June and Farrar Burn were the last homesteaders in the San Juan Islands of Washington, settling in 1919 on Sentinel Island – a lovely, lonely dot of 15 acres. Their first chilly night on Sentinel’s peak, gazing over Puget Sound, they lay side by side on “our island. Our world,” as June later wrote. “We had pulled the ladder up and nobody would come… Farrar said, ‘We’re happy now. This is what it’s all about. This is what we were born for.’”
They were a young couple, deeply in love. They had chosen to drop out of the traditional American life, and live as simply as possible. And the life they made has come to be seen as characteristically “northwestern.”
June Burn shines in Pacific Northwest memory as “Our Lady of the Islands”, the free spirit who came to represent the individuality, nonconformity, and natural rhythms of our region’s island time. And while that was true, she was also aware of her marketability. Her careful promotion of her family’s unconventional way of life threads through all her published work, from newspaper columns to her autobiographies – including her most notable work, “Living High.”
Author, publicist, teacher, journalist, wife, and mother, June consciously styled herself as one of the region’s most notable people.
Born in 1893 as a preacher’s daughter in Alabama, she chose the name “June” for herself when she was a little girl, instead of her given name Inez. By 1919, she was a staff writer for McCall’s magazine, living in a small cabin near the Potomac River in Maryland. One afternoon, returning home, she found a note on her door signed by U.S. Navy Ensign Farrar Burn, who had stumbled upon the cabin and taken some photos of it. He hoped to give her prints, and asked her to get in touch.
Farrar came back into the picture shortly thereafter, when June placed a delightful advertisement in a Washington newspaper:
Wanted, a cabin mate. Every country inconvenience. Mile walk from…trolley, through a pine cathedral. Brooks, spring woods, wild strawberries soon. No bath, no telephone, no neighbors in sight.
Thirty young women responded, and June decided to throw a tea party for them. She also invited Farrar, who proved to be not just a photographer, but a handsome, curly-haired, charming Arkansan. The couple was married within a month. June found a cabin roommate, and wrote she also “discovered passion” with her lanky, easygoing husband. They shared a wanderlust, they were willing to take risks, and they wanted to drop out of post-World War I America and just live.
In June 1919, Farrar resigned his Navy commission, and the young couple went to the public library to select a new home from the atlas. They were drawn to the islands off Maine, off Florida, off Alaska. “To go on an island and pull the ladder up after us and live, untroubled by anything – that would be heaven,” June wrote.
Then they noticed that distant Puget Sound was filled with islands – surely one of them could be theirs as a homestead.
They applied to the U.S. General Land Office (GLO) to settle one of the islands. When officials discouraged their idea, the couple headed west anyway, full of optimism. As they traveled that summer, June mailed chatty letters to the Seattle office of the GLO, writing that they were on the way and would be there soon. Her husband called it her “direct-mail campaign for an island.”
When they arrived in the land office in Seattle, they were met with cries of “Here they are!” from the delighted staff. And they were in luck, as they so often were. Farrar’s military service gave him priority rights, and just like that, they had their very own island. What had been named Sentinel Island was renamed by June as Gumdrop Island.
But the couple caught the travel bug as they moved west to Washington. After settling up on their island claim, June and Farrar got restless, and applied for teaching assignments on Alaska’s St. Lawrence Island. For a year they worked closely with the Native population there, gathering significant collections of artifacts and photographs. When June became pregnant with their first child around 1920, they returned to their Gumdrop Island, where she gave birth to their first son North. Their second son, South – more frequently referred to as Bob – was born two years later.
Their new children did not put a cramp in their wanderlust. In the mid-1920s, they traveled east to see family, and after Farrar’s mother’s death, they loaded their belongings into a mule-drawn cart to visit Independence, Missouri. They also revisited the old Maryland cabin, where their story started. On the trail, June washed diapers in streams and Farrar picked up odd jobs as a laborer.
When they returned to Washington, they settled for seven months on Johns Island near their homesteaded Gumdrop Island, raising their children, planting a big garden and traveling the islands in their boat, the San Juanderer. But they didn’t stay in the islands for long. In 1928 the footloose family left the Northwest again on another journey of discovery, in a camper built atop a Dodge automobile. Written across its top was “BURN’S BALLAD BUNGALOW – SINGS AND SELLS HIS OWN SONGS.” By then, Farrar had written thousands of songs, which he performed in campgrounds across America, earning their way.
After traipsing across the country, they made Bellingham, WA home in 1929, and later Waldron Island, where they attempted to weather the Great Depression and live with self-sufficiency. June wrote a local-interest column for the Bellingham Daily Herald, and Farrar built magical little structures on Waldron – a special cabin just for their little boys, shelters for their chickens and cows, a “home cabin” for the family, and an 8’ x 9’ writing cabin for June.
The popularity of her Herald column prompted June to attempt her own weekly magazine, The Puget Sounder, filled with “pictures of this scenic land and with articles and stories by all the writers and leaders of the Northwest.” More than 1000 subscribers loved the little periodical, and June and Farrar believed in the project, mortgaging Gumdrop Island and eventually their property on Waldron as well. In December 1935, June ran this enthusiastic advertisement in the Seattle Times want ads:
SUBSCRIBE TO THE PUGET SOUNDER! Ideal Xmas gift! $1 per year. Best writers in Northwest. Romance! Gardens! Art! Outdoors!
June Burn, 1421 Cornwall, Bellingham.
June later summed this venture up ruefully. “Farrar and I seem to have a genius for plunging ourselves into difficulties of our own making,” she wrote. Going more and more deeply into debt, they finally decided that it was “hopeless.” In all, The Puget Sounder lasted from 1935 to 1939, and it stands today as a wonderful source for life on the Sound during those Depression years.
