Occasionally in history, a family appears that leaves a larger than life imprint on a community. This is the case with the Porters.
Their story begins in 1859 when Nathanial Porter became the owner of the Raphael Bruns donation land claim on Mutiny Bay, which was the second recorded piece of land on South Whidbey to belong to a white man. Before his lifetime was over, Nathanial extended his holding to include about 1,000 acres between Mutiny Bay and Holmes Harbor. He also married twice and sired 10 children. He died in 1915 with a wealthy estate but his widow was unqualified to handle such a sizeable business. It was eventually in danger of being put up for tax sale.
One of his daughters, Lena, married Frank Driscoll and they took over a portion along the Mutiny Bay waterfront. Captain Reardon, a Puget Sound pilot, purchased 200 acres and put a tenant farmer in charge. They built a big bam which is still a landmark in the area. Emil Gabelein is the present owner of the property. Nathanial’s widow, Louisa, lived on part of the property until her death in the middle 1930s.
Not all of Nathanial’s descendants were im-provident. Some of them have inherited his skill in land management. One of his grandsons established South Whidbey’s only airfield. A great grandson is president of the Langley Chamber of Commerce and also a moving spirit in the South Whidbey recreational development. The Porter building in Langley is one of the city’s most impressive structures.
Another grandson has been responsible for Langley’s mail delivery for over 30 years. In fact, many of Nathanial’s descendants have distinguished careers. The Porter history is carried forward from Nathanial to one of his sons, Omer Sr., whose story was published in the Whidbey Record on October 7, 1980 in an interview with John Watkins.
“Ten years after Washington became a state, Omer Porter was bom 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, a storekeeper, and a 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. Many were Germans whose parents had settled in Freeland.
“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 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 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 his 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.
“When he worked in the logging camps he married a Whidbey Island woman, Blanche Imlay in 1921. She bore his first two sons, Omer and Bob, but 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.
“In 1980, they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with the help of 13 children, 42 grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren.
“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 asked 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 ten 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 re-sponsible 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, and 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.’
“When Omer Porter Jr. was born in 1923 and his brother Robert was born in 1924, Omer Sr. and his first wife, Blanche Imlay Porter, lived on what is now Porter Road above Beverly Beach on Holmes Harbor. When Blanche died in 1929, her two boys went to live with their grandmother, Louisa Porter, widow of Nathanial Porter, in the original Porter home on Mutiny Bay. Omer started school in Mutiny Bay, the same school his father Omer Sr. had attended.
The following year, 1930, when Omer Sr. married Tena Roozgant, he purchased property in the Saratoga area a mile above Fox Spit, and moved his bride, Omer Jr., and Robert into their new home. In the course of time 11 more children were added to the family, Ronald, Gloria, Jennifer, Ray, Judy, Sylvia, Catherine, Marjorie, Howard, Pat, and Jeff. As his family increased, Omer Sr., built extra rooms above the root cellar for the older children all of whom attended school in Langley.
After graduating from high school, Omer Jr., went to trade school in Seattle. He joined the Merchant Marine during World War II, getting a mate’s license and serving as a navigating officer in the South Seas. He mustered out of service in 1946 and obtained work on a mail boat to Alaska. It blew up while still in port. No one was hurt but the incident convinced Omer Jr. that it was time for him to return to his home territory in Saratoga.
He married his high school sweetheart, Jean Steele, and they set up housekeeping in Langley near the Jensen place. Later, they purchased a farm on Langley Road. Since 1953 Omer Jr. has combined farming with serving as the postal carrier on the Langley rural route. Jean and Omer are the parents of Sharon, Suzanne, Kenneth, and Keith.
Robert Porter, who was the second son born to Omer Sr. and his first wife, Blanche Imlay, was born in Freeland. Mrs. Lieseke was the midwife. His mother had been raised by her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. M. P. Curtis who had a farm in Freeland where Pay-Less Market and Pioneer First Federal Savings and Loan are now located. Robert remembers that he and Omer Jr. often played at the Curtis farm during their mother’s long illness. When she died in 1929, lived with their paternal grandmother, Louisa Porter, at Mutiny Bay.
