The building of Decatur Head: A RAMBLING MEMOIR

Decatur Head was purchased from the estates of William and Joseph Jones. The purchase was completed on February 1st, 1972. Vic Hulteen, Al Swanson and Rod Loveless were the three intrepid (as it turned out) developers of the property.

Al, Vic and Rod set out for Decatur Head to commence building in April 1972. It was a bright,
clear morning when the first two truck loads of lumber were secured on the Island Ferry (a self-powered barge) in preparation for crossing Rosario Straits. By this time, the day was not quite so bright and clear. During the crossing an unusual April storm thundered out of the south and up the straits. The barge, captained by Dean Allen, was about halfway to Decatur Island. Al Swanson was riding in one of the trucks carrying the lumber. As the Island Ferry lurched through the waves, Al and the truck barely escaped being swept overboard. One of the binder chains securing the truck to the barge broke. The remaining chain strained and twisted—but did hold. All hands were accounted for when the ferry landed at Decatur Head. (A successful voyage.)

The first shelter was set up amidst the fury of the storm which brings to mind a Great Original Thought—Storms at Decatur are Beautiful to Behold When Safely Ashore—or; It is Better to be Warm, Dry and Well than Cold, Wet and Sick.

Another storm was brewing—and at first it was not particularly evident. A great lack of enthusiasm prevailed among the families across the bay about any building on Decatur Head.
The whole area had been theirs to more or less use as they pleased—and moreover the residents felt that the late Mr. Jones had promised them Decatur Head would not be sold. Naturally, the thought of a development was not popular and considerable efforts were made to stop the building. Of course, this did not bring joy to the hearts of the builders and there were many tense times. Time also mends many things—and the passage of time surely has helped here.

Among those involved in the actual building besides Vic, Al and Rod were—Howard Hart, Roger Benjamin and Mickey Howard (builders in the Seattle area); John Blomberg (entrepreneur); George Lamb (the son-in-law of William Jones and a permanent resident on the west side of Decatur Island); Jim Morrison (raconteur and heavy equipment operator); and a rather motley crew of sons and heirs. And of course, the unforgettable Moki, the electrician (more on Moki later).

Cabin 2 was the first cabin built. When it was far enough along to provide shelter and a few creature comforts, Cabin 1 was begun.

During the building, John Blomberg, working on the roof of Cabin 2, took one misstep and slid to the ground. He was naturally shaken and was lying prone on the moss. Just then Rod came around the cabin to see how the work was progressing. He saw John lying in the sunshine and said, “For Pete’s sake John, with all this work to be done how can you just lie here?” Strangely, after this, the crew razzed Rod for being something of a martinet.

The old road that led across the sand spit connecting Decatur Head to the main part of the island was improved. And it was here, of course, that the underground power and water lines cross to the Head.

It was during the building of Cabins 1 and 2 that the well was drilled. Engineers selected the site as the most probable source of water. The well almost immediately supplied water at 25 feet—but not enough. And so the well diggers drilled and drilled. The cost mounted and so did the tension.

On a particularly lovely evening, Vic was relaxing on the deck of Cabin 2. All day, for days, the sound of the well-digging machinery had filled the air. Now all was peace and quiet. No water, but no noise. The no water was a matter of concern. It is notoriously difficult to obtain adequate water in the San Juans. Vic leaned back in his chair and said thoughtfully, “Well, maybe we’ll strike oil and never have to sell.” As fate would have it, about the next day, water (not oil) came gushing in—a more than adequate amount. Decatur Head’s well is 289 feet deep.

The road at the head of the head of the salt-water lagoon (connecting Cabins 1 and 2 with the rest of the cabins) did not exist at all. A portion of the lagoon had to be filled to provide room for a road. The permit to build this road took far longer to be approved than expected. When the time came to begin Cabins 3 though 8, no road connected the two areas. Some of the materials could be brought by the Island Ferry directly to the beach were Cabin 4 now stands. During low tides this was hot possible. The Island Ferry delivered the materials to the west side of Decatur Island.
(George Lamb’s) It was then trucked across the island to Cabin 2. All this material had to be hand carried across the cliff above the lagoon (affectionately known as the Burma Road) to whichever cabin was being built. Good exercise is about all you can say for this method.

The building of the road across the lagoon was almost completed when the loader became stuck in the mud. Big Jim Morrison was operating the loader and tried every means he could think of to free it –but it was really stuck. The tide was on the rise and time was running out when an incredible joint effort (and possibly heavenly intervention) prevented what seemed to be the inevitable. At the last possible moment the loader was freed. Jim relaxed that evening by the fire and even had the energy to hold us spellbound with a fantastic collection of adventure tales—a raconteur beyond compare!

One of the pleasures of building was the beach combing. The stretch of pristine beach on the south shore was a source of wonderful old chains, floats, ropes, and of course, drift—some of which were used in the building.

All building went on while there was no phone or CB radio near Decatur Head. Sometimes Rod and Vic would come ahead to prepare work for a larger crew. It was one of these times that the only very serious accident occurred. They were putting in place some of the creosote pilings that support each cabin. Rod was using a chain saw cutting the pilings and Vic stepped too close to the saw and was seriously cut. Vic just made it to the boat. Rod, standing waist deep in water, somehow was able to lift him into the cockpit. Needless to say, it was the fastest trip to Anacortes they ever made. The marina notified the hospital and Vic received instant and expert care.

Brian Swanson, one of the sons working on the project, sported a highly mod pony tail and a wonderful bushy red beard. Although no one was yet aware of the problem, the Decatur Shores owner felt (and feels) very strongly the no one drive out on the airport landing field. Brian, to expedite pick-ups, had been doing just that. Strong words came back about “that girl driving all over the landing strip.” Clearly, Brian must have been viewed from the back. Adjustments (not to Brian but to the driving) were made.

When it was time for the electrical work to begin, the country inspector rather strongly suggested that local help be used to wire the cabins. At that time Moki and his brother George were the electricians on Lopez Island. As it turned out, Moki also entertained ‘til the wee hours—singing in a local bistro. Electrifying audiences was much closer to his heart than electrifying cabins. When Moki began arriving at 3:30pm and leaving at 5:00pm it created quite a slow down in the whole project and required action. Arrangements were made to pick up the electricians early in the morning at Lopez. So, ashen of face, a captive Moki would arrive and work proceeded. Moki no longer lives on Lopez and one prefers to believe he has returned to his native Hawaii and is singing ‘til dawn and sleeping ‘til dusk. (Rumor has it he is a success on the night club circuit—which is certainly an electric thought.)

The docks were built, the buoys were put in place and the earliest member-owners began arriving. (Not necessarily in that order.) All in all it was a happy time. There was a certain feeling of camaraderie in spite of some problems and frustrations.

And of course, no matter the changes, there is a timelessness about Decatur Head.