You can drive past Similk Beach today and — unless you’re old enough and have been here long enough — miss everything.
The lone building that sits between Satterlee Road and the log-strewn beach? It’s boarded up now, but it was once a busy restaurant where people would sit down for a dinner of oysters that were harvested just yards away. That low-lying land on the other side of the street? That’s were the original nine-hole Similk Beach Golf Course was.
So much is gone: the crowds, the restaurants, the horse stables, the bowling alley, the shuffleboard court, the oyster business — the 150-yard-long pier that jutted out into Similk Bay. This historic bit of Fidalgo Island shoreline was a recreation hub for all of Skagit County back in the day, a place to swim, golf, ride horses, picnic and party at the beach.
State parks didn’t have much in the way of facilities in the 1930s and were in tough shape, and golf courses were scarce, especially public ones. Similk Beach was in its heyday then — the place where high schools held their class picnics and people flocked for the Fourth of July.
The vision for all this came from a young R.D. Turner, who had come to Mount Vernon in the 1920s with his bride Grace from Long Beach, California — home to The Pike, a bathhouse resort at the beach with the most famous seaside amusement park and arcade on the West Coast.
R. D. Turner saw the possibilities here.
He didn’t have a penny to his name, but he was determined to have a summer resort, said his daughter, Betty Morgan, who can see the beach where it all happened from her home on Christianson Road.
R. D. Turner hooked up with influential Mount Vernon banker C. J. Henderson, borrowed money (with partners he later bought out), acquired property and launched an enterprise that became the Morgan-Turner family’s legacy.
Four generations ran a demanding, year-round operation that changed with the times, yet stayed true to its roots and was always a family business. Hard-working family members kept things scaled to Skagit County and what they could manage, and the last piece, the public golf course, stayed profitable and personable to the end when the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community purchased it and adjacent property — historic tribal reservation lands — in September 2013.
The tribe plans to keep operating and improving the course, now the Swinomish Golf Links, and would like to bring back oyster production on the Similk Bay beds.
• In 1928, the promotion of Similk as “Queen of the Beaches” was well underway.
“Since starting the development we have never stopped work in our efforts to provide what we term are the necessities of life, so as to make living at a pleasure beach a pleasure,” the Similk Bay Development Co. enthused in an advertisement in the March 22 edition of the Anacortes American, touting the new pier essential to boating, fishing and swimming and the development of “electric light, pressure water, good wide roads (and) sanitation.”
“Soon we will speed up our real program of play with golf, tennis, roque, etc., at which time Similk will become the real Queen of the Beaches, being serviceable, comfortable, pleasureable and beautiful enough to entertain any class of resident or visitor,” the ad continued.
Four greens opened to play in 1928, and the course’s original nine holes were completed soon after.
The nine-hole golf course turned out to be the “outstanding triumph of this resort,” the American wrote on March, 6, 1930.
R.D. Turner branched out into the oyster business about this time, taking advantage of Similk Bay’s productive tidelands and its rich mix of saltwater and fresh water from the Skagit River that gave the plump oysters he raised a distinctive taste.
That the beach was hard, not muddy, was no small thing. You could drive a tractor out on it to harvest oysters at low tide.
“You didn’t have to dredge,” explains Tom Cleland, who married Turner’s granddaughter, Beth Morgan.
The resort flourished as the family kept adding attractions.
Always the entrepreneur, R. D. Turner bought an old fishing boat in La Conner, brought it up on the beach and turned it into a shoreside drive-through café where Grace sold oysters and oyster dinners.
“We just never stopped,” Betty Morgan said, remembering her father’s drive to make the resort a success.
“It was push-push,” said her daughter, Beth Morgan-Cleland, who had oysters as baby food and was mowing fairways when she was 14.
“He always had things cooking,” she said of her grandfather, whom she remembers as rarely without a cigar and always in a three-piece suit and wearing a hat, even on the oyster beds.
“He was the kind of guy who made this country,” Tom Cleland said. “He was a period piece.”
• The golf course people play today was built in the mid-50s. Similk Beach’s fortunes as a resort had waned as the state parks were improved and people had other recreation choices. But the oyster business was still doing fine.
