Islanders owe a debt to a number of pillar families who settled here, who worked hard to make a living out of the land, and who served the common good of our Island. Past Washington State Senator Mary Margaret Haugen is a descendent of one of those families, and like her parents and grandparents before her, dedicated her life to serving the common good.
Here is her story.
Mary Margaret’s paternal grandparents, the Olsen’s, were immigrants from Norway. Her grandfather was from the Lofoten Islands. They settled in Minnesota and soon moved to South Dakota. They came to Washington by train, having purchased land on Lopez Island. There were no schools for their children to be educated on Lopez Island (they ultimately had 13 children, but only 12 when they were on Lopez). They wanted their children to speak English and very highly valued education. “So they loaded all their family possessions, their 12 children and a cow with a crooked horn on a scow (boat), came through Deception Pass and landed at Utsalady Bay.” There was another big family, the Irelands, at Utsalady at that time. Family legend has it when they landed there was a big fight between the six Ireland boys and eight Olsen boys.
Then began the hard work of reclaiming the land at Utsalady that her Grandfather had bought. It was logged over land, what is called a “stump farm.” The Olsen family proceeded to clear out the stumps. “It was tough life I’ll tell you. Grandfather drilled holes in stump, put hot coals in them, and started them on fire, burn the stumps out.”
In 1901 her grandfather built the barn. The family lived in an old shack near the barn until the construction of the barn was complete and eventually a house could be built.
“People used to make fun of us because we lived on the Island. It was where poor people lived. It was nothing but stump farmers, loggers, fishermen and a few small businesses. Mary Margaret remembers being teased for living on the Island. She came home from school one day crying and her mother said, “at least we live on the north end!”
Mary Margaret remembers picking rocks. Her dad had a tractor with a sled behind it, She and her brother Thor would pick up rocks and throw them into the sled, trying to turn it into farmland. Her dad grew oats, hay, raised milk cows, beef cattle and chickens. They lived off the farm.
Mary Margaret’s Grandmother Constance Olsen died in 1917, her grandfather in 1919. They were both involved in public service. Her Grandmother was the first president of Utsalady Ladies Aid which was founded in 1908. In fact, the first meeting was in her house. Mary Margaret told me that the Utsalady Ladies Aid is the second oldest continuing organization in Island County. I asked her what the Ladies Aid did. She told me that there weren’t many people living on the Island at that time, so the Ladies Aid gathered these hard working women on common causes, like the religious education of their children (It was a non-denominational group. Lutheran ministers would come from Stanwood to participate). The women got together every month, alternating hosting at their houses. It was always very special to dress up and walk to each other’s homes. They held lutefisk dinners and made quilts together to earn the money to eventually build a hall. In 1924, a building was built for the Utsalady Ladies Aid, and Mary Margaret told me proudly that it was the first building (on Camano) put on the National Historic Registry. A very complex and difficult application process that Mary Margaret worked through with great success.
Mary Margaret’s maternal grandparents, the Huntington’s, came from pioneer stock and a well-known name on the Island too. You may have stopped for groceries or fishing supplies at Huntington Grocery, owned by her Uncle Vernon! Her mom was born in Oklahoma in a sod hut in what was then Indian territory, Cherokee Strip. The Huntington’s came to LaConner by train and took the boat to Utsalady in 1911. Mary Margaret told me back in those days the roads were in the water, people traveled by boat, and boats ran up and down the bay all the time in what was called the “Mosquito Fleet”. While they were still in Oklahoma her Grandfather had purchased land at Rocky Point, site unseen, to farm. They lost this land to taxes in the 1930’s.
Mary Margaret doesn’t know exactly how her dad and mom met. What she does know is that the Olsen family arrived on Camano in 1900, and the Huntington clan in 1911. She guesses her mom and dad met at Utsalady School; both sets of Grandparents were on the school board there.
Mary Margaret was born in 1941 on the family farm in the house grandfather built. She had five older brothers: Melvin, the oldest, Richard, Howard, Robert and Thor, but she wasn’t spoiled. She worked hard and did her share of the chores. She remembers how they were able to live off the farm, and only needed to go into Allen’s Cash Grocery in Stanwood once a month. She remembers how WWII had quite an influence on her. By the time she was three years old, her oldest brothers had gone off to war. During those years here her dad worked in the Shipyard in Everett. She remembers how the mailman, George Hancock, would make an extra trip back to their farmhouse if there were letters from her brothers. When her brothers came back they were able to complete high school and attend college because of the GI bill. Melvin was the first on either side of the family to graduate from college, Pacific Lutheran University (Pacific Lutheran College at that time).
Mary Margaret attended the first Kindergarten class offered in Stanwood and graduated from Stanwood High School. She knew my uncles Bud and Robert and my aunt Margaret and my mom Ann because they rode the same bus. At that time there were two buses that served all the kids on the Island: a west side bus (which she rode) and one on the east side.
