Fishtown (Skagit County)

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 11/03/2023
  • Essay 22818
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Fishtown was a community of artists, sculptors, and poets that sprang up along a bend of the Skagit River near La Conner. From 1968 to 1989, this contingent lived in primitive cabins on stilts built decades earlier by fishermen and connected by a rickety boardwalk. Drawn by the natural beauty of the area, simpler lifestyle, and (almost) free rent, Fishtown grew into a place to gather, meditate, and make art. An early resident, Charles Krafft, who lived there for 12 years, was its self-appointed mayor. In 1971, a group of Fishtown artists calling themselves the Asparagus Moonlight Group exhibited their work in Seattle's Pioneer Square, followed by an exhibit in 1974 at Seattle Center. By the mid-1980s, Fishtown had run its course; many of its residents had relocated, changed careers, got jobs, or got married. The logging of privately owned old-growth forest that abutted Fishtown was the final straw. Protests erupted in 1988 and environmentalists lodged an appeal. Although a judge ruled that the clear-cut could continue as long as it stopped 500 feet from the cabins, the damage had been done. Landlords canceled leases, and as clearcutting continued, the cabins and boardwalks were destroyed.  

Fishing Cabins on the Skagit River

Fishtown was an artist colony that existed from 1968 to1989 along a stretch of the Skagit River, about four miles north of La Conner. The area is on the ancestral lands of the Swinomish people and evidence of Native houses was unearthed at the site. In the late nineteenth century, the land was owned by Granville Haller (1819-1897), a retired Army officer. (Haller Lake north of Seattle is named for his son.) Born in York, Pennsylvania, Haller was a career Army officer, serving in the Seminole wars in Florida as well as the Mexican-American War, Yakima War, and Civil War. In 1866, he and his wife moved to Coupeville on Whidbey Island. He later acquired large tracks of undeveloped land, including the area that became known as Fishtown.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, a cluster of primitive wooden cabins on stilts along the Skagit River connected by a rickety boardwalk were used to provide shelter for fishermen as they waited for their gillnets to fill with salmon. As gillnetting became more restricted and eventually outlawed, the fishermen left and the cabins were abandoned. In the late 1960s and for the next 20 years, the colony was rejuvenated by a group of painters, poets, sculptors, calligraphers, architects, and others attracted to the beauty of the region: its peaceful misty mornings, soft light shimmering on the water's surface, and wind whispering through the trees. Never mind that the shacks did not have heat, electricity, or indoor plumbing.

Damp and Dank: Life in Fishtown

One of the first to move in was Charles Krafft (1947-2020). A student at Skagit Valley Community College, Krafft came upon the cabins when he was hiking along the North Fork of the Skagit River. The solitude and rustic setting appealed to him, and he thought it could be a place for him to unwind, live simply, and learn to meditate. He rented a cabin for $1 a month and in 1968 moved in. He fixed up his shack, appointed himself mayor, and set about to encourage other friends to join him.

Most of the residents were young, but even at that, life was not easy. Living conditions were damp, primitive, and crude, requiring a spirit of adventure. Former Fishtown resident and artist Steve Herold (b. 1942) described life there as follows: "We didn't even have gas generators, we could have, we didn't. We had candles and kerosene lamps, we had wood stoves, we cut and bucked our own wood. If you didn't get enough in time, it was a miserable winter. We had drafty little cabins and we got hit by floods. We thrived on it because we took it to heart" ("Forgotten Histories ...").  

As new residents worked to shore up and weatherize their cabins, they dismantled some of the more dilapidated ones for spare materials. In one hut, they found newspapers from 1898, pasted on the walls to seal the building from the elements. "There were no roads to Fishtown and few maps pointed the way. The shacks were accessible only by boat or on foot, so those who chose to live in, or even visit the place, had to be committed" (In the Valley of Mystic Light, 121).

