Poulsbo, the little fishing town on Liberty Bay in North Kitsap County, due west of Seattle, got its nickname "Little Norway" from the many Norwegian Americans who settled there starting in the 1880s. Beginning with the first white settlers on the bay, Ole Stubb (1821-1916) and his family, and continuing until the 1940s, Poulsbo has been filled to the brim with Norwegian immigrants and their descendants. At the same time, the immigrants followed a very American pattern in their settlement of the western reaches of the continent as a means to owning their own land, their building of a town from the ground up, and their town's eventual transformation during World War II into a suburban community, with many residents working for the federal government at nearby military bases or in nearby cities.
When European Americans arrived in Poulsbo, as early as the 1860s, the bay seemed uninhabited -- a blank space waiting for their arrival. But, although no one permanently resided on the bay at the time, Indians had occupied the area where the townsite of Poulsbo would grow up. At the extreme head of the bay the sook-WAHBSH (clear saltwater dwellers) band of the Suquamish had a village site know as ho-CHEEB. An ancient village site, Xo'yatcid was also located there. The Suquamish called the actual site of Poulsbo Tcutcu Lats, which translates as "maple grove."
Indians, likely Suquamish, still used the bay for fishing and gathering shellfish. They had ceded the land on which Poulsbo sits in the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855, but retained use of their traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering sites. They traded the fish and other sea life they caught and gathered with white residents.
Logging and Fishing
It was not long after the treaty that the first logging crews came to the bay. In 1860 Henry Eley located his logging camp, consisting of an oxen stable and three or four shacks, where downtown now stands. Paul Wahl operated his own logging operation beginning in 1862 and Port Blakely Mill Company established a camp nearby in 1872. Upon their arrival, the first permanent settlers moved into Wahl's abandoned shacks.
Meanwhile, Henry Prescott settled on the bay long enough to establish a dogfish oil operation in 1866. He set traps in the water for the dogfish that were so bountiful the first name for the bay was Dog Fish Bay (the bay later gained the name Liberty Bay through popular usage, although never officially). After hauling in his catch, he processed the fish to extract their oil, which was used to grease everything from skid roads to anchor chains. Several subsequent owners of Prescott's land stayed for a very short time and did not leave any more evidence of their stay than their names on the parcels in old records.
Isolation and hardship did not deter Ole Stubb (born Ole Anderson Stubbhaug in Naustdal, Førdefjord, Norway) and his family, who arrived on the south side of the bay in 1875 from Norway, by way of South Dakota. While looking for land Ole came upon Dog Fish Bay and one local historian writes that he, "saw immediately that this was an ideal place with a promise of a great future. A place that would serve as a magnet to the Norwegians" (Soreboe, "The Soreboe Story," 150).
It would be seven years before the place drew in the first fellow Norwegians. In September 1883, Jorgen Eliason (1847-1937) and Peter Olson rowed a boat from Seattle to Dog Fish Bay in search of land.
They went to Dog Fish Bay to look for Ole Stubb, who Eliason knew through relatives (they had come from the same town in Norway). Stubb showed Eliason and Olson around and they each filed claims to homesteads where Poulsbo's downtown is today. Olson soon sold his land but Eliason stayed and is considered the founder of Poulsbo.
Just a month later the Moe family joined Eliason, his sister Rakel and his son E. J. in Paul Wahl's abandoned shacks on the waterfront. Originally from eastern Norway (Stubb and Eliason were from the western coast of Norway), the Moes had journeyed from Minneapolis beginning in the spring of 1882.
To make their way west Iver B. Moe (1843-1927) and his sons worked for the Northern Pacific Railroad, provided cord wood for a gold mine, and road horses over the Rocky Mountains over the course of 1882 and 1883. At Lake Kacheelus at Snoqualmie Pass, they built a raft to ferry the wagons to the other side. At the lake another party joined their group and also rafted their wagons across. On the far side they found only a trail and proceeded to work their way through the forest. Most trees crossing the trail could be cut up, but the really large ones required they build a ramp of sorts using brush to get the wagons over. They made it to Issaquah in two weeks, making them the first party to cross Snoqualmie Pass with wagons. They continued on to Seattle and then went in search of land to homestead. While in Port Madison, Moe heard that Dog Fish Bay was worth looking at and there joined the Eliasons.
While Eliason focused on clearing land for a farm, the Moes immediately jumped into various business ventures. Starting in 1884, they used their horses to log on the peninsula, and sold the logs to the large mills at Port Madison and Port Blakely. When Iver Moe's efforts to do business with the Port Gamble mill suffered from the lack of a road, he blazed a trail there in three days.
Moe and his sons Chris and Andrew built 30 miles of standard gauge railroad to haul logs to the water, the first such operation in the county. They were also first to use a steam donkey, an engine used to haul logs to the loading site at the tracks. The Moes would later invest in the Pacific Coast Codfish Company and run the steamer Dauntless for passenger service.
