Sun Breaks – Not Your Usual Tulip Tour
I’m not suggesting one would ever get tired of the rainbow of tulips in Washington’s northwest corner this time of year, but locals know Skagit County holds many attractions besides the beauteous bulbs. While following our curiosity along a new-to-us back road recently, we came across an ancient schoolhouse. It brought back memories of one that stood around the bend from my family’s home when I was growing up. A faded, hand-crafted sign on front announced that this was the Pleasant Ridge School, No. 14. A little online sleuthing helped me pull together an interesting side trip for anyone who wants to broaden an outing to include more than just tulips.
Following Interstate 5 from either north or south, take the Conway exit and follow Fir Island Road west. It turns north, past the Snow Goose Produce stand and its monster ice cream cones, and crosses a high bridge over the Skagit River. It then becomes Best Road.
The high ground you’ll be traveling along has been called Pleasant Ridge since the days of the early white settlers. When they made their homes on the forested promontory, the fields surrounding it on three sides were still salt marsh and tidal channels. Rising above the flat like the prow of a huge green ark, the ridge was bounded to the south by the Skagit River, at Rexville. The trading post of LaConner, across the Swinomish Channel from the village of the Swinomish people to the north, was a two-and-a-half mile trip by horse and wagon from the ridge. Or you could go by canoe or boat.
The first settlers came to the flats as early as 1863 to build dikes and clear the land for farming. The single men and families found home sites on the high ground of the ridge out of danger from seasonal flooding. As sections of land were diked, the farmers planted barley, oats, and hay in Beaver Marsh to the east and Dodge Valley to the west. The farmers were amazed at the yields from that fertile land. People heard the tales all the way back to the east coast.
Today’s Best Road takes you past beautifully kept Victorian-style homes with sweeping views across green fields and flower farms to Mt. Baker and other peaks of the Cascades. Then it descends to the fields and carries you on to LaConner. LaConner is one of our favorite places to spend an afternoon, but it’s worthy of a blog all to itself. Let’s go there later. Instead of descending to the valley floor, watch for Valentine Road, which turns uphill past one of those Victorian-looking homes. There’s a cluster of old-fashioned country homes, and among them, on a plot to itself, is the dilapidated but still charming old school. It was built in 1891 and served the district for 38 years.
A teacher’s cottage stood across Valentine Road from the school and housed the teacher for the Pleasant Ridge School as well as the teacher from the Rexville School, about three miles away by trail through trees and brush. Mary E. Childberg was the first teacher in the new school. Prior to that, classes had been held in homes or small cabins. The very first school was held in the home of the Leamer family. The teacher was fifteen-year-old Ida Leamer, who held the first teacher’s certificate ever issued in Skagit County.
Community life in Pleasant Ridge centered around the two churches and the school building. There were clubs, dances, potlucks, Christmas pageants and parties…even a small orchestra. The people living on Pleasant Ridge visited back and forth or travelled to these functions on foot or by horseback along the trails leading through thick Douglas fir forests. Kids on their way to and from school often encountered deer, black bears, and other wildlife. After paved highways came into existence around 1930, social activity tapered off in favor of quick access by automobile to more distant activities in LaConner, Mt. Vernon, Stanwood and beyond.
Now, let’s leave the echo of the schoolbell ringing from the cupola and the imagined children playing in the school yard and continue a short distance up the hill to the point of the promontory and Pleasant Ridge Cemetery. There’s plenty of parking along the verge of the road and plenty of solitude to wander and wonder about the people whose names are on the gravestones…some simple, some ornate.
This is the oldest cemetery in Skagit County. John and Bessie Cornelius settled here in 1868. They had come from Whidbey Island, where John was a government surveyor. When their little boy, Charles, died of typhoid fever in 1875, the couple established the Pleasant Ridge Cemetery on a piece of their land. A teacher from LaConner and a neighboring farmer were buried there soon after. Five years later, John Cornelius died, leaving his wife and children without support. His friend Joseph Rudene married Bessie two years later, in 1882. Title to the cemetery land then passed to Rudene. He sold forty-foot square plots which were maintained by individual families. These are visible inside the welcoming archway.
Now you can retrace your route to Best Road, or you can follow Valentine Road to its intersection with Dodge Valley Road. Turn right and head north, then west, to LaConner, an artist’s paradise, or continue north to the tulip fields. Do a little exploring of your own. You won’t be disappointed.