Mural brings century of Vashon history to life

Illustrator William Forrester shows Kaija Elenko, 11, how to add clouds behind the chickadee she painted. - Leslie Brown/staff photo
Illustrator William Forrester shows Kaija Elenko, 11, how to add clouds behind the chickadee she painted.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

A huge mural — still weeks from completion — hangs on a wall in a Vashon warehouse, where illustrator William Forrester is bringing a veritable century of Island history to life.

There's Lucy Gerand, the last Native American to live on Vashon, and Norman Edson, the famous photographer.

Masa Mukai stands next to strawberry fields. Three farmers, Jessie, Irene and Ira Case, ramrod straight and as proudly stoic as the husband and wife in "American Gothic," command center stage.

Terkel Hansen, the founder of Vashon State Bank, will soon claim a place on the mural, as will Marjorie Stanley, the Island's first librarian, journalist Bill Speidel and farmer-artist Fred Eernisse.

This week marks the 100th year of the Island's first bank, an institution that started out as Vashon State Bank, became People's Bank in the 1950s and today is US Bank.

To celebrate the occasion, the bank commissioned Forrester, an Island illustrator, to capture not only the bank's colorful century of business on Vashon but also some of the milestones and characters that marked the past 100 years. Next month, it will be placed on the bank's north wall, a powerful presence facing the Village Green.

In a paint-spattered apron, Forrester paused from his work at the Sheffield Building warehouse and gazed at his mural, a vibrant work in progress that measures 11 feet tall by 38 feet long.

He noted the collection of musicians whose varying heights suggest to him notes on a staff. A child creeping over a knoll to give that part of the painting depth. Strawberry fields stretching out in tidy rows. And a dog next to a piano — an animal he's drawn 15 times in 15 different spots, he noted wryly.

"I've obsessed over the composition of this thing," he said.

The mural is just one of the ways US Bank is celebrating the centennial of banking on Vashon.

Staff will also open their doors Friday night for the First Friday Gallery Cruise, where they'll display bank ledgers from nearly a century ago — huge, leather-bound books that had been shoved into back corners collecting dust until bank manager Cheryl Hunt thought to open their yellowed pages.

There, she found the beautifully penned entries of a bank that once recorded all of its deposits by hand — as well as the names of some of the Island's earliest residents: the Eernisses, Bealls, Van Olindas and Shermans.

The bank's real estate loans totaled $16,000 in 1918. Individual balances varied from $12 to $600. An entree by "JG & A Eernisse" seemed typical: On May 10, 1918, the couple deposited $25, for a total balance of $498.20.

Islanders will be able to don white cotton gloves and peruse the pages of the old ledgers, looking for familiar names and taking in the elegant simplicity of banking a century ago.

Hunt said the bank is thrilled to be able to share the ledgers with the public; it took her three months of legal reviews, she added, to get the OK.

"No one's known what to do with them, so they've just been stored and stored and stored," she said of the ledgers.

"A lot of people are fascinated by the lore of this Island and would like to see who started this Island," she added. "I've had dozens of people come in here ... and ask about them."

The bank was founded on March 3, 1909, by Terkel Hansen, whose grandson, Art Hansen, is a celebrated Island artist.

Initially, it was housed not on Bank Road but on Vashon Highway, in what was then a two-story brick building adjacent to Robinson's Furniture, said Gene Sherman, a lifelong Islander and a member of the Vashon-Maury Island Historical Association board. Lightening struck the building sometime in 1912, and the second floor was destroyed, Sherman said.

The bank's second iteration was then built on the corner of Vashon Highway and Bank Road; a stately house, where the bank manager lived, sat behind it.

Sherman, 89, held an account at Vashon State Bank, the only bank on Vashon for decades. The bank, he recalled, was one of the few able to keep its doors open during the 1929 stock market crash, in part because of Hansen's demanding practices: The collateral for a loan was high, about three times the amount a person wanted to borrow, Sherman said.

Sherman himself bumped up against Hansen's stringent policies. In 1944, just before the end of World War II, he wanted to borrow $4,000 from the bank to purchase some waterfront property on Quartermaster Harbor. The bank manager asked him what his draft number was. When Sherman told him 1A, "The bank manager said, 'Forget it.' With a 1A, I was subject to the draft any day," Sherman recalled

In 1970, the third and current bank was built, replacing the much smaller structure. The house behind it was moved to Cove Road, where it still stands today, Sherman said. Sherman's brother, Fred, helped to build the current bank.

All three of the buildings are captured on Forrester's mural — the first one, a stately brick building on the far left of the mural, the second one, small and almost Spanish-like in its architecture, and the current one, which Forrester has embellished by adding plants to it, giving it the feel of a greenhouse as well as a bank.

Forrester, a lanky man who exudes a boyish warmth, said the project has been a joy to undertake — though it's also required a daunting amount of research and many long days. A farmer, he comes to the warehouse to paint in the afternoon, after his farm chores are done, and works until late at night. Preliminary sketches that he drew are taped to walls; historical photos that have given him images to work from cover a table.

He jokes that he started the project in the Bush Administration and will complete it during the Obama presidency.

To give the project a community feel, he invited fifth-graders from Chautauqua Elementary School to paint Vashon's native birds in ovals that border the entire piece. It's also been a joy to work with them, he said. Just last week, three girls climbed the scaffolding, to get their birds into ovals along the top border.

"They've been fantastic to work with," Forrester said.

Forrester is an accomplished illustrator. His one other mural adorns an exterior wall at the AYH Hostel on Cove Road; he's done posters for the likes of the National Shakespeare Company and has been featured at the Blue Heron. But like many artists, he's pieced together a living — one that today is comprised not only of art but also farming and his third love, music.

Best of all is that this mural combines all three, Forrester said. Music is featured throughout the piece: He found a photograph of the Vashon Cornet Band of 1892, and while it technically goes beyond his 100-year assignment, he loved the photo too much to ignore it. Farming, too, is integral to the piece.

His three stalwart farmers in the center of the piece capture a certain grit and love of the land that he sees as the essence of Vashon. Chickens, cows, strawberry fields — even Forrester and his wife Jasper with their beloved cow Hazel will have a presence on the piece.

And then, of course, there's the sheer pleasure of making art.

"I'm putting these chickens in, and they're going in like butter," Forrester said, laughing. "There was very little about this that was laborious. ... I feel so blessed."

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