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Saturday, March 09, 2013

#1973 - Oak Harbor Tavern, Oak Harbor, WA - 11/18/2012

Oak Harbor Tavern, Oak Harbor, WA
The Oak Harbor Tavern is an unassuming little corner bar in the town of Oak Harbor on Washington state's Whidbey Island. It holds some interesting characters and habits -- e.g. when you come in the bartender hands you a pen and a piece of paper and asks you to track what you order. "Write 'em as you get 'em," said bartender Kelly, as she handed me a paper with "1 C" on it, marking the Corona I started out with. Kelly Beedle and her father have owned the Oak Harbor for about the last 20 years. The tavern has a lively and fairly hardcore live music schedule, and the bar here has been a hangout for navy personnel since the Whidbey Island Naval Air Base was constructed in 1942. The walls are peppered with memorabilia from various squadrons.

"Write 'em as you get 'em." -- Oak Harbor Tavern
But there is something much more remarkable about this little bar, at least for people with my sort of interests: In terms of a bar being a physical place that has hosted bars of changing names over the years, it is quite likely the oldest bar in the state of Washington -- and by some measure.  It is in a building that has held a bar, fairly continuously, since at least 1856.

Of course to answer the question of what is the oldest bar in the state requires you to make several fairly arbitrary decisions about what constitutes a single bar. I tend to lean toward a definition that the bar must have been run for all or virtually all of its history under an approximation of its current name and in its current building. This would make Merchants (est. 1890), in Seattle, and then The Brick (est. 1898), in Roslyn, the two oldest bars in the state. But another valid way to consider a "bar" is simply a place where a bar has operated fairly continuously (e.g. exceptions for prohibition) in one place, even through various name changes. Until a recent trip to Whidbey Island, I had been fairly confident in the assertions that by this definition the oldest bar in the state is Bickleton's Bluebird Inn, est. 1882.

Barrington store, 1850s (Photo courtesy Peggy Darst Townsdin)

The building that still houses the Oak Harbor Tavern appears to have been build circa 1852 (at the latest by 1856) by sea captain Edward Barrington, as a general store and saloon.  "Barrington and Charlie Phillips opened a trading post at Oak Harbor in the early 1850s because he did not want to paddle a canoe two days to Olympia for supplies."(HistoryLink)  At some point, according to Barrington's sons and daughter, their father's building was dragged across the street to its current location. Thus this is the state's oldest running bar space by at least 26 years. It took the name "Oak Harbor Tavern" in 1939 (previously Forner's Tavern).

Naval memorabilia at Oak Harbor Tavern
A primary source of information on the tavern and community is historical author Peggy Darst Townsdin, who is the great, great grand-daughter of Capt. Barrington. Ms. Townsdin provided information, newspaper clips, and photos of the old saloon. She notes that when the current false front of the tavern was temporarily removed for remodeling, it looked exactly like her photographs of the old Barrington store structure.

A back closet at the OHT offers a glimpse of original wood

A 1939 newspaper article documents a change from Forner's Tavern to the "Oak Harbor Tavern," as of Dec 16 of that year. New owner H.J. "Bert" Nunan invited the locals to explore the new annex in the remodeled bar, including a card room and a room with booths "for the convenience of ladies and gentlemen who do not wish to mingle at the bar."

The annex is not apparent now, perhaps simply the side that now contains a pool table, and no one seemed to be particularly reluctant to mingle at the bar. We chatted with Kelly, who generously showed us around, and a number of the patrons, including Brett, who grew up as a rare white kid in Rainier Valley, and went on to play jazz at Seattle area bars like Gabe's. Kelly knew a lot of the history of the old place, but didn't know exactly where it fit into the oldest bars in the state -- I'm guessing no one did. Until now.

Memorabilia at Oak Harbor Tavern


940 SE Pioneer Way, Oak Harbor, WA 98277 - (360) 675-9919
Est. Dec 16, 1939 - First bar in current location 1856 - Building constructed: c.1852
Previous bars in this location: Forner's Tavern, Barrington's
Web site: oakharbortavern.com - facebook
Reviews: yelp

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