Volunteers bring Whidbey history to life

— Created August 25, 2021 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

There is still time to pack a little history into one’s visit to Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve and, more specifically, to the historic home of Jacob and Sarah Ebey, where volunteer docents are standing by to share details of what life was like for Whidbey Island’s early settlers. The Ebey House remains open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday through Sept. 5.

Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve is the first-of-its-kind reserve in the country. The Reserve contains more than 17,500 acres – more than 85 percent of which is privately owned – and is managed by a trust board representing Island County, the town of Coupeville, the National Park Service and Washington State Parks. The Ebey House (and Blockhouse) serves as a visitor information center.

It has been a busy summer so far, with more than 3,000 people already visiting the historic structure and the equally historic Reserve, learning various historical tidbits of information from the dedicated volunteer docents who keep history alive more than a century-and-a-half later.

“My favorite part of working at the Ebey House is rubbing shoulders with volunteers who are truly passionate about the Reserve’s story and continue to make personal investments in learning, all while providing the opportunity for visitors to make intellectual and emotional connections with the resource,” said Jordan Belcher, education outreach coordinator with Ebey’s Reserve.

It might be surprising how many people have trudged past this piece of history as they walk the Reserve’s trails, unaware of the role it or its former inhabitants played in Whidbey’s past. But it was her walks on the Bluff Trail which sparked an interest for volunteer docent Carol Volkman.

“I love history and found the house on one of my early hikes after we bought our home in the reserve,” she said. “I walked around it and peeked in the windows several times as it wasn’t open when I was hiking. I saw an ad in the local newspaper asking for docent volunteers and jumped at the chance.”  

“I volunteered to become a docent at the Jacob and Sarah Ebey House as soon as it was opened to the public,” described volunteer Joann Roomes. “My husband had worked with the National Park Service Field School on making restorations to the house to make it accessible as a Visitor Center of the National Parks, so I shared an early interest in it as a resident of Coupeville and as a student of history.”

Patrick Hussey is a docent at Ebey House and also at Admiralty Head Lighthouse at Fort Casey State Park. He said a family connection helped foster his interest.

“I became a docent at the Ebey House because I am fascinated by the history of central Whidbey Island, starting with the Vashon Glacier, the Lower Skagit Coastal Salish and then of course, the original pioneers, of which Isaac Ebey was one of the first,” he explained. “I am a fifth generation Washingtonian; one of the third great-grandsons of Michael Troutman Simmons and his wife Elizabeth Kindred, who established in 1845 the first pioneer settlement north of the Columbia River before Washington statehood. That settlement became Tumwater, Wash. He was considered one of the elder settlers and knew and communicated with Isaac Ebey after he came to the territory in 1849.”

A love of history and sharing the stories of the past prompted Sandy Moore to really get into character for her docent duties.

“My favorite part of being a docent is when visitors’ eyes brighten and they smilingly say how much they enjoyed/learned from stopping by,” she said. “That’s part of the reason I researched and sewed an 1850s pioneer dress and wear reproduction leather booties that people wore to walk the Oregon Trail. I wanted to know what it felt like to be Sarah and Rebecca [Ebey]. It makes people smile and often want to spend a little more time at the house than they might have.”

Volunteer docents undergo a short training and are generally left in the capable hands of more experienced volunteers until they are comfortable. These history buffs will then tailor their short presentations to the public by gauging the interest of visitors.

“Most visitors stop by for only a few minutes,” said Moore. “If they ask a specific question, I answer it. That usually takes me to one of two topics: the family or the landscape. About the family, I say the home was built in 1855 and four generations of Ebeys lived or spent time in the house. Whatever else I say about the family depends on what and how much history they indicate an interest in.

“About the landscape, I tell them our amazing prairie was formed by the retreating glaciers 10,000 years ago,” she continued. “All that grinding, freezing and melting left 12-18 inches of the shiny, soft, perfect soil farmers crave. And if I can keep their attention for a few more minutes, I try to explain the modern day uniqueness of our country’s only National Historical Reserve. I take a pick-your-own-adventure-with-the-house conversational approach.”

“I generally start by welcoming [visitors] to the ‘home of Jacob and Sarah Ebey,'” Volkman described. “I watch to see if they are interested in the house or just looking for hiking trail material. I often ask if they have traveled a long way to get to the house so I get a sense of what interests they might have.  

“I most usually follow that with a brief description of when the house was built, the family members and share the connection of the family with the Oregon Trail (in brief) and the framework of the westward expansion of the country and donation land claims,” she continued. “Then I let them lead the way. Sometimes it’s the map on the wall and the Reserve history itself and other times it’s more specific to the house. If I’m in historical clothing, I really don’t have to lead very much. The questions just come.”

Those who volunteer say the experience has given them a new appreciation of Whidbey’s history.

“Along with other nearby places of interest, the Jacob and Sarah Ebey House is a valuable addition to the interpretation of history of the area – both in early settlement by those of European ancestry as well as the ongoing presence of Native Americans and their contributions to our shared legacy,” Roomes said.  “It is the shared legacy of living in this beautiful place as well as the phenomenal cooperation of the four agencies who oversee the administration of the Ebeys Landing National Historical Reserve that most intrigue and motivate me to share history through volunteering to be a docent.”

“With pairs of docents working at the house, we all learn from each other, as some have developed expertise in specific areas or are able to share their personal family’s history in the Reserve,” Belcher said. “At every shift, you share what knowledge you have and gain the knowledge of others.”

“Lately I’ve been very interested in learning more about Annie and Eason Ebey with their connections to the Sarah and Jacob Ebey House, the Ferry House, Bellingham, and Lynden, which was founded by Annie’s parents, Phoebe and Holden Judson,” said Moore. “The information is scarce, but as I begin to see connections between the early settlers in this region, their lives become more real to me.”

It is easy for anyone interested to get involved and volunteers who love history or who are interested in learning more about it, are always needed.

“Being a volunteer and interacting with people who are out for an enjoyable walk and visit is very satisfying; it is easy to get involved,” Hussey said.

“I would tell prospective docents that there is no one way to welcome visitors to the house,” Moore encouraged. “There is no mold to fit into. You bring what you love about the house/prairie/Reserve into the conversations that develop. Of course, a little studying of the history, architecture, landscape, etc. is also a big help!”

“If you have a love for learning about your local history and are interested in becoming a part of the experienced network of volunteers, email me at Jordan_woody@partner.nps.gov or call the Trust Board office at 360-678-6084 to get started,” said Belcher.

Belcher said to get to Ebey House, one can either park at 162 Cemetery Road and start down the Pratt Loop trail or take a small jaunt off of the Bluff Trail at Ebey’s Landing and follow the historic fence line to the house. Learn more about Ebey’s National Historical Reserve, the Jacob and Sarah Ebey House and more at ebeysreserve.com.