Haglund, Ivar (1905-1985)

  • By Paul Dorpat
  • Posted 6/20/2000
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 2499
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Ivar Haglund,  Seattle character, folksinger, and restaurateur was known as "King of the Waterfront," and also "Mayor" and "Patriarch" of the waterfront. He began as a folksinger, and in 1938 established Seattle's first aquarium at Pier 54, along with a fish-and-chips stand. In 1946 Ivar opened the renowned "Acres of Clams" restaurant. By 1965, when he began lofting fireworks over Elliott Bay every "Fourth of Jul-Ivar," he was a legend. He became a radio personality and  Puget Sound's principal champion of regional folk music. In 1976, Ivar bought Seattle's iconic Smith Tower. His escapades, publicity stunts, pronouncements, pranks, and excellent restaurants have become part of Seattle's unique character as a city. Ivar Haglund died on January 30, 1985.

Swedish and Norwegian

Ivar Haglund was born on March 21, 1905, to pioneers Johan Ivar Haglund, ­ a pensive Swede, and Daisy Hanson Haglund,­ a sensitive Norwegian. In 1868 his mother's parents had bought Alki Point from Seattle pioneer Doc Maynard. His immigrant father, a baker, had jumped ship in Port Townsend and hidden in the woods. Ivar's mother died in February 1908, when he was not quite three years old, and he did not remember her.

His father raised the boy, aided by Daisy's oldest sister, Lorena Smith (d. 1920), and brother Edmund. Lorena helped love and feed him, and Edmond taught him how to play a guitar and tell a story. Lorena Smith and her husband, Alfred, ran West Seattle's landmark Stockade Hotel near the site of the community's first log cabin, built a half-century early by John Low (1820-1888) and David Denny (1832-1903). So Ivar grew up on hallowed ground, and he would never lose his interest in local history,­ both its facts and his inventions.

Folk Musician of the Pacific Northwest

Ivar was raised with music -- live music. With a small but sweet tenor voice, he performed in both high school and college productions. Teaching himself to tap dance, Ivar developed a song-and-dance routine that included bits of stand-up comedy. It was Ivar's sense of humor that first caught the eye of his first wife, Margaret. She likened him to the Marx brothers, though "Maggie" also liked Karl Marx. During the Great Depression the couple lived their Bohemian life on rents Ivar collected from the several properties he had inherited from his parents. Although they eventually divorced, Maggie and Ivar remained lifelong friends. Ivar was married to his second wife, Opal Newcomb, from 1967 to 1977.

Ivar developed his musical talent and became known as an expert on Northwest folk music -- he could sing more than 200 songs from memory. During the early 1930s, he worked hard at developing a public identity as a Western folk singer and became known also as an expert and champion of Northwest folk music. Ted Abrams, Ivar's teacher­ and a friend of Maggie's, lived across the alley from the couple in a home the erudite but nervous artist built on a lot Ivar gave to him.

Ultimately, Ivar declined to follow the advice of his friend, artist Mark Tobey, to stay out of the restaurant business for the sake of his music. Still, even after he opened his aquarium and his Acres of Clams restaurant, Ivar continued to sing ­ on radio, on stage, and on the sidewalk.

Seattle's First Aquarium

In 1938 Ivar made a quick study of how to run and stock an aquarium while visiting his cousins, Greta and George Smith, at their aquarium in Seaside, Oregon. Ivar later claimed that he started his sidewalk attraction because it was an easy way to collect dimes during the Depression. "Just pump the environment out of the harbor, circulate it around the tank and back out. All you have to do is feed the critters." Wearing his official captain's hat, Ivar sat on a stool in front of his Pier 54 aquarium and performed the songs he had written about the residents in his tanks.

