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Businesses on Winthrop's main thoroughfare as they looked before and after the 1972 westernization conversion. Photos courtesy Shafer Historical Museum - Winthrop, WA.

Should Ferndale adopt a western town theme? Lessons from Winthrop, Washington

Discussions about how to make Ferndale more attractive to locals and visitors rarely occur without someone making the suggestion to westernize building fronts along Main Street in the historic downtown section. Given its close proximity to Pioneer Park and its one-of-a-kind collection of original pioneer cedar log cabins, the option to turn Main Street into a late-1800s western theme town has been popular to talk about but has yet to rise to a level where any serious conversations have been held specifically on the topic.

The Town of Winthrop underwent such a ‘westernization’ in the early 1970s after learning travelers were expected to begin driving through their town every day after Highway 20, connecting western and eastern Washington via Washington Pass, was completed.

The family that operated a local lumber mill funded most of the project and the Winthrop Kiwanis Club managed it.

Each downtown business was required to contribute $2,000 to the effort (2018 equivalent would be about $14,000) and 100% participation of all 20 downtown property owners was required for the project to start. 3 businesses, 2 hotels and a restaurant, did not agree to participate in the project and Kiwanis ended up buying out those businesses in order to achieve the needed 100% participation.

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The Winthrop westernization project involved rebuilding each building according to strict specifications dictated by the same architect who helped convert nearby Leavenworth into a Bavarian theme town. For example, builders could not use modern finish nails, only less attractive (by today’s standards) common nails with heads were permitted. Paint used could not be glossy and building signs could only be painted on flat surfaces. Carved or raised sign lettering was not allowed. In addition, utility lines were buried underground and sidewalks torn up and replaced with boardwalks.

Soon after the project was completed, a local businessman recalled being at his store one morning and saw “five Greyhound-size buses in town and about 200 people walking right down the middle of the road. We didn’t know whether to lock the door or just what.” He added, “We went from a town that was [about] hunting, fishing and farmers to [one with] thousands of people who wanted souvenirs. … quite a culture shock.”

During a 2012 Winthrop Chamber of Commerce gathering on the 40th anniversary of the westernization project, some said they felt Winthrop was drifting away from the original concept of what the theme town was meant to be in terms of paint colors and construction standards. They felt the Town Council needed to enforce more strictly the Town ordinance that requires all new and existing structures meet appearance standards for the late 1800s, noting some buildings were now sporting nonconforming elements like metal doors and plastic windows.

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Last year, Winthrop adopted a major rewrite of its westernization design code in an effort to make it less confusing and easier to administer and enforce.

Tests of adherence to the town’s westernization standards continue. Yesterday, Methow Valley News reported a change to the code had been sought to enable property owners to install solar energy panels in the westernized downtown area. The current code limits installation only to places not visible from Highway 20 and from other public right-of-ways.

Winthrop formed a Westernization Design Review Board to consider such requests. In the case of the solar panels, the Board unanimously recommended the Winthrop Town Council reject the ordinance amendment stating, “while solar energy is a worthy goal, any change that leads to deterioration of the Westernization Ordinance, Winthrop’s economic driver, would be a serious mistake.”

Also speaking to the request during a Town Council meeting was Kristen Smith. According to the Methow Valley News article, Smith is a member of the Westernization board and the marketing director for Methow Trails and the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce. She said Winthrop’s competitive advantage as a tourism destination would be compromised by continuous ordinance amendments. “Westernization is our advantage … and you should fight like hell to keep that advantage.” Smith told the council. The ordinance, she said, “is designed to fend off challenges to our brand.”

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  1. Doug Robertson Doug Robertson March 2, 2018

    I participated in a Ferndale Image Group committee back in the late ’80’s working on this very idea. Some interesting points came out of that dialog relating to being historically accurate and authentic to the community roots. Ferndale’s history was not necessarily a Wild West Shoot Em Up cowboy town. It started thanks to Lummi wives of the first settlers who found Ferndale as a convenient point on the tribal trail between Lummi and Semiahmoo for trade and settlement (recorded in County historical archives). My grandfather and his brother along with many other Scandinavians ran cedar shingle mills all along the Nooksack until the land was cleared. Then Ferndale became vital to health and wellbeing of the sailors and workers in the industrial age in our County by providing the agricultural crops to feed a hungry workforce. Ferndale has a long history in food production, which in my opinion speaks to who and what Ferndale is accurately and authentically famous for over the decades since the land was settled.

