Doc Maynard, Kelp, and Potatoes

David Swinson “Doc” Maynard was one of early Seattle’s more colorful characters. In his wonderful history of Seattle, Skid Road: Seattle and Her First Hundred Years, Murray Morgan writes of Maynard: “Maynard was a man of parts, a warm human being whose worst faults grew out of his greatest virtue, his desire to be helpful; and few people ever got into more trouble trying to help others.” One of those ways in which he tried to aid others, and for which it appears he did not suffer, was in the field of potatoes.

Writing to the editor of Olympia’s Pioneer and Democrat newspaper, in November 1858 from “Alki Farm, King Co., W.T.,” which we now know of as Alki Point in Washington State, née Territory, Maynard described his new life away from the urban chaos of Seattle. “Having recently embarked in the Agricultural Ship called Farmer, I wish to see her float with the tide of prosperity and progress.” What made Maynard’s endeavor at cultivation unusual, he thought, was his use of a novel fertilizer.

The previous year he had gathered one small canoe’s worth of kelp, which he cut into small pieces and placed on his recently sowed field of spuds. When he harvested his kelp-enhanced spuds, he found a yield of 27 pounds per hill, compared with his previous year’s crop of just 4 to 5 pounds per hill. Truly astounded and pleased by his process as a potato whisperer, he sent part of his crop to the editor urging him: “Try them baked, and give me your opinion of them.”

Maynard was hardly alone in recognizing the potential of kelp. In 1913, soil scientist  Frank Cameron wrote “from time immemorial sea-weeds have been recognized as having important manurial value.” Nor was Maynard the last to try to exploit kelp in Puget Sound.

Kelp Plant at Port Stanley, from Lopez Island Historical Society
Kelp Plant at Port Stanley, from Lopez Island Historical Society

Prior to World War I, Germany had been the world’s most important supplier of potash, which was rich in potassium. After the war began, and the supplies of potash dwindled, scientists around the country began to seek out a new source and found that few products were better than kelp, which could be burned to potash, and few places richer in kelp than Puget Sound. With a potential market of millions of dollars, six companies planned on developing kelp-to-potash plants on the waterway.

At least two plants opened. The Pacific Products Company completed a plant in Port Townsend and Western Algin Company did the same at Port Stanley on Lopez Island. Neither of them were terribly successful. When the war ended, Germany began to resupply the world with potash, and kelp was left to grow unmolested in the waters of Puget Sound.


Vancouver Naming Puget Sound

In my research for my book about Puget Sound, I often come across fine images of the region. Here’s one that struck me as interesting. It comes from one of a series of books, known as the Zig Zag Journeys. Each was written by Hezekiah Butterworth, who had been inspired by a French book that wove narrative and historic stories for school children. Mr. Butterworth decided to do the same. His first book was Zigzag Journeys in Europe. According to his biography in the book, Mr. Butterworth “is a delightful man to meet.” Plus, “his handshake is cordial and his welcome warm and hearty.” What more do you really need to know about the man?

In Zigzag Journeys in the Great Northwest, which is based on a journey on the Canadian Pacific Railroad to Vancouver, with visits to Puget Sound and the Columbia River, Mr. Butterworth, extols George Vancouver’s discovery of Puget Sound. “Vancouver seems to have had a heart formed for friendship, and he named many of the places of the sublimely picturesque region that he visited under the blue spring sky and in the burning noons and long crimson morning and evening twilights of the June days of 1792 for the honor of his faithful officers and best loved friends.”

Mr. Butterworth, like so many others, fails to mention that Puget Sound had already been discovered by the Native people who had inhabited the place for at least the past 12,500 years or so. Nor does he note that all of the places named by Vancouver already had names.

The image is curious. Where are these deciduous trees, where Vancouver supposedly stopped to name the place? Vancouver may have had friendly heart but nowhere in his or his crew’s journals is there any indication that he discussed place names with his men? The clothes are wonderful though.

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