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The Tree House in Utopia: Justin Wadland Revisits Home

July 30, 2014

New non-fiction from Justin Wadland, Trying Home: The Rise and Fall of an Anarchist Utopia on Puget Sound, explores the historical realities of Home, Washington’s turn of the century “practical experiment in anarchy,” and an array of colorful former residents, whose experiences ranged from practicing free love, spying for a detective agency, defending free speech at the Supreme Court, and for one couple—who resided in a tree house that doubled as a popular dining spot—an elf-life existence.

On the blog, Wadland continues his present-day exploration of Home—and his conversations with current residents—that set Trying Home apart from a conventional history narrative. Wadland writes of a recent return to Home: how, even after he’s completed his book, he still searches out Home’s mysteries—including the former site of that storied tree house.

Want to explore Home yourself? On August 23rd, the Key Peninsula Historical Society will host Justin Wadland for a book event and ice cream social at the lovely Cape E Farm & Vineyard.

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For many years, Sylvia Retherford, or Stella as her friends called her, served as the local historian of Home. As the granddaughter of founders George and Sylvia Allen, she came by her passion honestly. The six volumes of her Compilation of Writings and Photos Concerned with the History of Home, Washington can be found in several nearby libraries, and it is a treasure trove for anyone interested in the practical experiment in anarchism that once existed on Joe’s Bay.

I acknowledge my huge debt to Sylvia in Trying Home, but while I was working on the book, I was unable to meet her in person. I had heard that she had Alzheimer’s and sadly, could no longer remember the history she loved so much. So I was deeply gratified to receive an email from Sylvia’s daughter, Leila Luginbill, telling me that her mother, who has since passed away, would have approved of my book. Leila had purchased her parents’ house and was now living there, and she asked: Would I like to visit and see her mother’s collection? Of course, I would.

We met a few weekends ago, and Leila had spread out the binders and photo albums on the bed upstairs. She asked whether I was looking for anything in particular. I was hoping to see a photograph of the “famous” tree house that Joe Kopelle and Franz Erkelens resided in for several years. She remembered a big photograph, one which was colorized, and it didn’t take long to find it in an album, along with another from a different angle.

Just like utopia, there is something alluring about a tree house. At the book launch, a man approached me who had done a considerable amount of research on Home and published it in a zine. He wanted to know if I had ever found the site of the tree house. Since I had written a short chapter about it, I could say that it was on the outskirts of the settlement, but I had never been to the exact spot. I put the question to Leila as we were looking over the photos. Sure, she could show me the general location—she had grown up visiting Joe Kopelle and his wife.

After we finished looking at and talking over the binders, we walked up 6th Street, away from Joe’s Bay, then turned left on C Street, which we followed down to the Key Peninsula Highway. There, we cut through the parking lot of Lulu’s Homeport Restaurant and Tavern, crossed the highway, and walked down a road into Happy Valley, a slight depression in the land. At the lowest point, a blue and white sign with a picture of salmon identified Home Creek, and we could hear the water burbling out of the culvert below the road. Surely this was the one where Joe and Franz used to wash their dishes and in which the trout would nibble off the remains of the food.

We strolled a little past the creek and Leila pointed to a stand thick with what looked like birch trees. “Their house was somewhere in there,” she said but admitted that it was hard to tell because so much had changed. Apparently, even though Joe moved to the ground out of consideration for his wife, the couple’s residence remained rustic: they lived in a lean-to against a giant stump, a stove inside to keep them warm. Joe would point to another stump nearby as the site of his tree house.

Speaking of Joe and his wife, Leila continued, “I loved to visit them. They looked like little elves, with round little cheeks. They were small people, coming up to about here.” She held her hand up to just below her shoulder.

Even though the book is done, I am still learning about Home from the descendants of George and Sylvia Allen.

—Justin Wadland

Justin Wadland works as a librarian at the University of Washington Tacoma Library. He holds an MLIS from the University of Washington and an MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific Lutheran University. His reviews and creative writing have appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books, The Believer, Crab Creek Review, and other publications. After growing up in Michigan and Vermont, he now lives with his wife and two sons in Tacoma. To learn more, visit his website.

 

 

OSU Press is grateful to Leila Luginbill for providing these photographs.

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