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Vashon’s history goes online

Rayna Holtz, left, and Laurie Tucker have been working since last summer on “Vashon Island Heritage.” - Leslie Brown/staff photo
Rayna Holtz, left, and Laurie Tucker have been working since last summer on “Vashon Island Heritage.”
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

With the click of a mouse, Islanders can view sepia-toned photographs of Paradise Cove in the 1920s, when a little girl named Tad made seaweed pies on the beach with her dog Snooks.

They can read stories about how the first settlers hauled lumber from Tacoma to build their homes above Quartermaster Harbor, see photos of the fire that consumed the original Vashon College in 1912 and read the primary documents of an anthropologist who interviewed the Island’s first people in 1922.

Thanks to a grant from the state and countless hours of work by Vashon librarians Rayna Holtz and Laurie Tucker, a slice of the Island's history has been catalogued as a fully annotated digital archive, providing a treasure trove for historians, genealogists and others interested in Vashon’s colorful and sometimes hard-scrabble past.

“Vashon Island Heritage,” as the new digital collection is called, went live last week. With its debut, more than 900 images or pages of information — photographs, letters, newspaper articles and journal entries — are available online to anyone with even a passing interest in Vashon history.

“It’s a real gift to the Island,” said Glenda Pearson, a Vashon resident who heads newspaper collections at the University of Washington Library.

Historian and Island resident Bruce Haulman agreed. “It’s a fantastic contribution.”

The two women — who volunteered their time for the project — have been working on the digital collection since last summer, when they received a grant from the Washington State Library’s Rural Heritage Initiative, an effort to help rural libraries across the state digitize their community’s archive of historical documents and records.

While it didn’t pay for their time, the grant did provide much that Holtz and Tucker needed to make what had been a dream of theirs and others on the Island a reality: The two received training in the complexities of creating digital catalogues, hands-on support from the state library, needed software, specialized scanning equipment and virtual “space” on the state’s online rural heritage site.

Of the 14 collections that are now online across the state, Vashon’s is one of the largest, said Evan Robb, the digital repository librarian for the Washington State Library.

Asked how it is that Vashon’s collection is so huge, Holtz joked, “We weren’t being paid for our time, so no one told us to stop.”

Holtz, a librarian, and Tucker, a library assistant, sat in front of a computer at the Vashon Library describing the collection last week, happily walking a visitor through the new site —washingtonruralheritage.org/vashon/.

The site — 54 discrete items contributed by the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Museum, the Vashon Library, the University of Washington, Vashon College and individuals — is made up of four sub-collections.

“Journals and Memoirs” features local histories such as Marjorie Rose Stanley’s “Search for Laughter” and Bill Rendall’s “Memoirs of Maury Island,” as well as a scrapbook that intimately documents Florence “Tad” Burd’s adventurous childhood on Paradise Cove.

Under “Maps and Periodicals,” one can find maps as old as 1895 and the Island’s earliest newspapers, page by page.

“Vashon’s First Peoples” details the lives of the S’Homamish on Vashon — accounts enriched by anthropologist T.T. Waterman’s interviews of Lucy Gerand, a native woman who lived in a cabin at what is now Jensen Point until her death in 1929.

And “Vashon College (1892-1912),” the fourth sub-collection, includes photos and memorabilia documenting Vashon’s first college until it was destroyed in a dramatic fire.

The work was sometimes tedious, Holtz and Tucker acknowledged. They spent untold hours scanning fragile and often unwieldy documents, using specialized equipment provided by the state grant. The project also required technological savvy and careful writing — ensuring they provided context that made the information meaningful to the reader as well as formatting that complied with the best practices in what is a budding branch of historical archiving.

“It’s one thing to have a digital image of an arrowhead and another to know what it’s made of and that it was discovered at Kingsbury Beach,” Holtz said.

But the two women said they also enjoyed the discoveries they made along the way — particularly the glimpse they got into a young girl’s life on Vashon in the early 20th century by way of her mother’s handwritten journal and scrapbook. Florence Harger Burd, a single mother who lived in a cabin in what is now Bates Walk at Paradise Cove, painstakingly captured her daughter Tad’s early years — preserving locks of hair, cards she made, letters from her grandparents and dozens of intimate photographs.

“An outdoor tea party,” her mother wrote under a photograph of Tad sitting at a carefully set table with her cat in her lap, dated October 1925. “Tea cakes of sand frosted with seaweed,” another photo of Tad at the beach said.

“There is that very wonderful relationship between a mother and child that is reflected on these pages,” Holtz said.

“It’s very intimate. It’s very immediate. It was the accretion of the actual moments they shared, the day-to-day reflections and experiences.”

They’re also pleased that one of the sub-collections is devoted to exploring the lives of Native Americans who lived on the Island at the time that Euro-American settlers discovered Vashon, Holtz and Tucker said.

O.S. Van Olinda’s history of Vashon Island, one of the most established accounts of the Island’s settlement, suggested that the pioneers were the only people on Vashon in the late 19th century, when he became one of the Island’s first white families.

But in fact, Holtz and Tucker said, several native people — their numbers decimated by small pox and their ranks thinned because of efforts to place them on a reservation — lived along Vashon’s beaches.

“We thought it was important to establish the fact once and for all ... that there really were people living here year-round before the arrival of the pioneers,” Holtz said.

As a result, one can go the site and view photographs of Native Americans digging clams next to the original Quartermaster Dock or read some of the original place names native people used to describe Vashon’s features. Point Robinson, for instance, was “Hollering Across” in Lushootseed and Portage, appropriately enough, was “Place Where One Pushes a Canoe Over.”

The sub-collection, Tucker said, is a counter to Van Olinda’s seemingly definitive history of Vashon. “It’s kind of the unpublished people’s history,” she said.

Pearson, with the UW, said what the two women have accomplished is considerable — both for the breadth of the collection as well as its detail. The mix of items — government documents, artifacts, diaries and letters — is particularly impressive, she added.

“They’ve tied things together and organized it well,” she said. “It tells a coherent story.”

Visit the site online at WashingtonRuralHeritage.org.

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