EVERETT — In 1898, a newspaper editor shot and killed a man in Everett. His acquittal led to public outrage. Five hundred people gathered to protest the jury verdict.
The details of that story were previously confined to archived newspaper clippings and local history books. That changed in October. Now an online essay complete with thorough citations can be read for free on HistoryLink.org. It’s the most accessible the tale has ever been in 125 years.
It’s only one of 140 pieces Margaret Riddle has created for the online encyclopedia of Washington history. Her recent work includes entries on a globe-trotting photographer, as well as a deep dive into pioneer newspapers in Snohomish County.
Riddle, 80, a former Everett librarian, calls writing for the Seattle-based nonprofit “an extra adventure after retirement.” And she’s not alone. She helps lead a group of Snohomish County historians who contribute to HistoryLink’s website. It’s a way for them to share their topics of interest with a wider audience.
The Snohomish County contingent was one of the first teams of freelance HistoryLink writers to form outside Seattle. In 2008, the group’s work was kickstarted by a $20,000 grant from the Henry M. Jackson Foundation. At that time, Riddle acted as assignment editor. Working with her library co-worker David Dilgard, who died in 2018, she reached out to “the usual suspects” for help.
Back then, the Everett librarians and their collaborators tried to mirror what HistoryLink was focusing on statewide, which were entries overviewing the history of every incorporated town in Washington along with profiles on major historical figures. With those out of the way, the local group’s focus has shifted.
“It’s advanced so much from that time so that along the way you can throw in all the fun pieces that you want to do,” Riddle said, “or all your favorites that you really wanted to get out there in a book, but there was no place to put it.”
HistoryLink hosts entries on the kinds of topics Riddle said local historians often leave on “the cutting room floor” of their books. They’re essays on events and people too small or too obscure for Hollywood to ever turn into a biopic, but engrossing enough for someone to spend months researching. These noteworthy characters aren’t memorialized by grand monuments. Instead they have street signs and city parks named in their honor.
Kicking over rocks
Riddle and her successors at the library use the Northwest Room at the Everett Public Library as their hunting ground. The space houses a treasure trove of books, maps and photographs of the region. So if a person is looking into any subject related to Snohomish County, this is a great place to start.
The librarians keep a watchful eye as they work. They’re searching for anyone looking up a topic that just might make for a perfect HistoryLink entry. One of those recruits was Steve Bertrand, a high school teacher and coach from Mukilteo.
Bertrand, 67, is a frequent guest at the Northwest Room. When he’s not writing haikus, he’s at the library learning about the history of his home town and its surrounding area. The fruits of his labor are books and museum lectures.
As a kid, Bertrand would visit the beach and kick over the rocks at the water’s edge to see what he could uncover. That’s how he describes his research. Bertrand delves into the past to pull out those long-forgotten characters who left their mark on his community.
“What I really get a kick out of is learning people’s stories and preserving those before they get lost,” Bertrand said. “We have a lot of unsung heroes.”
His first piece for HistoryLink was an essay on a high school football team that won a national championship a century ago. Next on Bertrand’s to-do list are articles on a “big time” music teacher and a married couple who donated their historic home to the public. Recently he finished work on a piece on Seattle photojournalist Grant Haller, who captured the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. The working title is “The Lion of the Newsroom.”
Some of Bertrand’s ideas for future HistoryLink articles are recycled from an unfinished project. “Legendary Locals of Everett” was to feature more than 125 short biographies, but the book deal fell through. Now Bertrand wants to repackage those bits of folklore for the online encyclopedia.
“There’s a lot of great stories there,” Bertrand said. “So I plan to go back to that and start digging.”
Like doing a term paper
For some, contributing to HistoryLink is thrilling, but it’s easier said than done. The quantity and specificity of reference material lends credibility and turns an article into a jumping-off point for readers wanting to dive deeper into a subject.
Unearthing sources can be a hassle. Not only do researchers need the exact date an article published in a newspaper, but the page number, too.
“People get stuck on the sourcing,” Riddle said. “It’s a chore.”
Deborah Fox cites more than 40 sources in her essay on Emma Yule, Everett’s first teacher and first school principal. Fox believes the finished product was worth the effort.
Initially, Fox said, she was reluctant to author Yule’s HistoryLink entry. The graphic novelist from Everett had never written an essay this extensive before. She said it was “like doing a term paper.” But Fox felt it had to be her.
Fox, 60, calls herself “the default historian on Emma Yule” after leading a successful campaign to name a city park in her honor. She knew a lot about Yule off-hand and believed an article would not only pay tribute but also raise the teacher’s public profile. So how could she refuse? “Old timers in town” know Yule, she said, but most people have never heard of her. Fox wanted to change that.