    Behind the stucco facade of many of Main Street historical buildings are bricks that came from the ship ballast discharges before they took on their lumber cargoes. Those bricks supported building Ferndale’s community to become the source of food vital to sustaining sailors and other roustabouts. In my opinion, let’s start with what already is our Ferndale heritage and build on our roots instead of imitating that of someone else. After all, the Carnation Smokestack, Riverwalk Totems, Pioneer Park Log homes, and Hovander Homestead loudly declare who we were. Can’t we turn that into features that become world wonders?

  2. Jano Argue Jano Argue March 2, 2018

    I agree with Doug Robertson. There is a history in Ferndale that needs to be kept alive and if the city is to have a theme it should honor that history. The city has lots of potential and room downtown to expand. Attracting tourists would help local businesses but the traffic problem needs to be dealt with as well. I moved here a little over 2 years ago and love being here…..the mountain views, the river, Hovander and Pioneer Parks, proximity to B’ham. I would love to see more of the arts in Ferndale though.


    The westernization theme has come up many times in the 38 years I have resided in the area, and while it may be a valid idea, I definitely feel that the traffic flow issue must be addressed first. The 262 off ramp and the truck traffic is a huge issue, as is people getting on 1-5 NB only to merge & get off again at ‘263’. I would like to see an overpass of sorts erected strictly for truck traffic at the ‘262’ junction. I cannot tell you how many times I have come up Axton from northwest, headed to the right turn only access to the freeway and had a semi truck turn left to get onto Barrett or into the pilot gas station. The other issue is how badly traffic backs clear up onto the freeway at ‘262’. And, just last night, as I took that exit and was waiting for the light to change to make my right turn, two vehicles right in a row, sped past me on the right, in the area that is marked off and made their right turns. I am an insurance agent, usually very aware of my surroundings, so safe traffic flow is a big issue with me…I do not feel that we have that right now, and am fearful that there is going to be a horrific accident at ‘262’ someday…

  4. Tonya Tonya March 3, 2018

    You want to bring MORE people into a town that is ALEADY suffering, due to the traffic problems? First you waste how much tax payers dollars to remove an important traffic signal, now without even resolving the traffic issue you are talking about bringing MORE traffic in? There is definitely a parking shortage in Ferndale, there’s definitely a traffic problem in Ferndale, and there are definitely people who are in charge of all this that should NOT be in charge. I know I can’t be the only one who sees this! Maybe the change we need in ferndale is new officials who actually CARE ABOUT THE PEOPLE AND THE TOWN!

  5. Becky Bendixen Becky Bendixen March 3, 2018

    Traffic is definitely a concern but I like the idea of a Pioneer or Settler Theme since we already have those buildings in Pioneer Park. It would be courteous to also include tribes since this has been their land since time immemorial.
    Parking and traffic should be considered before beginning, it is kind of irritating to be stuck so long at 262 everyday.

  6. al ostrander al ostrander March 3, 2018

    I love the ‘country’ tourist look. But I am not sure the WEATERN TOWNSHIP look is the right one.
    Ferndale was a ferry-trade destination. Why not explore that riverfront look.?
    There are other western town looks– but how close is the next New Orleans?

  7. Lori Leighton Lori Leighton March 3, 2018

    I tried this year’s ago with the old council.

    The “good ol’ boys” said they were perfectly fine with the look of Ferndale. One councilman even gave this asinine excuse; “Ferndale has a hodge podge look and personally like a hodge podge look.”

    Years ago, I spoke to Robert Jorgenson, the actual architect and designer of Winthrop. He said it all started on a napkin for Leavenworth and it took off from there. Then down the road, Winthrop asked him to help them.

    Leavenworth, Winthrop and Toppenish are ALL thriving towns because of their themes and you have to drive OUT OF YOUR WAY to get to them.