In December 1886, Moe applied to the Postal Service for a post office with the name of his Norwegian hometown, Paulsbo. The Postal Service misspelled the name and on December 8, 1886, Moe became the postmaster of Poulsbo.
Other early settlers worked in both farming and logging, with many of the men working for outside firms while the women maintained the farms. John Storseth (1863-1946) and his wife arrived in 1889. By 1905 they had a successful farm and a logging operation employing 18 people. Martha Martinson (1861-1940) cooked in the logging camps and her husband Michael (1857-1920) worked at different times for each of the surrounding mills in Port Gamble, Port Madison, and Port Blakely, all while they were improving their homestead.
The lack of roads beyond the skid roads left behind from logging operations made the settlers look to the water for transportation. Using rowboats at first, they rowed between towns on the peninsula and on Bainbridge Island. They especially rowed back and forth to Port Madison, where they could get supplies and their mail.
In 1885 steamer service started with the Augusta stopping three times per week. Until 1894 the town lacked a wharf, so the steamers tied up at log rafts anchored in the bay. A rowboat ferried passengers and goods between boat and shore. Animals had to make the shore by swimming.
The water was also a highway for rafted logs going into the mills and lumber coming out. Martin Bjermeland rafted lumber (distinct from logs) for his house to Dog Fish Bay in 1887 and then carried it to his lot, making it the first frame building in town. Presumably, others had surveyed the situation and decided to build a log structure, making use of the logs readily at hand.
Poulsbo's central location in North Kitsap led to its becoming somewhat of a commercial hub. This began with the first grocery, opened by Adolph Hostmark in 1886. Iver Moe passed the postmaster job to Hostmark in 1887, since the store was the logical place for the mail.
Martin Bjermeland, after building his house, went on to build the church, school, wharf, the Grand View Hotel, and the codfish processing plant.
Churches and Schools
The church, of course, was Lutheran, organized in 1886 by N. J. Nilsen. Jorgen Eliason donated land and the Fordefjord Church that Bjermeland built served the entire community with services in Norwegian.
The school Bjermeland built opened in 1891 on land donated by John Tornensis. An earlier one-room school had been built on Moe's land. The first teacher, Nellie Kiddy, just 16 years old, led the group of six boys and one girl for six weeks, when she quit in frustration at the boys' misbehavior. The second teacher, a seasoned 30-year-old named Maggie Murphy, did not abide any nonsense. Chris Moe, Iver's son and one of the unruly boys, remembered years later that, "She just beat the tar out of all of us" (Carson, Tall Timber and the Tide, 54).
For those who continued on to high school, there were high school classes offered as early as 1907. The first class graduated in 1920 from Poulsbo High School, which was replaced by Union High School the next fall. At first five districts fed into Union High School. By 1929, 14 districts shared the school. In 1941 the 14 districts consolidated into North Kitsap School District and renamed the school North Kitsap High School.
Built in 1907 for Nils Sonju, the Grand View Hotel joined a growing list of businesses in town by the early 1900s. These included the Olympic Hotel, a sawmill, a planing mill (that cut dimensional lumber for retail sale), three wharves, a blacksmith, a buggy and wagon repair and manufacturing outfit, a job printing office, and a newspaper.
The newspaper, the Kitsap County Herald, continues publication today. Peter Iverson (1861-1946) and his wife Josephine started it after emigrating to Poulsbo from Norway via the Midwest in 1901. Iverson also operated the steamer The Josephine because, according to Fredi Perry's history of Kitsap County, "In an area where people and produce moved on the water, there were small deliveries or fares to be had if one was enterprising and a hard worker" (Kitsap: A Centennial History, 79) In later years Iverson would serve as the second mayor of Poulsbo and, simultaneously, the state senator for two terms, from 1913 until 1918.
An election on December 6, 1907 put the question of incorporation before the voters who overwhelmingly approved it, with just two votes against it. The night before the election, a caucus was held and Andrew Moe (1866-1951) was nominated for mayor, L. S. Langeland (b. 1858) for treasurer, and five others for the council. All were elected the next day.
In the early 1900s a wave of immigrants from Norland, an area of Norway near the Arctic Circle, came to Poulsbo. They brought their fishing traditions gained from living off the Norwegian Sea. They began the long tradition of commercial fishing in Poulsbo.
The Norlanders immigration followed a pattern similar to that of Norwegians from other parts of Norway. Ole Stubb's fellow immigrants from the area around his hometown of Nautsdal, Fordefjord, beginning with Jorgen Eliason. In 1893 John Tornensis, a Saami from Kautokeino, Norway, settled in the area. (The Saami are a distinct ethnic group that occupies much of the Artic north of Finland, Sweden, and Norway. They have historically relied on reindeer, which they herd, for subsistence.)When a large number of Saami came to America in 1898 to deliver a herd of reindeer to Alaska, a number decided to stay after delivering the reindeer and settled in Poulsbo.
In 1911 a group of investors, including several from Poulsbo, started the Pacific Coast Codfish Company (PCCC). One of the investors, Iver Moe, set the condition for his investment that they locate the processing plant in Poulsbo.
