Bainbridge is no ordinary place. Telltale signs of the island’s creativity abound in fascinating ways. Mysterious forces are at work dreaming, imagining, hammering, carving, welding, painting, and building. Toiling in workrooms from Agate Point to Fort Ward and driven by the need to fashion from the ordinary, the extraordinary, such forces are gifted with seeing the yet unseen, imagining the yet unimagined and creating the rarest of creative classifications, the Bainbridge Island Mailbox.
Not your standard issue mailboxes, these standouts are joyful roadside reminders of a long flowing current of individuality running through Bainbridge beginning with the Suquamish who carved the petroglyph rock at Agate Passage. Haleets is thought to be a boundary marker but its depiction of six faces of varying sizes and adornments could just as well be decoded as the tribe proclaiming this is uniquely us, this is who we are, welcome to our home.
Bainbridge’s wildly expressive modern-day mailboxes are similarly imbued with shimmering island soul and spirit. Like the petroglyph, they are without pretense, reflecting the beauty of unselfconscious expression, begging further investigation.
Mailbox as storyteller provides an unlikely entree to understanding the spectrum of Bainbridge Island’s history, culture, and artistry from a refreshingly lighthearted, neutral perspective. There are over one hundred handcrafted mailboxes on the island. Let’s begin with the story of a local tribe of sorts, the Strom family.
Two well-loved and dearly cherished mailboxes are the 1949 Packard and Bob’s Big Boy both belonging to the Strom’s. Three generations and five Strom families live on the original twenty-acres of land on West Port Madison Road purchased in 1946 by Leonard and Wicky Strom for $3,600 which according to their son Dick, “was a reasonable price even back then”. The purchase included fifty chickens, an unfinished house, and a 1930 Ford Model A, all accounted for on a hand-written receipt on lined kindergarten paper.
The Packard Mailbox
The family’s passion for classic cars and vintage memorabilia led Dick and Jim Strom to build the Packard mailbox in the early 2000’s. Rusted and partially moss covered, its front-end noses out from a tangle of shrubs, a tantalizing sentinel from a romanticized American past. Dick’s son Aaron purchased the dilapidated Packard at Jim’s Yank-A-Part Auto Wrecking in nearby Poulsbo but it sat collecting dust in his garage for about a year until his father and uncle got hold of it, cutting holes for the mailboxes where the headlights used to be and adding a specialty plate purchased online.
Bob’s Big Boy Mailbox
The Strom family traveled quite a bit further to find Bob’s Big Boy who hails from Hershey, Pennsylvania, the home of one of the world’s largest antique swap meets. Aaron Strom simply had to have the six-foot cast aluminum pop culture sculpture and that’s when Bob’s Big Adventure began, he traveled across the United States on his back, strapped to a piece of wood atop a rented Ford Excursion driven by parents Dick and Bobbi. Bob’s Big Boy enjoys his newfound popularity on West Port Madison Road and welcomes all who stop roadside to take selfies with him.
The Dinosaur Mailbox
Creativity is not extinct on Battle Point Road. Tucked into the lush green canopy characterizing this area is an exuberantly painted mailbox featuring a robust colony of dinosaurs belonging to the Brouwer family. The evolution of the idea for the mailbox began when Jamie Brouwer wanted to create something fun for her young sons but admits it may have been an act of rebellion against some of the “serious and snooty” mailboxes she saw on the island. In her old Seattle neighborhood Jamie had admired a large dinosaur head overlooking a fence and thought to herself, “those people must be really cool”. With that in mind she set about gluing dinosaurs onto her mailbox. Coincidentally that “really cool” Seattle family moved to Bainbridge around the same time and Jaime was astonished to see their Jurassic gem overlooking Wyatt Way. Dino-mite!
The Johnson Outboard Motor Mailbox
What do you do if your name is Mark Johnson, are a self-proclaimed maker of not-so-fine art and sculptural assemblages and want the perfect mailbox? You affix a Johnson outboard motor to a post, cut an opening, add a flag, and call it a day. Mark purchased the 1970’s vintage 60HP Johnson motor casing for five dollars at a yard sale near Spangle, WA. The newer motor replaced his 1950’s era 5 ½ HP Johnson mailbox and he remarked the extra horsepower might help his social security checks arrive faster. Johnson’s garden is filled with his sculptural assemblages including a six-hundred-pound piece of Puget Sound history; a salvaged piston from the MV Kalakala which was a notable art deco era ferry second in popularity only to the Seattle Space Needle at the time. Mark considers himself a creative late bloomer.
The Sinking Ferry Mailbox
Azalea Avenue boasts a thirty-year-old Wing Point neighborhood favorite, the Sinking Ferry Mailbox. Current homeowner Samantha Everett inherited the Sinking Ferry when she bought the home two years ago. A bit of sleuthing led me to Stewart Atkinson who built the Sinking Ferry around 1992, shortly after he and his wife Trudy purchased the home. Atkinson is an engineer who worked as a carpenter during college and there were two items he took exception to upon arriving in Bainbridge: his mailbox post and daily ferry commute. Motivated by these dislikes, Mr. Atkinson drew up blueprints and built the sinking ferry mailbox admitting he had “grandiose thoughts” that others would want to buy the plans and build one of their own. Thirty years later, Atkinson’s Sinking Ferry is still one of a kind.
The Lighthouse Mailbox
Navigate to Crystal Springs Road to find the carefully researched and beautifully constructed Lighthouse Mailbox belonging to Malia Kelly and Derek Gallichotte. Despite Gallichotte declaring he doesn’t have a creative bone in his body, Malia says he’s a tinkerer and when the couple purchased their cottage, he put forth very specific, one might even say creative thoughts regarding the aesthetics of the couple’s front yard. First, it needed a beach. Gallichotte tore out half the grass to create his beach on the beach, they are after all just across the road from an actual beach. With the beach completed and around the time their mailbox was smashed (in an assumed teenage rite of passage which is apparently a “thing” on the island) he realized Bainbridge didn’t have a lighthouse. The oversight prompted Gallichotte to enter his workshop, emerging four weeks later with the Lighthouse Mailbox. Wired for electricity, an authentic Fresnel lens was added. Historically, the Fresnel is referred to as, “the invention that saved a million ships” but this one couldn’t save itself. A complaining neighbor and a new maritime law stating no rotating white light shall shine out toward the water immediately landed the chief of police on their doorstep with a cease-and-desist order of sorts and the Fresnel was duly replaced with an inexpensive plastic solar disc.
I spoke to mail carrier Linda Patton to learn what our carriers might think of the hand-crafted mailboxes. A 30-year veteran of the Bainbridge Island Post Office working the south end of the island, Patton says her favorite thing about delivering mail is the people, “people make the difference”. She considers many along her route family. Of the mailboxes, she says there are creative ones on her route but as so much is ordered online today, size matters. Patton remarks, “as long as they’re functional, I think they’re cute”.
Conversations surrounding the mailboxes are animated. I’ve been enthusiastically invited through the front door of homes of relative strangers excited to tell their stories. This is uniquely us; this is who we are, welcome to our home.
Denise Stoughton is currently writing a book highlighting the hand-crafted mailboxes of Bainbridge Island and the people who create them. Join the discussion and follow along on Facebook at www.facebook.com/groups/uniquelybainbridgemailboxes/