    Ferndale is ON a main freeway and no one stops…why should they? If we don’t even believe in the future of our town…why would they?

    Mr. Jorgenson told me “Lori, if you have a dream…anything is possible.”

    Too bad folks can’t get out of their own way in this town.

    • Melissa Melissa March 4, 2018

      I would hardly lump Toppenish in with Leavenworth and Winthrop. Yes, it has a theme, but it is not a destination. It is kind of fun to stop when you are passing through, but it is definitely not a destination.

  8. Emily Heiser Emily Heiser March 3, 2018

    Business owners like me, would love to do anything to encourage more business.. Only issue is we can’t afford that kind of undergoing at 14k. First focus on parking (huge issue) then transportation/roads. If no one can get to us and safely park, there really is no point in undergoing any sort of transformation.

  9. Sharry Wade Sharry Wade March 3, 2018

    Making Ferndale charming, whatever style is chosen, would be nice. Inviting tourists would be a disaster unless the traffic issues are dealt with! Certain times of day the traffic is a nightmare! There are very few ways to get into or out of town. Main Street is frequently overwhelmed by people trying to get to and from jobs and homes. Tourists would not see that as charming! Also, making our little city more liveable would be a nice move. If we want groceries or alcohol, we’re in business. We have the largest furniture stores in the County! We have pharmacies and fast food places! We can purchase rubber boots and garden equipment! We cannot, however, buy shoes, clothing or household items that aren’t available at pharmacies or farm and garden stores. We don’t have much in the way of restaurant options for those visitors we want OR for our current residents! Let’s make ourselves happy and the chances are that the tourists we want to encourage will also be happy. I keep reading about the businesses that are closing. What happened to the big economic development plan that so much time went into?

  10. Joni Sayre Joni Sayre March 3, 2018

    I moved to Ferndale from 28 years in Bellingham (when IT was little & friendly…) last May, & I LOVE my “little” town! Can run 5 errands in 1/2 an hour. People are friendly, talk & have fun with each other at the store, polite in traffic, know each other by name at Rite-Aid, the bank, etc….yes, 262 at the wrong time of day is a mess, as with any “rush hour” situation. Not sure why 1st Street light was removed – wish it was still there, actually. But my favorite site on my way home thru town is the mural painted on the side of the Ferndale Record of the Old Settlers. I think a rustic Western theme is perfect for our town!

  11. fran hostetler-melseth fran hostetler-melseth March 3, 2018

    Lots of tax dollars and costs to current businesses for openers! Traffic is terrible too often, no place to park and who is the genius who took out the signal at 1st???????????? Just sayin’!!!
    Fran Hostetler-Melseth

  12. Nick Nick March 3, 2018

    I agree with comments from readers who point out the need to improve traffic flow and parking as the first priority in planning for the future. I assume the city is working on that already. Perhaps the next step (before considering a theme look to Main St) is expanding or providing more local amenities, such as longer-distance bicycle, running, and walking trails in and around Ferndale; a better, larger park on the Nooksack River; and a longer river walk. Yes, we have the wonderful Hovander Park, we have Pioneer Park, but Ferndale is amenity-poor compared to Bellingham.

  13. Kashia Espedilla Kashia Espedilla March 3, 2018

    Our housing market is booming and they can’t build apartments fast enough for the number of people that are moving out here. Take it from an Orcas Island gal, with that many people coming to live here, we don’t need tourists.

  14. Tom Tom March 3, 2018

    If Ferndale wants to develop its core (downtown west of the river) through tourism it really needs to take a multi-prong approach. Some charming faux-old facades won’t be enough. My recollection of how Leavenworth, Winthrop, and other small towns grew their tourist businesses was not by just changing their looks. They first began by getting people to stop on their way to something else (Leavenworth had hiking, travelers going to/from eastern Wash.; Winthrop, cross country skiing, a resort, etc.) From there they built on a theme that reflected something already existing in the communities’ cultures, geography or histories. It is really important that a community builds on its existing cultural resources for several reasons: residents will become involved in and support the development of the community – it won’t just be the business community’s project; at the same time businesses will develop that residents will patronize to buy the things they want thus providing those businesses with the money they will need to expand, remodel or otherwise develop; it will build genuine community amongst residents as they work together putting on various events that reflect their cultures and interests.

