April 21, 2021
Sumas, border town of boom and bust, stays hopeful
Matt Benoit

‘Closed’ signs, empty storefronts, sparse traffic and a mostly shut-down border crossing give downtown Sumas a look of decline — for now. The town has seen both boom and bust over the last 130 years.

photo: Matt Benoit © 2021
April 21, 2021
Sumas, border town of boom and bust, stays hopeful
Matt Benoit

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These days, things are pretty quiet along Cherry Street. 

The main thoroughfare that cuts through Sumas on its way to the Canadian border isn’t seeing much traffic since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of the border crossing to all but essential traffic in March 2020. 

Besides the occasional border-bound semitruck or passenger car, the main drag is populated by a few local businesses and several more that long ago ceased to exist. Although it’s home to 1,700 people and still growing, closed gas stations, empty storefronts and a lack of grocery stores easily give the impression of a town in decline.  

“It’s really striking,” said Liz Custer, longtime resident of Sumas and co-curator of the Sumas Historical Society and Museum, of the town today. “Not just the closed businesses, but the lack of traffic. It’s unbelievable to me.”

The state of things during the pandemic, however, would not be a true gauge of what is happening in Sumas, or what has come before. This town, over the past 130 years, has had its share of ups and downs. 

Business booms, until it doesn’t

The origin of the name “Sumas” is a bit unclear. 

Some say it means “land with no trees” while others say it means “bracken people,” after a type of large fern. It all depends on which Indigenous language you go with, Custer said. 

Regardless, the land that came to be known as the town of Sumas was sparsely populated by Nooksack and other Indigenous peoples and comprised a shallow lake, dense trees and flat, somewhat swampy grassland. It was the 1858 Fraser River Gold Rush that first brought white settlers through the area, though the first homesteader, Robert A. Johnson, didn’t settle there until 1872. 

Sumas, early 1900s
Party town: Sumas in the early 1900s had a reputation as a center for some types of good times. (Photo courtesy Sumas Historical Society and Museum)

Reaching Sumas by anything other than water — the Sumas River runs east of town on its way north into the Fraser — wasn’t possible for some time, until crude wagon trails enabled road travel. Most early settlers lived in tents. In 1890, however, the first true building was constructed in Sumas — a combination general store and saloon. 

Within a year, it was followed by nine more saloons, five hotels, two banks, an opera house and more. 

“It was a huge town, almost immediately,” Custer said. 

The next year, as three separate railroads converged in Sumas to allow rail traffic from Seattle, Bellingham and Vancouver, the place was formally incorporated as a city. 

The Panic of 1893 — a national depression — hit Sumas hard, Custer said. Banks closed, building came to a halt and more than half the city’s population of 2,000 left. 

Looking for a good time

But a second period of prosperity occurred in 1897, with the discovery of gold at the Lone Jack Mine and a boom in local timber operations. Loggers, trappers and others looking for a good time could always find it in Sumas, and the place became known as a party town with a certain level of lawlessness, Custer said. 

As a border town of its era, Sumas saw the smuggling of opium and of Asian people. In 1910, when Whatcom County cities like Bellingham and Lynden voted to shutter their saloons and prohibit public drinking, Sumas kept booze flowing. 

Sumas, 1912 by C. B. Mason
The presence of several hotels in the downtown core of Sumas gave evidence to the town’s popularity with travelers in the early 20th century. (Photo courtesy Sumas Historical Society and Museum, C. B. Mason © 1912)

In 1925, the Sumas Roundup — a multi-day rodeo event — reportedly attracted 35,000 people; 10,000 of them from Canada. It briefly made Sumas the site of the third-largest rodeo in the United States. 

The Great Depression and World War II kept Sumas from becoming anything other than a small town for the rest of the 20th century, but it was one of a handful of Whatcom County places helping start the career of country star Loretta Lynn in the 1950s.  

Custer, who lives with her family in a historic 1910-built craftsman home, moved here in 1999 from outside of Bellingham. With a Canadian-born mother and a grandmother living in Chilliwack, she remembers frequent trips through town during her early 1960s childhood. 

“There were a lot of drinking establishments,” she recalled. The location of a current Mexican restaurant, she added, was once a nightclub that would bus people in from Bellingham. 

Canadian dollars

Throughout its existence, Sumas and its economy has been defined by Canadian traffic, which is usually predicated on the health of the Canadian dollar and disparities in gas and dairy prices between the U.S. and Canada. 

Sumas was particularly active in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a strong Canadian dollar and high gas prices brought many Canadians south for gas and dairy products. Numerous Canadians also owned businesses in Sumas, hoping to profit from their countrymen. This was especially true with gas stations; in 1990, Sumas had 224 working gas nozzles for a population of just under 800 people. 

Canadians of the time would also head into Bellingham for clothes and household goods at Bellis Fair Mall. Sometimes, shoppers would change into new clothes to avoid paying duties, ditching their old clothes on Sumas side streets before crossing the border. Weekend vehicle lines at the border often extended more than a mile out of town, leaving Cherry Street gridlocked. 

Candice Lankhaar, a 1998 Nooksack High School graduate who grew up in Sumas and now lives in Bellingham, recalls how much of a bustling place Canadians would make Sumas on weekends. 

“It just felt like a place to be,” she recalled. “But there was nothing for us (kids) to do.”

A convenient address

Into the late ’90s and early 2000s, a sagging Canadian dollar took a toll on local business, and a Costco opening just north of the border didn’t help matters. In time, Sumas lost its hardware store, veterinary clinic and a feed store, among other businesses. 