Twice a day the tide would push in, lapping at the underpinnings of the shacks. The boardwalks frequently flooded, and everything had to be carried in and out. Tucked behind forested hills, the approach by land crossed two farms whose owners did not always appreciate trespassers. "From the farm you had to go down the hill to a quarter mile of boardwalk that we all maintained – and not without effort and frequent surprises. One time I felt I had to go out somewhere during a flood, and although the boardwalk was built four feet above normal river level, this time its top was already 18 inches under water. The first slip would be a long way down to the ground ... This place being a marshy rainforest also meant the trails quickly became a tangle of shrubs, roses, blackberries, nettles and fallen trees" (Where the River Ends, 4-5).

The Mayor of Fishtown

Krafft grew up in Seattle and went to Roosevelt High School and the Lakeside School. Interested in Buddhism and Asian art, he traveled through India and Europe, and lived in San Francisco before returning to the Northwest. The prose of Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), a Beat Generation pioneer, resonated with him, and he greatly admired the mystical artists of the Northwest School, particularly Morris Graves (1910-2001) and Guy Anderson (1906-1988). Graves and Anderson once lived nearby, sharing a burned-out shell of a cabin in La Conner. Although Graves lived in the area just a short time, Anderson settled there permanently in 1959 until his death nearly 30 years later.

Krafft lived in Fishtown for 12 years, following the rhythms of the day, lost in his work or in the landscape. "His days – with 'absolutely no schedule' – are spent in tranquility, beginning when the day makes itself known. He writes, paints or makes repairs around home in the mornings, stops when he wants to for lunch, continues working until he feels like making his evening meal. At night he reads by kerosene lamp and listens to the battery radio. He has no motors, no clocks, no electricity. He gets water from the river at his doorstep ... Krafft walks along a boardwalk at water's edge, into the woods on a quiet path, through a field and thence to the road to La Conner, or he may row there, for groceries and to see friends" ("Pacific Northwest Living").  

In 2013, Krafft's reputation took a hit when The Stranger revealed he had participated in white nationalist and Holocaust denial websites. Some of his art, which had incorporated swastikas, Hitler, and other World War II imagery, and which were heretofore considered "dark," were re-evaluated. When The New Yorker weighed in, Krafft soon found himself a pariah. He was dropped from a planned group exhibit in Paris, and several U.S. art museums considered de-accessioning his work. He died of brain cancer in 2020.

Other Fishtown Denizens

Following in Krafft's footsteps, a contingent of artists moved into Fishtown over the next two decades. Wood sculptor and architect Bo Miller lent his carpentry talents to help newcomers fix up their cabins. "On that first visit to La Conner with Krafft, Miller said, 'It was like walking into another world.' By this time, it was obvious that the Skagit Valley was a sanctuary to young artists, and this was where Miller wanted to be" (In the Valley of Mystic Light, 123-124).

Art Jorgensen, with his wife Sande and daughter Willow, worked on a nearby farm to make money and spent his free time sculpting in bronze. David and Elizabeth Soderberg lived there for five years; Elizabeth was one of the few women artists in Fishtown. "Soderberg recalls that, at the time, many people 'thought that women couldn't stand living without electricity, water, etc.'" ("Review: The Community of Fishtown is Gone ...").

The river life provided inspiration for poet Paul Hansen, who later became a noted translator of early Chinese poetry. His poem entitled Poem for the Boys in Fishtown on the Day They Moved Bo's House contains these lines: "I think of you guys moving a house/Passing timbers onto a skiff/From a blazing barge, grounded on a point mid-river/Across the Skagit from Fishtown" (Poem for the Boys in Fishtown ...).

Steve Herold, another early Fishtown resident, was a calligrapher who found his calling while a student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Distressed that he could barely read his own handwriting, Herold started using a calligrapher's pen and found that he enjoyed the swirls and swoops he could make with its point. "Realizing I would have to spend my life on some aimless subject or other, I determined on calligraphy, which pleased my eye and seemed to straighten out my head as well," ("If You Want to be a Calligrapher …"). Herold went on to study calligraphy for years, in the Northwest as well as in Dublin, London, and Paris.  