The most important member of his staff was Pat, the hair seal. Ivar's first well-noticed publicity stunt was his 1940 visit to a department store Santa Claus, with Pat the Seal dressed in a pinafore and a lace baby cap. On the way, he pushed the baby seal through the Pike Place Market in a wicker perambulator. But Ivar was also an amateur scientist of considerable wit and pedagogical charm. School children visiting his aquarium were both delighted and quieted by the tales he told and the songs he composed about the creatures in his tanks -- characters like Barney Barnacle, Herman the Hermit Crab, Terrence the wood-boring Teredo worm, and Oscar and Olivia Octopus.

After Pat the Seal, Oscar the Octopus was the aquarium's most popular critter. It was generally hoped that he would also be the most horrifying. Ivar parodied his customers' fearful ideas about Oscar by staging a wrestling match between the octopus and an over-the-hill prizefighter named "Two-Ton Tony" Galento. The match, of course, drew international press coverage, as well as the attention of the local Humane Society when word got out that Oscar had died. The society ceased complaining when it was revealed that the prizefighter had been wrestling not Oscar, but an already kaput substitute whose grimacing trainers -- Ivar included -- seemed to be restraining the frightening eight-armed pugilist when they were actually animating it with underwater thrashing.

With the 1938 opening of his aquarium on Pier 54, Ivar also backed a young West Seattleite, Roy Buckley, in opening a fish-and-chips counter across from the seal cage at the entrance to the aquarium. The Buckley/Ivar enterprise quickly became too successful. It closed within a year after Steve's Restaurant, already established on Pier 54, complained to the landlords that Ivar's little fish and chips stand was taking away business. By the time Ivar opened his Acres of Clams in 1946, Steve's was long gone.

In 1956, Ivar closed his 18-year-old aquarium. Puget Sound pollutants had decimated his stock more than once, and the oldest fish he released into Elliott Bay was only eight years old: a one-and-one-half-foot lingcod. Ivar made little of it, to the distress of the Post-Intelligencer's "Seattle Scene" columnist, Frank "Slim" Lynch. Lynch lamented:

"The Haglund of even a few years ago would have had a name for the cod. He could have been prompted into saying that the cod knew and loved him, and that there were tears from man and fish at the parting. He wouldn't have minded -- at least -- if some newspaper man said that the cod was still swimming around Pier 54 hoping and waiting."

This practice of unfettered attribution and thus free publicity was an old one. Five years earlier Seattle Times columnist Jack Jarvis noted it directly. "Nice thing about it is that we can do an interview with Ivar without ever talking to him."

Acres of Clams

In 1946, Ivar opened his renowned restaurant, Acres of Clams. It sported nautically equipped interiors by Davy Jones and the U.S. Navy,­ similar to the qualities -- "a little shabby but sincere," in Ivar's words -- of his aquarium.

A local restaurant reviewer described the decor: "fish nets, life preservers, rope ladders, lanterns, ship's wheels, oars, barometers and ash trays fashioned out of shells ... . Waiting to take patrons' orders are perk waitresses dressed in red, white and blue." Most of the fishnets and life preservers came from the neighboring Fisheries Supply Company on Pier 55. The  company also sponsored Ivar's 15-minute radio show, which was announced mellifluously every Sunday morning as "Around the Sound with Ivar Haglund."

Keep Clam!

Many of Ivar's inspirations came by way of puns, both good and bad. "Cultured clam" was turned into "clam culture" and the Acres of Clams was soon described as the place "Where Clams and Culture Meet." First on Acres' menus, and later in the media, Ivar warned husbands that they needed their wive's permission to have more than three cups of his "Ever-Rejuvenating Clam Nectar." His chowder was also "food for thought" because "Seafood is Brain Food. Be wiser at Ivar's." The distillation of Ivar's clam culture -- and ­the first among his puns -- was his motto "Keep Clam."

Like no other restaurateur, Ivar could advertise a bond of love between himself (or his restaurant) and the public with a bald claim that "Ivar's loves customers; customers love Ivar's." Franco's Hidden Harbor and Rosellini's 410 also wore the mantel of their owners -- John Franco made it on sheer conviviality and Victor Rosellini on the aura of a gourmet temperament. Ivar earned his with homely sass, cornball word play, and all the permutations of Clam Culture --­ the Order of the Clam Medallion, the Clam Digger Room, the Clamgun, the Keep Clam (his clam dredger), and the Clam Stamp, a stamp Ivar printed up and the post office confiscated.

