Tag Archives: Priest Point Park

Olsen and Fenske: The History and Memories of Priest Point Park

 

By Winnifred Olsen and Lois Fenske

History

Priest Point Park, located about a mile north of downtown Olympia, has a colorful history. The forested area and beach were once the site of an Indian village. Then came the European and American explorers, fur trappers and American settlers in 1845 and 1846. In 1848 an Oblate Catholic mission, which lasted until 1860, was established on the site . Developers took over for many years with big dreams that finally fizzled by the turn of the century. In 1905, the City of Olympia resolved the real estate controversy and purchased 240 acres and a mile of waterfront for a public park. Local residents rallied to donate labor to clear pathways and build a park – a family park for all ages to enjoy.

 

Then, and now, no admission was charged to use the park – a rarity, indeed.

The Family

My family, the L. E. Castle family, have been life-time users of Priest Point Park. I cherish early childhood memories of going to the park, special memories of grade school days, as a teenager, a young parent, a grandmother and a great-grandmother.

In my youth we lived on the Eastside near the Washington School. On some summer evenings, but mostly on Sundays, we would drive to the park to play on the swings and slides, visit the zoo, the beach and, perhaps, roast a hot dog in one of the open cement stoves.

Dad would push my sister and me on the tall “big kids” swings. We could go much higher than on the swing hanging from the apple tree in our back yard. We also enjoyed the green painted wooden gliders that swung more sedately back and forth. We often had to stand in line to use the covered gliders – everyone wanted a ride – mothers even sought them to soothe their babies.

Are any left today? Yes – carefully hidden – painted brown.

The Zoo

We loved to visit the zoo, which was located on the south side of the park, at the foot of a slight decline. A row of wooden pens housed a variety of animals – changing from year to year. There were wolves, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, deer and several bigger animals. I believe one summer there was a live bear on exhibit.

The most memorable animals, of course, were the peacocks! No one can talk about Priest Point Park without first commenting on the many peacocks that roamed throughout the park. There were always Oh’s and Ah’s when one of them opened up its tail feathers to form a beautiful fan. There would be contests and “show-offs” who couldn’t resist trying to imitate the shrill “cry” of the peacocks. A most unique sound to mimic.

The Beach

As youngsters we begged to go down to the beach to wade, to look for shells and unusual rocks – especially, flat, smooth, round rocks for dad to “skip” across the gentle waves. He also taught us about the tides.

Early Users

Before we were the “Castle family,” my parents and their generation obviously enjoyed the park. Somewhere in my photo collection there is a snapshot of my dad on a horse in the park (1915). Standing nearby were his brothers and their spouses dressed in their Sunday-best suits and hats!

Dad loved the park. On his last outing, before his death, he rested on an army cot beside Kitchen 3 and using his former logging experiences identified the various species of old growth trees towering above him for all of us to enjoy.

The Swimming “Hole”

In my grade school days (1928-30) we had several class hikes to the park from Washington School –duly chaperoned. Not chaperoned, about 8th grade, were a couple of visits to the Priest Point Park “swimming hole.” A narrow dirt road wound off East Bay Drive to a pond created by a little creek. The water draining into the bay was dirty, dirty! There was no place to change clothes. Not brave enough to dress in the bushes or tall grass, we must have worn our swimsuits to the park. Anyway, the “hole” didn’t last long. By high school, we chose to go to the local lakes.

The Kiwanis Feed and other Big Group Picnics

My uncle, F. Ray Klumb, founder of the Capitol City Creamery, lived in the last brick house before the park entrance. Each summer he put on a big “clam feed” for his fellow Kiwanis members. One year, my sister, Dottie, and I got to help his son, Harold, haul huge tubs of steaming clams from their house to the park in an old Dodge touring car. We felt special to be a part of the event. The food was served on the big long tables set in permanent rows under the tall trees in the main part of the park. For years, many fraternal organizations, businesses, and families counted on these tables for their annual celebrations.

Hanging near these tables were the “notorious” rings. Men of all ages would challenge each other like “toreadors at a bullfight,” betting to see who could last the longest or go the farthest, hand over hand on the equipment.

Long gone, the rings and tables. The area is serene. Individual tables are scattered under the same trees making a more romantic setting.

Kitchens

After covered kitchens were built, smaller picnic groups have vied for the convenience of sinks, running water, and a roof for shelter from rain. Groups sent out a scout to hold down tables for their picnic. Happily, today, part of the anxiety about securing a favorite spot is relieved. Reservations at four of the kitchens can be made in advance.

The Trails

Every summer my sister, Betty, would bring her two boys and two daughters to Olympia. With her two boys and my two, no corner of the park was unexplored. When the trail to Ellis Cove was completed and a small bridge built across the deep, gooey mud, we enjoyed this more primitive north park. The boys dared to scramble across the warning logs to climb the steep banks by hanging on the Madrona tree roots. Adults shuddered and turned their attention to the many wild native plants – and the many large slugs along the pathway. From a visiting naturalist, we learned that Northwest slugs are even bigger than those in North Carolina!

