Everybody knew Corky...
EVERYBODY KNEW CORKY.
And everybody knew that someday, when it came time, the
endearingly odd mutt (half border-collie, half who-knows-what) with
white eye-patch, white front paws and that strange way of slinking
back down the driveway, tail not quite tucked, well, everybody knew
that little dog would someday meet his end at the corner of Little
and Douglas Roads doing what he did best: chasing cars.
Sad, yes. Yet such a death would not have become the talk of
San Juan Island. Not at 6 a.m. in the doughnut shop, not at lunch
time in the one-seat barber shop, not after work on the brass-tacked
swivel seats in the American Legion club. Certainly not after the
last ferry had left Friday Harbor’s dock, left behind 13 real-estate
offices, 11 churches, one high school, no stoplights and a shoreline
of black pines stenciled against pale purple hills. Such a death
would not have dominated the letters section of the Journal of the
San Juan Islands for so many months. Dozens of letters, published
eulogies about Corky the Dog, one missive sent all the way from Hong
That spring, a year ago, as the season of bug-eyed tourists
disgorging from the ferry was about to begin, a time when the island
was short on water and heavy on documents about growth management,
back then, Corky’s death took on its own life. It became a metaphor
for just about everything: Newcomers, old-timers, neighbors, public
rights, private wrongs, tolerance, independence, government
interference, what island life used to be, what it had become, what
In the end, it was a horrible death, everything about it,
really. The anonymous complaint to the sheriff about the car-chasing
dog, Corky’s exile to the middle of the island, the pregnant rabbit,
the crossbow, the red plastic metal-tipped arrow Corky gnawed on but
could not dislodge, the 20 or so hours he limped through the woods,
the dog’s final demise in a pool of his own body fluids. Much
evidence was presented at the trial.
It was bizarre, gruesome, not one of the community’s finer
moments, and about that, there is no debate. Some say the little
island of San Juan, tucked into the northwestern-most corner of the
lower 48, will never be the same.
Of course, nobody really agrees on what it was like before.
CORKY’S DEMISE is not without precedent. The year of 1859 on San
Juan Island was marked by three significant happenings. The first
was a warm sunny spring, ideal for growing potatoes. The second was
escalating tension between Brits and Yankees over who controlled the
cluster of islands on the 49th Parallel. The third event, and most
notable, was that a British pig uprooted an American farmer’s bumper
crop of spuds, prompting the farmer to take up his gun and shoot
said pig, which, in turn, started a war.
The incident is commonly referred to in history books as “The
Pig War of 1859.” It ultimately involved three warships, 167 cannon
and 2,140 soldiers on the British side, and on the American side,
five companies of infantry and artillery. By summer, impending
conflict in the northwest outpost so alarmed President James
Buchanan that he sent his top military commander to San Juan Island
to try to defuse the situation. Both sides agreed to a token
occupation of 100 soldiers each. As it happened, the English and
American forces got along famously for the next 13 years at which
point Emperor William I of Germany adjudicated the matter and
decided San Juan Island should go to the United States.
The pig’s legacy is a reminder that long before Corky, San Juan
Island was a quirky place. In recent years, Lycra bicyclists, boomer
telecommuters and B&Bs have somewhat altered the rural landscape,
but underneath, like a pasture below the fog, the island has always
been serious about its farming, its animals, and most of all,
control of the land.
At the counter in the doughnut shop on Friday Harbor’s main
street, a bunch of old-timers in billed caps hunch over coffee and
scrambled eggs early one summer morning, hours before tourists will
crowd the sidewalks exclaiming about how cute everything is.
To farmers with livestock, errant dogs are not cute. And if you
want to know the truth about that mutt Corky, well, the truth is
that in the old days, if the dog had been bothering sheep, he’d have
been shot and nobody would have given it a second thought. That’s
the way things were. Just like if your own dog was getting into your
chickens, you’d take a dead fowl and hang it around the dog’s neck
for a few days. Let the stink teach the dog a lesson.
Thing is, Corky was bothering cars, not cows, and that’s where
it all gets complicated.
