Anderson Island History

Anderson Island, the southernmost of the many islands in Washington State's Puget Sound, lies midway between the cities of Tacoma and Olympia and some five miles south of the famous Tacoma Narrows Bridge. With no connecting bridge, the island is reached only by Pierce County Ferry from Steilacoom or by private boat.

The island has a land mass of about 8 square miles, and a permanent population which has hovered around 1100 in recent years. Its many vacation homes make it a popular destination year-round, but especially in summer. The island boasts of two large lakes and provides habitat for deer, raccoons, coyotes, and other wildlife besides a healthy population of birds, frogs and bees.

When Charles Wilkes, commander of the United States Exploring Expedition, sailed into Puget Sound in the spring of 1841, he received a hearty welcome from an unexpected source - the Hudson's Bay Company staff at Ft. Nisqually. Heedless of the intense rivalry that had sprung up between Britain and the U.S. over their mutual claims on present-day Washington and Oregon, the post's chief factor, Alexander Anderson, not only extended hospitality to Wilkes and his crew, but he also furnished them whatever assistance they needed for their obvious assignment of spying out the country. When the Americans sailed away a few months later, their grateful commander bestowed the names of his new-found friends on the neighboring islands, including Anderson, McNeil and Ketron Islands.

Attempts to settle Anderson Island in the 1840's and 50's proved futile, and it was not until the early 1870's that the maritime-savvy Scandinavian immigrants took the first steps toward permanent residency there. Initially, they found a market for the giant old-growth timber that covered their claims by providing fuel for the wood-fired steamers that plied the Sound in the late 19th century. Later a brickyard was established, cashing in on the craze for brick construction that swept the region after the disastrous Seattle fire of 1889. Like many other branches of the construction industry, Anderson Island's brickyard folded in the wake of the world-wide panic and depression of 1893. The islanders turned to their farms, most specializing in poultry, with eggs and cream relatively easily shipped direct to Tacoma and Seattle by boat.

One such farm was the John O. Johnson Farm, established in 1896 and paid for by Mr. Johnson's several long years of cutting cordwood for one of the yards that sold to the steamers. In its heyday, the farm had as many as 5000 chickens, besides a herd of dairy cattle. When bachelor brothers Rudolf and Oscar Johnson passed away in the early 1970's, John Johnson's granddaughter Alma Ruth Laing donated most of the farm to the newly-formed Anderson Island Historical Society to serve as a museum and memorial to the Johnsons and other island pioneers.

Today, some forty years after its founding, the volunteers of the society have restored most of the original 14 buildings on the site to something like their original glory, including the lovely farmhouse, water tower, palatial barn, and two impressive 'Shoup' Chicken Houses, which were the state-of-the-art in the 1920's. Visitors to the museum can stroll through the lovely community gardens, inspect dozens of antique farm implements, and shop at the gift store nestled in one of the old chicken houses.

In recent years the islanders have raised, with their own hands, an Archival Building to house the Society's collection of artifacts and memorabilia documenting the history of Anderson Island. Designed by modern standards to suit the pioneer ambience of Johnson Farm, the nearly 5000 square foot building is constructed with concrete walls and an amazingly authentic-looking steel shake roof. The building exterior is clad with cement board planks, while the interior is paneled with weathered boards. The effect is to create a warm and inviting inside within a robust building whose outside is suggestive of a large condominium for poultry. The society hopes it will prove to be the perfect facility for providing today's and tomorrow's students of history with a window to Anderson Island's past

The Archival Building is being furnished with the latest audio-visual equipment for educational programs and workshops, and it also features a library/conference room and a separate climate-controlled room for exhibiting and storing perishable artifacts, such as baskets, textiles and photographs.

Visitors on any Wednesday morning will find volunteers busily maintaining the buildings and grounds of the museum, and the Historical Society's website [www.andersonislandhs.org] posts information about the many annual events held at Johnson Farm, including Farm Day (on the Saturday of Memorial Day), the Salmon Bake (on the Saturday closest to the 4th of July), apple cider squeezes in the fall, and a Holiday Open House on the first Sunday of December. Anderson Island is reached by Pierce County Ferry from the town of Steilacoom. Check on- line by googling Pierce County Ferries for sailing times and ticketing.