The boys to this day (in their fifties and sixties) share memories of sitting on the two Civil War canons facing toward the bay and wading in the saltwater for jelly fish and baby crab. They lamented they could not go swimming on the east side of the bay. Swimming, even then, was “not recommended,” or more to the point, “not allowed.”

The Chalet

Priest Point Park was historically noted for its two-story, green and white chalet facing west toward the water. The Swiss-styled building was the gift of Leopold Schmidt in 1905. The building had been part of the Olympia Brewing Company display at the 1903-04 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland.

The pavilion had a caretaker but was open only on special occasions and a few Sundays. I remember the “zoo” inside. There were large stuffed owls and other birds as well as large animal heads mounted on the walls. Most memorable, again, was a large black bear mounted on “all fours” – the same size and shape as “Pepper” our Olympia High School mascot. The building was demolished in the early 1950’s.

The Wading Pool

In 1990 I had the opportunity to share a babysitting job with my granddaughter visiting from Hawaii. We entertained the younger nephews in the park’s popular wading pool where the zoo cages used to be and where once there was a small ice cream store. Another granddaughter reminded me that I had frequently taken her to the pool thirty-five years ago.

Generations

A more recent glorious memory was made in 2005 when my two sons brought their families to the park to celebrate my birthday. With two sons, four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren we had a joyous picnic near the colorful playground equipment. We all were impressed with the brightly painted riding and sliding equipment and grateful for the implanted mats to help toddlers land (or fall) safely on the ground.

The Rose Garden

One doesn’t dare overlook the Rose Garden on the east side of East Bay Drive. An attractive cement bridge now connects the two sections. For many years there was only a wooden footbridge.

Noted for its well-manicured flowerbeds and its handy-equipped kitchen, this section has long been in steady demand for small group parties. It is also highly praised and appreciated by visitors limited to wheelchairs and walkers.

Newer yet, are underused picnic spots hidden in the woods to the east. Private spots appear suddenly around every bend in the winding road and a surprise – another covered kitchen – and a gliding swing!

Reflections

Who could ask for more? How fortunate we are to have such a beautiful, usable park within our city limits! A park that keeps serving generation after generation – with no admission charge. I truly believe Priest Point Park is a “hidden Jewel” of the Pacific Northwest. Taxes? Well spent! May this park – including the unforgettable memory of its peacocks – long survive!

About the Author

Winnie Olsen was born in Olympia in 1916, where she has lived her entire life. Her contribution to education and history and her service to the community are countless.

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Echtle: Olympia’s Backyard: The History of Priest Point Park

By Edward Echtle

2005 marks the 100th anniversary of the designation of Priest Point as an official Olympia city park, although residents and visitors used the area as a site for outdoor recreation since the 1800s. Prior to that, Priest Point was across roads of regional history, hosting generations of native peoples, early missionaries, itinerant settlers,and weary travelers. While Priest Point lies at the outskirts of town, its role in Olympia’s past makes its history a key story in an overall understanding of the community’s past.

When the first Americans arrived on Puget Sound in the 1840s, the shores of Budd Inlet were Squaxin land.Tribes, including Nisqually, Puyallup, Chehalis, Suquamish, Duwamish and others shared access to the inlet’s abundant shellfish beds. Seasonal encampments and year-round dwellings dotted the shores of Budd Inlet. At Priest Point, a natural spring and a productive fish trap located on Ellis Creek supported permanent residents. Early setttlers noted a native cemetery consisting of tree-burials near the site as well.

The abundance of resources made Priest Point an attractive site for a claim. In 1848, responding to a request by French Canadian Hudson Bay Company employees for spiritual leadership, Catholic clergy came to the northwest. Father Pascal Ricard chose Budd Inlet as the site of a mission due to its location along the main route of travel through the region, its proximity to the American settlement at Tumwater, and the large numbers of prospective Indian converts in the vicinity. Ricard filed a Donation Land Claim that encompassed the mission site and the current park lands. There they organized a school for the purpose of converting the native population and to teach carpentry and other industrial skills mainly to young converts.

By the 1850s St. Joseph’s mission complex included orchards, gardens, and three structures; the school, a dwelling and a dining hall. The buildings were of hand hewn timbers with shake roofs. Despite the rough conditions, travelers often commented on the well-kept grounds and the hospitality of the priests. Many early Olympians visited the mission regularly, including Margaret Stevens, wife of Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens, to practice her conversational French.

In 1855–56 tensions between settlers and Indians over recently negotiated treaties turned violent. American settlers built stockades and lived in fear of raids while the territorial government forced local natives to internment camps on Squaxin and Fox Islands. The missionaries’ amicable relations with the Native Americans made them suspect in the eyes of American settlers who cast them as sympathizers. While the priests attempted to appear neutral, some early settlers later recalled that they kept the American settlers apprised of the mood of the local Indians. During the war, some South Sound natives who chose to lay down arms did so after consulting with the mission priests.