She shared with me a story of how my grandfather may have saved her dad’s life when she was eight years old. At that time there were three doctors on the Island. Dr. Fisher, Dr. Anderson and Dr. Dodgson. Her father had a horrible heart attack. Her mother didn’t think he was going to live. Mary Margaret remembers being banished to her upstairs room, creeping down the stairs, and seeing her dad sitting in front of the stove his face was ashen. Her mom called the other doctors, but only Dr. Dodgson was willing and able to come and make a house call. He came all the way from the south end. When he saw her dad he called the ambulance and had him taken to the hospital. He was in the hospital for weeks.
(Here is a picture of my grandfather “Doc” Dodgson and his wife, Sayre.)
When he came home, her dad had to further recover on a bed in the living room. During that period Margaret and Thor, “Tooty” she calls him, were farmed out to different family members. Her elder brothers came home during and helped run the farm in the place of their dad. They didn’t have medical insurance at that time. They spent all of their savings on hospital bills. All they had left was the home they owned. Gladly her dad did recover. After that, to make back the money he had lost, he started going to Alaska to fish in the summertime. And so did her brothers. Her oldest brother, Melvin, who is now 93 years old and living in Seattle; fished in Bristol Bay each summer till he was 85. Her dad actually died in 1961 in Alaska fishing.
“They were proud people. They believed you make do with what you have. You are only as poor as you think you are.” Mary Margaret said that after her parents passed away, she was shocked to see how little her folks had.
Though they had little this did not keep them, like their parents before them, from being very active civic leaders. Her father was Master of the Masonic Lodge, active with their church and served on the school board. He also served for 18 years as Master of the South Camano Grange. The Grange was a gathering point for the Islanders, and deserves a lot of credit, Mary Margaret says, for their dedication to the community. The Grange had the vision for a state park on the island and led the charge for a huge work day in 1947 that created the Camano Island State Park. Mary Margaret was a little girl at that time and her brother and “all the Island” was there. In fact, the whole town of Stanwood shut down for the work party as well. It truly was a celebration of community coming together with everyone coming from the island and mainland, thanks to the organization of the South Camano Grange, to create a state park in one day. She had pictures from that day: one with her mother holding a big coffee pot to refresh the workers and one of Ed Bryant, who owned Bryant’s Hardware, who, along with other business owners from around the community, had shut down his store for the day to serve on the work crew.
Outside of community organizations, her parents gave of themselves not just for their family but for their Utsalady neighbors, working together with the community when there were needs. She was told that during the Great Depression no one at Utsalady went hungry. Her dad was a hunter and provided venison for his family and the community.
Her mom was president of the Utsalady Ladies Aid, which became a critical community hub where everything was centered and organized from. I’ve already mentioned how in 1947 they participated at the Camano Island State Park workday. Her mother was active in politics when she was young.
There is an interesting story that reveals the genesis of Mary Margaret’s personal commitment to public service. She was 16 years old at the time and her mother was active in the democratic party. At that time, when a legislative representative resigned there was a process whereby the party chooses three people to be a successor, from which slate one is ultimately chosen. A resignation happened in the 38th district (Camano was then a part of the 38th, now 10th legislative district) and her mother was one of the three persons chosen. Mary Margaret realizes now that she was only put on the slate as the “token woman” and that she didn’t have a chance to win. But something happened in Mary Margaret’s heart at that moment and she said to herself “I’ll do it”, meaning that she would serve where her mother had been turned down; in fact, she dreamed of being president of the United States from that point on.
But it wasn’t all hard work, politics and serious business on the island. They always went to the beach, and spent hours on the beach when they were kids. Mary Margaret never knew how her mother always knew what happened at the beach. Later on, when she had kids, Mary Margaret realized how it happened. “People called and told me what my kids were doing. People looked out for people’s kids. People cared for each other’s kids.”
After graduating from Stanwood High School, Mary Margaret went to Mt Vernon Beauty School. She wanted to get married and her mom had told her that she had to be self-supporting first, so she went to beauty school. She worked as a hair dresser for 30 years. Her first gig was working for Margaret Johnson’s beauty shop in Stanwood under the bridge going to the Island. She worked there for ten years. She did get married and had four children in 4 ½ years. In 1971, she followed in her grandfather and father’s footsteps and was elected to the school board. She wanted to make sure every child could have remedial reading and because her mother had told her “If you don’t like what’s going on you have to get involved and make a difference.” Then she got elected to represent the school district as a representative at Olympia and lobby for the school board, trying to get full funding for education. “I think I can do this” Mary Margaret told herself. And she did. Interestingly, she told me about when her father served on the school board, they made the decision to consolidate the Island Schools with Stanwood Schools, moving the schools off island. Decades later, her own daughter MaryBeth would serve on the school board to make the decision to bring schools back to the Island.
How Mary Margaret decided to run for state office is an interesting story. During her years on the school board she participated in the Camano Home Owners Association. This Association gathered both people who had lived on Camano all their lives together with newcomers to the Island. “They helped us know how special it was, helped us value the Island,” Mary Margaret recalls. Two influential members of that association were Bill Dunlap and Duane Colby who told Mary Margaret that they would support her if she would run as a Republican. About that same time her uncle Ransom brought his wife Irene to her salon for her aunt to get her hair done. Mary Margaret was sharing about how she was being encouraged to run as a Republican. And her Uncle Ransom said, “Your mom would be so proud of you. You can win as a Democrat.” Mary Margaret wiped away tears when she shared this with me.