When World War II broke out, Robert went into the Army Air Corps at the age of 18 and was able to fulfill his youthful dream of becoming a flyer. He studied flying, radio, and gunnery but the war ended before he was shipped out. When the army mustered him out in February 1946, he was no longer just wanting to become a pilot, he was well on his way to becoming one. He was also married while stationed in the service in North Dakota where his son James (Jim) was born in 1946.
After leaving the service, he returned to Langley with his wife and son working in the woods for a time, then at the Oak Harbor Navy base as a firefighter. Later, he worked at Paine Air Field out of Everett for six years. His love for flying remained strong and in 1953 he started an air field at the Burrier farm, working as an insurance and real estate agent with an office in Freeland to make a living.
In 1957, he developed plans for a residential air park purchasing 90 acres on top of Brooks Hill where his dream slowly translated into a reality. He and his wife separated; he later married Nancy Fickel. They have a daughter, Robyn, born in 1968.
Robert’s son Jim graduated from Langley High School as home-coming prince and a football star. He served in the Army in Vietnam in 1966. After returning home, he joined his father in the insurance business in Langley. In 1983, they constructed the two-story Porter office building—one of the most impressive business buildings in Langley. As this is written, Jim is president of the Langley Chamber of Commerce, on the board of the South Whidbey Recreation Association, and active in several other community organizations. He and his wife Karrie have two children, Jason and Ryan.
What about Robert Porter’s dream of an airport? John Watkins tells the story in the April 15, 1980 issue of the Whidbey Record.
“For thirteen years, Bob Porter has been building a dream, and now it has wings—lots of them.
In 1957, Porter bought some land off Brooks Hill Road and started, by himself, building an air field. The land he chose was as out in the woods ‘as far from where anyone might want to live as possible,’ he said, and he paid $100 an acre for it.
“He reached it on a winding logging road with his World War II vintage bulldozer (the one he still uses) and began clearing the land for his air strip. He worked two jobs, as a fireman at Oak Harbor Naval Air Station, 24 hours on call, then as a logger on his days off.
“It was 1967 before he could fly off it, and a few more years before it was good enough for public use. He never hired anyone to work on the project, and what he couldn’t do himself friends and relatives helped him with. Even today, after 23 years of work, the air field costs him money.
” ‘I don’t think it will pay for itself until I sell it,” he said, but he’s not about to sell it. He said he recently turned down a big offer from some Californians for the air field because ‘we like this way of life.’
“Porter, who was born in Freeland and raised at Mutiny Bay, began flying in World War II when the Army Air Corps began training him in 1943.
“After the war, he studied flying on the G. I. Bill, getting commercial and flight instructor licenses. He ran out of money before he could get his multi-engine license.
“Porter liked to fly and he liked to instruct. He bought his first airplane, a war-surplus PT-26 two- place trainer, for $350. He decided that since he didn’t get a job flying for the airlines, he would have an airplane and a place to keep it.
” T didn’t want an airplane over in Everett where it would take half a day to get to when I wanted to use it. There was no air field (for light planes) on the island, so I decided to build one, not realizing what that would mean,’ he said.
“An air field meant more than just a place to keep an airplane, though. ” ‘I just like to be around airplanes, and the best way to do it is to put a strip in your front yard. You can’t get any closer, he added.
“Once he had the land and the bulldozer, Porter began clearing the land in 1957. In 1960-61 he started leveling it. Then he quit his two jobs and took on two more, selling insurance and real estate. He now has an insurance office in Langley. “He wasn’t able to work on the airport for five years.
” ‘I couldn’t even afford a barrel of diesel while getting a start in the new business,’ he said.
