Old Town is quiet on Saturday morning, save for a few cars getting their start. Oh, and the pouring rain splashing into the Sound and the waves crashing against the rocks, even at low tide.
The dock off Ruston Way and McCarver Street juts into Commencement Bay and overlooks the Port of Tacoma, history swirling together as much as the rain and the tide.
Old Town is Tacoma’s beginning, and its main thoroughfare, North 30th Street, carries that history from Old Town Park to North Starr Street.
Aug. 10 marked the 132nd anniversary of the death of Job Carr, the first permanent non-Native resident of Tacoma, as well as the 146th anniversary of Old St. Peter’s Church.
The News Tribune spent 16 hours, from sunrise to after sunset, in Old Town on Aug. 10 to document one of Tacoma’s unique neighborhoods.
The day truly began with a train, horn blaring, barrelling through at 5:15 a.m., which is fitting for a town that began with the end of a rail line in mind.
After the lights on the dock went out around 6 a.m., Shon Smith arrived with one of Tacoma’s newest form of transportation: a Lime scooter.
Smith is a Lime charger and said he usually brings scooters out around 4:30 a.m., but got a later start since it was the weekend.
He said he started charging the scooters to make a little extra money, but it has become a way for him and his kids to spend time together.
“They don’t usually wake up in the mornings and put them out, but at night when I go out, they come out with me,” Smith said.
Smith said he and his family moved to Tacoma from Arizona and love the area, particularly the rain.
He also said he doesn’t usually go to Old Town to drop off scooters, but it’s one of the many places he’s gotten to see while living here.
As the town continues to wake up and cars pass through on 30th Street, Anthem Coffee, Montamara Kitchen and a few other spots open their doors to the occasional customer.
Lawyers bustle down the road to get to their office or other scheduled appointments.
At the same time, Northern Fish Co. and The Spar begin to prep for the day ahead.
Around 10 a.m., the Throwing Mud Art Gallery begins one of its 6-week class sessions.
Mark Hudak walks around his studio showing new students the proper way to get their clay and where to place their pieces when they’re done sculpting.
Hudak and his wife, Eileen Hudak, own Throwing Mud and have had their Old Town location for more than eight years.
Eileen Hudak grew up in the area while Mark Hudak grew up in Chicago. In 1977, Mark Hudak came to Tacoma to teach school, but pottery took over as his full-time job.
Eileen Hudak said her husband used to rent a space at Old Town Pottery, which was open a few blocks away from their 30th Street location. When they opened the store, Mark Hudak wanted to call the space “Old Town Pottery 2,” but his wife said no.
Throwing Mud opened to continue Mark Hudak’s pottery classes from the Metro Parks department. At least four people must enroll in a class, but Eileen Hudak said they don’t usually have trouble filling them. She said there are about 15 people who have been with their studio for about five years or so, including Tacoma resident Megan Kilen.
Kilen said despite Tacoma being so big, it still has a small town feel. She also said it applies to Old Town.
Every second Saturday between February and December, the Job Carr Cabin Museum begins its Craft Saturdays. The crafts will typically have some connection to Old Town’s past or culture. On Aug. 10, it was fish painting.
Fish painting is where someone paints a fish, or in this case a plastic fish, and presses a piece of cloth to it to make a print. Holly Stewart, program manager for the museum, said fish painting ties in with Old Town’s history as the original base for Tacoma’s fishing fleet and Old Town’s location on the Puget Sound.
“I think it’s important for the community and kids in particular to connect with their city and how this place got started and kind of build that pride of place and pride of ownership,” Stewart said. “This isn’t just important peoples’ town, it’s my town and I care about what happens here and I care about the future of this place and how it grows and develops.”
Stewart said the museum tries to make everything as interactive as possible to allow families to take a step back into history.
She said she and Christopher Uebelhor, executive director for the museum, make sure to tell students who come to the museum on field trips or families who stop by that Job Carr and those who began to settle in Old Town weren’t the first to live there.
Uebelhor said they begin by telling those who visit that the land belonged to Native Americans in the area and the area Old Town is in was called “Shuballup,” or the sheltered place.
Stewart said each field trip also begins with a land acknowledgment to let students know the tribe was here first.
“(We ask them) to help us honor that tradition and help us take really good care of this place while you’re here as well,” Stewart said. “We don’t tell the Native American story because we know that’s not our story, we don’t own that narrative, but trying to make sure that that informs what we’re doing, and acknowledging that...this house was the first house of the first non-Native settler.”
“Which begs the question who was here before him and who were the natives here,” Uebelhor said.
As Carr and others settled in, other cultures came to Tacoma, Slavonians, Croatians, Chinese and among them. Some of those cultures still thrive in Old Town today in places like Slavonian Hall, which hosts events and features classic recipes like “Mother Vinka’s Rafioli dough.”
However, Stewart and Uebelhor said it’s also important to acknowledge the wrong people in Tacoma did throughout history, like the expulsion of the Chinese in 1885.
The museum also does monthly walks throughout the town from June to September, as well as storytime for kids, Eureka Breakfast in October and Pioneer Days on Sept. 14.
