The forested, gravel driveway of the Kneeshaw House crosses bubbling Judd Creek and diverges into a clearing where, on Saturday, volunteers busily cut away at ivy, holly and other invasive plants.
Willed to the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust by islander Mike Kneeshaw before he died in 2016, this was one of the final stops on the weeklong Earth Action Tour, part of the second Earth Day celebration, which saw many islanders turn out for speakers, a fair and raffle at Vashon High School.
Away from the larger crowds and host to events last week such as bird box building and forage fish egg processing with the Vashon Nature Center, the Kneeshaw House is starting to bloom.
“Mike never said anything to me about this gift. He just did it, which was kind of cool and kind of shocking,” said Tom Dean, executive director of the Land Trust. The Kneeshaw property donation, totalling 9 acres, is a significant chapter in the story of the Judd Creek Preserve, which Dean says is currently the Land Trust’s most active habitat restoration project.
“We just purchased two parcels in December, and we’re trying to pay those off,” said Dean.
The Land Trust completes conservation purchases each winter.
“We did two major cleanup projects — demolition and cleanup — one at Judd Creek, one at Kneeshaw and another downstream. King County did a tear down at the mouth of Judd Creek, and we’re gearing up to assist them with two or three log replacement projects, replacing salmon habitat by placing logs in the creek,” said Dean.
The logs act as a buffer and create suitable locales for various species of forage fish to spawn, boosting overall numbers and encouraging their return.
“Looking ahead, we’re trying to scope some trail routes to expand off the Judd loop and build a trail network around there,” he added.
Salmon pass through Judd Creed, according to Dean, but as the estuary runs directly parallel to SW 204th Street, there is no opportunity available there to expand the route for migrating forage fish without impacting the road.
Given the circumstances, right away the Kneeshaw House set itself apart from similar bequests on the island, as the Land Trust considered what to do with the empty house that now stood on the Judd Creek Preserve.
“There was no reason to tear down the house if we couldn’t reform the creek in its former channel,” said Dean.
That meant the original home had to be repurposed, but some work is required before the Land Trust can launch any experiment in the space and formally open it to the public.
Early on, they settled on the idea of a community center, a hall for meetings, classes or retreats, as well as establishing it as a potential base for interns and Land Trust partners.
“We’re not sure what the demand for that will be. We’re still trying to gear up for the renovation,” said Dean, who noted that basic administration of the house as a community space is still in planning stages, lacking a fee structure or calendar of availability. “We want to have some open space around the house for outdoor events. Maybe groups want to throw a fundraiser there, or we might use the lawn space to camp if we have groups coming out.”
Dean says the Land Trust will determine the best way to use the house along the way.
“It will be in part about habitat and in part about community use. We’re sort of in the real experimental mode, and we will be farther along when it gets opened up. It’s not really in primetime yet,” he said.
To help get it there, the Vashon Rotary Club recently stepped in and commenced their yearly service project by making several major upgrades to the kitchen.
“We had reached out to a lot of the island nonprofits and asked them to send a proposal to us for a community service project for us to contribute,” said Mike England, president of the Vashon Rotary Club, which fundraises to support one major signature service project each year.
The club is able to offer grants to the community ranging from $3,000 to $4,000 for a worthy island cause, as well as the labor of its members. According to England, in the past the Vashon Rotary Club has solicited the help of AmeriCorps members for work in the island parks and partnered with Vashon Community Care to support the nonprofit Music Mends Minds, a program that targets elderly islanders with dementia and empowers them with the healing properties of music. On Thursday, the club will hold an NFL Draft Bingo event in association with the Vashon Eagles to sponsor the Kneeshaw House renovation and to fund future grants for upcoming community service projects.
“We have a budget for money to spend; we have a lot of volunteers looking to donate their time. The Land Trust gave us a proposal, and we ran it by the club,” said England, adding that the Rotarians liked the kitchen remodel project from the start.
“This one really grabbed us,” he said. “It seemed like an opportunity to make a difference for something that would last on the island.”
The Rotary Club sourced the materials themselves, including the new countertops, cabinets, sink, appliances and range hood. Members with backgrounds in construction oversaw the project, but as community service chair and member John Bean discovered, installing Ikea cabinets is a formidable challenge for even the most seasoned carpenter.
“It was quite a bit of work, more than we thought,” he said, noting that he was very pleased with the final product.
Ultimately, Bean believes that it was a worthwhile cause, and part of what being a Rotarian is all about.
“At the local level, I think people like [belonging to the Rotary Club] because it just really keeps you in touch with the community. You feel like you’re helping your neighbors, and there’s also lots of camaraderie; it’s service that feels hands on and local,” he said.
Bean feels that the Kneeshaw House will be a valuable asset to the island in the years to come.
“When you go out and look at it, it’s a really lovely area, and it’s going to be a real great place for workshops and community events,” he said.
The Land Trust acquisition of the Kneeshaw House threads two parcels of land back together again, namely an area that was formerly called Dorthea Park. In the past, K2 Sports held picnics there, according to Dean, who said it became something of a party destination before it was privately sold and faded into obscurity.
“[Kneeshaw] really wanted this park to be together again and to be something,” said Dean.
Although the Earth Action Tour stops at the Kneeshaw House and Judd Creek preserve were not an official debut of the property, Dean said they were not without meaning.
“I think we will have an opening later on that will be like, ‘Come and check it out.’ This is sort of like, ‘Come and help us get it ready for that,’” he said.