Fairhaven might never have become the bustling shopping village it is today if in the 1940s a young Ken Imus' then-girlfriend, Barbara, hadn't cut him a deal.
"She was going to college in Pullman and I was racing cars," Imus says. "She called me up and said, 'I'll stop going to college and come be with you if you stop racing.'"
Imus, a Bellingham native, had just been in a race in Central Washington that had fatal consequences. At that time racers only wore simple helmets ("maybe football helmets?" he recalls) and seatbelts, which were not required by law at the time. Though it happened out of sight of his own car, the wheels of two other cars caught, and one of the drivers was thrown from his vehicle and killed. When Barbara made her offer, Imus took her up on it.
"She probably saved my life," he says.
The two married, moved to California and opened a Ford dealership in the Bay Area. With growing success in car sales, the family moved to Texas to open another dealership in 1956.
While visiting their parents in Bellingham in the 1970s, Imus and his wife drove through Fairhaven, which at that time was a haven for counterculture. Self-described hippies had started community gardens in the neighborhood, which was sometimes called the Haight-Ashbury of the North.
Imus had recently finished restoring a four-story building in Texas. When the two drove by the then-boarded up old Marketplace building, Barbara pointed at the large structure and jokingly told Ken, "There's one for you." He bought it without ever stepping foot in the place.
The building became a sort of "semi-retirement" project for Imus. After the marketplace was converted into what is now Sycamore Square at 12th Street and Harris Avenue, Imus bought several other properties in the surrounding blocks. Ken's son Brad moved up to help oversee construction in the neighborhood in 1978.
When the two first started building, Ken says he enjoyed working on visual things, while contractors did some of the less-conspicuous, but important work. After the construction workers ended their day, Ken says he would often stay and work longer.
"I only did things that would show. I'd try to impress them to work harder," Ken says, laughing. "My brother said he heard some of the guys at work one day say, 'Those old guys really know how to work I guess, don't they?'"
Ken got a knack for buying funky antiques over the phone, like the antique phone booth he had shipped from London. To achieve the historical style in many of the buildings, he ordered pieces from all over the world, many of which are still sitting in a 7,000-square-foot warehouse for use in other projects.
Ken's father, who worked in construction and built their family home on Bakerview Road in the 1930s, might have influenced his passion for construction. Ken says he remembers his father bringing home buckets of crooked nails that would otherwise get tossed out. Ken and his brother spent hours helping straighten those nails for the home.
"He was so honest," Ken says. "Times were tough then."
Ken and Brad helped build or rebuild several blocks on 11th Street and Harris Avenue. Though Ken bought the properties partly hoping their value would increase, the project was not prosperous for the better part of three decades.
"This is a labor of love," Brad says. "We could have made more money in California. It was the mid-90s before we really felt we arrived."
Brad says building up Fairhaven has been something the two enjoyed doing, even though some people were not fans of the development.
The two faced unhappy crowds on more than one occasion when their bulldozers were ready to clear land for construction, and Ken says he was once hit in the head by an unknown attacker while on his way back to his office one night, but he never reported the crime.
Despite a slow start, with many tenants coming and going in the first decades, the buildings in Fairhaven are all full now, Brad says.
He's sold many of the properties they helped build, and Ken doesn't see any more construction projects in his future, but he says he is proud of their work.
"We always hoped we could grow Fairhaven and turn it into something," Ken says. "Overall, I think it's been rewarding."
Contact Samantha Wohlfeil at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-756-2803.
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The Bellingham Herald salutes Whatcom County people who help make our community a great place to live with our annual Ten Who Cared series. If you have a suggestion for an organization we should salute next year, please email email@example.com.