A Rockin’ a Hard Place: A self-guided history tour loaded with good and bad reminders

As spring has finally sprung on our Rock, after a chilly and damp couple of months, it’s of course time for we Rock dwellers to fling open our doors, take a deep breath of fresh air, shed several layers of heavy clothes and go enjoy our beautiful outdoors. And that’s what I did last week. Or more precisely I set out on a history walking tour, quietly and by myself.

Among the many things I love about our island is its careful preservation of history of all kinds. Fort Casey and Fort Ebey come to mind. Also, Front Street in Coupeville. But what I especially enjoy are the historic sites on Ebey’s Prairie, preserved as part of the our national historical reserve. It’s full of reminders of how life was — good but difficult and sometimes not pretty.

My first stop was the Prairie Overlook across from Sunnyside Cemetery. The sky was clear and Ebey’s Prairie looked so bright green it almost almost made my eyes hurt. And I recalled that the prairie has looked this way for at least 10,000 years, since the Ice Age glaciers retreated and carved it out. Aren’t we fortunate to see it every day?

Next I took a jaunt out the Pratt Loop trail. And I spent some time admiring the Pratt Sheep Barn, carefully preserved by the National Park Service. Until six years ago, the barn — more than 90 years old — was dilapidated and near collapse. The National Park Service restored it as an educational classroom for students and community groups, tucked away in the forest.

What the Pratt Barn reminded me was that, since the arrival of the white settlers in mid-19th century, Ebey’s Prairie has provided some of the richest farmland for raising crops, cattle, goats, turkeys and sheep. Farmer Pratt had several dozen sheep on his farmland in the prairie and in the winter he herded them to the barn for protection from freezing weather. He also built a shearing shed next to the barn to collect the wool, and in the front of the barn was a hand pump for a well that pumped water into a big container for the sheep to drink. A farmer’s life a hundred years ago wasn’t easy but it was made better by their creative adaptations.

Then I continued on the Pratt Loop Trail until I came to the Jacob and Sarah Ebey House and its nearby block house, built to protect them from hostile attacks by Native Americans. The house was completed in 1856 and is now preserved by the National Park Service. Jacob and Sarah were the parents of Isaac Ebey, one of the first white settlers to claim land on Ebey’s Prairie under the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850. Soon after he arrived in 1851, he encouraged his family to join him. First came his wife Rebecca in 1853 followed by his parent in 1854.

Jacob and Sarah laid claim to a beautiful stretch of land on a bluff overlooking the prairie. They called it Sunnyside Farm; the cemetery takes its name — and much of its land — from the Ebeys’ farm.

When I looked carefully at the Ebey house, it became abundantly clear how tough life must have been for them. Jacob was 61 when he arrived on Whidbey; Sarah was 58. The home had two fireplaces for heating and cooking, which meant wood had to be harvested and chopped. A well had to be dug to supply their water. A privy needed to be built very near the house. And the sleeping quarters were up a very narrow, creaky staircase. Two older residents might easily tumble down if they arose at night to add firewood or use the privy. Not a surprise that Jacob died five years after he came to Whidbey and Sarah died not long after.

Next I wandered down to Ebey’s Landing, the shallowest spot on the west side of Central Whidbey and the drop-off spot for new arrivals in the mid-19th century. A ferry driven by wind and oars brought settlers and visitors from Port Townsend to Ebey’s Landing; they had to jump off the ferry into water about three feet deep and wade ashore.

In the early 1860s, relatives of Isaac Ebey built the Ferry House up on the prairie above Ebey’s Landing. The water-soaked travelers dragged themselves up a ravine to the Ferry House, where they could dry off and await transportation to wherever they were going.

The Ferry House still stands, protected by the National Park Service. As I looked at it, I realized how difficult it must have been to get anywhere on Central Whidbey at that time since there were only a few muddy trails and no roads. To get to Coupeville from the Ferry House required a horse and buggy or two very strong legs for walking. The alternative was to take a boat from Port Townsend into Penn Cove and hop ashore in tiny Coupeville. Hard to imagine, isn’t it, given the five or ten minutes it takes these days to drive from Ebey’s Landing to Coupeville.

My personal history tour was completed last Saturday as I wandered about the annual Penn Cove Water Festival in Coupeville. This festival celebrates the indigenous people who lived here for several thousand years before the white settlers arrived. The festival featured native storytelling, singing and canoe races by Native American teams celebrating what their ancestors did in the past. Penn Cove once had one of the largest and densest native populations of anywhere in the area. Food was plentiful and tribes were generally peaceful here.

The irony, of course, is that the white settlers took all the land from the natives and gradually forced them to move to reservations on the mainland. The Penn Cove Water Festival is a reminder that we have virtually no Native Americans living full time in Penn Cove today.

My history tour was full of rich reminders that I will not soon forget.

Harry Anderson is a retired journalist who worked for the Los Angeles Times and now lives on Central Whidbey.