Hometown History Mystery
While sitting at my computer, killing time before heading to a Good Time Girls meeting, I saw an e-mail from boss-lady Sara linking to an article about a message in a bottle found on a beach in B.C., originally dropped in the ocean by a guy named Earl Willard en route from “Frisco” to Bellingham in 1906. The find made news partly because it may be the oldest surviving message in a bottle to date. We also found it exciting that the message inside listed a visible Bellingham address. Sara mentioned that she’d love to know more about this bottle-tossing fellow, and I couldn't pass up the challenge….
As a Good Time Girl, I do a lot of research trying to look up documentation on rather “shady characters” from our town's past. Many of these folks (prostitutes, criminals, wayward types) can be difficult to research, because they often moved around a lot/used different names/avoided authority and so forth. Thanks to the inherent challenges in tracking such people, my research skills have been honed considerably, and I consider myself pretty good at it (and also fast).
Message in a Bottle
It seems messages in bottles are cast for many reasons: from being someone’s dying last words, to serving the study of ocean currents. As a child, I engaged in another form of this type of communication by “balloon mail” (tying messages onto balloons). No one ever found my balloons, or if they did, they never contacted me. Rain probably destroyed my ill-fated notes. My motivation was curiosity – where would it go, who would find it? Now we were wondering, who was this Earl Willard and why did he send his message?
First of all, I did a quick look-up to confirm the address of the Railroad Museum on Commercial Street, currently in Bellingham’s “Parkade” building. That structure was built in 1969, so the building where Earl lived in 1906 is no longer standing (not surprisingly given Bellingham’s sadly high rate of historic building loss).
A quick search on ancestry.com, as well as the Washington State Archives Online revealed that there were a couple of individuals named Earl Willard in Washington State records that seemed like candidates. I had to figure out which one lived on Commercial Street and threw the bottle.
I found an Earl Willard listed in Bellingham city directories (which were like phone books before there were phones) between about 1905-1908 at various addresses. The trick was to match this Earl Willard with an Earl Willard in census records to find out more about him. Unfortunately, Earl did not appear to live in Bellingham at the times of the recording of the Federal Census in 1900 and 1910.
I needed to find an Earl Willard in a census record whose birth date made him an adult at the time of the bottle tossing in 1906. That would put the birth date in the 1880s ballpark. At first, an Earl Willard born in California caught my eye, since the article mentioned coming from San Francisco to Bellingham. But after some quick digging on him I didn't see a strong connection and went back to the drawing board.
What helped me narrow down the correct Earl Willard were
a) A Bellingham marriage record from 1907 that listed names of Earl Willard’s parents and
b) The listing of other people with the Willard surname in directories that proved to be related.
In particular, I noticed in the directories an individual named Leo Willard who at one point shared an address with Earl. This suggested they were potentially somehow related. According to the directories, Leo and Earl lived in various locations including Commercial Street, and worked for nearby businesses including Thiel & Welter and B&B Furniture Company.
I was able to discern from census, death and marriage records that Leo and Earl were brothers, and that their father, William C. Willard, and paternal grandmother, Arvilla Willard, were all living in the area as well. And so with this information, down the genealogy rabbit hole I went….
All About Earl
For more genealogical detail about Earl Willard follow this link: http://goodtimegirlsbham.com/earl-willard-geneology/
I found that Earl Willard was born 28 Aug 1888 (the year is debatable - give or take one or two) in Michigan to William C. Willard and Sarah Coffey. His older brother Leo was born around 1884. Earl and Leo’s mother Sarah died in Michigan when they were very young. By 1904, Earl’s brother Leo, his father and stepmother had moved to Bellingham, along with grandma Arvilla. Presumably Earl came too, but wasn't listed in directories. Earl’s father and stepmother had two more children born in Bellingham.
So I knew that in 1906, when Earl Willard threw the bottle, he was en route home to Bellingham, where he lived. He was all of about 18. His whole family lived in the area including two wee little half siblings. Earl had worked various odd jobs in Bellingham, including as a laborer at the lumber mill, a teamster and "warehouseman" and clerk for Thiel & Welter/B&B Furniture.
In March of 1907, Earl married Lena T. Bruce in Bellingham, both were listed on the marriage certificate as being age 20. Lena was also born in Michigan. She had been living in Ferndale with her family according to the 1900 Federal Census.
Around 1910 Earl and Lena moved to Vancouver B.C., where they are listed in the 1911 Census of Canada on Granville Street, with Earl working as an electrician. By 1917 the couple was in Seattle. The marriage apparently dissolved sometime after 1920. Lena went on to remarry several times. Earl Willard moved to Los Angeles by 1930 and continued working as an electrician/contractor. At around age 47 he remarried to Mae Anna (Elkey) Bunker. As far as I can tell Earl never had any children of his own.
Earl died in Los Angeles in 1948, he was only 59. Wife #2 Mae was 60 at the time of her death. His brother Leo died at 56, in Portland, two divorces, no apparent children. These little details maybe points to the idea that Earl Willard was perhaps in with a bit of a "hard living" crowd... or something. The youngish ages at death suggest to me perhaps drinkers/smokers, poor nutrition, or just generally a hard life or something along those lines. Of course I say this very tentatively since there is no way to really know all that much about a person from just looking at census, death and marriage records.
Now that I had a life timeline on Earl Willard, I contacted Steve Thurber—the man who found the bottle—and shared the information with him. In turn, Steve mentioned me to Herald reporter Jim Donaldson who was covering the story. Several other researchers had also picked up the challenge of playing “who’s Earl” and our findings corroborated each other.
I'd love to know more about what kind of a person Earl was. What was his motivation for tossing the message in the bottle? To me the real gem is having some kind of personal account or writing - the likes of which Steve Thurber perhaps has in the bottle... if it can be salvaged and read I think it would be very interesting!
I often do this kind of research in connection with historic buildings, researching the people who occupied a house or maybe operated a business, in order to tell the chronological story of the place. Mostly the families I research are a few generations removed, and I don't usually go into detail on recent/living occupants. But if I can find living children who grew up in a house, I do make an effort to contact them. Many people are happy to talk, but not all. If I’m really lucky I get someone who is very excited and wants to exchange information, and the real goldmine – photos!
In my experience, most people are excited to be contacted with something like this, but occasionally people get a little perturbed when you come at them with all this information about their family. I have come across some people who felt like I was invading their family’s privacy, and wondered why on earth anyone would want to know all this stuff about people not related to them personally. Although the information I find is available to the public, it does take some work to track down all the information and some wonder why anyone would go through the effort.
I personally go through the effort because I feel more connected to my community the more I know about all the historic places and the families who lived here and helped shape the city Bellingham is today. This includes finding some skeletons in the proverbial closet of local history that some people would rather not remember… Which is why I love working with the Good Time Girls! We like to spotlight people and events that although were an important part of our past, have often been overlooked or swept into the closet.
From the records available, Earl Willard does not appear to have had any children, nor does his brother Leo. However, their half-brother Clarence Willard (who was born in Bellingham in 1904) married Lola Belle Landreth, and they had children who still live in the area. I passed some of these names on to Steve Thurber and Jim Donaldson.
Maybe some photographs or anecdotes about “Uncle Earl” will surface. Maybe Steve Thurber will get some archivist to help open the bottle and read the note inside. These types of things help flesh out the names and dates and such to bring the person to life, even though they are long gone. And part of me actually hopes Earl knows we found his message.