In 1963, Post-Intelligencer columnist Emmett Watson followed Ivar through a workday that started with lunch and continued to calling it quits at 2:30 p.m. Watson asked, "What is the secret?" Ivar's reply was at once droll and honest. "Sometimes it's just sitting and thinking. Sometimes it's just doing nothing, instead of getting in there and lousing things up." The truth was that Ivar's greatest talent in running his restaurants was getting others to do it.

Seagull Controversy

For Ivar, after clams it was seagulls. In 1971 he explained, "I don't want to embarrass my neighbors, they do what they want to on their pier and I'll do what I want to on mine. I consider sea gulls the unpaid guardians of public health. They keep the waterfront free of garbage. They are beautiful useful scavengers." Ivar invited the public to feed them.

"The sea gulls, ducks and even the pigeons. You can't discriminate." Ivar's compassionate outburst came after Lynn Campbell of Harbor Tours, his neighbor at Pier 56, put up a sign reading "Don't Feed Sea Gulls, Health Regulation." Ivar responded on the south side of Pier 54 by posting a welcome to seagulls and their lovers. He also published a recipe for Sea Gull Health Bread.

Ivar on the Radio

According to Ivar's first wife, Maggie, during the late Depression her husband worked hard at finding a place in radio. However, his radio career was launched on luck in 1940, when Ivar answered an emergency call from radio interviewer Morrie Alhadeff (1914-1994) to fill in for a guest who had canceled. Ivar went on the air and sang some of the shanties he had written out and attached to the appropriate tanks in his aquarium.

Ivar's appeal is readily apparent in surviving tapes of those early shows. His voice was pleasing and clear and his stories between songs confident and homespun. He sounded like a real folk singer, and his reputation as Puget Sound's principal champion of regional folk music was mightily advanced by radio. When Pete Seeger (b. 1919) and Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) came through town in the early 1940s they stayed with Ivar and Margaret in their West Seattle home. Years later Ivar would recall how he taught Pete Seeger the "Old Settler's Song." On his part, Seeger remembered teaching it to Ivar. Whichever, the opening stanza became Ivar's theme song on radio and on placemats, and also the source of the name for his Pier 54 restaurant. The first stanza concludes:

"No longer the slave of ambition
I laugh at the world and its shams
As I think of my happy condition
Surrounded by acres of clams."

 Enter Mate Salty

In the 1950s, Ivar became a regular on KOMO TV's award-winning children's program, playing the role of First Mate Salty to Don McCune's (1918-1993) Captain Puget. McCune's polished charm and vibrating baritone matched nicely with Ivar's now-vibrating tenor and excited story-telling.

Ivar the folk singer belonged to both the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the Musician's Association of Seattle, Local 76. "This lets me play the guitar legitimately -- ­ not well, but legitimately."

The Great Syrup Spill

Most of Ivar's pranks and promotions were designed, but one of his best came by way of good fortune and artful timing. The luck: a coupling to a tank-car hose broke and squirted a thousand gallons of syrup onto the railroad tracks across Alaskan Way from Acres of Clams. The art: Ivar rushed to the spill with a big spoon and joyfully scooped the free sweetener onto a plateful of pancakes he had hastily prepared in the Acres' kitchen. The internationally distributed wire picture of Ivar bent with a spoon over the spilled syrup described him as the "crown prince of corn."

Soon a kind of Ivar hysteria took hold of local wits and publicists operating out of bars and newsrooms. Some worked for a fee, others for free and for the chance to be joined with the opportunist who had wrestled with the "Great Syrup Spill of 1947." Twice the editors of The Seattle Times put a stop on Ivar stories, but to no avail. The copy was too good to be surrendered to coverage by the Post-Intelligencer or the Seattle Star.

