A Cook’s Cabin Full of Clues

Posted July 4, 2018 at 5:47 am by

Here’s the month­ly His­to­ry Col­umn for July from San Juan His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety and Museum…

There is so much to see in this his­tor­i­cal pho­to­graph tak­en at a Salmon Bank fish camp on the south end of San Juan Island. It is rare to see an island pho­to­graph of an inte­ri­or scene from over 100 years ago, so this one stands out in the archives collection.

When it was donat­ed to the San Juan His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety and Muse­um a num­ber of years ago, it came with the sim­ple descrip­tion of “Cook’s Cab­in at Salmon Bank, late 1800s.” Fish traps, as adapt­ed from Native Amer­i­can reef net design, were first intro­duced there in 1892. With the fish trap oper­a­tions came the need for larg­er crews, rus­tic hous­ing, and sup­port build­ings like a cook’s cab­in on shore.

Dat­ing pho­tographs can be chal­leng­ing. How­ev­er, by zoom­ing in on a dig­i­tal copy of this par­tic­u­lar image, we can gath­er some clues about this one.

Four posters on the cab­in wall are of inter­est; two of which are par­tic­u­lar­ly help­ful. Old Cas­tle Whiskey was first reg­is­tered as a brand in 1872. Kis-Me was the first fruit-fla­vored chew­ing gum, estab­lished in 1886, and advances the ear­li­est date of the pho­to­graph to that year. Rainier Beer was estab­lished by the Seat­tle Brew­ing and Malt­ing Com­pa­ny as its sig­na­ture brand in 1893 (“Vig­or and strength in every drop”). The Morrell’s Eure­ka Brand label dis­played in the poster was first used in 1899 to adver­tise a line of cured meats. (We won’t com­ment on the depic­tion of a half-dressed maid­en to sell ham, except to say it helped estab­lish the year.)

Thus it appears, based upon evi­dence pro­vid­ed by the posters, that a time peri­od of around 1900–1910 but not pri­or to 1899 could be assigned to the pho­to. What about oth­er clues? The ladies’ cloth­ing seen in the posters sug­gests an era of 1890s to about 1910, but we don’t know how long this cook had been dec­o­rat­ing with these same posters and cal­en­dars (which dates could not be read).

A pho­to­graph indi­cates more than just a time peri­od. In this one, we also see two love­ly pat­terned table­cloths and a bor­der of lace trim high up on the wall, atop the posters. The cen­tral fig­ure is a man clear­ly con­fi­dent and proud of his dec­o­rat­ed sur­round­ings. He is dressed neat­ly and with style in what looks like a Pana­ma hat, a gentleman’s acces­so­ry pop­u­lar for decades. What about the iden­ti­ty of this dap­per man?

He was pos­si­bly a fish camp cook by the name of Frank McLain, men­tioned as an 1899 cook in a Nation­al Park Ser­vice doc­u­ment about the his­to­ry of fish­ing at Salmon Bank. McLain also appears in the 1900 U.S. Cen­sus for San Juan Island. He is described there as a 36 year old, unmar­ried cook, resid­ing near the Firth Fam­i­ly in what is now Amer­i­can Camp. This cen­sus record for his age and res­i­dence in 1900 point to Frank McLain as the pos­si­ble iden­ti­ty of the mys­tery cook in the photograph.

This cen­sus also lists a 19 year old “ser­vant” in the McLain house­hold. He was also a cook. The Salmon Bank camp was known to employ up to 70 work­ers at a time, housed in dor­mi­to­ries on site while com­ing togeth­er for meals in a com­mu­nal hall. This big oper­a­tion would require a cook with an assis­tant. But is the cook in the pho­to­graph indeed Frank McLain? We can­not know with cer­tain­ty. But we do know that the cook in the pic­ture had a spe­cial woman in his life. In the pho­to­graph, he holds a por­trait of a lady who appears to have been impor­tant to him in some way. Many things are tacked up on the cab­in wall, but this one pho­to­graph of a woman is held dear­ly by the cook.

Thanks for pos­ing, Frank or who­ev­er you are.

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Categories: History, People


  1. I reef net­ted at a native site in Open bay of Hen­ry Island With Jess Groll and his wife about 50 years ago. The purse seine’s would cut us off most of the time so we did not catch many salmon, it was a good expe­ri­ence fish­ing with good friends and a good memory!

    Comment by russell lowell on July 5, 2018 at 7:21 am
  2. Thanks for your com­ment, Rus­sell. It’s all inter­est­ing and the San Juan His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety & Muse­um loves hear­ing of experiences.

    Comment by Robin Jacobson on July 5, 2018 at 11:58 am
  3. Love to see these old pho­tos & hear the good ‘ol stories…thanks for sharing! 😉

    Comment by alison on July 13, 2018 at 12:29 am
  4. Thank you, Ali­son. The San Juan His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety & Muse­um appre­ci­ates the feed­back. It’s a plea­sure for us to write these sto­ries and share the photos.

    Comment by Robin Jacobson on July 13, 2018 at 9:33 am

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