The history of building boats on Liberty Bay | Now & Then

Joe Schwan rows a 65-year-old Poulsbo boat with Richard Meyers as passenger. Meyers restored this boat, which Schwan now uses as a fishing and history lesson for his grandchildren.  - Megan Stephenson / Herald 2011
Joe Schwan rows a 65-year-old Poulsbo boat with Richard Meyers as passenger. Meyers restored this boat, which Schwan now uses as a fishing and history lesson for his grandchildren.
— image credit: Megan Stephenson / Herald 2011


At the risk of mixing my metaphors, my head has been swimming with boat building for the last few weeks.

“Boat Builders on the Bay” is the subject of this year’s major exhibit at the Poulsbo Historical Museum, and what a lesson it has been for me. One of the side benefits of planning and installing exhibits is the education I receive while doing the research for them.

I never thought I would be interested in boats or building them, but after delving into Poulsbo’s extensive history with the occupation, I have become fascinated with the process of building a boat. I’m not about to take that up as a second hobby, mind you, but I certainly have gained an understanding of the craftsmanship involved in building a boat from scratch.  Add to that the fact that our earliest boat builders on Dogfish Bay were not using power tools or modern materials, and it is easy to be in awe of what they accomplished.

The tradition of boat building began as soon as the first settlers got their land legs back after steaming into the bay. Boat building was already going strong on Bainbridge Island by the time our bay was settled, and our production did not come close to matching the giant operation at Port Blakely, but our men found abundant opportunity to build and repair boats.

The earliest builders we found were Einar Nilsen and Martin Bjermeland, who are two of the featured builders in the exhibit.  Both were building here before 1890. Einar’s boat shed was at the head of the bay, where he also had a shingle mill. Most notably, he built the mosquito fleet steamer Advance that was the only known steamer to be completely built in Poulsbo and to be made out of local lumber. He was also the builder of the schooner Anna Olga, whose story of becoming ice-bound in northern Alaska is recounted in the “Spirit of Poulsbo.”

Einar’s handiwork is still seen in Poulsbo in the form of his house commonly called the Sonju House. He built it at the same time as he built the Grandview Hotel that sat on the bluff across the street, at the site of today’s Sons of Norway.

Einar’s contemporary, Martin Bjermeland, was perhaps the best known of the carpenters in Poulsbo.  As builder of First Lutheran Church (both its first and present buildings) and a great number of homes and businesses on Front Street, he established his name early as a master carpenter.  Martin spent eight years of his life building boats in Ballard while maintaining his home in Poulsbo, the large blue house north of today’s Poulsbo City Hall.

Returning to full-time residence in Poulsbo in 1905 didn’t slow down his boat work one bit. One of his largest projects was the building of the schooner Phyllis S. for the Pacific Coast Codfish Company in 1927. By then, sons George and Helmer were working with him and Martin and George are credited with the Phyllis S.  Unfortunately, Phyllis S. ran aground near Kodiak, Alaska in 1934 and another Poulsbo boat builder, Chris Haugen, was sent north to do the repairs.

Martin Bjermeland spent much of his boat-building time doing repair and refitting work, so his list of boats isn’t quite as long as either Nilsen’s or Haugen’s, but he had a well-established reputation on the Sound for being an expert carpenter and proficient boat repairman.

In our exhibit four major builders are featured:  Einar Nilsen, Martin Bjermeland family, Ronald Young (of Poulsbo Boat fame) and Chris Haugen, who has an exhausting list of boats built and repaired.

We also have compiled information on a long list of other busy builders, including the likes of Jergen Almos, Axel Enquist, Halvor Veggen, Peter Elvebak and, in more recent years, Henry Stewart.

I was just putting the finishing touches on the exhibit when I received the news of Henry Stewart’s death. The historical society had hoped to interview him last year but his failing health thwarted our efforts.  We are in the process of working with his family to find out more about his building career in Poulsbo.

It’s always interesting to me that when planning an exhibit, it is often hard to find people who can fill in the gaps in the research, but as soon as an exhibit opens, information starts pouring in. Such is the case with the boat builders. We are suddenly finding boats and builders that we had never known. Maybe the museum should take a new tack: Instead of putting up exhibits, we should post “Wanted” posters to prime the pump and get Poulsbo’s history flowing.

The “Builders on the Bay” exhibit will remain throughout 2014. In addition, by the time you read this, we will also have opened our new “You Oughta Be In Pictures” exhibit of portraits and photography equipment. That smaller exhibit will remain until late fall 2014.

Make us a regular stop on your outings in Poulsbo. There’s always something new happening at the museum.

— Judy Driscoll is a volunteer at the Poulsbo Historical Museum and the author of three books on Poulsbo history.

Where: Poulsbo City Hall, 200 Moe St. NE, second floor.
Hours: Wednesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Phone: 360-440-7354


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