“It’s essential that if you want to understand Tacoma’s history, you really have to understand Old Town’s history,” Uebelhor said.
During lunch, Old Town starts to pick up — people driving through to get to downtown, but also people stopping by Northern Fish Co. for fresh, hot fish and chips.
“There’s a lot of people that have lived in Old Town for numerous amounts of years and then they’re like, ‘I’ve never been in here before,’” said Andalus “Andy” Lavalais, assistant manager at the shop.
Lavalais has worked at Northern Fish for five of the 11 years its been open.
She said even when the weather gets a little dreary, people still come out to eat.
Lavalais said the Old Town location is different from the plant on 56th — although that is where they get their produce fresh everyday. She said the plant only sells retail, but most people don’t know about it since it’s fenced in.
She also said even with Point Ruston’s development, it hasn’t hurt business at all.
“We still get people trying to open the door even after we close at seven,” Lavalais said.
Lavalais said Old Town is a good community, and their regulars always treat them right. They even banter throughout her shift, sometimes.
Close to the pier off of McCarver Street is Old Town Bicycle, which sits underneath The Spar, Tacoma’s oldest tavern.
Tory Grant, the manager of the bike shop, has worked there for about 17 years, almost as long as the store has been open.
He said the summer is the shop’s busy season since everyone wants to go on trips — he said during the summer, they see about 50-60 customers a day. However, it’s busy enough that he and the rest of the staff are able to get all of their regular work done.
“Everybody has to do a little bit of everything, but the mechanics are definitely the more technical (ones),” Grant said. “We’ve got everything from school teachers that work here in the summer to high school kids.”
Grant said a lot of the customers are repeat business and it isn’t really random people walking through the doors, but when they do walk in, they usually stay.
A block over and up the hill sits Old St. Peter’s Church, which celebrated its 146th anniversary with its annual picnic Aug. 10.
The Rt. Rev. Morgan Johnson lead the congregation in prayer before their potluck picnic. A little over 20 members shared their stories, laughs and looked on as photos from history’s past flashed across a screen.
“We really try to be a local church even though we’re Anglican and have this tradition,” Johnson said. “We just want to be a local, warm inviting church that isn’t busy judging people.”
The church was established in 1873 under the guidance of the Rt. Rev. Benjamin Morris. Johnson said back in the day, just about every main denomination held their services at St. Peter’s.
Johnson said each denomination would switch between using a tent and practicing outside the church, and moving inside and passing along the tent to someone else.
Johnson said all the clergy have always been volunteer, and he even got his start that way in the mid to late 1990s. He said he was surprised when someone approached him and asked him to join the ministry, but he accepted.
Johnson said a lot of the church is its original structure, but has been replaced throughout the years. The walls have been painted, the slits in the ceiling covered over — he even said the ventilation system never worked too well in the winter, and the chimney inside the church would smoke up the building anyway. The pews are from a different church that closed years ago, and the stained glass is from 1903 on the East Coast.
Despite its small congregation, the church continues to move forward, Johnson said, even if he’s sometimes the only one doing maintenance on the building.
At night, to end a long day, locals head to The Spar, which sits atop the same ground as The Old Tacoma Saloon.
The building its housed in has been everyone from a soda pop shop to a grocery store. In the 1920s, it became a restaurant called the Spar.
“This was a bar for dispensing soft drinks which could be augmented with purchases from the local bootleggers if the bartender conveniently turned his head,” according to The Spar’s current food menu.
After prohibition in 1933, alcohol replaced soft drinks — although there were still some who snuck alcohol into the building through a trapdoor in the floor, said co-owner Laurena “Rena” Manke.
Manke, her sister, her sister’s husband and her dad bought The Spar from Manke’s grandmother Kathy June 2018.
“It’s always been in the family and we wanted to keep it that way,” Manke said. “My grandma, she’s run it for a long time, she deserves a bit of relaxation in her later years.”
Kathy Manke bought The Spar along with a friend and renovated it in the 1980s.
Serina Hood, a Spar-fly (or what the locals call the regulars), said before the renovation, the windows in the back were blacked out, the walls were dark brown and the ceiling was black.
“I don’t know if it was people feeling guilty after prohibition or what,” Hood said.
Then, Kathy Manke and her friend opened up the place. They opened the windows, moved everything around — they opened what they call The Annex in the back, which became the bar; the kitchen moved to the front right of the building and the front left became a family-friendly cafe.
“I’d say that it’s a homey environment — people really enjoy it because of that,” Hood said. “People come in, there’s a lot of regulars that have been down here for a long time, but there’s also people that come in all the time and discover it, and that’s the good part about it, it keeps on evolving.”
While it keeps changing, though, like adding alcohol to its menu last year, The Spar also embraces its past and the history of Old Town. Old photos from people who used to work in town, as well as old crews and boats, line the walls, and regulars pass on stories, including the time actor River Phoenix tried to get in when he was underage.
And the same can kind of be said for Old Town in general, Hood said, as well as Eileen Hudak and a few others who’ve watched the town grow. Even though dentists, law and therapists’ offices open on 30th Street, the town still retains its history, character and charm.