In 1860 the priests abandoned the mission. Ricard,who returned to France in 1857, died in 1867 and his executors disposed of the land. Over the next decades, a series of settlers used the mission structures as temporary housing. The John Sternberg Family occupied the school and partitioned it into smaller rooms, but shortly thereafter moved to town because they disliked the isolated setting.

By the late 1800s Olympia residents used the former mission lands as a picnic site.  Lying within an easy row of the town, the area served as a popular destination for day outings. In summer, some local entrepreneurs offered steam powered small-launch service to Priest Point. Olympians camped, hiked, hunted, and swam in the relatively undeveloped land.

By the 1890s, the expansion of Olympia made Priest Point lands desirable to developers. Delinquent taxes on the property forced foreclosure and the city set an auction date. Meanwhile, local community activists who wished to see the land become a park sprang into action. While accounts vary, all agree that prominent businessmen Theodore Brown, Elias Payn (also known as the promoter of a proposed ship canal between Olympia and Grays Harbor,) and TJ Kegley were the main promoters behind the town’s acquiring of the land for a park. Their attorney, PM Troy, became Olympia City Attorney in the 1890s, and sealed the deal with popular support. By 1905 Olympia completed the necessary actions, including purchasing the land and extending town limits to encompass the park. In 1907 the state deeded the tidelands to the city, on the condition they were used for park purposes.

Immediately, the city and local residents began remaking the park as a community space. The city celebrated with a series of community clam bakes and volunteer work parties.

Leopold Schmidt, founder of the Olympia Brewing Company, donated a chalet used to display his products at the Portland Lewis and Clark Exposition in 1905.  For years the Chalet served as the social center of the park, hosting dances,weddings, and other community events. It remained in place until time rendered it unusable and dismantled in 1964.

In 1917 Olympia hosted a Fourth of July Picnic Celebration at Priest Point Park in honor of Fort Lewis Soldiers. The event was caught on film and its brief scenes of happy picnickers may be the earliest existing footage of Olympia.

Over the years the city added many features to the site,including a dock and landing for boats. As the age of the automobile emerged, the park also added a motor camp for overnight visitors. Records are unclear, but it appears park managers may have allowed the use of dredging spoils from Olympia’s Harbor to enlarge the popular swimming beach. Concessionaires placed bids with the city for the opportunity to be the sole purveyors of candy, cigarettes, and other sundries to summer crowds. In the 1920s the city granted the Boy and Girl Scouts permission to use the land north of Ellis Cove as they saw fit, their only stipulation: do not remove the trees.  There were also animal attractions, a standard feature in municipal parks in the early 1900s. Historian Gordon Newell alludes to the existence of a small zoo at the site.  Anecdotal accounts also suggest a caged bear was a park attraction for a time. Olympia Light and Power donated a number of elk to wander the grounds and peafowl roamed freely. The peacocks and peahens remained a popular feature until the mid 1960s and they are still one of the most frequently recounted memories of the place.

Along with the memories of good times associated with the park, there were activities and events that reflected difficult issues faced by citizens in any era. During lean economic times from the 1910s through the 1930s the town hired unemployed heads of families at $1.25 a day to cut firewood at the park for sale to the public. In one letter to the parks department written in the 1920s a park concessionaire explained his inability to fulfill his contract after he was the victim of an armed robbery at the park. Motor campers who stayed at the park wrote letters complaining of trash and maintenance issues at the park. In all, the incidents reflect the impact of extensive use by people from a wide and diverse spectrum of social and economic backgrounds.

In January 1933 unemployed men and women from Seattle and Tacoma marched on the Capitol at Olympia to demand government relief. Olympia business men feared violence from the “hunger march” but none materialized. When organizers announced a second larger march later that winter, the Olympia business community made it known the protesters were unwelcome and many residents joined the “American Vigilantes of Thurston County” to guard the city. When the marchers arrived, the guards diverted them to the camp at Priest Point Park and kept them there under armed guard. The large group strained park facilities to their limits; local police cleared the park within a few days.

Relief from the effects of the Great Depression eventually came from the federal government. As in many municipal parks nationwide, programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration supported the improvement of park structures such as the kitchens and better trails, the results of which are still in evidence in the park today.

By the 1970s, popular interest in historical sites led to a proposal for the construction of a replica of the mission and an interpretive trail telling the early mission history. While these improvements never materialized, the importance of the site in local and regional history, while little known to today’s population, has not diminished. Its central role as Olympia’s community backyard for over a century made it a stage for community outings and family events, including celebrations and ceremonies as well as the site of occasional iniquity and injustice. Along with its early history, the enduring legacy of Priest Point Park in local history is its role as a place where Olympia and Olympia residents in all eras are most themselves, relaxing and having a good time.

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