From Camas to Oysters (and “Please pass the peas.”)

Posted March 25, 2020 at 5:45 am by

Here’s this month’s his­to­ry col­umn from the San Juan His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety and Muse­um

San Juan Islands Cannery Label - Contributed image

Here’s a lit­tle triv­ia ques­tion for you: When did farm­ing first begin on San Juan Island? If you said “about 1850” or “with Hud­son Bay Company’s Belle Vue Sheep Farm” you would not be alone, but that’s not quite ear­ly enough.  Too often over­looked is the ear­li­er his­to­ry of Native Amer­i­can camas cul­ti­va­tion in this region, includ­ing on San Juan Island.

Coast Sal­ish farm­ing oper­a­tions, tra­di­tion­al­ly inher­it­ed and main­tained by women, also includ­ed oth­er edi­ble roots such as wild car­rots and rice root. Mead­ows under cul­ti­va­tion were well estab­lished by the time Euro-Amer­i­can trad­ing posts were built in the ear­ly 1800s and began to influ­ence Native farm­ing meth­ods in the Pacif­ic North­west. Then, with cross-cul­tur­al mar­riages between Coast Sal­ish women and men of Euro­pean descent, new­ly arrived set­tlers learned proven farm­ing tech­niques for this cli­mate and soil from their wives. To read about the his­to­ry of Coast Sal­ish root crop cul­ti­va­tion, check out an excel­lent His­to­ry Link arti­cle by Rus­sel Barsh and Madrona Murphy.

The Hud­son Bay Com­pa­ny estab­lished Belle Vue Sheep Farm with a starter flock of 1,369 sheep on the south­ern end of San Juan Island in 1853, lay­ing the foun­da­tion for why present-day islanders know all about a pota­to patch, a hun­gry pig (actu­al­ly a boar), and the ensu­ing Pig War. There was also a lot of fam­i­ly farm­ing that grew (pun intend­ed) into indus­tri­al­ized, large-scale oper­a­tions dur­ing the home­steading era and beyond. This is but a short col­umn, so we will leave the larg­er sto­ry of live­stock, dairy­ing, crops, and orchards for anoth­er time and move right on to peas.

Although dry peas had been grown on the island since the mid-1800s, it wasn’t until 1922 that things real­ly took off. This is when John “Pea” Hen­ry intro­duced the plant­i­ng of vines for green peas. On behalf of investors, he even­tu­al­ly bought up over 1,000 acres of val­ley farm­land for plant­i­ng and soon opened Fri­day Harbor’s San Juan Islands Can­nery. This took over a for­mer salmon can­nery and pro­duced the “Salt Air” brand of canned peas. We do not have a sur­viv­ing label to share for illus­tra­tion, but we offer the same cannery’s beau­ti­ful “Ocean Breeze” label, pic­tured above.  Pro­duc­tion was robust until the late 1930s when infes­ta­tions of aphids and the pea leaf wee­vil led to the final dec­i­ma­tion of crops in 1940. Major pea pro­duc­tion returned just once more in 1956, for a revival of ten years by the Fri­day Har­bor Can­ning Com­pa­ny and George Jeffers.

This brings us to the world-renowned oys­ters of West­cott Bay. Farmed on tide­lands since 1978 for fam­i­ly-run West­cott Bay Sea­farms, this aqua­cul­ture farm near­ly went the way of the island pea indus­try when the prop­er­ty went on the mar­ket decades lat­er. For­tu­nate­ly, it was revived in 2013 as West­cott Bay Shell­fish Com­pa­ny in and is still local­ly owned.

Anoth­er type of spe­cial­ty farm­ing con­tribut­ing to our island cul­ture is, of course, laven­der grow­ing. With the first 2,000 or so plants placed in rows in 1999, Pelind­a­ba Laven­der Farm changed how many viewed island agri­cul­ture going into the future.

There are well-researched books avail­able to guide one’s jour­ney into the his­to­ry of farm­ing on San Juan Island. Find them at the San Juan His­tor­i­cal Muse­um, in local shops, and at the San Juan Island Library. Two of our favorite books are Island Farm­ing by Boyd C. Pratt and Images of Amer­i­ca: San Juan Island by Mike and Julia Vouri.

Many places excel with live­stock, crops, and orchards. Where else but San Juan Island is also known for such a unique his­to­ry with camas, peas, oysters….and lavender? 

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Categories: Around Here

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