Fish tale turns into local history lesson

Jack Bartlett called to tell a fish tale, but was lured into giving a history lesson.

The 90-year-old lives at Spee-Bi-Dah, a private beach community at Tulalip. As he describes it, life at Spee-Bi-Dah is perfect.

“Up here, I garden, golf and fish,” Bartlett said Tuesday.

A beach jaunt on an August work day? I jumped at the chance to visit Bartlett and his wife, Mitzi, after he called to talk about a brazen sea lion — and the fish that got away.

Actually, the sea-run cutthroat trout he had on his line was stolen. Bartlett wrote a short story about his recent adventure. It began when he was just offshore in his 12-foot boat.

The fish, which Bartlett said is a catch-and-release type, had just taken his lure. “I reeled it up to the boat and was just going to net it when I was soaked by a splash made by something big,” Bartlett wrote. “It surfaced about 50 feet away and turned out to be a sea lion.”

He started his 6-horsepower motor to follow the big critter, which had his fish, line and lure. “The sea lion suddenly stopped, opened its mouth, and out came what was left of my fish together with my lure,” wrote Bartlett, who took a picture of the remaining fish, little more than a head.

Only after the angler described his sea-lion showdown did I learn the rest of the story.

Bartlett not only lives at Spee-Bi-Dah, his grandfather was among its founders. The beach community grew from a 1914 purchase of coastal land that was part of the Tulalip Reserve.

Bartlett has been at Spee-Bi-Dah — in the early days just summers — since he was a baby. “We built the first house here. I was born in 1922. We built the cabin in 1923,” he said. The gated community, which will celebrate its centennial in two years, now has many year-round homes.

Bartlett’s grandfather, Frank L. Bartlett, was among Marysville businessmen who in 1914 purchased the land as the Spee-bi-dah Company.

According to the book “Spee-Bi-Dah: The Story of a Beach,” published in 1989 by Marian Chandler and Jim Koons, a tribal member called “Old Jacob” was granted a deed to the 50 acres in 1884, five years before statehood. In 1914, according to the book, a widow of the deceased son of Old Jacob, as sole heir, sold the property “for the consideration of $3,070.”

Eight partners from Marysville made up the Spee-bi-dah Company, including Frank L. Bartlett.

The Tulalip Tribes’ history goes back many generations at Spee-Bi-Dah, which Bartlett said is on the Tulalip reservation and is deeded land. Current homeowners don’t have leases but pay tideland fees to the Tulalips, Bartlett said.

A number of years ago, the Tulalips revived the tradition of an annual Spee-Bi-Dah celebration. The event brings tribal members to the site for beach seining, a fishing method using nets in shallow water.

In 2006, a Herald article quoted former Tulalp Tribes Chairman Stan Jones Sr. as saying that Spee-Bi-Dah is a rock on the pinnacle of a hill above the beach. “From out on the water, it looks like a lady holding a baby,” Jones said. Spee-Bi-Dah means “small child” in Lushootseed, the primary Salish language of Northwest coastal tribes.

The place takes Jack Bartlett back to his own childhood. Born in Seattle, his family moved to Edmonds when he was small. He attended Esperance Grade School, then a two-room school.

Boyhood summers were spent at the Spee-Bi-Dah cabin, which still overlooks the beach. In his childhood, it had an open-air sleeping porch. Bartlett’s memories of coming to the cabin on a rutted, one-lane road, of walking the beach logs, and of swimming are in the “Spee-Bi-Dah” book.

With his father, Rex Bartlett, he owned and ran Bartlett’s Hardware store in Marysville from 1948 until 1973. The family always came back to the beach.

“It was just a summer place for years,” said Bartlett, who estimates that today’s Spee-Bi-Dah Community Club has about 60 homes and 40 full-time households.

He and Mitzi lived in the cabin before building their larger house up the hill at Spee-Bi-Dah in 1997. They’re snowbirds, spending winters in Cathedral City, near Palm Springs, Calif.

Mitzi Bartlett is an artist, who paints in a separate studio the couple built. They are both gardeners. And Jack Bartlett goes fishing whenever he can — and every once in awhile encounters a sea lion.

Spee-Bi-Dah has the feel of endless vacation.

“It’s a different world,” Bartlett said. “We think it’s the best-kept secret in Washington.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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