Let Them Eat Clams

Guy Williams, an old college chum and one of Ivar’s inspired heyday publicists, thought up the Pacific International Free Style Amateur Clam Eating Contest Association. Next the idea was honed collectively by the wits encircling the round table in the Round Table Room of the Washington Press Club, who designated their 197 members as vice-presidents of the PIFSACECA and named Ivar executive-secretary. The contest rules covered timing -- 10 minute rounds, a description of what counted as an eaten clam --­ "A clam cannot be both in the mouth and out of it!" ­-- a waiving of rights --­ "All contestants and judges must signify the willingness to submit to the saliva test and the lie detector!" ­-- and an ethical review -- ­ "Any contestant or judge bringing ill repute or question to any contest or the PIFSACECA shall be dealt with in a manner to bring him ignominious humiliation. This should be sufficient warning to would-be fixers and cheap tinhorn gamblers!"

After Seattle cabdriver Richard Watson won the first contest in 1947, Joe Silva, a truck driver from Massachusetts, challenged him. Silva claimed to be the East Coast champion and a sure thing to "beat the West Coast guy by a bucket or two." The 1948 match was close, but the trucker lost to the cabby by four steamed Pacific Northwest littleneck clams: 131 to 127. Silva was the first one to congratulate Watson as Ivar placed the crown on the head of the defending champion. A few years later Richard Watson's record was smashed when Dick Taylor consumed (and hid in his mouth) 337 clams in 10 minutes.

Stamped for Life

The clam stamp escapade got Ivar into his kind of trouble. When Senator Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1995) proposed a stamp commemorating Maine's sardines, Ivar wired Washington's senators, Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) and Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson (1912-1983), proposing the clam instead. "The sardine has been swimming around witlessly being gobbled up by the smarter fish ever since the Mesozoic Age ... Clams keep their mouth shut ... and never stick their neck out when the enemy is around."

Ivar added that a clam stamp would bring in funds for a "guided mussel" program. His friend Jim Faber printed a few thousand official-looking clam stamps, sending sheets of them along with a bag of clams air express to Magnuson's office. Like the 1947 UPI news photo of Ivar scooping syrup, the 1960 photograph of "Maggie" and "Scoop" entertaining Senator Smith with Ivar's gifts is so perfect that it looks like it was directed by a commercial set-up artist. Of course, it also got a lot of play in the press far beyond Puget Sound.

The Clam Stamp prank got a second life when Ivar was almost busted by U.S. Postal authorities after he began selling the stamps in his gift shop. Ivar proposed to the Feds a ritual scuttling of the stamps in Elliott Bay, to a brass band accompaniment of "Asleep in the Deep." They were not amused and confiscated the stamps (and plates) for cremation in a special U.S. Postal Service furnace. Ivar was forever after amused that the Post Office would have its own basement incinerator for cremating bad stamps.

Ivar Buys Pier 54

In 1965, Ivar bought Pier 54 and composed a full-page advertisement to announce the purchase and to line up his puns. "For me to own a wharf would be a paradox (one dock is plenty) --­ besides it would take acres and acres of clams to swing the deal. Then I said, What the hake, be fearless or you'll be pierless. So now I'm a member of the Elliott Bay pierage, a dock duke 54th in a line of piers!" Two years later, when the Port of Seattle attempted to buy Pier 54 for a proposed world trade center, Ivar refused, largely for sentimental reasons. He loved his pier.

By then Ivar had two other restaurants, the Captain's Table on Elliott Avenue below Queen Anne Hill and the Broadway Ivar's on Capitol Hill, and he was planning a fourth diner on Lake Union's Portage Bay.

Salmon House

After the City rejected architect John Adam's plans for a floating restaurant, Ivar built an Adams-designed Indian longhouse on shore instead. In 1971, largely on the basis of the Salmon House, ­ especially its interior -- the Seattle Historical Society gave Haglund and Adams its Award of Merit for historical contributions to Seattle.

