“Our friend had found two acres at the foot of Sehome Hill, one a little fir-clad knoll, the other a level acre of meadow and garden. If we had hunted America over, we couldn’t have found a more perfect place,” wrote June Burn in her regional classic “Living High”. (p207)
What a lovely day to visit the Burns’ cabins, hidden in the woods between Fairhaven College and Buchanan Towers, on the campus of Western Washington University. I’ve agreed to meet a Western Front reporter at the cabins to answer questions sparked by my recent Northwest Citizen article “Rolling Rolling In Their Graves - What happened to WWU?”.
Before I was born, my parents lived in a house where Fairhaven College’s parking lot is today. A whole neighborhood of older homes existed there. Locals knew about the Burns’ cabins. How many remember them now? How many Western students and professors have heard about June and Farrar Burn, their place in Bellingham and Pacific Northwest history?
In the 1920s, June and Farrar concluded that they should “retire” while young. They decided to put off settling down and seek adventures instead, choosing to work and make money later in life, after they had a chance to learn about the world and themselves. June and Farrar adored nature. They believed in living very simply. During the 1920s, 30s and 40s June wrote Pacific Northwest columns. She worked for The Bellingham Herald but felt she was treated poorly. Eventually, June and Farrar started their own publication, “The Puget Sounder”.
Noel V. Bourasaw, a Western alumnus, explained how much we love June Burn for the “Skagit River Journal of History & Folklore”, (2005).
“We are often asked why we say that June Burn’s book, Living High, is one of the handful of books we would want if we were marooned on a remote island. ... June Burn was not the most celebrated female writer in Washington State history but she is certainly the most unconventional… Among the many reasons why this book would be on our short list is its unflagging optimism in the face of adversity, proof that love at nearly first sight can prove to be sturdy for the rest of your life and the many details she provides of the non-stop adventure that she and her family lived.”
Today is a sad day for me. Finding the Burns’ cabins, boarded up and falling apart, suffering complete neglect and disrepair, upsets me. When did I last visit them? Over a decade ago for sure. They were in perfect repair, cute as can be – beautiful. When did Fairhaven College stop using them? What does the University plan for these historic Bellingham buildings?
“Kitchen Cabin, built of peeled ten inch logs, was twelve by fourteen, inside dimensions. It had one door and five windows. ...It was like a diner on a train, the windows looking out below and beyond. The trees grew all around the cabin. It was so sheltered from the road that many who passed below never saw it at all.” (Living High, p208)
The Burns’ cabins remain so sheltered that many don’t notice them while walking, riding or motoring down South Campus Drive. Nobody seems to notice not noticing them either.
“I wanted to go into every nook and cranny of Puget Sound and write about it.” said June. (p207)
I wonder if the Western Front reporter feels any of this same passion to explore the Pacific Northwest deeply and to write about it? She arrives - young, attractive, sweet and smart. Sure enough we both snoop around the cabins, fascinated and curious, stepping gingerly, trying to look through broken dirty glass, working to spy around the wired and boarded up windows at strange, fuzzy, broken, shapes inside - drifted over with soft brown dust and dirt.
“It was a graceful little cabin, with a hemlock-bough flare to the roof, eight windows, an arched blue door, built-in seats and shelves and cupboards. It was so compact that I could work at the desk and reach for everything I needed, without moving from my place.” (p208)
Round the back of June’s Study, we peak into a broken window and discern, hanging on the opposite wall, a decades old hand painted sign. It appears to be a message from Fairhaven students, written long long ago, far far away.
“OUTBACK CABIN PROJECT
THESE LOG CABINS WERE BUILT IN THE 1920S BY JUNE AND FARRAR BURN WHO ORIGINALLY HOMESTEADED THIS VALLEY. TO THE WEST, ACROSS THE ROAD, YOU CAN STILL SEE THE COWBARN. LATER THE CABINS WERE REMODELED, PLUMBING AND ELECTRICITY WERE INSTALLED AFTER WHICH THEY WERE ABANDONED.
IN THE 70S FAIRHAVEN COLLEGE STUDENTS REDISCOVERED THESE CABINS AND OUTBACK STARTED EXPLORING THE POSSIBILITY OF REHABITATION AND RETURNING THE STRUCTURES TO THE LIFESTYLE THAT WAS SIMILAR TO THE FOLKS WHO ORIGINALLY LIVED HERE.
FINALLY IN 1976 THE STUDENT’S MONEY COMBINED WITH THE GRANT DONATED BY CLAYTON GORRIE (A FORMER RESIDENT) THE BLOOD, SWEAT AND LAUGHTER OF THE OUTBACK CABIN PROJECT BECAME A REALITY.
STUDENTS NOW HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO EXPERIENCE FIRST HAND THE LIFESTYLE OF A BYGONE AGE COMBINED WITH APPROPRIATE TECHNOLOGY FOR LIVING TODAY.
FEEL FREE TO EXPLORE FOR YOURSELF OUR LIVING LEARNING EXPERIENCE”
”You know why Western abandoned the Burns’ cabins to rot?” I ask.
“No idea.” the reporter replies.
We pick our way back onto the trail around to the North side of June and Farrar’s “Kitchen Cabin.” We sit on the ground together and I read the questions that the Western Front editor has prepared for me to address. I explain and disclaim that I left Bellingham at age 18 and returned to my hometown in 1998, age 43. I don’t yet know the answers to my questions regarding what happened to Western. I’m sleuthing. I encourage my new friend to study WWU’s history, too.
