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Nichols' tar shack is history

Matt Nichols didn't shed any tears Wednesday when a big cherry picker bit into the roof of the oldest building at his Freeland boat yard. But he was pretty distracted as he watched the demolition from his office.

The teardown on the 80-year-old machine shop came as Nichols Brothers Boat Builders gears up for its largest boat project ever, a 360-foot sternwheeler cruise ship that is already in the first phases of construction.

Nichols said he'd hung onto the building as long as he could. Built in 1922 by Art Spencer as the Spencer Machine Shop, the wood and tar-paper building boasted Freeland's first gasoline pumps. It was also where Nichols Brothers Boat Builders got its start on Whidbey Island in 1964. That year, Nichols and most of his brothers and sisters moved into the building, making it both home and workplace for the Nichols family.

Over the years, the old "tar shack" was used as an office for Nichols Brothers and, during the past two decades, as a lunch room and small machine shop. With the original "Nichols Brothers Boat Builders" sign adorning its front, the tar shack -- which fronts on Shore Avenue -- was also the most recognizable structure at the shipyard.

As the rear portion of the structure came down Wednesday, Nichols watched from his office. At one point, as the building collapsed, he pointed to where his bedroom had been.

"There's a lot of fond memories there," he said.

Although construction workers have been busy for weeks pouring thousands of square feet of steel-reinforced, concrete pads around the shipyard, the specifications of the giant sternwheeler made keeping the old tar shack impossible. Nichols said the cranes his company will use to build the ship need the room to move.

Nichols made one concession to history. He had demolition workers separate the building's front facade from the rest of the building and reinforce it. That facade will remain as part of the fence that surrounds the shipyard, as a reminder of the company's beginnings.

"Progress is important, but we should never forget our past," Nichols said.

Nichols said the windows on the front of the building will remain, which will allow the curious to watch the goings on inside the shipyard. To encourage this maritime voyeurism, he said the "no parking" sign that has long warned people away from the building will be removed.

The Nichols yard will be busy for the next year or two. The giant paddle wheeler the company is building, dubbed "Empress of the North," will be the largest cruise ship built in the United States since 1952, Nichols said. The company will also build a large fireboat at the same time. That boat is destined for service in Los Angeles.

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