July 1, 2021
Lummi Island’s original Willows Inn was a local-food hotspot — 100 years before ‘locavore’ was trending
Matt Benoit

Tennessee-style fried chicken dinners at the family-run Willows drew diners by the hundreds to Lummi Island on Sundays during the 1940s and ’50s. Nearly all ingredients used in The Willows kitchen were raised on the island, with many produced on site. (Courtesy Victoria Flynn)

July 1, 2021
Lummi Island’s original Willows Inn was a local-food hotspot — 100 years before ‘locavore’ was trending
Matt Benoit

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For hundreds of years, the 9.25-square-mile island lying at the mouth of Bellingham Bay was known to the Lummi Tribe as Skallaham, and served as a place to harvest berries and clams, fish for sockeye salmon and hunt deer. 

Today, Whatcom County’s Lummi Island is home to both permanent and vacationing residents, local businesses and a prestigious resort known as The Willows. Over the last 150 years, the island has seen substantial human change, while still retaining much of its natural beauty. 

Spanish explorers who scouted it in 1792 referred to Lummi Island as Isla Pacheco. In the 1840s, a U.S. naval expedition rechristened it McLoughlin’s Island. In 1853, the United States Geodetic Survey named it Lummi Island. 

Although the Lummi had a thriving reef net fishery at what is now called Village Point, they did not establish permanent village sites on the island. In 1855, the Treaty of Point Elliott, which forcibly relocated numerous Puget Sound tribes to reservations in exchange for about $150,000 and relocation costs, established the Lummi reservation on the peninsula that today leads to the island’s ferry crossing.   

The first permanent Euro-American settler arrived on Lummi in 1871, when Christian Tuttle, a whaler and goldminer from California, showed up in a canoe and claimed 320 acres of land. 

The island’s first post office opened in 1882 in what is now the unincorporated community of Beach, named after its first postmaster, Wade H. Beach. In those early days, canoes, rowboats or sailboats were required to access the island. Later came cannery tenders, steamboats and ferries. 

A destination isle

The front lawn was a popular place to relax in The Willow’s early days. White-painted rocks marked pathways with reflected moonlight to guide guests out walking at night in the pre-electricity years. (Courtesy Victoria Flynn)

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that Lummi Island became a vacation destination, when two families created resorts that were immensely popular in the years prior to World War II. 

Melzer and Lucy Granger came to the island in 1888 with their seven children, and it was son C.R. “Chan” Granger who built what became Loganita Lodge. Built as an extension of the 1898 family farmhouse, the lodge was supposedly named after the island’s plentiful loganberries. 

In 1902, Frank Taft — an adventurous New Yorker allegedly drawn to Bellingham because a former Sunday School teacher had moved there and talked up the opportunities for energetic young men —moved to Bellingham with his wife, Ruby, their newborn daughter, Maurine, and Ruby’s parents, Lon and Sallie Blizard. 

They purchased a 40-acre homestead on Lummi Island in 1903, when fewer than 80 people lived there year-round. They adapted to island life, and the Grangers and Tafts mingled socially. 

Frank Taft worked for Pacific American Fisheries on Eliza Island, and then Lummi Bay Packing Company on Lummi, before the family briefly moved to Fairhaven in 1907. A second daughter, Dorothy, was born that year. 

First resorts

Around 1910, the family was constructing a seven-room “summer bungalow.” By 1912, they were housing guests and offering additional campsites. By 1913, The Willows was a full-fledged summer resort with 28 cabins. Guests could ride horses and bicycles, walk the beach or play games like tennis and croquet. 

Weekly room and board was $10 per week (2021 equivalent of about $275), and visitors flocked from Vancouver and Victoria to the north, and Tacoma and Seattle to the south. Loganita also expanded with cottages and a recreation hall. 

By the late 1930s, both resorts were flourishing, but World War II led to wartime currency restrictions preventing northerners from entering the U.S. with enough money to stay at the resorts. Gas rationing, meanwhile, helped decrease Seattle traffic. 