In 1980, Ivar's Fish Bars suddenly multiplied when Ivar's Seafood Inc. purchased the 14 Arthur Treachers Restaurants­ and converted them.

Ivar was forever trying to widen his wharf into the slip between it and Fire Station Number 5 but more often than not he was beaten back by fire chiefs protecting their fireboats from flying fish and chips. As an anonymous but experienced public official put it, "Ivar never really breaks the law but then neither does he keep it."

Smith Tower

At least once Ivar really did break the law -- the letter of it -- and thereby hangs a windsock. In 1976, Ivar bought the venerable Smith Tower, built in 1914. Soon after purchasing the tower, Ivar was off to the Orient, returning with a 20-foot-long container filled with Asian artifacts, including a laughing Buddha, to stock the Smith Tower and especially its Chinese Room Observatory. Next, in late September 1977, Ivar hoisted a 16-foot-long windsock he called "The Rainbow Salmon" to the flagpole at the top of the tower. The windsock barely stirred a response from the media until Al Petty, the diligent director of the Seattle Building Department looked to the sky. Petty informed Ivar by post that his flying salmon violated Municipal Ordinance 106350, Section 4919, Subsection 4 covering flying flags, banners, and the like.

This prompted Ivar's Uncle Thorvald, ­ a made-up relative with exceptional courage in his noddy convictions, to inform the press of Petty's pettiness. The media took up the cause, turning the loveable and playful Ivar into a victim of the Too Serious State. Within two weeks of his first letter to Ivar, Petty was writing him poetry, which nevertheless insisted upon the salmon's removal:

"Since your kite is in violation
You must remove that illegal installation.
Keep Clam! As I am."

Ivar, of course, demurred. At the jammed hearing that followed, the embarrassed Petty surrendered with more poetry:

"Oh well, what the hell!
Laws are made for mortal men.
In this case, I don't expect to win ...
Keep clam as I am, you ham!"

Predictably, the city decided in Ivar's favor. The public hearing for a variance for his flying salmon concluded, naturally, with a poem, this one read by Deputy Examiner M. Margaret Klockars:

"The record is clear,
Was right from the start
The fish guides the gulls,
It gladdens the heart.
The hearing wasn't a sham.
The variance is granted,
So Ivar, keep clam."

By this time Ivar Haglund's public character had long been in place. He was full of hijinks, practical jokes, physical humor, painful puns, silly spectacles, deadpan responses, and self-debasements. Haglund happily played the comedic role of "Dumb Swede" (or Norwegian) all the way to the fish bank. A local reporter described him as the "loveable walrus who parlayed a 10-cent aquarium into what is probably the most successful restaurant operation in town." In 1956, R. H. Calkins, a columnist for the Marine Digest, concluded that Ivar was "the waterfront's greatest show man in all of its history."

Port Commissioner?

In 1983, Ivar was elected to a six-year term on the Seattle Port Commission. Filing to run was a publicity gag, ­ this time to remove the annoying boxcars that blocked the view of Elliott Bay from his Acres of Clams. But actually running for office was a task to be diligently avoided. When he pleaded with Scott Kingdon, the general manager of his restaurants, to help him withdraw, Kingdon told him that it was too late. He did not campaign and he still won by 30,000 votes. Being a port commissioner was tiresome for the 78-year-old Ivar and he routinely missed meetings. When Ivar attempted to pacify his fellow commissioners with free clam chowder they were not so easily amused.

Ivar Haglund, age 79, died of a heart attack on January 30, 1985, while getting out of bed.

Two months later, Seattle celebrated his 80th birthday. Tooting vessels paraded in front of the waterfront. Overhead, a large balloon that read "Happy Birthday Ivar" bobbed in the winter breeze. That afternoon Seattle City Councilman "Streetcar" George Benson dedicated the waterfront trolley station across Alaskan Way from the Acres of Clams as the Clam Central Station, and two months after that his birthday was capped appropriately with fireworks over Elliott Bay. At the time, Ivar's Seafood Inc. operations officer Scott Kingdon promised that on the following July 4, the Fourth of Jul-Ivars show would go ahead as planned. It did, and continued every year without interruption until its last show, in 2008.