In 2007, Herold published a memoir, Where the River Ends: Art & Poetry of the Lower Skagit. In the book, dedicated to Gritty the Fishtown cat, he documented the collegiality and creativity of the Fishtown community: "One of the most significant aspects of these artists was their sense of community and cooperation. Although art has traditionally been a solitary life of creator and medium, the Fishtown community worked together both to create their community and their art. Poets from up and down the river would gather to drink tea and write poems to share and collect. Artists, poets and calligraphers would cooperate on making a single work of art more powerfully combining their talents ... In its brief existence the Fishtown group lived on the river, took their inspiration and support from it and have left an enduring legacy of Skagit art" ("Where the River Ends, vi). 

Ralph Aeschliman arrived in January 1974, commandeering an abandoned duck-hunting cabin on float logs about a half-mile downriver from Fishtown. "I moved all my possessions aboard, books mostly, and set up my life on the Skagit flats. I went through a long period of self-examination. Mostly, I wanted to reassert my commitment to art. I needed to find out who I was and where I belonged, and I was determined to be an artist even if I had to starve to death. I learned how to live without money" (Where the River Ends, 89). 

Poet Robert Sund (1929-2001) was a recognizable figure around Fishtown, with a long white beard and ponytail. His cabin was a popular meeting spot for other writers and poets, who called themselves the Great Blue Heron Society. Sund's poems often dealt with farm life and family and were modeled after Chinese and Japanese masters. A collection of his poetry, published posthumously in 2004, was entitled Poems from Ish River Country, his nickname for the Fishtown community.

Sculptor and draftsman Hans Nelson dropped out of high school and moved to Fishtown in 1969 for four years, trying his hand at ink drawings. "I don't even think I made a living then – I did some odd jobs and every so often my Dad would send a small check in the mail, but really I lived on nothing, barely kept body and soul together" (Gurldoggie).

Group Dinners and Exhibitions

A large Fishtown storage shed with double doors that might have earlier served as a boathouse was christened the Temple. Bo Miller slept there initially before getting his own cabin next door to Krafft. "The big double doors opened out over the river and swallows swooped into the shed's loft and back out. Once a place of storage, now it was designated as a sanctuary for meditation and housing for weekend guests" (In the Valley of Mystic Light, 124). It was also used for parties and gatherings, as Fishtown resident Elizabeth Soderberg recalled: "We would all have dinners in the temple. We'd sit on a rug on the floor around a big table. Then Charlie's girlfriend moved and took her table and rug with her, and the dinners stopped" ("How the Northwest Lives").

In 1971, a group of Fishtown artists, calling themselves the Asparagus Moonlight Group, exhibited their work in the Second Story Gallery in Seattle's Pioneer Square. Three years later, another exhibit was staged, at Seattle Center, organized by the Seattle Art Museum. Even after Fishtown was abandoned, retrospective exhibits in Seattle's galleries and at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner kept the Fishtown memory alive. 

The Demise of Fishtown

Not everyone along the Skagit River welcomed the artists to Fishtown. "The locals were wary of young men with beards and long hair. They feared an influx of such people. Their fear was confirmed. Word about the place spread like ripples in the river. People streamed in" ("How the Northwest Lives").

Some artists took up residence in cabins only to find out just because they were empty did not mean they were abandoned. "Five of the cabins in Fishtown had never been abandoned; they had been handed down in gillnetters' families or sold ... Seeing a cabin with no one in it, the newcomers thought they could claim it for their own. The weekenders had to reestablish possession and then put locks on their cabins. The locks kept newcomers from moving in but did not always keep things inside the cabins from moving out" ("How the Northwest Lives"). To counter the idea they were squatting, an agreement with property owners was hammered out, specifying who lived where and the cost of rent. In 1978, the rent was set at $100 a year.

