In my research of people who have contributed to the life of Camano Island, I kept coming across the name Clarence Dirks. I learned that Clarence was a star lineman for the University of Washington, that his “City-bred Farmer” column in the Seattle Post Intelligencer telling about his escapades on his small farm on Camano was very popular, that he officiated the wedding ceremony for Dad and Mom in my great-grandmother’s cottage overlooking Saratoga Passage, and that he had been influential in the beginning of Camano Chapel.
I was delighted to learn how my grandfather, Doctor Dodgson, whose story of moving to and farming on Camano and whose role at little Mabana Chapel I’ve shared in an earlier blog posts, had a significant impact on Clarence’s life. I read about it in a David C. Cook, Sunday Digest Magazine, March 6, 1955. The article is titled “Prescription in a Red Jacket” by Harry Edward Neal. It goes like this:
Prescription in a Red Jacket by Harry Edward Neal
“A mad bull in a boxcar, a request for a sleeping pill, and a country doctor who prescribed the reading of the Gospel according to St. John, combined to make a “working” Christian of an ex-football star, newspaper columnist and self-styled “City-Bred Farmer” named Clarence Dirks.
“City-Bred Farmer” is the title of the column he writes for the Seattle (Wash.) Post Intelligencer. Thousands of folks read it avidly to learn how Dirks is solving his latest farm problem, or to get the latest lowdown on his family, friends and neighbors, or to find out what’s new at the Camano Chapel, which Dirks inspired, named, and helped to build.
The chapel, which is inter-denominational, stands on a hillside on Camano Island, a rolling hillside which reaches to the waters of Puget Sound. It was build with funds sent to Dirks by people from many parts of the world, all because of a remark he made in a column that was once devoted exclusively to sports.
But the story is better told from the beginning.
Clarence Dirks, now forty-eight, six feet two and tipping the scales at 215 pounds, studied journalism at the University of Washington, where he was tackle and captain of his freshman and senior football teams. One bright memory of those happy years is the game he played against Alabama in the Rose Bowl on New Years Day in 1926, the era of Red Grange, Ernie Nevers of Stanford, and George Wilson of Washington.
For Clarence, as for the others, the time for play and study passed. Yet he remained close to it, for in 1929 he went to work as a sports writer for the Seattle Post Intelligencer, covering football and most other college sports for some thirteen years.
After the United States plunged into World War II, Clarence became a ship caulker, a trade taught him by his father, driving cotton and oakum into the seams of hastily built wooden ships. Some three years later the war was virtually over and Clarence retired to Camano Island in Puget Sound, where he tried to earn his living by writing.
“I didn’t earn a living,” he says simply. “I tried farming-cows, chickens, sheep, apples, bees – and almost failed for lack of previous experience. Then a newspaper friend named Slim Lynch asked if I had considered writing a running account of my life as a farmer. I did it—experimentally—and it grew and grew.” One popular feature of his column is its very last line: “Eggs collected — ___. He reports faithfully on the “production line” of his hens.
Through his farming activities he found himself one night headed for the Grand National Expidition at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, aboard a boxcar with the prize heard of the Carnation Milk Company. As the train rumbled through the darkness, the car lurching from one side to another, the stock became restless. Clarence and another man named Al Hay, the only two humans in the car, weren’t expecting trouble, but it came. One of the prize Holstein bulls, a black and white giant weighing 3,000 pounds, suddenly broke loose. He backed away and turned dark, angry eyes upon the two men.
Al Hay leaped toward him, grabbed the ring in the monster’s nose. The bull tried to pull away, but Al hung on and finally chained the beast to another corner of the car. Now thoroughly angered, the huge animal went on a rampage trying to break loose again. If he succeeded, the two men would have a ton and a half of maddened giant to try to subdue.
“We were trapped” Dirks recalls, “with no emergency cord to pull, no way to escape except by jumping. Believe me, it was my spot—the most desperate situation I’ve ever been in!
“Although my mother is a Christian and for many years prayed for me, I had no conception as to prayer’s real meaning, nor a true knowledge of Jesus – who he really was and is, why he came to earth, why he was so shamelessly treated, then crucified, or what his resurrection implied or meant. But in that boxcar, frankly, I asked God to save my skin so I could return to my home, my wife and my children.”
“God not only saved me; in ways which only I knew and recognized, he saved my farm from going under, too.”