Turner Similk Bay Oysters were shipped to accounts along the rail line as far east as Chicago. The family delivered oysters daily to markets and cafés from Seattle to Bellingham. The women handled cooking demonstrations at grocery stores, frying up oysters dredged in cracker meal to push their product.
The kids, of course, worked too. In the ’60s and ’70s, the Morgan, Stevens and Trulson girls mixed thousands of handmade milkshakes at the golf course lunch counter.
Beth Morgan-Cleland remembers punching oyster shells at the beach with these same neighborhood girls. They’d make a make a hole in the shells, then string them on wire so they could be used to catch oyster spat at Dabob Bay along Hood Canal.
It was 15 cents a string and hard work, Beth said. But everyone’s kids worked then. Families were looked down on some, no matter what their status, if they didn’t, Beth said.
Using oyster profits to expand the golf course to 18 holes seemed a perfect fit. The oyster business was busiest in the late fall, winter and early spring, then the golfing peaked and brought in more money when the weather warmed up.
It also meant the family would have to work harder than ever to keep everything running. There was no down time.
The 18-hole course is mostly to the north of the old one. Just three holes — 13, 14 and 15 — were part of original course, which is now overgrown. The greens that pop up at the Similk Beach Golf Course are built on oyster shells. The course is right at sea level or even below in spots, so it made sense — plus “they had to get rid of oyster shells,” Tom Cleland said.
Jim Turner, R.D. Turner’s son, headed the golf course project. He was a scratch golfer but had no training or experience in golf course construction. He knew he was building a community course, though, not a fancy, expensive country club layout.
“He was the mastermind and had it laid out,” said Pat Mooney, now a port commissioner, who worked for the family in the oyster beds when he was 15 and helped Jim Turner with his survey work.
“I was his gofer,” he said. “It was good pay in the day and they were good people to work for.”
Mooney, one of hundreds of kids who worked for the family over the years, remembers Jim Turner plowing and discing ground to shape the course. Kids would follow and pick out rocks and sticks. Then Turner would make another pass and the kids would go back to work.
“I thought that would never end,” Mooney said.
• Tragedy struck the family on a moonlit night in 1953.
Jim Turner, 34, was bringing a big load of oysters down from the seed beds at Blaine to the fattening beds and packing plant at Similk Beach when the barge sank. He and Ron Mason, the only other man on board, drowned.
Earl Morgan, who would have a huge impact on the business for more than 40 years, had to take on an even larger role. With Jim Turner gone and R.D. Turner, who would die in 1957, not nearly as active as he once was, it was a big load.
“He (Earl) was a one-man show,” Betty Morgan said of her late husband.
Earl Morgan was from St. Louis. He met Betty, thanks to R.D. Turner, while he was stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
Morgan and some Navy buddies showed up at the beach one afternoon. R. D. Turner “conned” him into picking some oysters for him, the family story goes. Then came an invitation to dinner from Grace and the news: “I have a daughter.”
Earl Morgan grabbed hold of the oyster and golf businesses and kept things progressing. He somehow found time to be a Pacific Coast Oyster Growers Association director for many years and serve on the board of the Northwest Golf Course Superintendents Association — plus serve as a Fire District 13 commissioner for many years.
Morgan started backing off the oyster business in the late ’70s. The beds, leased out in later years, were worked last in 2000 when the state Department of Health closed 80 acres of shellfish beds in the bay where Taylor Shellfish was raising oysters. Water samples from roadside ditches near the Similk Beach shoreline confirmed the presence of sewage from residences in the community.
No contamination was ever found out in the shellfish beds, Tom Cleland recalls.
Taylor stopped operating there, and the area wasn’t deemed fit for oyster production until 2010 after more than 40 sewage systems were repaired or replaced. The family chose not to apply for permits.
• The new golf course, a hit from the beginning, meant a new clubhouse. R.D. Turner, always frugal, found two surplus barracks buildings at Sand Point Air Naval Station in Seattle. They were barged here, glued together and set atop chunks of wood at the site of the current clubhouse, which replaced it in 2001.
Golf was a growing sport as the new course matured. Shell and Texaco came here in the 1950s, and the influx of refinery workers, many of whom played in leagues, gave the course a boost over the years. In the mid-1980s, the original baby boom helped create a demand for golf in the United States that was perhaps unparalleled in the game’s history, according to the National Golf Foundation.
