FRIDAY HARBOR, San Juan Island — Whale watching, kayaking, sailing and cycling might be your old-favorite reasons to visit San Juan Island. But May is “History Lives Here” month in the San Juans, and in terms of historical interest, this island — home of the Pig War of 1859 — brings home the bacon.
Whether you’re looking for a Memorial Day getaway or planning an autumn vacation, include time to get in touch with the San Juan of old. That might mean a walk through the pretty woods near Roche Harbor to find Afterglow Vista, the eerie, Greek-ruin-like mausoleum of the McMillin family, which operated the nearby lime works in the late 1800s.
Or it might mean a sunset climb to the top of 650-foot Mount Young, with a side trip to the English Camp cemetery in San Juan Island National Historical Park to find the only human casualties of that famed 19th-century border skirmish, including one William Taylor, “accidentally shot by his brother.” (Only the pig — property of British farmers — was killed in anger, after it rooted in the garden of a musket-toting American settler.)
Or just show up for the Fourth of July picnic at the old farmstead headquarters of the San Juan Historical Society, where islanders dress up as soldiers of the old days and feast on — what else — pulled pork.
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It had to be.
Go soon and take a free walking tour of Friday Harbor with Boyd Pratt, local architectural historian, to learn about Sunshine Alley. It’s where a lot of the living and loving, cussing and carousing has been done in this town.
The tour starts at the newly renovated Brickworks, one-time home to the Friday Harbor Brick & Tile Co., whose artfully textured concrete blocks can be seen in buildings all over town.
Pratt knows his town. Over coffee at the Cafe Demeter bakery, Friday Harbor’s quiche-and-coffee social hub, he showed me old township maps from the 1890s that, among other things, explained the name of the town’s main drag, Spring Street (a natural spring once bubbled from its middle). The maps also showed hundreds and hundreds of trees.
“They grew Italian prunes here, and they were shipping them out by the ton,” he explained.
He pointed out where a big ditch once came in so that boats could deliver liquor to the back of Spring Street bars. Those are the kind of tales to expect in his May 31 tour.
Thanks to efforts of the San Juan Islands Agriculture Guild, the 1920-vintage Brickworks reopened last year as a community hall (with an outdoor plaza) that hosts the San Juan Island Farmers Market (10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays from mid-April to late October, sjifarmersmarket.com) as well as a “Live Life Well” series of lectures with forums, cooking demonstrations and workshops (chef Greg Atkinson is featured June 1; fhbrickworks.com).
The old industrial building is transformed, with fresh paint, new roofs and gleaming island-fir floors.
“Some people thought it used to be butt ugly,” Pratt said. “Not anymore.”
Get a charge out of Pickett
Time your visit right and you can catch one of two San Juan Community Theatre performances this summer by Mike Vouri, historian at the national park, who has made a specialty of portraying George Pickett (July 11 and Aug. 21; sjctheatre.org).
Pickett, who commanded American troops on San Juan Island, went on to fame in the ill-fated “Pickett’s Charge” as a Confederate army leader (he was a Virginian) in the Civil War’s Battle of Gettysburg. Or come for the annual re-enactment Encampment at English Camp, including a Candlelight Ball, July 26-27. (See bit.ly/SJbKrB for a full schedule of summer events at the national park.)
Vouri, probably the world’s leading authority on the Pig War and author of a University of Washington Press book on the subject, showed me around the McRae House and other historical structures that will be open to the public for the first time in a May 31 tour at the park’s American Camp.
“This is the door that George Pickett went through,” he said, betraying the awe in which he holds history. “The boards you’re standing on are boards George Pickett stood on!”
The house’s interior is full of cobwebs now, but restoration is expected to begin soon.
I got a shiver, from both history and natural beauty, just walking with Vouri past the earthworks “redoubt” fortifications built by Henry Martyn Robert, author of Robert’s Rules of Order, and down through the ice age-scraped prairie all atwitter with birdsong. Above Grandma’s Cove, we looked out on the broad and windswept waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the snowy Olympics. On a really clear day, Vouri said, you can see Oregon’s Mount Hood.