Each April the schooners sailed north to the cod banks off Alaska. The codfish company used schooners that had been used in the lumbering trade, but modified for fishing. They removed the donkey engines to allow for more room to hold fish and increased the bunk space to accommodate the fisher crew and the dressing crew.
After about 30 days of sailing, they would arrive at the cod banks, relatively shallow areas of water where cod schooled. Each morning at 4:30 a.m. the fishers would row out alone in their dories. Engines were not added until 1927. On a good day they filled their dories to the rim and then returned to the schooner for the midday meal. A second round of fishing followed, with the dories returning at around 5:00 p.m.
The first year the John A brought in more than 162,000 cod when they returned in mid-September. The take increased as time passed and in 1940 the two ships operated by Pacific Coast Codfish brought in about 600,000 fish. The crew at the codfish plant processed the fish over the winter and sold the product under the brand name Icicle.
After refrigeration made fresh fish more readily available, salt-cured fish fell out of favor. The schooner C A Thayer took its last voyage to Alaska in 1950 and after that the Pacific Coast Codfish Company closed.
Building Fishing Boats
Shipbuilding never gained a footing on Liberty Bay but one resident, Ronald Young (1892-1968), made a name for himself (and the town) by building boats that he designed and built in the basement of his auto repair garage. They are known as Poulsbo boats and many remain in use today.
Young built the boats for sale to fishing resorts and local fishermen. Between 1932 and 1965, he built approximately 900 boats either by himself or with his son Gordon. He built them in the basement of the garage on the waterfront. At high tide, nearly a foot of water would fill part of the room and anything lying around would float.
Poultry farming was another facet of Poulsbo's economy that flourished in the 1900s and declined in the post-war era. Kitsap County had the distinction of having the most poultry farms of any county in the United States. Farmers sold the poultry and their eggs locally and in Seattle along with other farm produce. The women would board the steamers in the early morning and then hire wagons in Seattle to transport them and the wares to the public market or to a neighborhood where they had a delivery route.
The farmers' reliance on the steamers for access to markets, along with the general public's need for transportation in the absence of roads inland, led to fierce competition among steamer operators. Between 1893 and 1924, eight different operators tried to monopolize service to Liberty Bay.
Twice the farmers formed co-operatives to bypass the private companies they felt charged too much. In the end, Kitsap County Transportation Company outlasted all the others and provided steamer service until it lost their customers to the automobiles and newly built roads in the 1940s and 1950s. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge to the south and the Agate Passage Bridge to Bainbridge Island and the car ferry operating out of Winslow made it more convenient to drive.
Poultry farming spurred other economic ventures in Poulsbo. Due to a high demand for chicks and feed, the community drew together in April 1905 and formed the Kitsap Co-operative Association with its store in Poulsbo. At first they sold just feed, chicks, and farming supplies. In time they would expand into selling groceries and hardware. In 1932 Barney Rindal & Leif Ness took over the feed business. The Co-op remained vital until 1955 when discord among the membership, still at 700 members, along with competition from supermarkets, led to its disbanding.
In the period between the 1890s and World War II, the rhythm of life in Poulsbo largely reflected the Norwegian heritage of so many of the residents. The majority made their living from logging, farming, or fishing, or a combination of those activities.
World War II changed everything. Defense industry workers moved into the 300-unit Sunset Park Housing Project in town. They and local residents worked at Puget Sound Naval Station in Bremerton and at the Naval Undersea Warfare Engineering Station (later renamed Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Keyport) in Keyport. Poulsbo's population increased from 675 to 2,000 during the war. After the war it dropped to 1,018, but changes were underway that ensured the town would never return to its pre-war existence.
Commercial fishing continued out of the bay after Pacific Coast Codfish Company closed, but did not have the same economic impact. In 1950, the Kitsap County Herald reported that commercial fishing provided 30 percent of the total income for the area. By 1970, commercial fishing was not even listed as one potential source for economic diversification in an economic study of Kitsap County, though aquaculture was listed. Today pleasure craft fill far more spaces in the marina than do working boats.
In the latter half of the twentieth century Poulsbo's population has boomed -- increasing 572 percent. That number does not reflect the substantial growth in the unincorporated areas around town, particularly since the opening of the Naval Submarine Base at Bangor in 1981. A 1987 analysis of economic impact of naval installations in the county estimated that "at least 20,000 people [moved] into the county" following the opening of Bangor (United States President's Economic Adjustment Committee, Kitsap County, Washington: Ten Years Later, 1).
As much as increased employment at the naval stations accounted for the growth, suburbanization spurred even more. At the turn of the twentieth century, Poulsbo's isolation kept its population under 1,000 until the 1940s. At the turn of the twenty-first century, its accessibility by road, bridge, and ferry has made it grow. What was once an isolated bay reached only by rowboat has grown into a thriving town with a population of nearly 7,000 in 2000. Ole Stubb knew what he had found in 1876.