Blackman Store, Snohomish

6. Blackman Store, 1889

Color Plate 6: Blackman Store Photographed by Otto Greule ©2010. (See Otto’s Notes Below)

On December 3, 1885, the week before young Arthur M. Blackman arrived in town, The Eye ran a front page story suggesting that an “enterprising individual start a white laundry at this place. We believe the laundry would be made the best paying business in town, and that one mouth [sic] after its establishment there would not be a pagan rat-eater here.” The diatribe continues, winding up for the final pitch: “An excellent opportunity for investment awaits someone.”

AM Blackman

Published in The Sun, 1891

Wonder if Arthur saw it?

He was an ambitious young man, only 20 years old, who had worked for four years in a hardware store before leaving the family home in Oakland, California, to take a job in his cousin’s new general store; and three years later, he is building his own two-story building on 1st Street.

Arthur was born in Penobscot County, Maine, to George and Francis Blackman on November 23, 1865. His father was in the lumber business, as was his uncle Adam, and we imagine that his grandfather Bradley was as well. Arthur’s biographical sketch in An Illustrated History of Skagit and Snohomish Counties reads in part: “The elder Blackman sprang from an old line Dutch pioneer family of the Pine Tree State.”

Evidently, by the early 1870s, the pine forests of Maine were thinning out and logging operations were going belly-up, including those of the extended Blackman family. Uncle Adam’s boys, Alanson, Elhanan, and Hyrcanus, along with their wives and one baby, left for the Pacific Coast in 1872; George, with his wife and their children, Nina and Arthur, landed first in Michigan before migrating on to California where the family settled in Oakland around 1876.

Following a start in Port Gamble at the Pope and Talbot Mill on the Kitsap Peninsula, Hyrcanus and his brothers settled in Snohomish, where they bloomed, eventually leading the development of the lumber industry, and more, in Snohomish County.

Blackman Store, Front and Avenue C, 1885. Courtesy UW Special Collections #21898

For example, the Blackman Bros. opened a two-story general store that our contemporaneous historian, Whitfield, referred to as a “major event of 1885.” Arthur was the acting manager. His older sister, Nina, who has no biographical sketch, was most likely already living in Snohomish, since she had also been called upon by the Snohomish cousins to serve in the town’s new two-room school house as a primary teacher. Both siblings were married in 1887, Nina to Charles Bakeman, furniture maker and undertaker, on June 20th; and on October 6th, Arthur married into the Elwell family with his marriage to Adeliza, who went by the nickname “Buddie.”

Local Eye-tems.

In addition to the siblings’ marriages, 1887 was marked by the opening of the first bank in Snohomish County in August. Originally a private institution owned by J. Furth, a prominent Seattle banker, within a year it was reorganized as the First National Bank of Snohomish. Moreover, it built its own building, the first brick structure in the county, two doors west of the second brick building–in progress at the time–Lot Wilbur’s Drugstore, which has survived and is included in this account.

In April 1888, “W. P. Bell, as attorney for the citizens, returned from Seattle with an order from Judge Jones authorizing the incorporation of Snohomish,” writes Whitfield in his History of Snohomish County. The trustees met to appoint officers and set salaries. Marshal C.M. Jordan, for example, was to receive $20 per month, with $2 for each arrest. Most important, liquor licenses were fixed at $500, which netted $2,500 for the city coffers in its first year of incorporation. A spending spree seems to have followed: new sidewalks were ordered* and grading contracts were let, along with a contract for the First Street bridge replacement, and there was talk of an expensive wagon bridge over the Snohomish River.

And that summer, a second newspaper was established, bearing the masthead “The Sun,” owned by a man named Head. While the dawn of a second newspaper marked the growth of the city, noted Whitfield, it did not make for “harmonious action by its citizens.” Our man on the scene is most likely referring to the bitter re-incorporation face-off a couple of years later, following the establishment of Washington’s statehood in 1889.

