A century of community and a decade of renewal

The historic community of Doe Bay on Orcas Island was traditionally a sanctuary for Coast Salish tribes, who held potlatches here until it was settled by homesteaders in the mid-1800s.

Known as an off-the-beaten-track retreat for hippie types, Doe Bay has long been a place of tolerance even before the 1960s, where people living outside the norm have created a life. In fact, the very first settlers in the immediate Doe Bay Resort area were a multi-racial couple, German immigrant John Gottleib Viereck, who owned a general store near Blaine, and his wife, Jennie Kahlan, from the Tsimishian tribe. In the early 1870s, the Vierecks and their seven children settled 175 acres on the shores of Doe Bay to the north.

Other immigrant families followed, drawn by the promise of unsettled land and freedom from rules – an attitude many islanders share today. Heinrich Legbandt, a German immigrant on a merchant ship bound for the Fraser River, is said to have jumped ship and made his way to Sehome (now Bellingham), then to Orcas to become Vierick’s next-door neighbor. Peter Morress was a French Canadian who homesteaded 215 acres of Shorewood, just west of Doe Bay, in 1893. Otis Culver, a Vermont journalist, managed a Bellingham newspaper, and leased 500 acres from the State in Point Lawrence, and his father and mother later joined him. In the 1890s, William Marquart, and Robert Paternoster, both established claims in the area as well.

Between 1890 and 1910, these original homesteaders and their children cleared land for small farms and orchards, established a post office, built a community hall, store and the original dock at Doe Bay. Some of the original farms were broken up, parcels selling to newcomers for $10 an acre. The main focus of agriculture was fruit, and the Orcas Island Fruit Company planted and encouraged planting of new types of apples, pears and plums. A cannery was built, and fruit came and went from the Eastsound dock as much as 160,000 boxes in a season.

Until 1914, Orcas thrived as an agricultural economy, but according to the essential community-produced book on Doe Bay history, Doe Bay: Historical Images and Favorite Recipes, “the endeavor was marginal for several reasons,” including farm debt, the expense of freight,   modern fertilizers, lower prices and richer soil East of the Cascades. And of course, World War I stopped sales of U.S. fruit to foreign markets. In and around Doe Bay, this meant that the farms that once supported 50 families dwindled to 30.

When the car ferry started up in 1922, Orcas became one of the hot spots for mainland tourists, who camped, fished and played in Moran State Park, one of the oldest and largest state parks in the country. Moran is still connected to Doe Bay Resort via an easement through a neighbor’s property. Doe Bay Resort owner Joe Brotherton travels this trail often when he comes to visit, up the side of Mt. Constitution to enjoy the amazing views of the San Juan Islands.

Orcas has never looked back, and the island has remained a haven for locals and off-islanders alike in the glorious summer season where residents’ priorities are hiking, kayaking, swimming, fishing, birdwatching, and taking in the views.

During the late 1960s and through the 70s, what is now Doe Bay Resort & Retreat was called the Polarity Institute, a center for Polarity Therapy, an alternative energy medicine system that was developed in the 1940s by Dr. Randolph Stone, an Austrian immigrant from Wisconsin.   Although the doctor was not in residence at Doe Bay, a group of followers touted his holistic medical techniques and the use of “complementary forces” of energy through touch, talk therapy, nutrition and other means, to heal the body. Many saw Doe Bay as a ‘hippie haven,’ where people from all over the world would visit, and there was a close-knit, small community.

“On Wednesday nights, we used to have locals’ nights and meet and chant and chat and have a great time,” says a longtime local, James Infinity. “When Ish and Natasha (the last owners before the Brothertons) took over, they just took the Polarity Therapy sign and turned it around and wrote ‘Doe Bay’ on the other side.”

From the early 1990s until the present economic downturn, there was a big boom in real estate on Orcas, with many successful business people buying and selling property, and many longtime landowners building their dream homes.

Doe Bay underwent huge changes during this time, too. The property was up for sale, and was in much need of major care. The property was going to be broken up and sold as separate parcels, until Seattle entrepreneur Joe Brotherton, and his wife Maureen, bought the property in 2003.

In the first decade of their stewardship, the Brothertons have improved the property with an eye to conserving the land for generations of locals and visitors to come. The spa has undergone major reconstruction, as have many of the 26 cabins, yurts and campsites on the property. Additionally, the Café has become a culinary phenomenon of sorts, offering “seed-to-table” cuisine, food from our local purveyors, and specialties from fair trade and small-scale regional producers.

Once a best-kept secret, even to locals, Doe Bay Resort & Retreat and the Doe Bay Café are now getting attention from “Top Ten Places to Visit” lists from the likes of the  National Geographic Traveler, Travel & Leisure and the New York Times.