If Phoebe Judson is the pioneer “Mother of Lynden,” then Billy Waples is the generous uncle who ran the town’s department store for more than 60 years and left a legacy of business and community service that lingers to this day.
That explains, in good measure, why people were so distraught when the building that once housed Waples’ Lynden Department Store suffered extensive damage in a fire in 2008, even though his downtown store at Fifth and Front streets had closed 30 years earlier.
“This building was such a big part of the economy and social life of northern Whatcom County, all of Whatcom County, actually,” says Bellingham architect Jeff McClure.
McClure and his wife, Debra, co-own the building with Lynden-area couple Matt and Teri Treat. Together, they have restored the newly named Waples Mercantile Building to house the 35-room Inn at Lynden and a handful of retail businesses.
They celebrated their award-winning project with the first “Billy Waples Day” on May 1, 2016, with a chowder feed, beer garden and tours of the building. They plan to make it an annual event.
In his day, William H. “Billy” Waples turned his department store into a de facto community center.
On the business side, he started with a tiny store in 1897, and developed it into a nationally recognized business that was studied and praised for his innovative sales and marketing efforts. By ordering in bulk and from distant suppliers, Waples offered Whatcom shoppers a diverse range of goods, from affordable basics such as groceries, hardware and farm equipment, to buggies, shoes, and fashionable clothing from Chicago and New York City.
He really was an amazing philanthropist, in addition to being such a great entrepreneur.Jeff McClure, part-owner, Waples Mercantile Building
His store became large enough that it issued its own scrip in the early 1900s. Waples paid farmers store currency for their produce. The farmers, in turn, could use the scrip to buy goods in many Lynden stores, not just Waples’.
Waples was an active civic promoter, too. He helped bring passenger and freight rail service to Lynden, and helped organize the forerunner of the Northwest Washington Fair. A side business he owned brought electric light service to Lynden in the early 1900s.
Easily recognizable in his three-piece suits, with a full head of hair and glasses low on his nose, Waples developed an army of loyal employees. He provided generous Christmas bonuses, and showed personal interest in workers and their families. If a worker or former worker was having difficulties, Waples would show up with a gift or a check, whatever would help.
For the store’s 25th anniversary, Waples served a bountiful dinner to 3,000 people on the store’s second floor. During the Great Depression, he extended tens of millions of dollars in store credit to economically strapped Lynden residents.
“He really was an amazing philanthropist, in addition to being such a great entrepreneur,” McClure says.
Waples started the store in 1897 and ran it until 1960, when he retired. The store continued to operate after his death in 1962, but closed in April 1979. The building later became Delft Square, with a mix of shops and businesses.
Remaking a landmark
Waples’ store was earlier located at Fourth and Front streets, but that building was destroyed by fire in 1913.
The space that’s now home to Waples Mercantile Building is actually two structures — a 75-foot-wide replacement for the store that burned in 1913, and a 25-foot-wide space added in 1928. Waples reworked the facade to visually unite the two buildings, and punched an interior passageway through the concrete dividing wall, says McClure, the architect for the restoration project.
The floor in Village Books, Avenue Bread, and The Inn at Lynden’s lobby is made of original 2-by-6-inch Douglas fir boards on edge.
The McClures and Treats could have demolished the damaged building and built anew. But the building’s cornice, concrete shell and heavy timber construction survived the fire, and they chose to preserve the look of the landmark and bring it back to life as a modern-day downtown anchor, akin to the role that Waples’ store played decades ago.
From the start, The Inn at Lynden was a linchpin for the project, so people could enjoy the inside of the building and to satisfy a need for tourist boarding in Lynden, Teri Treat says.
On the street-level, Avenue Bread, Village Books, Drizzle, Overflow Taps and Bellingham Baby Company offer an inviting retail mix for Lynden residents, tourists and visitors to the inn. The inn’s lobby and the stores are connected by interior openings, suggestive of the open flow of Waples’ store.
Inside are physical reminders of the old store and the recent fire. The floor in Village Books, Avenue Bread, and the inn’s lobby is made of original 2-by-6-inch Douglas fir boards on edge. The department store had an inch-thick fir cover on top of those boards, but the fire damaged the cover. Burn marks from the fire show on some timbers, and each room of the inn has a photograph of workers restoring the space.
Waples Mercantile Building is on the state and federal registers of historic buildings, and it recently won a state of Washington award for rehabilitation projects.
For a fun touch, the inn plans to have bicycles that guests can borrow to ride around Lynden and the nearby countryside.
“We really want to draw active adults who like to walk and to bike,” Treat says. “And there’s nothing more Dutch than a bicycle.”
Dean Kahn: 360-715-2291