Category Archives: Winter 2010-2011

Incoming President’s Message

Mark Foutch, President

I’m truly honored to succeed Ralph Blankenship as president of the Olympia Historical Society.  Under Ralph’s leadership OHS has increased its visibility in the community, given community members new ways to learn about our programs and resources, and made significant progress in accessing and preserving local historical materials.

What’s so remarkable about all this is that it’s been accomplished with very little money and by a very few—but VERY dedicated—lovers of local history.

That’s why I was pleased to be asked to join the OHS Board in December, and more than willing to step up to a leadership position when the need arose.  I’m particularly grateful to Ralph for agreeing to stay on the Board and serve as our new Treasurer.

Our outgoing Vice President Russ Hupe’, Treasurer Lois Fenske, and Secretary Deborah Ross have devoted years of dedicated service to OHS.  Longtime member-volunteer Sue Goff continues as our one-person collections “staff.”  Together they have formed the bedrock foundation that has enabled OHS to function so productively.  They all deserve our sincere thanks.

With Board member Karen Bowen moving up to Vice President, and renowned local historian Shanna Stevenson bringing her very extensive knowledge, statewide experience and reputation to the Board as Program Chair, OHS is positioned to serve the community even better.  But difficult challenges do face us.

Most obviously, looming State budget cuts threaten to close the State Capitol Museum, with its stored materials, exhibits and programs that are vital for preserving and promoting Olympia’s history as the Capital City.  Also clearly at risk is general State support for historic preservation.  Meanwhile, Olympia still has no local history museum or other physical focal point that residents and visitors would recognize as “the” place to go to find Olympia’s fascinating story.  And there’s still no safe, secure, climate-controlled facility where families and businesses would KNOW that their irreplaceable collections of documents, images, sounds and artifacts could be deposited, protected, preserved and accessed in perpetuity by the public and scholars alike.

On the “plus” side, recent leaps in computer technology have made it possible for even such a small group as OHS to find, organize and distribute much more local history information and to communicate much more easily with the public about our goals, programs, events and opportunities.  We’re very fortunate to have younger “tech savvy” members like Secretary Mark Derricott and Webmaster Sean Krier to take advantage of these new capabilities.

To our current OHS members, THANK YOU for your past interest and support.  We need you even more in 2011.  You can do practical things to spread the word about this organization.  Let your friends and acquaintances know about or website and how little it costs to join.  Invite them to events and programs organized or just publicized by OHS.  Consider what you could contribute to our success with a small investment of your time and unique skills.  After a quarter century in this community I continue to be amazed at the range of knowledge and experience that exists out there, waiting to be motivated.

I think this is going to be a great year for your Olympia Historical Society!

Posted in Winter 2010-2011 | Comments Off on Incoming President’s Message

The Loft on Cherry and Olympia Knitting Mills: Bathing Suits, Beat, and Brew


Driving down Legion Way towards downtown Olympia on most evenings, you may notice the strings of colorful lights inside the second story of the building at the corner of Legion and Cherry Street. In the daytime, you will spot the freshly painted sign Olympia Knitting Mills on its side. Welcome to the historic Olympia Knitting Mills building, now home to Fish Brewing Company and The Loft on Cherry events and performance space. The building, listed on the National Register, has seen an amazing diversity of uses over its 90 year history, and many have literally left their mark on its walls.

Olympia Knitting Mills began its life as the Washington Knitting Mills in Seattle, changing its name to the Olympia Knitting Mills in 1909 and moving to downtown Olympia.  The company was organized by Sol Myers, a former Seattle resident; upon incorporation in Olympia, Myers drew in several prominent local businessmen, including downtown merchants Mitchel Harris and George Mottman, as investors.