After the Pig War and up until the 1970s, agriculture ruled on
San Juan Island. Farmland was worth twice, even three times, the
price of waterfront. Beach property? Water view? So what! Too rocky.
Too hilly. Bad for growing and grazing. In the early 1950s, the
local paper advertised a two-bedroom cabin on 324 acres, including
1.5 miles of waterfront for $17,500. Back then, waterfront was about
$17 a foot; now, it starts at $1,000 a foot. After Roche Harbor
Resort and Marina opened in the late 1950s, folks began
“discovering” the San Juans. County land values increased slowly
over a few decades and then skyrocketed during the Puget Sound
region’s late-1980s real-estate boom, more than doubling from $897
million in 1984 to $2.08 billion ten years later.
More people came. Annual ferry ridership went from about one
million cars and people in 1980 to 1.7 million in 1993. Hotels were
built. T-shirt stands sprouted. The number of registered businesses
in the county more than doubled to 1,900. More people came.
Restaurants opened. A health club. Boutiques. Pizza joints. Tennis
courts. Law offices. A stock brokerage. Places to get your computer
fixed, shops to find the perfect set of candlesticks. Tourism now
accounts for 1 in 4 jobs on the islands and more than half of all
retail sales. Some tourists stayed; some became residents. School
enrollment on San Juan Island grew from 589 in 1980 to 919 this
year. Permits for new construction quadrupled in a decade, reaching
about $30 million a year in 1994. More people came. County road
traffic more than doubled in a decade. On Douglas Road, where Corky
chased tire rims for eight years, the average daily number of cars
went from 700 to 1,150.
More people came. Last year, 12,100 islanders were counted in
San Juan County, nearly three times more residents than 25 years
ago. The population is expected to hit 20,500 in another two
decades. The actual numbers may sound relatively small, but, then
again, the islands are small places. When it’s all added up, it
means that one of every five residents you see on the sidewalk, in
the grocery store or in the post office has moved to the island
within the past five years.
Back in the doughnut shop, the morning drone winds down.
Early-rising old-timers scrape the last bit of egg off their plates,
head for the door. Trouble is, one of them grumbles, everyone moves
here to get away from it all, but once they get here, they want to
change everything to the way it was wherever they moved from. If
you’re not from here, you probably wouldn’t understand.
Over a century after the Pig War, the battle is for control of
the island’s character.
What does all this have to do with Corky the dog?
Everything. Nothing. Depends on who you ask.
CORKY LIVED a couple miles outside downtown Friday Harbor in a sweet
shabby doghouse under a 400-year-old oak tree. The doghouse was
shingled the same shade of brown as the double-wide trailer
inhabited by his owners, Vaughn and Laurie Mason.
Vaughn Mason is kind of like an oak tree himself, tall, a
little gruff, branching out into just about everything. In 55 years,
he has earned his living seining for salmon, selling real estate,
farming. His father and grandfather also farmed and, back about the
time of the Pig War, his great-, or maybe great-great grandfather
homesteaded 200 acres from west of the oaks down to the water. The
land stayed intact in the family until the 1960s or so when it was
parceled and sold. By the 1980s it was all gone, as well as the
money, and Mason still can’t figure out where. Now he earns his
living building custom cedar-rail fences, salvaging logs from the
beach and raising cattle that graze on leased pasture.
Corky was supposed to help Mason herd cows. Border collies are
prized by ranchers for their intellect and instinctive ability to
round up large groups of animals. Corky was part border collie, but
the cow-herding never caught on. The mutt, who came to the Masons
via a friend of a friend in Oregon, promptly crawled under the back
porch when he first got to the island and refused to come out.
Finally, five months and dozens of steak bones later, Corky found
The niche was at the head of the Mason’s driveway. The dog
would hunker down in a hollow, ears flat, nose to gravel. When a car
went by he didn’t like, Corky would hurtle out of the ditch and give
chase, thus patrolling about 400 yards of blackberry brambles and
hawthorn bushes along Douglas Road. Mason, in his flatbed pick-up,
claims he once clocked Corky at 38 miles per hour. Of course,
Corky’s coordination wasn’t always that great. Over the years, the
dog bonked his head into car doors with a sickening thud! more than
a few times, but he never sustained serious injuries or caused any.
