Trees gave way to farms


Theresa Eldridge, the first white woman on Bellingham Bay, left Ireland in 1850 during the Great Potato Famine. When she and her husband, Edward, and their tiny daughter, Isabella, arrived here in 1853, she must have hungered to get her hands into soil that could feed her new family. But first, those trees had to go.

Falling trees and burning stumps marked the beginning of the area's agricultural industry. Settlers survived the early years thanks to the generosity of local Lummi Indians, who shared their food, friendship and their wisdom.

Eventually, plots of land were cleared and the homesteaders began growing their own food. When trains came to the area in the early 1890s, farmers began growing crops for export. John Bennett made his name as a horticulturist by starting the first nursery on the bay and developed Bennett's Champion Plum, Bennett's Challenge Plum and Bennett's Pear.

Besides fruit trees, other early crops included berries, corn, peas, hay and oats - some of the same crops grown today. Experiments with flax and hops dead-ended, but the U.S. Bulb Farm on Marine Drive grew hyacinths, daffodils and tulips, helping to create a dynamic flower business in Bellingham. In 1907, spring bulbs averaged a net profit of $300 an acre. Eventually the tulip farms moved south to Skagit County's more moderate climate.

Farming was a tough life, said 93-year-old Russell Smith. He and his brother, Andy, helped their father establish Smith Gardens on Marine Drive.

"All I remember is hard work," Russell said. "We hauled fertilizer from every neighbor and dairy in the county for about 15 years to improve that soil."

Dairy and poultry farms grew right alongside their vegetable counterparts. At the time of Bellingham's consolidation in 1903, Whatcom County was developing specialized factory and mill production for agricultural products, including commercial dairies and creameries.

The surge in output inspired state Sen. R.L. Kline to predict, in 1907, that the county would one day be the "finest dairy country of the world." The century-long success of the county's dairy industry proves the fine gentleman from the 42nd District knew just what he was talking about.