    So who passes by Ferndale? Lots of Canadians on their way to the Casino, Costco, the malls and Bellingham/Fairhaven (yes – it does attract a lot of Canadians). There are also many vacationers on their way to and from Canada. Most often the way that places like Leavenworth “snagged” people has been with food although some places have although some places have done it with unique events (festivals, exhibitions, etc.) Restaurants attract people who then discover other reasons to stay awhile or return although others simply snag hungry travelers who accidentally discover a town’s “interestingness.”

    Restaurants are already a good resource in Ferndale. There are at least 4 “Hispanic” restaurants in the core including probably the largest Mexican restaurant in the county, a tamale restaurant and one with a unique menu. There is a Greek/Italian restaurant, a good Indian restaurant, a Thai place and – very rare any more – a restaurant that actually serves real home cooked food! Who did I forget – there are more. Several of these restaurants are indeed destination restaurants (people deliberately go to them from elsewhere in the county).

    Now the challenges are: 1) how to get people to stay around after eating; 2) how to get travelers off the freeway and into town to eat; eventually how to make Ferndale a destination for other things (e.g., LaConner has art, Leavenworth Christmas, Fairhaven arts/crafts and street fairs, etc.)

    It is necessary to have a theme around which a community focuses its efforts – and, most importantly a theme that has its roots in a community’s real cultures, history and interests. In this community that means especially the Hispanic communities (notice how many “Hispanic” businesses there are!), the Lummi Nation, and Ferndale’s settlers. A theme taking into account these areas will drive the development of a lasting tourist destination as well as local business development. For instance, if the community were to establish a museum it might include popular arts, artifacts and other exhibits form Ferndale’s pioneer past, the Lummi community and the vibrant crafts of Mexico and Central America. Such a museum would be unique in Whatcom County and appeal to people outside of Ferndale. Likewise, encouraging businesses that tourists and local residents would patronize will be necessary to make Ferndale a sustainable tourist destination. Ferndale already has a dress shop that caters to the “hispanic” community, for instance, although has no “hispanic” food store yet.

    Finally, Ferndale needs to look at coordinating its unique events and features with other businesses and communities in the area. Ferndale and the casino can both benefit from working together, for instance. The Ferndale community needs to actively support events and traditions that the Lummi community opens to the public at large. Are there any connections between Ferndale’s activities the Indian College – a unique institution in the state.

    Ths freeway and the travelers that pass over it offers Ferndale a great opportunity if it wants to develop as a tourist destination. Ferndale is more accessible than Fairhaven, Lynden, or LaConner which all have tourist trade.

  15. Me Me March 3, 2018

    Yes doing something would be great. Winthrop traffic is also horrible but they have parking areas which would be good to add. Love the fact to be themed and so many great ideas. Brewery, coffee shop ect

  16. Barb O'Brine Barb O'Brine March 4, 2018

    I’m encouraged by the additions to 3Ave. We are seeing more and more foot traffic and our neighbors business are so genuine. Keep supporting us as we love our town and want more and more improvements. Traffic and parking is challenging but it can be navigated. As for theme town …good ideas but expensive.

  17. Melissa Melissa March 4, 2018

    My opinion is that the town first needs to be more accessible and easier to get through before we get more people in, tourists or not. The city is absolute gridlock for hours and hours every single day of the work week.

    I also don’t think giving Ferndale a theme would necessarily result in it being a destination town. Winthrop has numerous opportunities for year-round outdoor recreation, and the entire community is involved with making that happen. Leavenworth is also an outdoor recreation destination. Yes, people are drawn in by the themes, but there are a ton of things that keep people coming back for more. I’m afraid that we can’t offer the same level of interest or excitement with the location and current state of our city, themed or not.

    We need to think about ease of getting around, the actual opportunities for recreation and leisure that currently exist in our town, and how we can work together as a community to attract high quality opportunities for those things for members of the community and guests to our city. Before we decide we need a theme, we need to work together as a community to create an actual vision that represents our history, including Native Americans and immigrants, so that the theme will be representative of our history and culture.

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