Story by Knute Berger | Photography by Matt Mills McKnight
Gold Bar — Highway 2 was a working highway. It was cobbled together from wagon roads, rail beds and horse trails. Westside towns in the Skykomish River Valley like Sultan and Gold Bar still resonate with that. There’s a prospector’s shop where you can buy gold-panning equipment in Gold Bar and the summer festival in Sultan features traditional logger competitions. Further into the foothills, the town park in Index features a giant circular saw blade that once cut Cascade granite for buildings in Olympia and Pioneer Square. The town of Skykomish, built to serve the Great Northern Railway, is still a railroad town where you can lunch next to a table of BNSF Railway engineers who haul freight over the mountains.
But local loggers, gold prospectors and quarrymen are mostly memories now, says Debbie Copple of the Sky Valley Chamber of Commerce. She cheerfully runs an information center in Sultan that is a fount of information on the region and contains innumerable brochures and small displays of logging history and model trucks.
The timber mills are gone, she says, though hillsides still show heavy signs of logging. Copple tells us of a local mill that was closed due to the Northern spotted owl, she says. The endangered owl species sparked the so-called “owl wars” between greens and timber companies in Northwest forests in the 1980s and ‘90s.
In this instance she’s referring to the Loth Mill in Gold Bar, a cedar shake and siding operation that was in business from the early 1930s to the early 1990s. When it closed, the town lost more than 100 steady jobs, a big blow to a community that then had 1,200 people. Gold Bar wasn’t alone. According to The Seattle Times, by mid-1991, nine mills in the state had already closed that year. There were lots of reasons, including changes in the market and industry, but environmental regulations were cited and have carried a rural stigma since.
“They care more about animals than people,” she says, without specifying who “they” are. There’s a lingering resentment against folks who came in and blew up the local resource economy. It’s the kind of thing you hear often in timber towns where multi-generational jobs were lost and liberals and environmentalists are blamed.
Hippie liberals have been having an impact on this area in more ways than one for a long time. Next year, for example, will mark the 50th anniversary of the legendary Sky River Rock Festival — one of the nation’s first such events, it preceded Woodstock by a year. It was held on an organic raspberry farm in Sultan in 1968. It brought some 20,000 kids — I was one of them — to a mud and music fest that featured bands like the Grateful Dead, Santana and Country Joe and the Fish. A group is working to put on a mini-Sky River fest in Sultan this August, with bigger plans for the 50th in 2018 on a nearby farm. Their website promises music, food and “world famous chainsaw artists.”
The culture clash back then was epic. Townspeople were nervous at the influx and a group of hostile locals even forcibly cut a hippie’s long hair. After the Festival’s weekend of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, a Washington State Patrol officer assigned to the event, Lt. G. Shay, wrote in his report to superiors, “I have never seen anything as degrading to the human race as the exhibition put on in the Sultan area.” But a lot of hippies liked the rural area as a great place to “get back to the land.”
The working-class vibe is no illusion, nor is a ‘60s holdover feel, even when it comes to politics. This part of Snohomish County has a lot of working class rural voters who generally lean Republican, but are also pro-legalized marijuana and supported the statewide initiative that made it so.
According to Puget Sound political analyst Ben Anderstone, these voters comprise one of the more intriguing voter trends of recent elections: the Obama-Trump voter. Sultan and Gold Bar both went for Barack Obama in 2012, but swung heavily to Donald Trump in 2016 — Gold Bar swung by 27 points to the GOP candidate. Both towns soundly backed recreational pot in 2012, too. Hillary Clinton’s nanny-state reputation apparently had little appeal to these people. So what do you call these voters, Deadheads for Trump?
If the area has lost resource jobs, the losses have been leavened by urban expats moving in, tourism and the area’s natural beauty. The craggy mountains and rivers are spectacular. Whitewater rafting, off-roading, fishing, hiking, skiing and rock climbing are all happening here where Highway 2 forms the southern portion of the scenic Cascade Loop. The Sky Valley is close enough to Seattle to attract visitors, but there are enough rainy days to keep it from being a bustling tourist burg like Leavenworth, the faux Bavarian village on the sunny side of Stevens Pass.
The legalized pot business is bringing new opportunity. That Loth Mill that was closed in the ‘90s? It’s now home to a marijuana retail store — Gold Bar Marijuana — that bills itself as “the best recreational weed store on Highway 2.” Other mill-site buildings contain marijuana production and processing operations run by Wacky Tobacky, according to a sign on the door. These activities are discreet, shielded by fencing and monitored by security cameras.
A generation after people were outraged by the hippies of Sky River, the indulgences of the ‘60s are now a new agricultural and recreational attraction for Cascade Loopers. No owls threaten it, or need die for it.
Top photo: Moe Ainsley, a grower with Kaya Collection, tends to marijuana plants at the company’s Wacky Tabacky facility near Gold Bar.
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