“Bottom line,” Laurie Mason says, “he was a harmless dog that
lay in the yard with the rabbits and cows. He was just protecting
his territory. That’s what he thought was his job.”
Not everybody agrees, least of all on the harmless part. There
were complaints to the sheriff’s department by someone who to this
day remains anonymous but who is referred to by many islanders as
“some newcomer,” as in, “Some newcomer complained.” The police
warned the Masons to tie up Corky, and, when they didn’t, slapped
them twice with $100 citations.
Sheriff Bill Cumming: “The issue of Corky. . . ” he scratches
his head, pulls up his socks, starts over. A year after his death,
Corky is still controversial, sort of a political issue on the
island. “This is a very small department and a very small county. .
. Everybody saw Corky as, y’know, . . . cute. We know our animals
and our neighbors, but from a law enforcement standpoint, it
presented a clear public safety issue. People were swerving into
oncoming traffic to avoid him. As much as I want to preserve the
island ways, I don’t think anybody would want to have an automobile
As Laurie Mason sees it, the dog actually increased road safety
at a dangerous intersection because everyone knew to be more
cautious; at any moment, a mutt might leap out at their car. “Corky
slowed down traffic,” she says.
He did not take well to a leash. He choked himself on it, got a
neck rash, wouldn’t eat for days. “It broke his spirit,” Mason says.
“It broke his heart.” The dog had to go.
It was February, slow season at the dock where Mason works the
fuel pumps, so she had time to write a letter to the Journal:
To the lady who insists on having the black and white dog on
the corner of Little and Douglas Roads arrested. His name is Corky
and he’s been protecting the road for nearly eight years with fierce
pride and great heart. He’s been here far longer, I would imagine,
than you’ve been here. Over the years, he’s made us many friends and
not one single enemy until now. He’s totally harmless under any
circumstances, but now he’s chained up and remains that way until we
can find another home, or, if necessary, have him put away.
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Vaughn, meanwhile, went to drown his sorrows in a glass of
Seven-Up at the American Legion club, where he was overheard by
Chris Allen and Harold Rist, animal lovers who live inland where
there aren’t so many cars for Corky to chase. The couple has a pit
bull named Ginger, seven cats and countless kittens happily
wandering around the milk crates and metal pipes in their scrappy
front yard. Might as well add another dog, they figured, so they
offered to take Corky. Maybe you should come over and meet him
before you decide, Mason said. Awhile later, they did, and while
they were all standing there at the end of the driveway on the
broken pavement, Mason felt himself choking up, changing his mind
about giving away the dog, so he said quickly, “Take him now and get
out of here.”
The rest is history, documented in district court papers filed
in the basement of the brick courthouse.
Left on his own on the stumpy hillside in the middle of the
island, Corky spent Saturday repeatedly barking at a neighbor’s
hutches that housed a few pregnant rabbits and several bunnies.
Early Sunday morning, when the neighbor caught Corky still
trying to get at his rabbits, he shot the dog through the chest with
a crossbow and then went inside to call the police. Corky limped
away and could not be found until some 20 hours later, when he
collapsed on Rist and Allen’s porch, the chewed arrow still lodged
in his upper back. They rushed him to the vet, but it was too late.
Corky was buried in their scrappy front yard next to some mossy
The trial took two hours. Judge John O. Linde found
29-year-old Michael Couey guilty on one count of cruelty to animals
and fined him $200.
THE TALK IN town after the trial, strangely enough, was more about
newcomers than about the guy who was actually convicted. There’s
only so much you can say about a someone who shoots a dog with a
crossbow. Newcomers, well, now there’s a topic to chew on for awhile.
Newcomers change the island. Some changes are good, some are
bad, sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. The community
theater, the medical center expansion, surround-sound at the movies
– most folks say those are good. Higher property values, good.
