Don Britton embodied ethic of local farmers

SNOHOMISH — Don Britton kept his feet planted in the rural Snohomish Valley, even as he grew into a respected force in local politics.

The former Snohomish County councilman and Snohomish School Board member died Jan. 28. He was 83.

Talk to people who knew Britton and a certain phrase reoccurs: “He always made sure the chores were done.”

In a cowboy hat, sometimes sporting a string tie, Britton embodied the hard- working, straight-talking ethic of local farmers.

In Snohomish County, colleagues respected his steady leadership during a time of enormous transition.

“He voted his conscience as he saw it,” said Cliff Bailey, a former state senator and county councilman who served alongside Britton. “I remember Don as a very honorable gentleman, a friend and a person who always made sure the chores were done.”

Bailey credits Britton with preserving agriculture as Snohomish County transitioned from a rural to an urban area.

“It set the tone for the county to grow into the 21st century,” Bailey said. “It’s tough to keep the farmers on the farm.”

Like many others, Bailey, a dairyman, got to know Britton through Britton Brothers Auction. Britton founded the business in 1955 with his twin brother, Dan.

The auction was a meeting place for the community, a social and commercial center.

“If you wanted to know what was happening in the valley, you went there,” Bailey said.

Until closing in 1990, the business held weekly sales of livestock, plants and household goods. The auction barn sat on the Britton family property not far from the Snohomish River. It’s since been torn down.

Britton’s brother, Dan, died in 2009.

Britton’s business savvy served him well in politics.

He was elected to the Snohomish School Board in 1973 and served until 1979.

Later that year, Britton was elected to Snohomish County government. He was among the original group of county council members who helped navigate a new political landscape, immediately after voters replaced three county commissioners in favor of five council members from different districts, plus an elected county executive.

Bruce Agnew served on the council alongside Britton and offered high praise for his former colleague.

“Don was just a salt-of-the-earth guy who really grounded the council when we were brand new and struggling our way through the budget and the politics of Snohomish County with the new home-rule government,” Agnew said.

Agnew, elected to county office before his 30th birthday, regarded Britton as an elder statesman.

“He told me how things worked in a nonpatronizing way,” he said.

Much of what Agnew learned from his fellow Republican was imparted during daily walks around town. Britton called them “constitutionals.”

“‘This is your constitutional, young man’” Agnew remembered Britton saying. “‘You need to walk off your lunch.’”

They talked county politics, but also discussed topics that were eye-opening to the young urbanite: feed prices, cows and other facets of rural life.

“Honest, straightforward, direct, sincere,” Agnew said. “Wonderful man. Steady leadership. Just can’t say enough about him.”

Britton was born to Roy and Mabel Britton on Nov. 7, 1930, in Duluth, Minn.

The family moved to Snohomish in 1938.

That’s around the time that George Stocker encountered them. The Brittons were neighbors of the Stocker Farm on Springhetti Road before moving closer to town.

Stocker, 91, said he remembers the ambitious Britton brothers learning their business in high school. They worked after school at an auction house on Avenue D before starting their own.

Stocker said Don Britton was a man of his word.

“You couldn’t find a more honest guy,” Stocker said. “I never heard anybody say, ‘Don took me.’ ”

Stocker, a dairyman and former Evergreen State Fair manager, said Britton served farmers in the region.

Today, one of the livestock barns at the fairgrounds in Monroe bears Britton’s name, honoring his contributions to local agriculture.

Stocker was elected to the Snohomish School Board several years ahead of Britton.

Whether it was serving farmers or schoolchildren, Stocker said, one thing was always true.

“Don wanted to do it right,” he said. “That’s the kind of guy he was.”

Britton served in the Army during the Korean War, then returned home and started the auction business in 1955. He married Roberta Green the same year. They raised and are survived by seven children, according to an obituary notice.

Preceding Britton in death were his wife, Roberta; a grandson, Shem Hendrickson; seven brothers; and his parents.

A memorial service is scheduled for 1 p.m. today at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church at Swan’s Trail in Snohomish. A reception is to follow.

Britton was living in Colville at the time of his death. He and his wife had moved there in 1990, shortly after he left public office.

Britton continued to work on his farm there until late last year.

It was autumn the last time Bailey saw him. Britton was proud to report that his hay was dry in the barn and the cows had enough feed to get through the winter.

“That’s his mentality — he gets the chores done first,” Bailey said. “Don lived a fine life. He was a public servant, lived his life fully and had a good exit. You can’t ask for any more than that.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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