Hippie invasion

By Diane Dietz for the Herald(part of the 100 Years Looking Back series) of the Bellingham Herald
Tuesday, May 29, 1990

They cultivated plants, peace, lifestyles
When the hippies settled the South Side in 1968, they did the first thing pioneers always do; they planted a garden.

These hoe-wielding immigrants came to Bellingham to escape the confusion and violence then fire in cities across the nation.  They learned of Bellingham by word of mouth, and even read about it in Seattle Times, which ran a heading asking if Bellingham had become "Hippie Mecca of the West?”

The South Side hippie population by 1971, was estimated at 6,000 to 8,000.  these strange long-haired men and women hoped to cultivate an alternative lifestyle, and for a while they succeeded.

"They were trying to be here now,” said Wendy Walker, a Meridian High School graduate who became involved in the scene.  "There was a lot of idealism and of taking ourselves very seriously and an indulgent sensuality.  It was a wholesome kind of thing, somehow.  There was an innocent quality to it…..

"(It was) like a kite — big, abundant, fun, crazy, flying around funny, spontaneous, open.  It was being abysmally lonely and wallowing in it and being euphorically happy and wallowing in it.  I just felt things so deeply.”

The hippies settled on the South Side which had, for some time, suffered a week decline.  Like any frontier town, one of the first things established was a school.  Between 1968 and 1972, 20 to 70 students were enrolled in the South Side Free School.  Teaching was unstructured and teachers worked without pay.

Businesses, too, ran on volunteer labor.  Some, like the Fairhaven Mill, were cooperatives and workers received shares.  The underground economy thrived in the basement of the Nelson building where Toad Hall was established.  Customers of the whole wheat pizza eatery could cook or clean up in exchange for meals.

"I would like to think of Toad Hall as a community service.” restauranteur John Blethen told a reporter in 1972.  "People come and we don’t expect them to buy.”

Establishment of a newspaper is the next step in community development, and the South Side pioneers were soon reading the Northwest Passage.  The paper featured homesteading advice, as well as critical reporting on social and environmental issues.  City officials, however, said the paper was "smut” and "a case of permissiveness gradual moral breakdown.”

Bellingham Mayor, Reg Williams asked the state to tighten administration of the country food-stamp program in an effort to thin out the hippie population.  In a measure to regulate "outdoor musical assemblies” — read rock festivals — the Whatcom County Commission adopted an ordinance requiring a $5,000 bond to be posted prior to any event expected to draw 1,000 or more people.  

Walker, who testified at the hearing before the ordinance was passed, characterized the city fathers reacting to the developing community as "rigid” and "knee jerk.”  Hippies were perceived as flaky people with flaky ideas, she said.

The clash of ideas crystalize in a November 1972 dispute over a plot of land at the corner of 11th Street and Harris Avenue.  Hippies had been using the plot to grow a community garden but owner Ken Imus, "egged on” by City Hall, decided to reclaim it, he recalled in a 1987 interview.

On November 30, 1972, Imus rolled in the bulldozers.  Nearly 100 protestors blocked their progress.  A half-dozen plainclothes police officers were on the scene to maintain control  The situation remained quiet until a city buss arrived with 19 more officers.  The police surrounded 40 people in front of one bulldozer and proceeded to push them out of its path.  Then people wee arrested and bused to the police station.

At the subsequent trial of the Fairhaven Eight (two cases were dismissed) two members of the Whatcom County legal profession presented four hours of legal arguments.

Defense attorney Dean Brett contended the gardeners held squatters rights, and, in any case, crops cold not be cleared until the end of the season, under agricultural law, and the leeks and kale had not been harvested.

"They had a point,” Brett said in a recent interview.  They were taking a moral position.”

Prosecutor Ed Ross later a Superior Court judge, triumphed and the eight were found guilty of either trespassing or obstruction, or both and given $25 fines and 10-day suspended jail sentences.  

It was a "herculean effort by defense and prosecution,” said Municipal Court Judge Leslie Lee.  "I have never heard a ore complex case presentation for misdemeanor offenses.”

After 1972, the South Side hippie community declined.  Rents in South Side buildings went up and the national economy plummeted, laying ruin to hippie capitalism as practiced on the South Side.  As the economy changed, the people changed too.

Northwest Passage staffers found jobs at the Portland Oregonian, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and San Francisco Chronicle.  One Passage contributor, Mary Kay Becker, served on the Whatcom County Council and in the state legislature.  Other hippies found regular jobs or opened traditional businesses.

As the South Side settlers moved into the mainstream, they took their ideas about government, the environment and the role of women with them.  Walker said she is amazed at how far those people and ideas have traveled.

For example, Frank James, a Fairhaven College graduate is now Whatcom County health officer.

"I find it so amusing Frank James's the county health officer,” she said.  All of a sudden we’re coming into our own and those flaky ideas are being implemented in a practical way.

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