Blackman Store
A.M.Blackman’s Store. Published in The Northwest Magazine, August 1890.

A. M. BLACKMAN’S NEW BUILDING, into which he is moving and will open the largest stock of groceries north of Seattle, is acknowledged to be one of the handsomest and most commodious grocery stores in the northwest.” The Eye, June 6, 1889

Blackman store

Blackman’s Store, date unknown

Only the name of the building has changed over the years. The original footprint remains to this day: 36 feet wide by 61 feet long. The false-front facade’s architectural details are all in place, just as architect J.S. White specified over 125 years ago. Photographer Otto Greule has captured the high summer light of the rising sun as it paints the facade with descriptive shadows, especially of the top cornice brackets.

It’s worth the short walk to view the rear of the building, which is down a steep alley that ends in a gulley, referred to in the early newspapers as “Union Avenue Gulch.” On this site in 1893, two men dug a tunnel through the hill between the gulch and the river – referred to as a “hogback” in this account: “Work began yesterday on the tunnel from the gulley to the river under Avenue A. Two men are at work with shovels and seem to find the digging easy. They are on the riverside of the hogback and from the direction in which the tunnel is started, it would be judged that they will come out in the rear of Blackman’s grocery store.”

The finished tunnel was 200 feet long, 4-and-a-half feet in diameter, and while the digging was easy, “an immense amount of timber would be required, and they put in 41,796 feet of it,” The Eye reported in the same account on October 5, 1893. Consequently, the estimated cost of $700 ballooned to nearly double–$1,300–when the tunnel was declared finished.

The emergency need for the tunnel was created in response to a cave-in on 1st Street. “Blackman Lake broke loose and sent a flood of water down the ravine which has its terminus at Avenue A and First street,” reported The Eye, May 11, 1893. A narrow culvert, designed to carry the water to the river, got choked up and the water flowed under 1st Street, undermining the planking and making the street impassable for horse drawn wagons. The water also backed up in the gulch, “which was turned into a lake deep enough to float a man-of-war,” the colorful report continued.

The Northwest Magazine’s illustration of the structure shows a porch on the rear, but there is no evidence today that there ever was one. Blackman probably had second thoughts of how often he would use a porch overlooking an open stormwater sewer.

The Ravine’s Imaginative History.

The geology that separates the east and western claims establishing Snohomish features a 30-foot-deep memory of the Vashon Glacial Period that ended 10,000 years ago. The resulting ravine was the runoff route from Blackman Lake (first called “Stillaguamish”) to the Snohomish River. It’s sometimes referred to as “Blackman Creek,” or “Ferguson Creek,” but officially today, it’s “Swifty Creek” – a name of hope and promise. Much of the runoff from Blackman Lake has been diverted to the Pilchuck River at 6th Street, but the remaining stormwater still occasionally backs up at blocked culverts buried years ago, but which are now under private property improved with homes.

In 1906, a couple of investors from the East inquired if they could be given permission “to dig a canal, connecting Blackman’s lake with the Snohomish River, using a system of locks, build bathhouses, provide them with hot and cold water service, have a resort for the entertainment of pleasure seekers,” continued the pitch in the December 14, 1906, issue of the Tribune. The Union Avenue Gulch must have been an impressive site just one month following a flood that “Reaches the Highest Stage Known to White Man,” as the paper’s headlines screamed on November 16th. Yet the Tribune supported the investor’s dream with this existential argument: “Make the city more beautiful and attractive, enjoy the comforts that this good old world offers now, for you may be a long time dead.”

The resort never came to pass, but that didn’t dampen residents’ imagination. A couple of decades later, The Lions Club, 29 members strong, “appointed Pat Crane chairman of a committee to investigate the feasibility of a plan to establish a swim tank in the Union Ave. gulch,” reported the Tribune, May 2, 1929. A week later, it was announced that $1,200 had been raised for the swim tank, but the following week an estimate was reported to be $15,000, and that was the last mention of locating a swim tank in the gulch.

oxford tavern 1950s
Oxford Tavern, 1950s. Courtesy Snohomish Historical Society.

