Camano is known as the “Island of Artists.” I like to refer to the “artist colony” that thrives on Camano today. As part of the Discover Beautiful Camano series I’ve been researching the history of artists on Camano. As I dug into the history of our family of artists on Camano that stretches back to 1952 when my great grandmother Fanny Y. Cory made Camano her home, I learned that the history of an art colony on Camano stretches much further back into the past, all the way back in 1910. The article that I’m reproducing here, “Searching for the American Eden” by Richard Hanks, past president of the Stanwood Historical Society, tells the historical roots of our “Island of Artists.” I think you will enjoy it very much. Finally, if you have any information on where “Waupello” once was on Camano I would very much like to know.
Searching for the American Eden by Richard Hanks
It is certainly no surprise that the tranquility and beauty of Camano Island is today known as a haven for artists and the imaginative. Organizations such as the Camano Arts Association, the Stanwood Camano Art Guild and other unaffiliated writers, illustrators, painters and performers have put their stamp on the 17 mile expanse of land that bridges the Stillaguamish River at Stanwood. The CAA’s Camano Island Studio Tour, dubbed the Mother’s Day Tour, attracts roughly 5,000 people to the Island over its two weekends in May.
However, the island in 1910 was very different. The logging, which began in the mid-1850s at Utsalady, had spread throughout Camano and was changing the island. Loggers were slowly giving way to new residents, many of them stump or dairy farmers. Art Kimball and John Dean write that the Stanwood Tidings newspaper touted the confidence of a real estate salesman named Becker. There was a “boom in Camano Island lands,” he said in 1910 and thousands of acres were being purchased. Not just farmers but inventive idealists found on Camano an appealing return to a less corrupted lifestyle surrounded by their own artistic creations. For one group of artists and writers from Seattle, Camano Island offered the perfect setting for a colony of the creative.
This “New Arcadia” as one newspaper christened it, was the brain child of mercurial poet, journalist and novelist Charles Eugene Banks. Born in Iowa in 1852 he worked or managed a handful of newspapers in the Midwest before migrating to Seattle in 1907 where he became an editor and drama critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His books, poems and stage plays made him a central figure in the literary and theater circles of the city. Around 1910 he purchased roughly 200 acres “on the southern extremity” of Camano island for his colony. It was “romantically placed,” according to one writer and “simply endowed with all that nature can do in behalf of man’s ‘living.’”
Friends called the colony “The Little Kingdom,” but it was organized under its corporate name of Waupello, taken from the main character of Banks’ novel A Child of the Sun about a mythic tribe of American Indians. The young “avatar” Waupello delivers the tribe from the threat of a “bird-monster,” Piasau. The book’s “Indian atmosphere” was reportedly responsible for Banks being adopted by the Tuscarora tribe. The colony was indeed “significantly Indian; … a tribal family” as described by Chicago Tribune writer Effa Webster. Members adopted animal totems with the intent to focus on the protection of the natural world and the animals that lived there. All art and literature produced by the colony would bear a peace pipe symbol and members were to sell their inspirations around the world while acting as ambassadors for Waupello. The Peace Pipe—a “miniature magazine”—was also the name of the colony’s publication with future plans for the Press to be moved to Camano from Seattle.
Banks and his cohorts sought innovators of all talents: “musicians, authors, workers in gold and silver… Jewelers, pottery makers, embroiderers, weavers of lace…. All we ask,” said Banks, “is that the individual work out his or her ideas skillfully.” In June 1910 it was reported that many house tents had already been built on the Camano property while permanent cabins were under construction. Plans for a central meeting hall were also in the works. Tillers of the soil would produce flora and foodstuffs for the colony and since roads were nonexistent they would build an “artistic” motor boat to reach the mainland. ”We are to do everything,” said Banks, “from making butter to painting pictures.”