Similk Beach profited and continued to draw plenty of customers from Canada and the Seattle area, but it didn’t overextend itself.
“Things were not as hot-shot” as they were at some of the new courses, Beth Morgan-Cleland said. “We were pretty low-key around here.”
“We always tried to be true to our price point,” said Dick Freier, who was a mainstay at the course for decades until leaving this year. “We tried to give people the best value we could.”
Freier’s dad, Ray, was a teacher at Anacortes High School and golf coach.
Dick Freier developed his game through the middle school golf program that still exists today. He went to work at Similk in 1983 as a 16-year-old mowing greens.
He shucked oysters for a bit for the family, but his blade work wasn’t as smooth as his swing.
“Earl found out I was more valuable at the golf end than I was at the oyster end,” he recalled with a chuckle.
As Freier took on more responsibility, he could see the near round-the-clock work it took to kept the course viable, and the constant investment in equipment.
“There was a time our equipment was as good or better than anybody’s, and we had as much or more than anybody,” Freier said.
Along with the day-to-day course upkeep, there were always drainage and irrigation projects and course improvements such as ponds and sand traps that needed doing — and all took money. Margins were tight.
“Maintaining and cutting grass is not a real profitable operation,” Freier said.
But it was what Earl Morgan lived.
“His love was to be out on a piece of equipment maintaining that golf course,” Freier said. “To me he was Similk Golf Course. It was that way for a lot of customers.”
The golf boom that began in the mid-1980s brought more golfers to Similk — and more developers to Earl Morgan’s office. The course and the open land surrounding it was ripe for development in their eyes, a hot property that could accommodate houses ringing an expensive private golf course or country club layout.
A sale then would mean the end of the friendly, affordable public course that had supported the family and been a part of the community for nearly 70 years, and Earl Morgan turned them all down.
“He didn’t want to see the golf course become a housing development,” Freier said. “That wasn’t what the family wanted.”
• Beth Morgan-Cleland was teaching at Fidalgo Elementary School then — she had a 40-year career there — and Tom Cleland was the longtime owner of Anacortes Cyclery.
He sold the business in 1997, planning to retire.
Five days later, Earl Morgan died, and Tom Cleland had a family legacy to oversee.
Freier had been taking on more responsibility, and he had a big role when Tom Cleland went to work building the current clubhouse in 2001.
They tore the old clubhouse down on Oct. 1 and opened the new one on June 1, 2002.
“We had a temporary trailer and made it work,” Tom Cleland said. “We had a great group of people working out there.”
The clubhouse really improved customers’ morale, Freier said.
“It was a nice place where they could enjoy a beer and a sandwich.”
At the core, though, it was still a straightforward place in the family tradition.
“For every deli sandwich we’d sell, we’d sell 10 hot dogs,” Freier said.
With the bad economy and a changing market, the number of golf courses around the country was shrinking in the early-2000s, a trend that hasn’t stopped. According to the National Golf Foundation, only 13 new golf courses opened in the U.S. in 2012 while 154 closed.
Tom Cleland, aware of the trends that were putting a financial squeeze on golf courses everywhere, chose to keep the course and operations pretty much the same after the new clubhouse opened, a conservative plan that worked and kept an institution in the black.
“He kept things financially secure and supported a lot of people,” Beth Morgan-Cleland said.
Family members had continued their involvement. Beth’s sister Lori Yandle, her husband John and son James spent years at the course, and Christine Cleland, Beth and Tom’s daughter, represented the fourth generation of the Morgan-Turner family to work there.
But circumstances pointed to a sale. The business was in a good spot, and remaining family members, who had their own plans, weren’t inclined to take on the challenges and year-round grind operating a public golf course would bring.
The sale was a wrenching decision for the family, but one that would benefit it as a whole, Tom Cleland said. And selling to the Swinomish, who had long been interested in the land, seemed a good fit.
The tribe’s intention, and ability, to keep the golf course moving ahead — and bring back oyster production — should mean Similk, “Queen of the Beaches,” will live on with a new owner proud of its own long history with the site.
“I wanted the golf course to continue and the oyster beds to be used,” Tom Cleland said. “We took our best shot. Time will tell.”