After incorporation in Olympia, the mill rapidly expanded and by 1911 boasted 21 knitting machines and 38 employees and outgrowing its original space. Local historian Shanna Stevenson notes that many employees were women, some of them officers in the union organized at the Mills.knitting_mills_working_crew

In 1911, the Carlyon Fill created several new  blocks in and around downtown Olympia,  and eliminated the Swantown Slough, which had divided downtown from the east side of Olympia. Completion of the Fill allowed the mill to move to its present location in 1913. Workers would have been able to take the Olympia Light and Power trolley from as far away as West Olympia and Tumwater, down Fourth Avenue to Cherry Street, and walk the short two blocks to the mill. After work, they could take in a show at the Olympia Opera House just a couple of blocks away, or stroll through the paths and gardens of Sylvester Park during their lunch breaks.

girl w/ sweater

The Mills produced annual catalogues, featuring photographs by local photographer Vibert Jeffers who used local citizens as models, including children and teenagers sporting letter sweaters, sportswear, mittens and coats. One regular child model, shown at left, was the son of local physician Nathaniel Redpath. Another was Olympia High School student athlete Alvin Crowne, shown here wearing an Olympia High School football sweater. (The State Capitol Museum collection at the Washington  State Historical Society in Tacoma has several of these catalogues; descriptions and, in some cases, scanned images of the photos in the catalogues, as well as the Kay Darling pictures described below are available for viewing on line.)ym_knitted

Olympia Knitting Mills shipped its products all over the world, as far away as China.

During World War I, with materials in short supply, the factory languished, but then resumed full production in the 1920s. The company produced the Wil-White brand of swimsuit, rivaling Portland’s Jantzen label. Olympia High School student Kay Darling produced a series of dazzling watercolors displaying the rich colors and variety of styles available. This was an era where swimming as a recreational activity was very popular, with huge indoor “natatoria” (swimming pools) in many towns and cities; and the suits were in national demand.

watercolorIn 1929 the current two-story side of the U-shaped complex was added extending between Jefferson and Cherry Street along Legion Way. The building has tall bay windows along the long (Legion) side of the building at both levels, which provided ample daylighting for workers at their machinery. The one-story office annex, designed by famed architect Joseph Wohleb, was built around the same time.

In 1939, Olympia Knitting Mills closed its doors, for reasons undocumented in local accounts, but possibly related to the Depression and the advent of cheap competition.

The building did not remain vacant for long. During World War II, the space was used to manufacture aircraft parts and later used to manufacture jigs for plywood patches.

In the late 1940s, “serious” manufacturing gave way to fun, as the upstairs space started being used as an entertainment venue. According to local chronicler Matthew Green,

“By the 1940s, the second floor of the building, with its vast 6,500 square-foot open space and hardwood floor, had become a teenage dance hall. Known as the Bear’s Den, it hosted proms and other events for Olympia High School (the only high school in Olympia at the time).

hobo_cartoon“The dancers had to, of course, paint their names for posterity. ‘Dobbsie,’ ‘Spud,’ ‘Johnny L.,’ and ‘Macky’ are just a few of the many who made their mark, literally, on the walls, crossbeams, pipes, and anywhere else there was space to write. Other students preferred to paint pictures – of bears, cartoon ducks, dancing teens, and one cool dude standing next to a jukebox.

“[Loft on Cherry Manager Tim] Smith has found names with associated dates from 1941 through 1949. The freshman of the Class of 1950 are also represented, though apparently they never got to dance there as seniors. By 1950, the Bear’s Den was gone.”

In the 1980s, music again rang out from the second story, as legendary “K” records founder Calvin Johnson made the space into a recording studio, complete with outdoor sounds filtering in and adding a special local character to the recordings. Kurt Cobain, Beck and others were regular visitors, even sleeping in the space overnight from time to time. Matthew Green continues:

“Like the Bear’s Den, K Records is memorialized on the walls, in the form of a large K within a shield (the record company logo) and the names of people who played or worked there. Or celebrated their wedding there: “Jay T + Nikki Jan 1 2002” commemorates the occasion for local artist Nikki McClure and still-husband Jay T. Scott.”