After 9/11, many Canadians stopped coming through Sumas frequently, or at all, owing to tightened border security and the sudden need for more credentials, Custer said. Her Canadian cousins told her they didn’t want the hassle just to save a little money on gas or cheese.  

A gas station and convenience store was among many properties left empty as businesses along Cherry Street began to close in the 1990s and early 2000s. (Matt Benoit photo © 2021)

Though Canadians couldn’t stay away from good deals at the pump and dairy case, returning post-9/11 traffic still didn’t seem to help many local businesses. Over the years, many of them — especially bars and restaurants — closed, their spaces remaining vacant for years or even decades. 

The reason for this isn’t necessarily because no one wants to do business there, said Custer, also a member of the city’s planning commission. In some cases, building owners either live in Canada or elsewhere outside the city. As such, they appear to have little interest in the community’s developmental well-being.  

“For some of them, it’s so that they have an address in the U.S., that they own property here,” she said. “For others, it’s just a tax write-off. They don’t care. It’s less trouble if they don’t have tenants.”

In certain cases, Custer said some building owners may have intentionally increased rent to levels that discouraged occupation. One person Custer knows of was interested in taking her business to Sumas, but eventually went elsewhere due to the high cost of rent in a specific building.

Kyle Christensen, mayor of Sumas, couldn’t offer any specific examples of this happening, but said the city always tries to work with land or building owners to encourage a sale when a new business shows interest in a space.

“Ultimately, it does end up being the property owner’s decision,” he said. “So, I think that’s an obstacle that a lot of us face. If you don’t have somebody willing to do a transaction, then they can just sit on it for as long as they want. There’s no benefit to the community.” 

Food, where art thou?

Another issue facing Sumas is the lack of a grocery store.

Bromley’s IGA, which belonged to longtime Sumas mayor Bob Bromley, closed in 2017 after more than 50 years of operation. The property has since been purchased by a book-binding company, but continues to sit unused. 

This has left Sumas a “food desert,” a place without a full-service grocery store. Places like Super Duper, a gas station and convenience store, attempt to fill the gaps. Custer said a relative of the station’s owner has a produce farm and often distributes to the location, at least allowing locals to pick up fresh produce.  

One of the issues with getting a full-scale grocery store back in Sumas, said Christensen, is the lack of turn-key buildings for such a business. It would likely take substantial capital to build a new store from scratch, he said. 

The city’s most in-need residents, however, often drawn in by cheap rents, don’t always anticipate the issue of food scarcity until they’re here, Custer said. Residents usually shop in Lynden or Everson if they work locally, or in Bellingham if they work there. 

If they lack their own transportation, it’s a bit tougher. 

The pandemic-related closure of the Sumas Community Center has further squeezed local food resources for the elderly, although the center did host a few drive-through cookouts last summer. In one situation, Custer said an elderly man took the bus into Bellingham, missed the last bus back to Sumas, and had to hitchhike home.  

Location, broadband — and delicious water

There is, fortunately, some good news. 

Custer said her neighbor has started a local food pantry, and a new gas station along Cherry Street will feature a large convenience store with rentable housing on the second floor. 

Sumas will also soon be graced by the presence of La Gloria, a Hispanic foods market with locations in Bellingham and Everson. 

Sumas keeps its welcome mat out, with plans to restart major community events this year. (Matt Benoit photo © 2021)

“It won’t be a full-fledged grocery store, but it’s definitely going to be an improvement and offer some services that other convenience stores don’t offer,” Christensen said.

The Sumas welcome sign, standing prominently over State Route 9 as it comes into town, tells visitors it’s a great place to live and do business. It also proudly serves notice to having the state’s best-tasting drinking water, as voted in both 2012 and 2018. 

And although it may still be searching for answers to retail vacancies, people are continuing to move there. 

In addition to easy access to the outdoors (Mount Baker looms beautifully on the eastern horizon from anywhere in town) and typically easy access to Canada, Custer said rent and home prices are on the cheaper end of the Whatcom County market. Many are attracted to the area by its quaint, small-town charm. 

Christensen is among those people. 

He moved here about eight years ago with his wife and three children, from another small town: Tillamook, Oregon. He became mayor in 2018, and said he is hopeful for the city’s future once the pandemic is behind them. 

The city is continuing to add housing, and also hopes to encourage business development with its economic development fund, which can help new businesses with start-up costs, he said. In addition, continued interest and discussion over the Sumas Industrial Park is taking place, he added. 

Another bright spot comes courtesy of Comcast, which recently announced a $4.2 million investment to expand broadband internet service to the city’s homes and businesses. Both residential and commercial residents will have full access to Comcast’s suite of services and products. 

Regardless of when border traffic begins to flow again, Sumas’ two signature outdoor social events will return in 2021 after being cancelled last year due to the pandemic.

Sumas Days, a single-day community celebrating featuring a parade, car show, family fun and fireworks display, will be held June 19. Bull-o-Rama, a smaller, more modern incarnation of the Sumas Roundup, will have its traditional two events sometime between July and September. 

“I feel it’s important — even with the current COVID situation — to provide an opportunity for families and friends to be able to get outside and start to go to these type of events again, and I think that they can be done safely,” Christensen said. 

Custer, who continues tending to the mostly non-busy museum — housed inside an 1891-built former parsonage that is the oldest building in Sumas — is wistful of past years’ border access, venturing into Canada to visit Whistler and have dinner with her Canadian relatives. 

She hopes that, someday soon, those opportunities as well as increasing business opportunities for the quiet town she calls home will again be possible. 

“There are a lot of hopeful people who live here,” she said. “People who just keep trying, because it could be a great little place. There’s so many of us who think that.”