“We might talk to June and Farrar Burn’s grand-daughter, Skye, who taught at Fairhaven College for a while.” I suggest on tape.
“We can quiz Tip Johnson because he lived in the cabins in the 70s.” I provide her with names of others who may have lived there while attending Fairhaven College. I tell her the names of elder professors, still alive today, their wits still sharp and full - just in case the Western Front wants to ask them about their lives and careers at Western, to explore how they feel the University has changed.
Later, researching June Burn on-line, I find a clue about when the University abandoned the Burns’ cabins, in an article written by John Van Fleet Henley. Writing in the year 2000 about his mother (“Poet Elizabeth Henley - A Brief Chronology”) Henley mentions:
”...Elizabeth befriended many interesting people, but one of particular interest. June Burn wrote Living High, an autobiography of mid-twentieth century, back-to-basics environmentalist thought. In fact, June Burn’s cabin on the outskirts of old Bellingham has been virtually enshrined by WWU’s students and faculty. My mother happily recalled getting a call from Eleanor Roosevelt exhorting her, “Please, tell June Burn to call the White House to confer with Mrs. Roosevelt.” June Burn believed in the simple life, owning virtually no technology. Most folks considered Burn to be, at best, a Bohemian, or at worst, a crackpot. Elizabeth considered June a good friend.”
So as late as 2000, Western students and faculty still valued those cabins.
But did administrators “enshrine” those cabins and honor the lives of the Burns, or was it only Fairhaven College students and faculty? Either way, the memory of June Burn, beloved local writer, and her equally adored wild husband Farrar, means so much to this region. From the moment June and Farrar arrived they were welcomed as true Pacific Northwesterners.
”“Our name is Burn,” Farrar said to the man in the outer office. “We’ve come to see about homesteading one of your islands.”
Without a word, the man turned and opened a door behind him.
“Here they are!” he yelled, and the whole office force came out to greet us like kinfolks. And — we held our breath — they had found our island! Someone had been buying it — the last homestead island in Puget Sound. But Farrar’s two years’ naval service gave him priority rights. They would return the man’s payments and we were free to move on and file.”“ (p13)
I call Tip, who’s busy, but he tells me that the cabins got fixed up beautifully by Fairhaven College students in the mid-70s.
“They even installed a composting toilet but the wife of Western’s president thought the toilet was icky and next thing a bulldozer arrived and, well - no more toilet.” Tip adds, “Fairhaven College had the BRIDGE program back then too, where returning senior students lived and attended classes. We had craft studios and shops and a parent cooperative pre-school, and the Outback modeled sustainable farming. Sustainable, It was beautiful. Simply beautiful. Western’s administration systematically killed it.”
“Greed maybe? Ideology?”
“Campus development? I’ll send you a report I submitted as the Happy Valley representative to the South Campus Roadway Revision Predesign Advisory Committee.” Tip offers. “ As far as I know, the committee never issued final recommendations, probably because the Governor vetoed $16mm for road improvements.”
Before I hang up I tell Tip, “They are talking about bringing back the Outback.”
Tip writes in his report that:
” ...distrust among the University’s neighbors who have watched checkerboard acquisitions and negligent or transitional property management practices create impacts that erode neighborhood character and suppress property values in advance of successive University expansions. Even the priceless, historic cabins of author June and Farrar Burn lie in ruins within this project area. These important features of our neighborhoods’ heritage waste neglected in the woods, uncannily symbolizing the neighborhoods’ experience with the University. Neighbors sometimes feel as futile trying to save their neighborhood as students have been in their efforts to save the cabins.”
Certainly many of us who live in Happy Valley and other neighborhoods around Western mourn the destruction of so many fine old Bellingham homes, built of real wood with chimneys and cellars, replaced with cheap, ugly, modern student apartments, built of pressed board covered with metal or plastic siding and painted various shades of mushroom.
How could Western let the Burns’ cabins decompose and compost? Horrible! Unforgivable. It took Farrar three years to build Kitchen Cabin.
“He cut down trees from our own knoll, peeled them, and put the cabin up alone, looking after the boys when I went after stories, and milking the cow which we bought as soon as soon as we could. Meanwhile, we lived in the car, camping out as we had camped out all over America. Farrar put up a brush windshield around the campfire, and I sat on a box, with the typewriter in front of me on another, and wrote my daily column, sometimes in the drizzle.
“At times the delivery boy from the grocer’s would find me typing in the drizzle and feel sorry for us, and Farrar and I would laugh when he was gone. Once the boy asked us how long we had been there and Farrar replied, ‘Only ten thousand words.’ Later it was, “We’ve been here a hundred thousand words now.” and when we had been at it three years, he called it a two-million-word stay…” (p207)
Northwest citizens, please visit the Burns’ cabins. Parking at Western is difficult and expensive. Better to take the bus and get off at the South Campus stop. Head East, across the expansive parking lots, to the portal to Fairhaven College. Head South, up onto the wooded ridge. Hurry! Unmaintained, unheated, houses rot quickly in these parts.
Please also read “Living High” by June Burn and hunt up her local articles and papers at the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies. The archives building is close to the Burn Homestead, at 24th and Bill McDonnell Parkway. Find out yourself how June and Farrar and their children lived completely successful Pacific Northwest lives, mostly without money or regular jobs.
“We live for the day when we feel it is time to retire…with a little milk goat, a few chickens, the fish right around us. A world of beauty at our feet.” (Burn, June. “Living High”, Postscript)