In the spring of 1984, Ivar gave one of his last interviews, to a reporter from the Chinook, the student publication of his alma mater, West Seattle High School. Ivar recalled that he too had been a reporter for the Chinook. He covered the sports beat when the school's football team was so bad that it was too painful to attend games. Ivar's solution was to buy the morning Post-Intelligencer and write up his story from what was reported there. To the interviewer's question, "Is there anything more to accomplish?" Ivar responded, "I just want to see a few more Fourths of July." He saw one more, the 1984 show, which he dedicated to the 1000th anniversary of Leif Ericsson's discovery of America.

Ivar wrote a will that, except for a few gifts to friends, divided his estate between the Washington State University restaurant program and his alma mater, the University of Washington School of Business. Ivar's will also indicated that his former employees should be given the chance to purchase back the business. Not only did he care for them, but he also understood that they would be likely to carry on his traditions,­ both cornball and charitable.

And they have. The traditions continued with such promotions ­as the popular Dances With Clams and sponsorships ­ of schools, tournaments, park concerts, and an Independence Day pyrotechnic display that by its final show in 2008 was five times larger than Ivar's first fireworks in 1965. And the business of selling fish has grown to three restaurants --­ the Acres of Clams, the Salmon House, and Mukilteo Landing, not to mention fish bars as far away as Spokane, Bellingham, and Portland, 28 in all. The number of Ivar's employees has nearly tripled since his death, from 350 to 950.

Sold internationally, Ivar's brand clam chowder continues to help the world keep clam.


Paul Dorpat "King of the Waterfront," (tentative title, biography of Ivar Haglund in progress), in possession of Paul Dorpat, Seattle, 2000. See Also: Dave Stephens, Ivar: The Life and Times of Ivar Haglund (Seattle: Dunhill Publishing, 1986); "Ivar Haglund Will Open New Restaurant," Marine Digest, May 4, 1946, p. 2; "Restaurant Welcomed on Waterfront," Ibid., August 3, 1946, p. 9; "Ivar Gives History of Puget Sound Clam Bake," Ibid., May 17, 1947, p. 14; "Captain's Table Revives Tradition," Ibid., May 21, 1960, p. 6; Jim Fabor, "Ivar Surrounded by Acres of Clams," Ibid., June 14, 1975, p. 11-16; "Bob Hansen, "Ivar Buys Pier for $500,000," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 8, 1966; "A Folk Hero is Gone," Ibid., January 31, 1985, p. A-1; "Haglund Plans New Restaurant," The Seattle Times, February 26, 1967, p. 22; "Pier 54 Sold to Ivar Haglund," Ibid., June 8, 1966, p. 6; "Ivar Haglund's 20 Years with the Clams,"Ibid., March 27, 1966, p. 37; "Restaurant to be Authentic Longhouse," Ibid., January 26, 1969, p. 2-C; Paul Dorpat, "The Stokade at Alki: the Summer Resort Recalled Seattle's Beginnings," Ibid., Pacific Magazine, April 29, 1984, p. 5; "Ivar: He Brought us Seafood ...," Ibid., January 31, 1985, p. D-1; "Ivar Haglund Dies," Ibid., January 30, 1985, p. A-1; "Ivar Buys Pier 54," Port of Seattle Reporter, July 1, 1966, p. 7.
Note: The date of Ivar's first fireworks was here corrected from 1966 (the date given in Dave Stephens' account and no doubt based on Ivar's own frequent confusion of dates) to 1965. The 1965 date is based on reports of the previous day's fireworks in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 5, 1965. This file was corrected on July 6, 2004, and updated on March 23, 2005 and January 6, 2010.

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