Holding Onto Down-Home Ways -- Stanwood Unites East, West Sides

(Editor's note: ``Main Streets'' is an occasional series taking North Times readers to visit interesting communities and neighborhoods in our area. This week: The northwestern Snohomish County town of Stanwood.)


For half a century, this town's east and west sides fought like the proverbial cats and dogs - separate government, separate high schools and separate names.

Now, 30 years after East Stanwood and Stanwood were united by a mutual need - sewers - the former foes stand together, models of neighborliness, united against rapid growth and the inevitable spring flooding on the Stillaguamish River.

Above all, they want to preserve the small-town flavor epitomized by the Old Brick Road that gives character to a portion of the main street, the fields of green peas that seem to sprawl forever on the vast flood plain, and the down-home warmth of the Home Place Restaurant & Ice Cream Fountain.

Consider this scene at the Home Place on a recent morning:

Slender Cleo Field, 87, was seated at the counter, drinking hot coffee and devouring a stack of hotcakes slathered with butter. Field had taken up flying in his 70s, after his wife died, and he had soloed at 83. Now age was catching up with him, he said, and he was going to undergo cataract surgery the next day. The waitress expressed genuine concern, the kind you can't feign, as she poured him another cup of coffee.

Jan Sollid, cafe owner, appeared with a large plastic container of thick potato-cheese soup. Beaming, she said, ``Here, Cleo, this is for you. Just stick it in the freezer and you'll have something to keep up your strength while you're recovering.''

It was a gift, unsolicited, requiring no payment.

``He's a dear man,'' said Sollid.

Field smiled and promised to be back in a couple of weeks for his regular morning breakfast.

Elevated Highway 532, which runs runs past Stanwood's business district and out to Camano Island, acts as a dike during flooding. Those who live north of the highway are relatively protected. The few families that live to the south get their feet wet.

Among the flood-plain dwellers is husky Nels ``Swede'' Bodin, 67, born on Camano Island when the area was about two-thirds Norwegians and one-third Swedes. He stops working on his 34-year-old wooden fishing boat, Sandy Lee, for a few minutes to recall when the two Stanwoods had two sawmills, an oyster company, a cheese factory, a fish-processing plant and ``numerous bootleggers.''

``Why,'' says Bodin - chuckling at the once-fierce rivalry between East Stanwood's Lincoln High Lynx and Stanwood High's Pirates - ``they used to wager more money on those games than they do on the Seahawks.''

What really rankled East Stanwoodites, says Bodin, was having the name ``Stanwood'' on the Great Northern railroad

depot in East Stanwood.

But that's all ended now. The schools united in 1945. The two towns came together in 1960, because alone they couldn't finance a sewer system and united they could build a very good one - so good, in fact, that it has the capacity to serve twice the present 2,000 population.

Besides being ``a real neighborly place,'' says Bodin, Stanwood also is home to a rather sophisticated bartering system, in which people swap their skills and produce with little money changing hands.

Like most Stanwood-area residents, Bodin worries about growth. ``They're closing in on us,'' he says.

The numbers say he's right. The population of the Stanwood-Warm Beach-Camano Island area now is about 22,000, about 90 percent of it on the island or in unincorporated areas.

City Councilman Cliff Danielson, former editor and publisher of the Stanwood/Camano News, says the town's population should double in the next few years as more annexations are approved. Camano Island and the rest of the area probably will grow faster.

Although the City Hall and Twin City Foods Inc., the largest processor of frozen peas, corn and potatoes in the United States, are in the original Stanwood, the old East Stanwood now has the larger business district and more new homes. The single high school is on the edge of town, but closer to the East Side.

Danielson (East Stanwood's Lincoln High, class of '40), says that when he took over the newspaper in 1958, there was a single city-limits sign dividing the two towns - one side said ``East Stanwood,'' the other ``Stanwood.''

``It was really silly,'' says Danielson. ``Together, we could do so much; divided, we couldn't ever accomplish anything.''

Danielson says that when he now attends joint high-school reunions, he regrets the old divisions.

``I feel gypped,'' he says. ``Before the schools joined there was so much rivalry that they had to cancel several football games because of the fights.

``I'd say we didn't know more than 10 percent of the kids in the other end of town when I was growing up. When we meet now at reunions, I think how good it would have been if we could have enjoyed each other's company. Having separate districts creates animosities.''

Grace Cornwell, who graduated from Stanwood High in 1924, before there were two high schools, recalls when ``everybody knew everybody here, so you darn well had to behave.'' Her favorite bit of girlhood daring was going to the post office, ``because you might see a boy.''

Things are a bit wilder than that today. Police Chief Bob Kane, who came here nearly eight years ago from Scottsdale, Ariz., says Stanwood has all the crimes - from shoplifting to murder - that you will find in any other town.

But, he adds, ``there's a lot less of it. . . . and this community supports victims and helps us solve the crimes.''

One nice touch you won't find in the Seattle Police Department is citizens walking into City Hall, waving to the chief and his staff and leaving a plate of freshly baked doughnuts.

``They do it all the time,'' says Kane. ``Hey, we still have a city picnic. And there's coffee and cake for birthdays at City Council meetings.

``We've got a DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program here you wouldn't believe. We're talking $12,000 to $14,000 a year. And the public came up with 95 percent of the money. People here buy into the family atmosphere.''

But all of that closeness occasionally makes a newcomer feel like an outsider, says Anna Barreca, a Home Place waitress with a strong New York accent. Barreca, a resident for about four years, says she and her family have had a cool reception - ``they think I'm from another world.''

Greater Stanwood includes wooded, tranquil Camano Island, one of the largest islands in the United States. But there are places on the island where the woods are being clear-cut. And the tranquility is being threatened by a real-estate boom.

``Property sells just about as fast as it comes on the market,'' says Rollie Glauser, of Century 21 realtors. ``It's running as high as $3,000 a front foot for low-bank'' waterfront.

And yet, all things are relative.

There are still a lot more woods than clear-cuts. In fact, the interior of Camano is thick with trees. And Glauser says that 30 percent to 40 percent of the island is in large chunks of property that have yet to be subdivided.

``I hate to see it (the boom) coming,'' says Glauser, sounding decidedly unlike a realtor. ``You move up here for a purpose. It's rural country. I moved out of Seattle for that reason.''