So she had to go back to Dunlap and Colby and tell them that she had decided to run as a Democrat: “That’s who I am” she told them. “So I ran as a Democrat. They still supported me. They knew I really wanted to represent this area.”
She remembers that in her first campaign she ran on 1,000 $20 dollar bills. After she won the primary, the Democratic Party offered to produce a mailing for Mary Margaret. “Well, ok. I said. I was so stupid,” she reflected. She told me that in those days mass mailings had to go out of your house. They brought the mailing to her; it was a hit piece about her opponent. She took it outside and burned it. From that day forward she never ran a hit piece about her opponent. She traces her integrity in office back to her Christian faith, believing that she would only ever run on who she was, not on her opponent.
In 1982, she was one of a number of women elected to the Washington State House of Representatives where she served for 10 years. She then ran for Senate, and took Jack Metcalf’s place. That was in 1993. She served the 10th district there till 2013. All in all Mary Margaret served for 30 years in the Washington State Legislature. For her people always came first. “I was the Representative from the 10th district before I was a Democrat” she says.
I was interested to learn about Mary Margaret’s role in preserving Camano’s beaches. She told me that at one time, every county road that went to the beach was public all the way to the beach. This allowed for the public to access every beach with a county road. But Island County Commissioners would petition to vacate them and they began to be sold off to land developers, “to the guy next door who wanted to buy it.” She told me that Arrowhead was an example of a county road being vacated. By 1954 counties all over the State of Washington were vacating these county roads ended at the beach; so legislation was passed at the State level that prohibited the vacation of roads to the water’s edge. “That’s why we have access that we wouldn’t otherwise have,” she told me.
She told me how Island Boom almost was vacated. They were going to vacate the land. But the locals who had been going over that land and using it for a long time, including the fire-department (this was the only real access to the Skagit Bay) gathered together and testified against it being vacated. Mary Margaret championed funding and the State of Washington came forward to purchase the land, thereby assuring it would remain public land. The State then transferred the land to Island County, which paved the way for it to be the accessible county park it is today.
She shared with me how Sandra and Karen Risk had come to her with the desire to turn the family resort into a State Park for future generations to enjoy. However at that time the Washington State Parks had a very strict moratorium placed upon them and it was not possible for any land to be purchased. Recognizing the deep significance and treasure this piece of property was, Mary Margaret wasn’t deterred by the moratorium and approached Cleve Pennix, who was then head of the WA State Parks, and said, “I have some land for you to buy for a state park.” He told her that they weren’t buying any land at that time. Mary Margaret insisted, “You come and you see and you tell me you don’t want that for a state park.” Mary Margaret promised Cleve “You buy it, and I’ll make sure you get the money.” And that is how 500 acres, a mile of flat beach, and charming 1950 fishing cabins became Cama Beach State Park. The State was required to pay the market value for the land, but in a gracious act of community service, the Risk family turned around and donated back a substantial amount of that money, which allowed for the the new lodge and restoration of the cabins.
Even though Mary Margaret did not become the President of the United States, she did have aa big impact on Island County, and specifically Camano Island. She played a role in the preservation and development of Cama Beach State Park, Terry’s Corner, Iverson Spit, Heritage Park, Utsalady Ladies Aid Hall, English or Island Boom, the aquisition of Keystone Spit, creation of the Agricultural Scenic Corridor, 100+ year old rhodies on hwy 20 on Whidbey, Ferry House, Whidbey Island, Quilt Museum, Maple Hall in LaConner, MONA arts in LaConner (arts heritage of the community) WICA on Whidbey, LaConner boardwalk, Created the Office of Farmland Preservation and the Farmland Preservation Taskforce, Growth Management Act – tasked with protecting farmland, resource land, etc., Whidbey Game Farm, Langley fishing pier, Paul Luvera, Senior Memorial Hwy, helped granges and lodges be able to rent out their halls without risking their property tax exemptions, saved and preserved Greenbank Farm, improvements from I-5 to Terry’s Corner, including two new bridges to Camano Island, train stations in Mt Vernon and Stanwood, Reopening and preservation of Barnaby Slough, championed Ebey’s Landing – the first and only national historical preservation designation that protects and recognizes the agricultural heritage of the land, license plates for lighthouses, rhodies, all of which provide a funding stream and promote preservation, prime sponsor of legislation that directed state parks to place “a higher status on preserving our historic structures and provides State Park employees training on historic preservation” and established the State Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation.
Her mother would be proud.
I was proud to see that Mary Margaret had one of my paintings hanging on her wall, and one of my dad’s and sister’s too.
I thought how our family’s lives had been woven together on this beautiful Island in Washington State that we have lived on and loved for decades. And I thought that I wanted to be the kind of person that when there was a need I got involved, just like Mary Margaret had.
As I was walking out Mary Margaret said. “One thing about living in one place is that you know people, they know the good and the bad about you, and when you need help they are there. This has been a wonderful place to live my whole life; where my friends are lifetime friends; where I’m still friends with the kids I grew up with. It’s wonderful.”