CAMANO ISLAND — Gerald Magelssen learned to drive a tractor at age 6.
He milked cows, loaded hay into his dad’s barn and did the daily chores on his family’s east Camano homestead.
When he left for college, and later for the Navy, the barn was the last thing he saw in the rear-view mirror. It couldn’t disappear fast enough.
At one time, about 60 barns stood on the island, and over the years Magelssen photographed all he could before they collapsed or were torn down. Today, Magelssen, 77, of Arlington, is something of a Camano Island barn expert.
It’s an interesting switch, said his daughter Karen Camp, whose teenagers are the sixth generation living on the family farm.
“When he was young, he always wanted to get off the farm, but once he started photographing all the Camano barns in the 1970s, it brought him back here,” Camp said. “His project to document all the barns is very important. I’m very proud of him.”
About half the barns on the island remain.
“Barns are special places. Of course I didn’t think so when I worked in them,” Magelssen said. “Now I find them cozy and full of history. And it’s very sad that they are disappearing.”
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At the request of the Stanwood Area Historical Society a year ago, Magelssen gave a slide show of the barns of Camano Island and north Snohomish County. He plans a reprise and update of that show on Thursday evening at the cultural center in Stanwood.
“The barns of this area are amazing architectural structures,” said historical society spokeswoman Karen Prasse. “We hope people will attend the presentation and help us collect information on the old barns.”
One of the best things about his first slide show was the interest of old farmers from throughout the area, Magelssen said.
“It was a very educational evening for everyone, especially me,” he said.
Magelssen’s advantage in his quest to catalog the barns on Camano was that his late father, Johan, delivered milk and mail on the island. Father and son were able to identify all the original owners.
The Magelssen farm, which looks across the Juniper Beach prairie to Livingston Bay, was first a chicken operation. Established by Magelssen’s great-grandmother’s family, the farm grew under the ownership of Magelssen’s grandfather Thorbjorn.
Magelssen earned a teaching degree and then joined the Navy. He served as a communications officer aboard the USS Mauna Kea. Later, with a master’s degree in audio-visual education, he landed a teaching job at Shoreline Community College, where he worked from 1967 to 1991. Magelssen retired as a media services manager at Microsoft.
When his first wife, Judy Griffin, died, Magelssen married Judy’s college roommate, Joyce Brose Wold. A retired Arlington teacher, Joyce grew up on a farm near Lake Goodwin. She shares Magelssen’s passion for travel and photography, and has helped him catalog the barns.
At first, the barn project was a hobby for Magelssen. He sold note cards printed from his slides.
“But when I saw the old barns start to fall down, the project became a passion,” Magelssen said. “We don’t use barns to store hay or house animals the way we used to, and few of those barns have been preserved.”
Magelssen’s friend Loren Kraetz, a retired Island Crossing dairy farmer, has helped the photographer identify barns closer to Arlington.
“I wish Jerry had started photographing the Arlington, Bryant and Silvana barns 25 years ago. The barns built between 1890 and 1910 are all gone,” Kraetz said. “Only the people who took care of the roofs and foundations still have barns.”
Kraetz blames the disappearance of old barns on the decline of dairy farming in Snohomish County.
“Silvana had two cheese plants, and every city had a milk condensary,” Kraetz said. “Now that we only have a fraction of those dairy operations, you can’t blame people for not investing in the upkeep of their barns.”
Harrison Goodall, who sits on the board of directors of the Island County Historical Society, wants to help people find grant money from the Washington State Historic Barn Register to save their barns.
“Barns are the icon of Island County, and while agriculture has changed, preserving barns means preserving the heritage of our region,” Goodall said. “I am in awe of the craftsmanship of these old buildings.”
Earlier this month, Magelssen traveled out to the east side of Camano Island to get an updated picture of the Elmer Moen Barn, which he first photographed nearly 40 years ago.
The barn’s current owner, Kess Blaswich, said it was built in about 1945 from big timbers that Moen found on the beach. Blaswich added windows, a new roof and a better foundation in 1998.
“It’s my pride and joy,” Blaswich said.
Magelssen positioned himself to take the shot of the barn complete with a stand of Douglas fir in the background.
“I have a lot of respect for farmers who keep surviving and for people who keep the barns standing,” Magelssen said.
See his work
Jerry Magelssen is scheduled to present “Barns of Camano Island and Surrounding Areas: A photographic slide program” at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Floyd Norgaard Cultural Center, 27128 102nd Ave., Stanwood; 360-629-6110 or www.sahs-fncc.org.
Harrison Goodall of the Island County Historical Society plans to talk about “The Magnificent Barns of Ebey’s Prairie” at 2 and 6 p.m. March 6 in the Coupeville Library, 788 NW Alexander St. www.islandhistory.org.
The Stillaguamish Valley Pioneer Museum, 20722 67th Ave. NE, Arlington, www.stilly museum.org, has information on the use of barns in Snohomish County, as does the Western Heritage Center Interactive Museum, www.westernheritage center.org, at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds in Monroe.