About a month later, in November 1949, Dirks went to the office of a country physician, Dr. Thomas Dodgson. Dirks hadn’t been able to sleep well since the trip to San Francisco. As a farmer, it appeared that he would be a failure. He had tried to write for magazines, but rejection slips had piled up for five depressing months. Now his wife was seriously ill and in the hospital. His real trouble, though, was deep in his mind and heart, Dirks felt discouraged and forsaken.
Wise Dr. Dodgson talked with him for a time, then said, “Clarence, we doctors don’t have pills for your trouble. The only pill I have which might solve your problem has a little red jacket on it.”
He pulled out a small booklet of the Gospel according to St. John and explained the way of salvation, the necessity of believing in Jesus as the Son of God and asking him to come into the heart of Clarence Dirks. And Clarence Dirks took the advice and the “pill” with the red jacket and became a Christian.
“In becoming a Christian,” he says, “I finally found peace. And in gratitude I happened to mention once in my column how nice it would be if there were a better place of worship than the little frame building near the woods here on the island of Puget Sound.”
So in his column he pointed out that the entire Sunday collection went to run a bus for the children, and that it would be so much better to locate a church closer to the people. In closing he wrote, “Faith, the Good Book says, is the substance of things not seen. ‘Things’ in this connection might still be a new little church. Eggs collected: three.”
There is still surprise in his face as he recalls what happened. “A reader sent in an answer with a dollar. Then came another and another. The fund grew to about fifteen thousand dollars from folks all over the United States – even from England, Japan and Greece! I was truly amazed for the column I wrote as a sportswriter, and which I thought was fairly good, never aroused such interest as a simple recounting of daily life on a farm.”
Using the money sent in by his readers, Dirks set out to build the church which he named Camano Chapel. He recruited men – volunteers – from a radius of one hundred miles to help in its construction. “I myself,” he says, “shiplapped the exterior, put on the ceiling, helped with the trusses, and so on – and I’m not a skilled carpenter, either.” More donations came in, including a $2,500 organ contributed by Seattle businessmen.
The chapel is covered with Roman brick and hand-split cedar, with a glass cross worked through the front wall. It will seat two hundred and is valued today at $35,000. Only a year in building, it was dedicated on August 26, 1951, by Evangelist Billy Graham – and even which Dirks will never forget.
“Billy Graham was holding services in Seattle at the time,” Dirks explains, “and in one of the few trips of its kind he ever has made, he and all his team came out to the Island, sixty miles north of Seattle, and held special services which attracted seventy-one ministers, three thousand people, and climaxed in the conversation of seventy-three!”
At the dedication program a farm neighbor read a poem about Dirks and followed it with a simple tribute: “Clarence Dirks is a good man, beloved by his neighbors.”
Dirks was asked to speak, but he couldn’t. He was too choked up.
Tourists and others visit the chapel frequently, and its archives already include three guest books filled with the signatures of men, women and children from all forty-eight states and from many foreign lands. After the chapel was built, Dirks was given an opportunity to buy the remainder of the estate from which the chapel site had been purchased. With his wife Ruth, and his youngest son, Michael, eight, he now lives across the road from the chapel itself. His elder son, Martin, is serving in the Marine Corps.
On Dirk’s twenty-acre farm, which includes a 200-foot frontage on Puget Sound, he raises cows, chickens and fruit, but he specializes in the raising of unusual primroses, early spring flowers and begonias, which he grows from seed in order to obtain a large variety of unusual species.
His plants are shipped to all parts of the United States, but he sends out another product, too, of which he is especially proud. It’s a small booklet called, “How you can become a Christian.”
“It’s simple and to the point,” Dirks told me, “and I’d appreciate it so much if you would mention it and say that copies can be obtained by writing to me.” (His address is Box 390, Stanwood, Washington.)
Because of Clarence Dirk’s dynamic and earnest promotion of the Christian way of life, the “City-bred Farmer” is in wide demand as a lecturer before civic, educational, and religious groups. What does he talk about?
“I just tell what being a Christian means to me,” he says simply.
Perhaps there is a special significance in something Dirks told me when he described his newspaper column. “One of the distinguishing features is that I always close with the number of eggs collected each day. Everyone worried when they were down to one or two; now things are picking up, and all’s well again!”