Such artistic colonies were popular beginning in the late 19th century. Names such as William Morris, John Ruskin, and Gustav Stickley became well-known as architects of the European Arts and Crafts movement. Elbert Hubbard and his Roycroft Society of East Aurora, New York embodied the movement in the U.S. Indeed, one reporter wrote that the idea of Waupello was “to go Elbertus Hubbard…one better.” Waupello, however, stopped short of the radical non-conformists who built the industrial cooperative in Home, Washington or the socialists of Skagit County’s Equality Colony who embraced more extreme utopian sexual ideals such as free love. The Arts and Crafts movement matured later in the Pacific Northwest and lingered longer according to Lawrence Kreisman and Glenn Mason. Webster wrote that such communities had an average life of two years. An idea such as Waupello, wrote Kreisman and Mason, “was in reality a short-lived unattainable goal.” In 1910, however, Charles Banks did not see it that way. Art not ideology was to be their northern star.
Other kindred spirits easily joined Banks’ passion for such an organic settlement of independent artists. University of Washington Professor Edmund Meany and good friend and famed photographic chronicler of the American Indian, Edward S. Curtis, are noted in newspaper accounts as supporting the project. So was another enthusiast of Native American culture, Walter Shelley Phillips, whom writer Lucile McDonald described as part of “Seattle’s sparse colony of creative writers and artists before the turn of century.”
As a boy in Nebraska, Phillips—who called himself El Comancho—spent much of his formative years in the company of local Otoe Indians learning from them survival skills and honing his appreciation of Native life. Self-educated and trained, and a lover of nature, he traveled the country fulfilling a wanderlust and often engaging different Indian tribes before beginning a career as an outdoors magazine and newspaper writer and syndicated columnist.
Sadly, Waupello did not thrive for reasons left unanswered if not easily imagined: personal disagreements, logistical problems of supplying the isolated colony to name two. Finances do not seem the key factor since almost a year later Banks is trying to create a new colony on 40 acres near the shores of Lake Quinalt in Mason County, Washington. The same basic elements as those proposed for Camano are present: the American Indian theme was maintained for a “Peace Pipe Village” including using the Indian trade jargon of Chinook for their official language and emphasizing the Native American culture through crafts and works of art. “Tribal” members would once a year stage an “Indian Passion Play” recreating the story of Waupello.
His partners had also changed from Camano, with Phillips no longer mentioned. In his stead is Harry S. Stuff, a Seattle designer and printer and Charles Scarff, a wealthy lumberman and poet and the village business manager. This plan had advantages over Camano. Scarff owned much of the timberland around the lake to be used for homes and a planned sawmill. The town of Shelton was only nine miles away and there were plans for the Chicago, Milwaukee & Puget Sound Railway (the so-called Milwaukee Road) to build a line nearby. As with Camano, the efforts seem short-lived with only rare mention of its existence and no evidence that it became the “great Arts and Crafts colony” desired by Banks.
The death of Elbert Hubbard in 1915, while a passenger on the Lusitania, is marked by some as the death knell for the Arts and Crafts movement in America. In the 1920s, the spirit of the movement “became watered down to a mere decorating style…” wrote Kreisman and Mason. Charles Banks continued his work for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, promoted his Peace Pipe clubs across the country and continued publishing his miniature magazine, The Peace Pipe. In 1919 Banks moved to Hawaii where he continued his newspaper career as an editor for the Hilo Tribune-Herald and Honolulu Advertiser. He died after suffering a stroke outside his home in 1932 at the age of 80. The Post-Intelligencer wrote that Banks was “a gentle soul whose main quest in life is that of seeing only that which is beautiful and passing it on to others in his writings.” Banks’ quest had led him to Camano Island but it would be left up to another generation to make his dream of a community of artists come true on the tranquil isle.
Sources: Effa Webster, Chicago Tribune, July 10, 1910; Daily Register Gazette (IL), July 11, 1910; The Daily Gate City (IA), August 30, 1910; Wenatchee Daily World, March 25, 1910; Oregonian, May 7, 1911; Arkansas Democrat, August 30, 1915; Fresno Bee, April 30, 1932; Lucile McDonald, Seattle Times Sunday, May 9, 1965; Seattle Daily Times, May 21, 1911; The Washington Newspaper, V. 4, #8, May 1919; Art Kimball and John Dean, Camano island: Life and Times in Island Paradise; Lawrence Kreisman and Glenn Mason, The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Pacific Northwest, 2007; Clarence Bagley, History of Seattle from the Earliest Settlement…V. 3, 1916; Peter Blecha, HistoryLink.org, 2016; archiveswest.orgiscascade.org