Higher property taxes, bad. And, of course, the jobs, well, the jobs
If not for the newcomers’ hot tubs, septic systems and pleasure
boats, young folks like the Mason’s son, a plumber, and their
daughter, a harbormaster, would have had to leave the island to find
employment. Rist, the fellow who eventually took Corky, wouldn’t
have had all that work delivering clear vertical-grain fir for the
eaves of a new mansion with teak floors, a catwalk, a gazebo hanging
over the water.
Most newcomers, of course, don’t live in such places. Six years
ago, for example, Robert and Nancy Scott built a neat tan house a
mile and a half down Douglas Road from Corky’s old dog house. A
white rail fence surrounds their seven acres of pasture where mist
clings to bales of hay in the morning and the wind rustles the grass
on late afternoons. Best of all, there is room for a small riding
arena and the Scott’s three horses.
The Scotts love those horses same as the Masons loved Corky.
But, as any newcomer or old islander could tell you, there is a big
difference between farm animals – cows and half-crazy mutts – and
elegant prize horses with combed mane. And the island being so
small, well, it’s hardly surprising those fancy horses and the
clunky cattle and the old-timers ways and the newcomers ideas, that
all that would somehow meet – and crash – where else? but on Douglas
So here comes Vaughn Mason again, Mason in his pickup with
Corky, the border collie who doesn’t herd cows. From far away, if
you saw only Mason’s head through the window and disregarded the
make and age of his vehicle, you could mistake the islander for his
neighbor, Bob Scott, “the California stockbroker,” as a few
islanders still call him, even though Scott has lived on San Juan
Island for six years and in Washington state for more than a decade.
Mason and Scott are both mid-50s, both with gray mustaches trimmed
square above the lip, both proud men who love animals and lost the
animal they loved the most. But confusing one for the other would be
a big mistake. They are not really alike at all, and they will
certainly never see eye to eye about the dog, or the cows or the
horse that died.
Par Avion was a thoroughbred gelding, nine-years-old, dark
brown, almost maroon, a dressage horse trained to perform a kind of
ballet. The trainers the Scotts flew in every week said Par had
potential to compete at Grand Prix level.
At this point in the story, nearly two years after Par passed
away, Scott’s face goes red and he cries. Losing Par, he says, was
pretty much like losing a child. “It’s been a battle. It’s tough to
get the average person to understand how warm your feelings are to
any animal,” he says. “. . . People just don’t realize – our horses
are not used to being around cows. We haven’t been able to get any
commitment it won’t happen again. . . ”
It, in this case, was Mason’s cattle drive down Douglas Road.
It was a Sunday morning in June. It involved 135 head of Black
Angus, the sheriff, the under-sheriff, seven mounted horses, riders
in front, riders in back, friends in pickups covering all the
driveways along the five mile route. It took about two minutes to
pass the Scotts’ property.
The Scotts were at church, but the hired man mucking the
pasture said the commotion made the horses go crazy, that they did
360s in the field for an hour. Par seemed fine that night, but the
next morning, the thoroughbred was tripping over his own hooves, and
by afternoon, the vet x-rayed a fracture and had to put him down.
They buried him in the pasture.
Scott believes the cattle drive caused his horse’s death.
Hogwash, Mason says, the horse was fine that night; it must have
stumbled in a rabbit hole the next day. There was a phone exchange
between the neighbors which both describe as unpleasant. Scott asked
Mason to notify him before the next cattle drive so he could put the
horses in the stable. Mason said he couldn’t be responsible for
Scott’s animals. Scott rustled up a petition asking the county
commissioners to draft a law to the same effect. They declined.
Scott sued. The suit was to recover the financial loss of the
horse, but it came with a back page that said all would be forgiven
and forgotten as long as Mason signed a letter promising to notify
his neighbors prior to future cattle drives. Mason, of course,
refused. This likely had a little to do with implied liability, but
was really more about what things had come to on the island:
litigation, signatures on the dotted line. Mason didn’t like it the
same way he didn’t like the idea of chaining Corky to the old oak.
The lawsuit didn’t go anywhere.
