A Touch of Grace
Farmers on Washington’s Whidbey Island saved their land and way of life for future generations.
Farmers on Washington’s Whidbey Island saved their way of life.
I’ve often wondered what John Gould was thinking back in 1896, when he built our home on this sandy knoll. Did he, like many practical farmers, decide it would be a waste of good farmland to build on the flat, fertile loam surrounding the sand?
Or did he imagine the visual harmony of a classic Victorian home perched grandly over a patchwork of farm fields, framed on two sides by forested hills and on the others by the deep blues of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the rugged spires of the Olympic Mountains?
It’s hard to believe that this magnificent view didn’t inspire him at least a little bit—or that he could have imagined it would one day put our way of life in jeopardy.
My family farms on Whidbey Island, a stone’s throw north of Seattle. When real estate prices boomed in the 1970s, farmers here began to realize they could make more money selling their ocean views to developers than they ever could growing crops.
But a few farm families, including my own, didn’t want to give up our life on the land. They championed a proposal to preserve the farms on central Whidbey Island, and in 1978, Congress created Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. One of only two historic reserves managed by the National Park Service, the project is a community preservation experiment in action.
Thanks to the reserve, the sweeping lines of the prairie— designed elegantly by nature and complemented by the keen eye of homebuilders like John Gould— remain much as they were when homesteaders settled in the 1800s.
The reserve is a privately owned but publicly accessible park. Landowners and farmers live and work within preservation easement
standards and zoning rules, while the community helps to maintain our historic buildings. For example, a community preservation grant from local donors put a new roof and doors on our historic barn.
I’m lucky to have been born and raised on the island. Like my father, grandfather, great-grandfather and his father before him, I farm dark, deep loam that has earned its keep since 1851, when Col. Isaac Ebey made one of the first land donation claims and plowed the first furrow. We now raise specialty produce for local markets and restaurants.
When I drive my farm truck, with its gloriously muddy frame, into Coupeville, I share the road with tourists exploring the historic homes and farmsteads that still dot the prairie, as well as the town’s grand pink, blue and purple Victorian “painted ladies.”
But I also share it with farm machinery and neighbors’ trucks headed to market. I can easily imagine what this road must’ve been like when this was one of the first dirt paths connecting the farmland with the seaside settlement of Coupeville, its wharf rumbling with wagonloads of produce on its way to Seattle.
At the end of the day, I often walk down the public path cut along the edges of our farmland. With my two young daughters and our rat terrier, I stroll along the windswept bluff overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca and, farther off, the Pacific Ocean. I think about the dedication it took to preserve this beautiful view through the century and a half since Isaac Ebey first set foot on the prairie’s fertile soil. And I hope I can leave as loving and as elegant a touch as those who came before me.
The Ferry House at Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve on Whidbey Island was built in 1860 and offered food and lodging, a post office and supplies to early travelers.
Sheep graze on lush pastures near the Whidbey Island town of Langley.
A field of wheat wafts in Pacific breezes on the Sherman-Bishop farm in Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve.