- Historic Sites
When the author moved into a 1905 house on an island near Seattle, he found himself sharing it with the uncommon people who had lived there before him
July/august 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 5
For his own spouse he chose Lizzie Lulu Yeaton, the daughter of a Baptist pioneer from New Hampshire and the first white female to be born in Spokane, Washington. The Colonel presumed she was well-to-do when he first spotted her arriving at his shop in a carriage, but she wasn’t, and though the marriage produced four children, it was not a success. On their wedding night the Colonel announced to his devout young bride that as a Southern gentlemen he could not be expected to be faithful, and indeed, he rose to this diminished expectation all his life and had the honor of being named a corespondent in a divorce when he was ninety-one years old.
From the start the Colonel proved an erratic provider, his speculations sometimes taking precedence over the exigencies of fatherhood. Even as he slapped the backs of his wealthy brethren at the Rainier Club in Seattle, the family was sometimes hard put to set food upon its table, whereupon the Colonel would breeze in and present his wife with a diamond necklace or announce he had purchased a steamboat company.
So when a local architect named William Alberts was commissioned in 1904 to design a summer house for the Gazzams on Bainbridge Island, he had to accommodate not only the Colonel’s pretensions but Mrs. Gazzam’s austerity and the local scarcity of master craftsmen.
The result was a large but simple house of niggardly construction: six thousand square feet enclosed in fir studs and cedar shakes and walls of native stone. What the Colonel dubbed Alabama, but what shall always be known as the Gazzam House, was to be the first of many mansions he envisioned dotting the shoreline, albeit at discreet distances from one another.
He assured his own privacy by the sheer dimensions of his surrounding estate: five hundred acres of beach and orchard, forest and lake, and freshly cleared meadowland. The house was so remote, in fact, that until Mrs. Gazzam opened a post office of her own in the back hall, she had to row a mile across the channel to Illahee every day to pick up the mail.
All but abandoned by her restless husband, Mrs. Gazzam turned for strength to Mary Baker Eddy, and Alabama became a gathering place for Mrs. Gazzam’s fellow Christian Scientists, who would arrive aboard the K.T.C.’s ferries at Crystal Springs Landing and climb the stone stairway to the house for colloquies and luncheons.
Under the tutelage of one of Gazzam’s sisters, who lived in an area of the island known as the Country Club, the Colonel’s three daughters were introduced to the rigors of what locally passed for high society, and the downstairs of the house, with its sixty feet of floor space from living-room hearth to dining-room window, became the island’s premier ballroom.
The Colonel rarely visited his own estate and took up residence, when he was not traveling, across the channel in Bremerton. But for Gazzam’s son and three daughters, and for many children in the vicinity, the place acquired an almost mystical significance. After gathering blackberries along its trails, harvesting plums and apples in its orchards, digging for clams on its beaches, fishing for lingcod and blackmouth salmon off its pier, and reading books on its window seats in the drizzling light of a winter afternoon, they would bear the abiding imprint of its landscape all the rest of their lives.
The Colonel’s ties to his family were never strong, and they were finally broken in the 1920s, when he blamed Lulu’s attachment to the mother church (and she, in turn, blamed his skepticism) for the death, from meningitis, of his youngest child and namesake: a brilliant, congenial boy who had constructed the island’s first radio while still in his teens.
But there had been other irregularities along the way. The Colonel’s household had once included a young woman named Madge, only five years his eldest daughter’s senior, whose medical education he generously financed even after Lulu finally evicted her out of a less than far-fetched suspicion that Madge was dallying with her husband.
After their divorce the Colonel gave Lulu the run of the Bainbridge Island house. Lea, the eldest daughter, was a dynamo, and Mary, the youngest, a great beauty, and the Colonel sent them both to college. But the second daughter, Ruth, had been so frail as a small child that she had not been expected to live, and fearing for her health and perhaps overextended by Madge’s tuition, the Colonel announced that he would not send Ruth to college but to New York for a year of refinement under the wing of another of his socialite sisters.
Eventually all three daughters—Lea, Ruth, and Mary—married and moved away. Ruth married Gilbert Pierce Haight, the son of a prominent and self-made Seattle lawyer who denied Gilbert an opportunity to teach history at a prep school and demanded that he become an attorney. Determined that he would become a gentleman for whom “work” was distasteful, Gilbert’s genteel mother did not prepare her son for the harsh exigencies of corporate law, and he primarily depended for his livelihood on income from his share of the family fortune. When Gilbert lost his home and most of his fortune to the Depression, Lulu invited Ruth and her family to live with her at Alabama, to which Ruth agreed only on condition that she earn her family’s keep running the house as a summer hotel.