La Conner, Wash., is a quiet town that appeals to artists and art lovers

March 19, 1995|By Katherine Calos | Katherine Calos,Richmond Times-Dispatch

As the seasons change in the Skagit Valley, so do the reasons for going there.

In spring, there are tulips.

In summer, the water attracts a boating crowd.

In fall and winter, bird watchers bring out their binoculars to see the largest wintering populations of snow geese and trumpeter swans in the lower 48 states.

Art galleries and craft shops attract browsers year-round along the 2 1/2 blocks of downtown La Conner. Eleven galleries participate in the annual Art's Alive celebration of the arts during the first weekend in November.

The history of the town begins in 1870 with a trading post at the edge of the Swinomish Slough, which was dredged later to become the Swinomish Channel.

In 1872, John Conner purchased the trading post, established a post office and named it in honor of his wife, Louisa A. Conner.

La Conner flourished during the era of water transport and stagnated when the railroads took over.

"It used to be a hub of activity because of the water," says Bruce McBane, former manager of the La Conner Chamber of Commerce. "Then the railroad came in, and we were a backwater. That's what spared us. Few buildings were razed for development. That's why we have the 100-year-old buildings in town."

Artists began discovering the Skagit Valley in the 1930s, Mr. McBane says.

"The light is unique. They began painting this, and it became known as the school of Northwest art," he says.

"There's a tremendous group of creative people here. Over the years it's attracted offbeat characters. [Author] Tom Robbins lives here."

When tulips aren't in bloom, the Skagit Valley remains a quiet farming community. La Conner has only 700 full-time residents.

More than 50 percent of the world's supply of cabbage and spinach seed is grown in the valley.

Green peas are the largest single crop.

"Probably what people like about it most is the area's uniqueness and serenity," Mr. McBane says. "In La Conner, you can just stroll around. Everything is within a 10-minute walk. You can sit on the waterfront and watch the boats and sea gulls.

"It's a very relaxed place. Except at tulip time."

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