Museum Week Northwest has been celebrated this week and tomorrow is the last day. But in conjunction with Museum Week Northwest I thought it would be interesting to explore one of our local areas and their historical society. Hopefully it will encourage you to check of Vaughn, and other areas on the Key Peninsula.
The 1880s saw many prominent families arriving on the Gig Harbor peninsula to make their new homes. Many of the families came from agricultural communities in the midwest of America although some came from the Old Country. A few were were veterans of the Civil War or the Indian Wars. Several stopped in the greater Gig Harbor area, but a few continued to travel further west on the freight ships or steamships to the Key Peninsula settling in Vaughn or it’s surrounding communities.
Vaughn was named after William D. Vaughn who made his land claim at Vaughn Bay in 1852. But like many multi-taskers, he didn’t spend the full consecutive years living on the land and lost it. But the settlement retained his name. Steilacoom however profited in many ways from Vaughn’s residency in their community and honored him in many ways.
These recently arrived settlers and their families soon discovered that this new country wasn’t exactly the farmland they had expected. They began to understand that the land was better suited for logging. This was something that the men really weren’t prepared for, and had not learned in the midwest. They needed someone to teach them how to log and how to transport or move the logs so they could sell them; they needed new types of equipment for this new way of life. But they were fortunate in that logging was a big industry in western Washington and there were loggers ready to teach them.
Alfred Van Slyke was just one of these new settlers, and he traveled from Yates Center, Kansas arrived with his family in 1887; their son Finch was born a month after their arrival in Vaughn. Their very good friends, the Coblentz family followed them out west two years later.
The first priorities for the new settlers however was to cut the timber for their own homes. Once their homes were built then the men would be able to concentrate of business of logging. This was made easier when, after the Coblentz family arrived, Alfred and Henry Coblentz established a store and a sawmill in Vaughn. (In 1889, Alfred became the second postmaster in Vaughn.) Shortly after starting these two enterprises, it was decided that Alfred would run the sawmill and Henry the store.
As with all the communities across the US, the Fourth of July celebrations were lively affairs and attended by most everyone living in or around the community. So it is not surprising that in 1889 Alfred gave the young neighborhood men permission to build a dance floor in a grove of trees behind his house. Once the floor was completed and rafters were in place, the local boys covered the rafters with cedar and fir boughs for a roof. The named the new dance structure “Bowery Dance Floor”.
The depression of 1891-93 severely hurt Vaughn’s economy as the price for timber dropped to an all time low. Mills throughout the area closed down operations. Farms weren’t yet fully productive but what they did have they made last by drying fruits, smoking salmon and hams, and canning.
Least you think it was only the men that kept things going, I should bring up what the women were doing besides all their normal activities. These women decided to organize the Vaughn Bay Public Library Association in 1892. They held meetings to raise money to buy books and other materials for the library. At first they used part of the post office to house the books; by 1894 they had catalogued 417 books. Although the women first held their meetings in various homes, it soon became necessary to look for larger quarters. Well, remember the Bowery Dance Floor? It was located on property originally donated by Alfred Van Slyke but now part of Henry Coblentz’s homestead. So the Coblentz family donated it and the land to the Library Association. As typical the other residents donated labor, materials and time to build walls and add a solid roof to the dance floor turning it into a complete building. Not only did it house the library, but it also acted as a community meeting place. The Vaughn Bay Public Library Association occupied this building from 1894 until 1958, at which time Pierce County Library system opened a library in the then new Civic Center. The old hall, which had served the community well, was sold for $500 for the benefit of the new library operating fund.
As the nation began to recover from the 1891-93 depression, logging and timber sales started to recover as well. This meant the Van Slyke sawmill was back in operation providing milled lumber for homes, businesses and docks. But Van Slyke’s business still suffered from financial difficulties and closed the mill. But a newly arrived settler with big dreamers and a recent inheritance wanted to buy the mill. So it was sold to Rev. Leigh W. Applegate in 1897. Applegate upgraded the equipment in the mill from the original one-engine, completed one of his projects, the construction of Vaughn Bay Community Church AKA The Chapel by the Sea. Then disaster struck - the mill was destroyed by fire, liens filed for failure to pay back wages, and bankruptcy. Applegate did the only thing he could, he sold the land back to Van Slyke, and he sold the church to the Calvary Presbyterian Church of Tacoma. and left town.
There is so much more to the history of Vaughn, the families and other communities on the Key Peninsula, that to do it justice I would definitely suggest at trip to the Key Peninsula Historical Society in Vaughn. Their hours are 1 - 4 Thursday and Saturday with free admission although donations are always accepted. They are located at 17010 South Vaughn Road, KPN, Vaughn WA 98394. Membership is $10/per person; $25/per family. You can contact either Judy Mills at (253)884-2511 or Colleen Slater at (253) 884-5403 for additional information. The museum has a delightful guide “An Automobile Tour through Key Peninsula History” by Simon Priest, PhD, Key Peninsula Trails Committee, Key Peninsula Historical Society that provides great ideas for exploration of the area.
Note: References used include:
The Key Peninsula by Colleen A. Slater
Early Days of the Key Peninsula by R. T. Arledge
© 2012 Harbor History Museum. All rights reserved.