The Loganita could no longer support the Granger family; they sold it in 1950. After a time as a bed-and-breakfast in the 1970s and 80s, the lodge became a private residence in the mid-1990s.  

The Willows was also sold shortly after World War II, but when new owners couldn’t maintain financial viability, the Tafts resumed ownership, with management led by daughters Maurine and Dorothy. 

All in the family

The entire Taft family helped run The Willows, and they worked constantly: from the resort’s Memorial Day opening to Labor Day closing, days began around 6 a.m. and didn’t end until midnight.

Views from the cozy west-facing front porch of the Willows extended out across the Salish Sea in the early days. (Courtesy Victoria Flynn)

Ruby Taft, according to her granddaughter Victoria Flynn, was a Tennessee-born Southern belle whose fried chicken recipe — made with home-grown birds — was revered. By about 1950, Sunday fried chicken dinners costing just $1 would attract up to 100 people at a time when the island’s ferry only held about six cars to eight cars per crossing.

Flynn’s mom and aunt would help serve the food, while her great-grandparents crafted homemade corsages, wrapping hand-picked flowers in cigarette box paper and tin foil. Flynn, then about six years old, handed out corsages to female dinner guests and bachelor’s buttons to the males. It was her first job, she said. 

As Flynn got older, she served guests her grandmother’s homemade rolls, helped with berry-picking sessions and entertained children to keep them from trouble. Despite being told to keep children away from a chicken-slaughtering area, Flynn charged them a nickel so they could watch if interested. 

Flynn recalled nearly everything they served as homemade or sourced from their property’s farm: butter, jams, beef, chicken, pork, vegetables. Only canned fruit cocktails and mint sprigs were “imported.”

One more generation

Janice Walker, the granddaughter of Maurine Taft Melcher and daughter of Jackie Melcher, spent summers with her grandmother, and moved to the island permanently for several years while growing up. Like Flynn, she attended the island’s tiny schoolhouse until the sixth grade. Both she and her mother were married on the island. 

Walker recalls The Willows grounds as a place parents felt their children were safe to roam. She remembers hunting for mushrooms, riding horses and running amok on the beach and in the woods with cousins and friends.

“We would disappear,” she recalled. “Our parents, the only way they could get us back would be to honk the horn.”

The Taft family sold The Willows in 1958, and Walker’s grandparents moved just down the road to the home they still own. Subsequent Willows owners subdivided the resort grounds and transformed the main house into a series of different businesses; a large portion of the original property is now the Isle Aire neighborhood.

Vision restored

But in 1984, having just lost her mother, Flynn and her husband, Gary, decided to buy back The Willows property and reopen it as a bed-and-breakfast.

Vases filled with fresh flowers brighten tables and Chinese lanterns hang from the ceiling in the light-filled dining room circa 1926. The space had been expanded in the early 1920s by closing off the front porch. (Courtesy Victoria Flynn)

“My mission, I felt, was to try and put it back to somewhat of the feeling I’d grown up with, and that my family had tried to provide for the guests,” Flynn said. “I had a vision.”

Flynn felt compelled to resurrect The Willows due to how much of their lives her grandparents, parents, aunt and uncle had put into the place. An old brochure, after all, referred to The Willows as “the place that people want to return to.”

Over the next 16 years, the Flynns did successfully revitalize The Willows, but it wasn’t easy.

 “It was all-consuming,” she said. “There was no rest. There was no Sunday off or anything like that.”

During Flynn’s tenure, The Willows also became a popular place for wedding receptions. Eventually, the main house, where Flynn and her husband lived, was closed off from guests, who’d rent out either a single remaining guest cabin or a a two-bedroom guest house, both with their own kitchens. 

By the year 2000, Flynn’s age and arthritis left her unable to continue the 18-hour days of work. Begrudgingly, she and her husband moved into Bellingham and sold the property, which has since changed ownership several more times. 

Regarding recent controversies regarding her family’s former resort, Flynn was succinct. 