From Grocery Store to Pool Hall to Tavern.

Change on the inside is a different story. Blackman’s establishment didn’t remain a grocery store for long. Referring again to Arthur’s biographical sketch, “His business was the largest in the city and he was prosperous until the financial distress of 1894 forced him to the wall by reason of his extension of credit to men who were unable to meet their obligations with him.” He closed the store quietly, however–no oversize ads announcing going-out-of-business sales have been found. Just this item from the July 5, 1894, issue of The Eye: “The guessing contest inaugurated by A.M. Blackman, the grocer, who awarded a handsome dinner set to the person making the closest guess as to the number of grains of wheat contained in the big tin kettle which has been hung from the end of his sign in front of store, was participated in by 985 guessers. A committee of four counted the grains, and the number was found to be 1,610,512. The dinner set was awarded to Mrs. Elhanan Blackman, whose guess was 1,609,340.”

According to David Dilgard in his walking tour, the building was used to sell furniture, then shoes, until it was renamed the Oxford Pool Hall during Prohibition, and apparently began its career as tavern during the Second World War. It still takes 26 steps to reach the second floor of this wooden building constructed of 8×8 inch posts. The extraordinarily high ceiling gives the 2000-square-foot-space a grandness that seems more fitting to its current use as a saloon than to its original role as the largest grocery store in 19th-century Snohomish. The layout of the second floor–five small offices and a bathroom–is original except for the two front units overlooking 1st Street, which have been merged into one building-wide space that is currently home to a beauty salon. The basement is where the pool tables ended up, accessed from inside the first floor, but it’s often closed these days for lack of patrons.

The Snohomish County Assessor’s field notes reach back only to 1971, when Elma Snow is listed as the owner of the Oxford Tavern. The notes contain repeated observations of leaning walls and uneven ceilings due to a sinking foundation in the soft soil. Local second-generation entrepreneur Scott Swoboda purchased the failing structure, and by 1992 the assessor’s field notes read: “Revalue bldg, been gutted out, major foundations problems being worked on.” Swoboda, who was using the interior for his furniture business, sold the renovated building in 2005 to an owner who brought back the food and alcohol but was required to change “tavern” to “saloon” if he wanted family members of all ages to eat together. The “blue laws” of Washington State dipped into architectural design by prohibiting full storefront glass windows with a direct view of people drinking, which explains the 1950s look of White’s building today.

The law has since been repealed, returning the essential function of glass storefronts to that of reflecting the community back to itself as people walk by – the historical roots of our contemporary selfie craze, perhaps? One more act would make the restoration of the A.M. Blackman’s Grocery Store building complete – bringing back its original name.

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NOTES: “A sidewalk to connect the Clay addition with the rest civilization is being built on Second Street.” The Eye, January 12, 1889

Edited by Susan Geib

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The north face of The Oxford receives direct sunlight from about mid March to late September. This photograph was made in July, with the sun at an oblique angle on the azimuth, and at 12 degrees declination. The angle of the light was critical in accentuating the qualities of the venerable storefront, including the oxen yoke above the entry, an important decorative feature.

Preliminary scouting photos revealed that the oxen yoke becomes indiscernible when lit by the open shade of afternoon light, as it visually merges into the similarly toned window behind it. By shooting at a time of day when direct sunlight grazes the yoke but not the window, its shape is clearly defined.

The oblique early morning light also helped to reveal the lead work in the windows, and define the brackets along the cornice, whose shapes are otherwise diminished due to the axial viewpoint. The repetition of shadows lends a hint to their design.

A large white promotional banner was removed from above the red door, and the positioning of the flower barrels and benches were adjusted for balance. The parking spaces were temporarily restricted.

Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Lens: Canon 45mm Tilt/Shift, Exposure: 1/15 second @ ƒ11, iso 100.

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