“When you think about the history of Everett in particular, it’s a lot of white guys, industrialists,” Fox said. “So there was room for a prominent woman’s story.”
The whole project took Fox a few weeks, but Fox said it would have taken her a month if she had started from scratch.
She had enough information from her initial research to write about 600 words. HistoryLink requires 2,000 to 4,000 words for feature entries to provide readers with a solid foundation on a subject. So Fox kept digging.
“It was more exhaustive,” Fox said. “When you’re working for an encyclopedia, you have to be precise. People have to be able to find it. So I had to be more thorough.”
Straight from the source
HistoryLink articles mainly fall under one of three categories.
• Features are the more traditional encyclopedia entries, providing an overview on a subject.
• Timeline Entries are shorter and focus on a particular event.
• And last, there are People’s Histories, first-person historical accounts.
Sometimes articles can straddle all three.
Bob Mayer, 76, is a retired electrical engineer from Everett. His research subject of expertise: polar expeditions. Mayer’s interest was sparked by reading about the first nuclear submarine, USS Nautilus, visiting Seattle and Everett in 1958 for repairs while embarking on a Top Secret undersea voyage to the North Pole.
HistoryLink writers like Mayer search for local connections to international stories. After some digging, Mayer discovered an Everett physician who was hired in 1938 to accompany an Australian explorer on a journey to claim territory for the United States in the Antarctic.
Mayer wrote of the expedition, and even tracked down the doctor’s children to interview them by phone and email. It’s not uncommon for HistoryLink researchers to get in touch with living descendants, or even the person being profiled, to find extra tidbits from a first-hand account.
“When you have the opportunity, that’s a good way to do it,” Mayer said.
For 18 years, Mayer worked for the Everett-based Western Gear Corporation until the government bought the company’s waterfront property for the future site of Naval Station Everett. Instead of relocating, the owners of the industrial machinery manufacturer decided to close for good in 1986.
Mayer thought he’d retire from Western Gear. Instead, he lived through its demise. He recalls the “carnival-like atmosphere” as office supplies were sold off to the highest bidder.
“You’re sitting at your desk, and they come and auction it off for 15 bucks,” Mayer said. “It’s not a happy feeling, for sure.”
Mayer wrote about that day for HistoryLink, adding it to the timeline of Washington events. It was his way of preserving the memory of his former employer and the people who worked there.
“Everybody knows what Boeing is. Everybody knew Scott Paper. But nobody knew what Western Gear was. I just wanted it documented somewhere,” Mayer said. “It was a good story and I wanted it told.”
From past to present
Last year, Riddle handed off more responsibility to her successor at the Northwest Room, 41-year-old Lisa Labovitch. Now the two co-manage the network of writers and help organize the yearly HistoryLink grant application to the Snohomish County Historic Preservation Commission that funds their work. In 2022, county archaeologist Gretchen Kaehler, who acts as group coordinator for the government board, said they awarded $8,250 to fund the creation of 16 articles from 10 writers.
The group did more than that, updating some existing articles, like when a plaque commemorating a treaty signing was vandalized and replaced, in addition to a tour guide for historic sites in downtown Snohomish. The work never ends. Time marches forward. Our perspective on the past evolves.
“History is never really static,” Labovitch said. “There’s always a change in how we view things.”
HistoryLink is ever-expanding. To date, the encyclopedia hosts 8,000 articles, adding about 200 new entries last year. HistoryLink Assistant Director Jennifer Ott said they add new articles at a rate of two to three a week.
Of course, there will always be new stories to tell, new histories to add to the site. But will there ever come a time when the last article from hundreds of years ago has been written?
“Never,” Ott said. “I’m sure there is an outer limit, but I don’t think we’ll ever find it.”
This year, Labovitch is putting an emphasis on trying to add younger and more diverse voices, but she has struggled in her recruiting. So far, for example, the only articles about Black people from Snohomish County were written by herself, a white person. That’s something she wants to change.
The challenge is finding people who have the time to help. There’s a reason why most local writers for HistoryLink are retirees. Prices for articles vary, but Ott said the most common fee is $725 for a “set,” meaning a Feature Essay accompanied by a Timeline Entry. Some recruits contribute year after year. Others are one-and-done.
“It’s a big ask. It’s time-consuming, and it’s not like it’s going to pay you like a full-time job,” Labovitch said. “It’s very much a labor of love.”
Correction: A HistoryLink article on a police matron was incorrectly attributed to Margaret Riddle. It was actually written by Starlyn Nackos. The article was updated on Feb. 3, 2023 accordingly.
Eric Schucht: 425-339-3477; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @EricSchucht.
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