Other artists who had enthusiastically embraced the back-to-nature lifestyle thought differently once winter set in. "People got older and less mobile. Some who thought they might like to settle in Fishtown found the winters were too long and life too hard, with the hike in or out more than a mile across a swampy field and through the woods, with no electricity or running water. Others found life there too easy, with the temptation to do nothing …" ("How the Northwest Lives").

By the mid-1980s, it appeared that the appeal of Fishtown, nicknamed the zen mystic village by Skagit Valley resident and novelist Tom Robbins (b. 1932), was on the wane. Some residents had left to pursue jobs; others moved out-of-state or had children. About a dozen inhabitants still lived there, but many did not seem quite so selflessly devoted to art as earlier residents.

The death knell was struck by the logging of an old-growth forest called Fishtown Woods, which separated the riverside cabins from Dodge Valley Road. The 60 forested acres were privately owned by the Chamberlain family, who wanted to develop it. "Fishtown residents began organizing protests to protect what they called the last really big old-growth forest in the area. They were led by preservationist groups from outside the valley and joined by high-profile personalities such as Tom Robbins and [artist] Richard Gilkey. In January and February of 1988 several hundred protesters gathered on Dodge Valley Road, carrying signs and blocking the entrance of a new logging road built there" (In the Valley of Mystic Light, 224).

A hearing before the state's Forest Practices Appeals Board determined that logging could proceed, but the clear-cut had to stop about 500 feet short of the Fishtown cabins to minimize impact. The damage had been done, however, and with tempers still flaring, landlords cancelled leases and cabins were demolished. Police removed any final stragglers. By 1989, the Fishtown era had come to a close.

Sources: Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Anderson, Guy (1906-1998)" (by Deloris Tarzan Ament); "Graves, Morris (1910-2001)" (by Deloris Tarzan Ament),; Steve Herold, Where the River Ends: Artists and Poets of the Lower Skagit (Seattle: Serif & Pixel Press, 2007); Claire Swedberg and Rita Hupy, In the Valley of Mystic Light (Bellingham: Good Deed Rain, 2017); Gene Johnston, "If You Want to Be a Calligrapher, Write & Write & Write," The Seattle Times February 25, 1973, Northwest Magazine, p. 11; Dale Douglas Mills, "Pacific Northwest Living," Ibid., Section, April 8, 1979, Pictorial, p. 40; Sheila Farr, "Remembering an Icon of the Northwest," Ibid., December 10, 2004, p. H-10; Gayle Clemans, "Review: The Community of Fishtown is Gone, but Museum in La Conner Conjures Up Its Spirit," The Seattle Times, September 9, 2010 (; Sheila Farr, "Rekindling the Spirit of Fishtown," Ibid., September 21, 2007; Linda Lewis, "How the Northwest Lives," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 12, 1978, Northwest Magazine, p. 4; John Marshall, "Fishtown Woods: Another Clear-cut or a Sacred Place?," Ibid., January 23, 1988, p. B-1; John Marshall, "Postscripts About People Who Have Touched Lives," Ibid., April 9, 1988, p. B-1; Nathaniel Lloyd, "Forgotten Histories and the Renewal of the Skagit North Fork," March 7, 2023, The Planet Magazine (Western Washington University) website accessed October 2, 2023 (; "Fishtown," Gurldoggie blog, August 13, 2010, website accessed October 2, 2023 (; Jen Graves, "Charles Krafft Is a White Nationalist Who Believes the Holocaust Is a Deliberately Exaggerated Myth," February 13, 2013, The Stranger website accessed October 2, 2023 (; Lorraine Wilde, "Fishtown: Art and Nature on the Skagit River," April 27, 2020, Adventures Northwest Magazine website accessed October 2, 2023 (; Paul Hansen, Poem for the Boys in Fishtown on the Day They Move Bo's House, undated poem, Anacortes Museum and Maritime Heritage Center website accessed October 3, 2023 (; "Fishtown Project" video, The Fishtown Project website accessed October 3, 2023 (; "The Fishtown Project," Facebook page accessed October 5, 2023 (

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