“There goes a northern harrier,” he pointed, as a raptor soared over our heads.
• Coming this July is the first phase of the Island Museum of History and Industry, devoted to fishing, farming, logging and lime, “all the industries that were key to these islands,” according to museum director Kevin Loftus. It will occupy a converted barn on the grounds of the old James King farm, now home to the San Juan Historical Society and Museum, 323 Price St., Friday Harbor; sjmuseum.org.
• Coming later this summer is a newly expanded home for the San Juan Islands Museum of Art, 540 Spring St., Friday Harbor; sjima.org
3 shops worth a stop
• Funk & Junk Antiques is hard to resist just for the name. It’s like a museum in its own way, stocked by estate sales of longtime island residents. Treasures range from a display of old fishing lures to a rack of moose antlers ($395). Proprietor Michael Adams showed off his favorite recent acquisition: a set of well-weathered dominoes in ebony and bone. 85 Nichols St., 360-378-2638.
• Serendipity used books is the perfect vacation find when you’re in need of good reading. More than 50,000 books crowd an old Victorian house. Co-proprietor Dilys Goodman pointed me toward the “Serendipitous Discoveries” shelves, with everything from Kipling poems to a full set of McGuffey’s Readers. 223 A St., 360-378-2665.
• The Barking Bird caters to people who like dogs and people who like birds. There’s even a birdhouse shaped like a dog ($32.95). Say hi to Jack, the lovable Lab who lives there. 275 A St., 360-378-3647.
3 places to eat
• San Juan Island Cheese, which opened last summer, specializes in Northwest cheeses, beers and wines, with a light menu (such as a toothsome BLT with manchego and roasted-garlic mayo, $11). Wine-and-cheese pairing workshops most Friday nights through summer. 155 Nichols St., 360-370-5115 or sjicheese.com.
• Coho Restaurant, with fine dining in a cozy old house, offers a two-for-$70 special of soup, salad, main course, homemade ice cream and a bottle of wine. Or drop in for Global Cuisine Night every Wednesday through June (April included food of Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica and St. Maarten); three courses for $30 (and it picks up again in September). 120 Nichols St., 360-378-6330 or cohorestaurant.com.
• The Rumor Mill has a good happy hour, 4-6:30 p.m. daily, with seared wild-salmon sliders, two for $5, and more. Live music nightly — pleasant jazz guitar on my visit. 175 First St., 360-378-5555 or rumor-millsanjuan.com.
3 places to stay
• Snug Harbor Resort on pretty Mitchell Bay used to be a cozy hideaway in kinda funky old cabins. Now it’s a cozy hideaway with brand-new, shiny cedar cabins, a new store and coffee shop. It’s planned to be ready for summer visitors by June, though some units are renting now. Rates start at $299 on a June weekend. 360-378-4762 or snugresort.com.
• Bird Rock Hotel, formerly Friday’s Inn, is the original hotel in Friday Harbor. The outside still looks historic (even to the point of peeling paint), but inside is modern, sleek and comfortable, just steps from everything (including the ferry). Use the provided earplugs so you’re not kept awake by noisy neighbors at Herb’s Tavern. Rates start at $139 on a June weekend. 35 First St.; 800-352-2632 or birdrockhotel.com.
• Self-described “hip and unique” Juniper Lane Guest House is a charming, yet more affordable, lodging alternative on the edge of increasingly pricey Friday Harbor. Rates start at $85 on a June weekend. 1312 Beaverton Valley Road; 888-397-2597 or juniperlaneguesthouse.com.
Bonus idea for families: the homey and spacious Nichols Street Suites, upstairs from Funk & Junk Antiques; $165-$185, lodging-fridayharbor.com.
Brian J. Cantwell: email@example.com. Blogging at blogs.seattletimes.com/northwesttraveler. On Twitter: @NWTravelers