Come 1940, North was in school in Seattle, Farrar was working in New York, and June’s hunt for work was proving unsuccessful. So she and son Bob decided to step out on a magnificent, free-form adventure. Wearing backpacks, they hit the road one rainy morning in March, simply walking away from their home, because “when you walk, you are somewhere at every step. In a car, you are somewhere only when you stop.” Mother and son walked and hitchhiked through California, and then cross-country to New York.
June documented this remarkable journey – and much more – in her most lasting achievement, a book titled “Living High: An Unconventional Autobiography.” She wrote that the book was on how to “live high on nearly nothing at all”, reversing the traditional order of life to experience “first-hand living”, and how to “retire first and enjoy family together as nature intended…[and later] settle down to earn what was needed.”
“Living High” was received ecstatically by some. A Seattle Times reviewer wrote that “June Burn has written a marriage autobiography of two free souls who….lived a life of keen enjoyment and laughed away the hardships and trials of a struggle for existence… They reared their two sons among the firs and hemlocks, gave them a rare and individual education and showed the boys how to row, hunt, fish and care for themselves on land and water.”
The book’s message resonated with readers, exhausted from the Great Depression and worried about the looming world war. It went through four printings, and gave June a reason to take another journey, heading off on a national lecture tour to promote it. June told her eager listeners, “I wonder why everybody doesn’t do their retiring first while they have the zest for everything, and settle down later on when they don’t feel like doing anything but work anyhow.”
Journalists were completely charmed. The Seattle Times’ Virginia Boren – no pushover – gushed that “June Burn is the most thoroughly refreshing, fascinating, absolutely free soul I’ve ever met.” June invited Boren up to Waldron Island, proposing to make her hoecakes from scratch, grinding the whole wheat, and cooking them over an open fire.
In 1946, just after the conclusion of World War II, June followed “Living High” with a series of reports titled “100 Days in the San Juans”, published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The reports included photographs of her family’s rowing and sailing from island to island in San Juans, fishing and clamming, singing by a driftwood fire, and camping out in all weathers.
At this time, a generation of young Americans settled down to postwar life. In Seattle, they married and moved into a GI Bill suburban house; the husband went to work at Boeing and wife stayed home. As they began their families, they wondered, Was this really it? June and Farrar Burn’s life in the islands seemed happy, fulfilling, and nearby, immensely appealing to readers of the time.
“Living High” was republished for this audience, in 1958, with a postscript from June to bring their lives up to date. As one reviewer noted, “Rarely is the postscript of a book the most interesting portion. However…the closing pages of the new edition of this book will satisfy curiosity as to what became of the husband and wife who gained so much joy from so little material wealth.”
From 1957 to 1962, June and Farrar Burn were able to live again on Waldron, surrounded by gardens and goats. Waldron had no electricity, telephones, running water, garbage pickup or grocery store. Settlers grew or made what they needed, ordered it by mail boat, traded for it, or did without. On a sunny day, you heard the sighing of the waves on the beach and the wind in the firs. When it rained, you heard the patter of the rain on the roof and the drip of the raindrops off the eave. You hunted or fished for your food, harvested it in your garden, or milked your cow and gathered your chickens’ eggs.
You found happiness in simplicity, or you didn’t find it at all.
Today, June’s columns for the Bellingham Herald and a complete press run of The Puget Sounder are available in archives in Bellingham and Seattle. Their St. Lawrence Island artifact collection is held by the Museum of the American Indian and by the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian also houses a collection of glass plate negatives shot by Farrar in 1922, from their time in Alaska. The family has donated Sentinel Island – June’s Gumdrop Island – to the Nature Conservancy.
As the last homesteaders in the San Juan Islands, June and Farrar are closely identified with the islands, but spent as much of their lives in Bellingham and Seattle, as well as New York, California, Alaska, Hawaii, Missouri, Florida, and Arkansas. Though they tried to avoid financial responsibilities – “retire first” – they worked hard for much of their lives, skating close to disaster more than once.
Certainly, June was not unaware of how she was perceived. She constructed a public face for her marriage and her family that romanticized their circumstances, minimizing their difficulties. UW Special Collections holds correspondence from Betty McDonald, author of the memoir “The Egg and I”, snarking that June Burn’s message was misleading, a bohemian fairy tale. But Burn’s footloose life did underline that she really meant it – that life should be well-lived, money wasn’t that important, life should be fun, and a simple life was deeply satisfying.
A resonant message says as much about the listeners as it does about the speaker, and June Burn’s message resonated with postwar men and women, who wanted something more from life. Her books will be read and loved as long as we are drawn from our everyday lives to dreams of something different.
Lorraine McConaghy is the Public Historian Emeritus at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle. Comments? Suggestions for future entries? Contact the author via email@example.com.
Photo credits, in order of appearance:
Cover photo: Courtesy of MOHAI, Seattle P-I Collection (Ed Watton), 2000.107.029.23.001
Photo from “Living High” first edition: Courtesy of UW Special Collections
The Burn family in D.C.: Courtesy of National Photo Company Collection
June Burn advertisement: Courtesy of Seattle Times, December 29, 1941
June and Farrar on Orcas Island: Courtesy of MOHAI, Seattle P-I Collection, 2000.107.029.23.03
June and Farrar on the San Juanderer: Courtesy of MOHAI, Seattle P-I Collection, 2000.107.029.24.01
June and Farrar on a rowboat: Courtesy of MOHAI, Seattle P-I Collection, 2000.107.029.23.02