In the early 1990s, Fish Tale Brewing Company started up a small brewery operation across the street from the Olympia Knitting Mills building and became almost an overnight success. Soon, the company purchased the Knitting Mills building and used the downstairs space for storage and brewing. But the upstairs space was unused, until Tim Smith, having recently left a job at the Department of Fish and Wildlife, came along in 2006 and found the space vacant. He persuaded Fish Brewing to allow him to lease out the space, at reduced rates, for local groups.  Today the space is rented out almost nightly, providing regular practice space for such organizations as Samba Olywa, event opportunities for nonprofit organizations, and parties. The original floor, graffiti, and water powered elevator (now no longer functional) are still in place.samba_dance

Recently, Fish has notified the community that it plans to remove the original second floor, in order to expand its storage capabilities in the building. Along with several other local organizations, the Olympia Historical Society’s membership voted at its annual meeting to let the company know that it has appreciated Fish Tale’s generosity in making the space available for arts events, as well as providing precious local access to an important slice of local history; and that it hopes the space may continue to be made available.

Historical photographs by special arrangement with Washington State Historical  Society (click on a photo for a hyperlink to larger view at WSHS website); Samba Olywa practice photo and “hobo” graffiti courtesy of the author. Quotes from Matthew Green article by permission.


Matthew Green article at Olympia Power & Light
Fish Brewing
The Loft on Cherry
Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation Historic Property Inventory Report
K Records

Posted in Winter 2010-2011 | Comments Off on The Loft on Cherry and Olympia Knitting Mills: Bathing Suits, Beat, and Brew

Farewell and Welcome from your Outgoing President

Ralph Blankenship, Treasurer.

Greetings fellow Olympia History Buffs!

What a fast paced year 2010 has been.  My year as president has been a good bit of work but also fun and fulfilling.  I’ve gotten to meet many new folks.  And gotten to know many folks better at our meetings and events.

Membership has grown well over the past year and increased interest in local history has been shown due at least in part to the 100 year celebration of the Washington legislature finally passing women’s right to vote (permanently).  And of course last year’s 150th birthday for the City of Olympia.  Two big events that OHS helped celebrate.

My congratulations to Mark Foutch, our new president.  In some respects it is difficult to leave the presidency but leaving it in Mark’s capable hands feels good to me.

And speaking of out of the kettle and into the fire I have accepted Lois Fenske’s spot as Treasurer for OHS.  She seemed to be breathing a sigh of relief as she handed me her 6” tall stack of materials that I will need to step into her very large shoes.  Thanks again Lois for your years of service on the board and as treasurer.

A Happy New Year to you all and I’ll see you at the February 19 general membership meeting.

Ralph Blankenship, outgoing-president, current treasurer.

Posted in Winter 2010-2011 | Comments Off on Farewell and Welcome from your Outgoing President

Board Meeting Minutes Summary January 8, 2011

Mark Derricott, Secretary

As noted elsewhere, the board of the Olympia Historical Society elected several new officers.  You have no doubt read about them from others. As for me, I am delighted to take over the responsibilities of Secretary from Deb Ross, who will then spend more time on our Facebook page and continue with other initiatives on the content of the website. Deb is also the tireless force behind our weekly bulletins. While I make no bones about the fact that keeping minutes and other formalities isn’t exactly the most fascinating work, this will free up precious volunteer hours for Deb to take our web presence to the next level. I am very grateful to be able to help indirectly in the effort. 

In keeping with the spirit of the Secretary’s duties, here is a brief summary of our January 8, board meeting.

Susan Rohrer updated the board on the status of the State Capital Museum and its recommended closure in the Governor’s Draft Budget.

2011 Board Election

Designation of 2011 meeting dates:

  • General Membership meeting February 19
  • Board meeting March 19:
  • Board meeting May 7
  • General Membership meeting June 4:
  • Board meeting September 17:
  • General Membership meeting October 15:
  • Board meeting November 19:
  • General Membership meeting December 2: Third annual potluck

Discussion of Programs for 2011 including: Historic waterfront walking tour, Bigelow House, Susan B. Anthony Commemoration, and other events to be featured and confirmed in our weekly bulletin.

Posted in Winter 2010-2011 | Comments Off on Board Meeting Minutes Summary January 8, 2011