Yarrow House

Small Towns of Seattle: Ballard

Ever since I was a teenager, long, long ago, I’ve wanted to live overseas. I finally got to spend four years in Japan. I loved walking around soaking in the Japanese history and culture, eating interesting food at street festivals, admiring shop displays of unfamiliar objects, watching how people behaved to each other, and to me. I’ve always wanted to live abroad again, but time and circumstances just haven’t been right.

When Kit and I finally agreed to try living together, we decided to remodel my house to accommodate his jewelry studio. Kit lived Ballard at the time, and I lived in Mt. Baker. I moved across town to stay with him for three months while the contractor gutted and reconfigured my house. I didn’t expect moving to Ballard to be like living abroad but in essence that’s what it was, with all the advantages of a familiar language, a steady income, and old friends around for coffee and the occasional remodeling commiseration.

Ballard is another one of those small towns that became incorporated into Seattle around the turn of the 20th century. It grew up along the north shore of Salmon Bay. Its founder, Capt. Ballard, bought a large amount of land north of Salmon Bay with two other enterprising men. When the three dissolved their partnership in 1887 and divided the assets, no one wanted the boggy land along Salmon Bay so the partners flipped a coin. Capt. Ballard lost and ended up with the "undesirable" 160-acre tract that was to become Ballard.

Shortly after that the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway extended west from Fremont along the shore of what is now the ship canal to "Ballard Junction,” and a settlement grew up around the train terminus—shops, shipping, sawmills, and saloons. In 1889 the residents voted to incorporate.

The town had grown to 17,000 residents by 1907 and was the second largest city in King County. But its inability to provide water and deal with sewage, finally drove a majority of its citizens to vote for annexation to Seattle. On May 29, 1907, when Ballard became part of Seattle, the mourning minority draped their city hall in black crepe and flew the flag at half mast.

A steady flow of Scandinavians were travelling across the country to Seattle, during these years, looking for jobs in fishing, ship-building, and millwork. Many of them made it as far as Ballard and found reasons to stop there. Consequently, Ballard was long the only source in Seattle for lutefisk and lefsa, the Scandinavian potato version of tortilla. With no ready access to I-5, Ballard remained an isolated corner of Seattle, a blue-collar enclave swigging beer and seating lutefisk, until the 1990s. But times change and so do communities. Ballard’s isolation finally became its attraction.

I arrived in Ballard just at the beginning of what has become an onslaught of Seattle developers building up yet another one of Seattle’s hip, urban villages. Now only one Scandinavian shop remains where you might have a chance of buying lefsa. (Lutefisk, cod preserved in lye until it becomes gelatinous, is a taste I have never acquired, although my father loved it.)

Kit’s house was on 61st street, not far from the line Ballard’s early city fathers drew against loose livestock. The Cow Ordinance of 1903 made it a punishable offense to allow your cows to graze south of what is now 65th St.

On the way to catch the bus to work, I entertained myself by counting churches. Almost everywhere you go in Ballard, church buildings occupy the street corners, although now they’re often antique shops or cafes. Legend has it that Ballard’s bylaws specified that a church had to be erected for every saloon that was built. Saloons and all their attendant bad habits had the edge back then apparently, because in 1904 the drinking and card playing became so bad that the mayor ordered the city to officially close for the day in order to prevent gambling.

Not all evidence of the Scandinavian heritage is gone from Ballard, though. The town still celebrates Syttende Mai on May 17th, the Norwegian Constitution day, with a parade considered the largest of its kind outside of Norway. In Norway, Syttende Mai is celebrated by parades of school children waving flags. In Ballard, the parade is a collection of high school marching bands, fraternal and cultural groups dressed in a wide range of Scandinavian national costumes and traditional wool sweaters, and the vehicles of local businesses, all waving flags of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland. Viking helmets abound, and even the Seafair pirates show up.

When the Viking Days festival rolled around in August, I went over to the Nordic Heritage Museum to listen to Scandinavian music, watch the folk dancing, and of course, sample the food— Swedish meatballs and lefsa, but no, not the lutefisk.

Down on the Salmon Bay marine-related companies line the shore—fishing gear, bottom paint, and diesel engine repair shops, boat yards, metal fabricators. On the waterfront, it’s still a blue collar town. Ya sure, you betcha.

Farther west on the ship canal are what are essentially boat elevators, the Hiram Chittenden Locks. One day as I loitered along the rail waiting for the water gates to close and raise a collection of boats up to the Lake Union water level, I noticed a mother mallard with five ducklings swim through the open water gates and leisurely paddle along the locks wall while the water rose. When the up-stream gates opened, out swam the enterprising little family.

I often walked around Ballard, up and down the residential streets looking at the houses. I meandered along Market Street window shopping. I spent time in various coffee shops, people watching over a latte. Were people different in Ballard? Did the Scandinavian reserve permeate the atmosphere? Not that I noticed, but then, given my Norwegian heritage, maybe it just felt natural.

The remodel progressed, as remodels do, but at last it came to completion. My three months in a foreign land had come to an end. I started moving my things out of Kit’s garage and back into my house. Finally all that remained were my computer and  my cat. I put them in the car, stopped to buy some lefsa, and drove home. 

One-time reproduction for non-resale purposes permitted with the following credit line: by Judith Yarrow, © 2016