 “I think it’s very sad,” she said, her voice trailing off. “Just sad.”

The more things change

One day in the late 1980s, heading home aboard the Lummi Island ferry with a car full of fresh produce, Flynn was accosted by an island local. 

Damask tablecloths handed down from her mother to Victoria Flynn found use once again on the tables at The Willows when she and her husband, Gary, revived the restaurant in the 1980s. (Courtesy Victoria Flynn)

“You’ve ruined the island by having The Willows,” the stranger told her, clearly unaware of Flynn’s long family history with the island. “Now people are coming from all over. Before that, it was a nice little quiet island where we wanted to live. And now, you’ve changed it.”

The comment hurt Flynn’s feelings.

“I didn’t think I’d made that much of a statement [by reopening The Willows],” she said. “But I guess in their mind, any newcomers that were coming over just to have dinner and stay at The Willows was a bad thing. I felt bad … but I said, ‘Well, I thought I was bringing something back to the island.'”

So how has Lummi Island changed? 

In some ways, it hasn’t. 

Among locals, Walker said, the place still has a sense of community — and a strong gossip infrastructure. 

“People know each other,” she said. “They know each other’s business, because they see who’s coming and going on the ferry and who they’re with, and what time they’re coming and going. It just sort of has that small-town feel.”

Beach Elementary School — operated today by the Ferndale School District — still educates the island’s youth through the fifth grade, before requiring them to travel to the mainland for middle and high school. 

Today’s island life

But in the last few years, when Walker visits the island each week to check in on her 94-year-old mother and their family property, she notices certain changes. 

Ferry lines are longer, especially on weekends. And there are more high-end luxury cars marking a visible level of affluence among some visitors — many of whom might be visiting the current iteration of The Willows, where a nightly cottage stay tops $400 a night and dinner is $225 a seat.

Victoria and Gary Flynn continued family ownership of The Willows from the mid-1980s to 2001. (Courtesy Victoria Flynn)
The Willows quickly became a popular resort after its launch by Ruby and Frank Taft 1912. (Courtesy Victoria Flynn)

It gives one the feeling, she said, that the island has at least partially transitioned away from a refuge for the middle class. The days that her mother describes — Canadians seeking rustic cabin getaways, homestyle chicken dinners and lively local dances — are long gone.

Commerce itself has likely changed, Walker added, from the heavy reef-net fishing of yesterday to a more service- and hospitality-based economy. Property management and yoga and massage businesses are far more commonplace now than they were in the past, she said. 

Flynn said that when she and her husband took over The Willows in 1984, reef-netting was still fairly strong and tourism didn’t feel like the dominant force. 

“It was more like it was when I was a little girl,” Flynn said of the 1980s. “There were the same older folks that owned big tracts of land where they had cattle. It wasn’t like wineries and little breweries and stuff … it was a farming community.”

Since selling it in 2000, Flynn hasn’t been back to The Willows. The only reason she visits the island now, she said, is to put flowers on family graves. 

“When we were there, there was this feeling of being a part of it,” she said of the island. “I don’t know anybody now.”

Despite all the changes on the human side of Lummi Island, both Walker and Flynn agree the universal and continuing appeal of the place lies in its natural beauty: scenic shorelines with breath-taking views of the Salish Sea; a chance to glimpse wildlife like eagles, deer, and even whales; and — perhaps most of all — a place to get away from it all, if only momentarily. 

“It’s still a jewel in the San Juans,” Flynn said.  

For Walker, herself now a grandmother, being able to frequently visit and continue her family’s multigenerational presence on Lummi is a unique blessing. Had her grandfather not purchased the property they still own, it would be unaffordable to them now, she said. 

Even today, she is still blown away by all the work her parents and grandparents did so long ago. 

“The incredible amount of work that went into creating a life out there, and a living — it’s just amazing,” she said. “My mom described just working 24/7 to run The Willows. They had to grow all the food, they had to butcher the chickens, butcher the cattle. They had to do everything.”