The Skagit Valley is one of the most important agricultural areas in the United States. It’s also just an hour’s drive from the Seattle area, and a wonderful place to find (among other things) derelict barns.
It is said that half of the spinach, beet and cabbage seeds used in the country are grown in the valley. Skagit farms grow over $300 million of crops, livestock, and dairy products on just 100,000 acres of land.
The Skagit was settled by European Americans in the second half of the 19th century, after some fifty years of occasional exploration due to the fur trade. The settlement process itself was relatively peaceful, with relatively few instances of violence between natives and whites. However, the newcomers came accompanied by silent killers. The Skagit tribes were decimated by smallpox in the late 19th century, largely settling any further question of land ownership.
Today, the Skagit River delta is lush expansive farmland, with only small patches of forest. In the 19th century, however, the same area was a classic river delta: mud flats, salt marshes and patches of dense forest. The transformation of the land was largely achieved by hand.
During the settlement days, each pioneer was responsible for staking his claim over an area of marsh, then painstakingly building dikes around that land. This was pure backbreaking labor, without the benefit of machinery: just a man, his shovel, and his wheelbarrow at low tide.
Today the delta remains a floodplain, but now both forks of the Skagit river itself have been diked. Flooding is an occasional problem,but so far the land reclamation gamble has been paying off for the Skagit farmers. The resulting land, of course, has been incredibly productive, as river delta soil often is.
In addition to farming, logging, mining and railroad construction also drew laborers and settlers to the nascent Skagit towns. Not every town was successful, however. Driven largely by bribery, the railroad routes determined to a large extent where the larger population centers would develop.
In many cases, settlements were fueled only by imagination. On Samish Island, the town of Atlanta was founded by a Confederate veteran, designed as a "sanctuary of persecuted Confederates and other sympathizers with the lost cause." Next to Atlanta, a Unionist founded Samish, and the two towns rivaled each other in various economic endeavors to the point of violence.
Samish Island today is a sleepy little hamlet with little visible trace of this not entirely ancient feud.
In the early pioneer days, one of the greatest challenges of life was finding a wife. The Skagit was no exception, and those pillars of pioneer life, the whorehouse and the mail-order bride, were no strangers to the valley.
The original Washington Territory prohibited interracial marriages between whites and natives. However, this did not prevent many settlers from marrying native women in native ceremonies. As white women gradually colonized the Skagit, not all of these arrangements ended well. When Washington was incorporated as a state in 1889, interracial marriages were grandfathered into legality, but only after requiring that they be legally formalized before the authority of the state.
As the story goes, one settler refused to engage in the second ceremony, due to concerns that his children would be seen as illegitimate. He was indicted for this small act of resistance, although later acquitted.
For the casual visitor, the Skagit looks first plain. Strip malls, casinos and outlet stores along I5 paint a garish picture of the area, as do the numerous alpaca-related lures. The highway is a source of entrappable Canadians and Seattleites, and the drive is long. So while not pleasant, the driveby shooting of commerce is understandable.
Once off the highway, however, perceptions shift. The more ludicrous appeals to your attention disappear, and the county settles down to the business of exploiting the land in a thousand different ways.
While the derelict barns call out to lens and eye alike, they are not symptoms of decay but exceptions. Instead, the tulip farms, farmers markets and weekend homes add up to a rural America that’s less desperate than optimistic. While ultimately fueled by unsustainable green revolution agriculture and tourist wealth from surrounding urban islands, the Skagit is generally a prosperous and peaceful place.
Even the tribes are doing reasonably well. After surviving a smallpox epidemic, a century of white settlement and a pair of toxic Shell Oil refineries, they continue to occupy their 1855 reservation lands. The Swinomish population has grown past 900, and their casino has been highly successful. In fact, they seem to be an entirely enterprising bunch.
The complete Flickr set.
(And thanks to the Skagit River Journal for much of the content discussed above.)