everett when she was seven years old.
They just recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. They had the help of 15 children, aged 27 to 57, 42 grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren.
In light of our current difficulties with the ferry system, it is interesting to remember that there were no ferries when Omer was born. Boats stopped at all the small communities on Whidbey and Camano Islands, and later a boat went from Freeland to Everett, but the “mosquito fleet” of small freighters went out of business when they lost the mail contracts, Omer recalls.
A man named Dearhoff started running a ferry from Langley to Everett in the 1920s, but the Blackball Line was trying to run him out of business.
Dearhoff changed the run to shorten it, building terminals at Mukilteo and Columbia Beach. But when he mortgaged the business to build a bigger boat, Black Ball bought out the mortgage and that was the end competition in the ferry service.
Nobody had much use for Black Ball, Omer said. ‘”They were merciless.”
The Black Ball Line dominated ferry traffic all over the sound. After a name change to the Inland Navigation Company, they eventually sold out to the state, providing the basis for our current ferry system.
Expanding the county jail is in the news lately. When Omer was young, people on South Whidbey didn’t go to jail often.
“When he had to see about arresting someone, the sheriff would ride down on a bicycle one day, stay overnight, and go back the next day.” The roads were narrow and rough, and riding the distance in a buggy was challenging. This made it hard to transport prisoners. Omer said the Sheriff would talk to the person he was called to arrest, and if it was needed, someone would be hired to watch the criminal overnight.
Of course, the county jail at Coupeville only held four people. When he became a bonded deputy, Omer took many people to that jail. Often some criminals would have to sleep in the hall, “if they weren’t too vicious.”
Omer worked for the county road department starting-in 1935, and became one of the county’s first 10 bonded deputies in 1937. Bonded deputies would lose their bond if they made an illegal arrest, and the sheriff would lose his as well.
In 1937 Omer started· working for the state highway department, supervising the road crew responsible for the state highway from Clinton to the northern part of Fidalgo Island.
He held that position, seeing a shortening of his territory to Coupeville in 1965, until his retirement in 1969.
He has lived at Saratoga since 1922, in his present house since 1937. He moves more slowly now than he did in 1935, when he played. on the South Whidbey Athletic Club baseball team which competed in the state tournament. But his neighbors are still at a distance, which is fine.
He left Freeland in 1922 because it was too crowded after they built the road through that community.
Looking at the changes ‘he has seen in South Whidbey, he said “it’s been so gradual in a way you don’t notice them so much except it’s a little crowded.”
Note: Omer Porter died December 10, 1980, just a few months after this article was printed..
Look for more local history about Omer’s parents and grandparents in future posts. Any additional info and photos from his descendants will be most welcome.