“Then he got divorced and moved into a trailer next to his air field. There was no power, and even when he built his house there it was heated with wood and lighted with Coleman lanterns. He and his second wife Nancy got used to the isolation of living out in the woods at the end of a nearly impassable road.” ‘I get claustrophobic with my neighbors less than a mile away now,’ she said.
“By 1967 Porter was able to fly off his strip, then a narrow, rough 1,300-foot clearing in the woods. The next year he had to open it to the public to keep from losing the air space reservation with the FAA.
” ‘People would fly over, look at it, and leave,’ Porter said.
“The field was 1,800 feet long in 1968 when it opened. It began growing at a rate of 200 feet a year until it reached a 2,600 feet. It’s now 100 feet wide.
“He had an airplane and a place to keep it. He could instruct, and he could make money another way—flying sky-divers.
“The sky-divers club was made up of young navy men from Oak Harbor. They would come down for the weekend with sleeping bags, and camp out by the air field or sleep on the Porters’ living room floor.
“When the weather wasn’t good enough for sky-diving, they would get on the bulldozer and work on the air field.
“Porter flew sky-divers from 1968 to 1975. He said he still has young friends who fly in to visit. One flew in from Illinois for Porter’s last birthday.
“Porter built Crawford road to get to the air field. In 1975, electricity arrived at the Porter’s home. In 1976, he closed the air field and planted grass.
“In 1977, Luke Nichols wanted a place to build a 38-foot steel sailboat. Porter let him use a concrete pad in one comer of the field. Nichols and some of his friends, Porter, and some relatives raised a roof over it. The shed is used for maintenance. Rembert Fessenden, an instructor in aircraft and power-plant maintenance at Everett Community College, would like to turn it into a shop, Porter said.
“Across the field from the maintenance shed, Porter put up a storage shed for airplanes kept at the field. Nine planes now make his field home base.
“The field is classified as commercial which means it is open to the public, but that doesn’t mean it makes money.
Porter said he gets $1 a night from visiting airplanes and $10 a month for the airplanes kept there. That pays for the insurance on the field, he said.
“He said the field might pay its own operating expenses in about five years, but even that would be the exception rather than the rule for air fields. Most are taxpayer supported. Porter’s field is taxed.’
‘The field is used by people from all over the country, including the South, Midwest, and Southwest, but few from the East Coast. Porter said East Coast flyers seem to prefer more developed fields.
“He said the biggest airplane that has landed on the field was an eight-passenger twin-engine light plane.
“Flight instructors from Paine Field use his field for rough-field obstruction landings because it is grass and has trees at both ends. The military uses it for helicopter training.
“The air field isn’t finished yet. Nancy points out how the house was built to accommodate a coffee shop and flight room.
“It seems unlikely a coffee shop could ever make money on the basis of traffic at the airport. But it might provide comradeship among pilots, and making money hasn’t much to do with the air field.
” ‘Not everyone builds a dream,’ Nancy said.
” ‘Some day it’ll be finished and I’ll be dead,” Bob Porter said.”
Note: As this is written, there has been a new mile-stone in the Porter air-field history. In the October 1, 1985 issue of the South Whidbey Record, Jim Larsen reports that “chances are excellent that there will be a full-fledged study of the possibility of the Port District of South Whidbey acquiring the Porter air field. . . ” The port commissioners feel that the area, almost otherwise undeveloped, is the only place left on South Whidbey where development could take place without public opposition.
Many of the children of Omer Sr. by his second wife, Tena, have left South Whidbey. Jennifer lives at the family home, having returned from her position with a Seattle hospital to take care of her ailing mother, Tena, who died in 1984. Omer Sr. died in 1981.
Ronald Porter lived on the island until 1980 when he was killed in an airplane crash. Gloria married Dean Campbell, for whose family Campbell Road is named. They live on Baby Island Road, not far from the original Porter home in Saratoga. Gaylord Porter and his wife Heather live on Amble Road, not far from the original home.