Scott shrugs. In six years, he has made many friends on the
island, some who have lived there for generations. It’s just a few
islanders, he says, who still have an attitude about newcomers.
“They like to be able to sell their property at new prices but then
they don’t like to have new neighbors.”
ANYWAY, CORKY IS dead.
For months after, back at the Mason’s driveway on Douglas Road,
people left dozens of bouquets of daffodils, rubber chew toys,
wreaths made up by the florist. Letters poured in to the Journal:
It isn’t the dog. It’s the island. It is a way of life that is
at stake here, not the fact that Corky herded cars. He’s been here a
long time doing the same thing and he has bonked his head into the
side of my car more than once. I got used to him and he made me
laugh. It’s because some lady went straight to the sheriff instead
of stopping by and talking to the Masons that people are writing
letters to the editor. . . . I don’t think that people here are
afraid of a greater island population, or more houses, as they are
of the people who do move here that bring their mainland baggage
with them. I came here to embrace things the way they were, not to
change them. Everybody here is your neighbor and should be treated
as such. Try to avoid living via bureaucracy. Love your neighbor.
A few letters, from other island dogs, expressed solidarity
with Corky, said they missed him, vowed not to forget. And people
continued to write. A year later, the Journal was still publishing
letters about the dead dog:
With a petition reaching the commissioners’ office to
memorialize Corky by naming a road after him . . . we now feel
compelled to state our view . . . Corky’s neighbors are criticized
for reporting him to the sheriff instead of resolving the matter
with the (Masons). We complained to Laurie (Mason) about Corky
flinging himself at our car every day, often hitting the tire if we
did not swerve, and were told Corky was crazy when they got him,
driven to chase cars and expected to die young.
We explained that twice our visiting relatives had swerved into
the opposite lane to avoid hitting Corky. Had there been an oncoming
car it would have been our family that died young, not Corky.
In our opinion Corky was a dangerous animal and his owners had
an obligation to restrain him. The people who complained to the
sheriff had no other option. We are sorry he died the way he did,
but are grateful he is now gone from his corner. We would be more
sorry if, as was inevitable, a motorist had died because of him. No
Joy H. and R. Daniel Selak
One resident pleaded:
. . . Please let this issue die an easier death than Corky did.
. . . How long is our admittedly small community going to drag it
By summer, under the cover of whirring electric fans, some
islanders would tell you privately they were sick of the whole Corky
thing – the letters to the editor, the petitions to rename the road
in the dog’s honor – that it was diverting attention from pressing
problems like domestic violence, lack of affordable housing, a
20-year growth management plan with a bunch of deadlines sometime
soon. People are struggling to hold onto the past, they warned,
while the island is being inundated with the future.
SUMMER IS ABOUT to begin again on San Juan Island. Every slip in the
marina full, float planes buzzing overhead, red mopeds zooming
underfoot, people licking ice cream cones. Here comes the ferry
Nisqually chugging into harbor, its gut bursting with mini-vans and
Mercedes and sport-utility vehicles strapped with mattresses. The
summer people get set to disembark as if at the starting line of
some marvelous adventure.
When the ferry hits the dock, they’re off! A parade of tourists
in neon-topped sunglasses and pink straw hats. The crowd curves left
on Spring Street, past Coldwell Banker, past the sidewalk racks with
woven shirts from Mexico, past the shops with eclectic collectibles:
Glass whales, ceramic polar bears, free strings of pearlized beads
with purchase of jazz festival T-shirts, Roche Harbor condo:
$295,000 w/40 ft slip.
A few will surface on the other side of all this, some in the
air-conditioned comfort of real estate agents’ cars. Maybe they’ll
spin out to the west side of the island in search of prime property,
low bank waterfront, sunset views of the whales. Perhaps their route
will take them on Douglas Road.
There, not far from the 400-year-old oak tree, they may notice
the county’s new brown sign, “Corky’s Corner.” But Corky’s doghouse
is gone. So they’ll speed on, car after car, with no real reason to
Paula Bock is a writer for Pacific Magazine. Harley Soltes is