I moved to Herron Island from Seattle around 2015 after being a weekender for years. The Key Peninsula had been flyover country for me until that time, but once I made the move the place and its people started coming into focus. I transitioned to thinking of myself as a local, became part of the community, and began referring to the peninsula as the KP as required for citizenship.
Still, my odds of crossing paths with Charlie Sehmel, a retired logger in his 80s, were as long as could be. I had no obvious connection to Charlie, and even though I would later learn more about the Sehmels, an important early settler family in Rosedale near Gig Harbor, at first the name was unfamiliar to me.
That changed in the summer of 2018.
Sometime in late spring of that year, a photocopy of a listing agreement was posted in the cabin of the island ferry. The agreement, dated January 1957, was between William and Gyda Sehmel, owners of Herron Island, and Tommy Morris of Purdy Realty. I don’t spend much time in the ferry cabin so I could easily have missed it. The document disappeared a few weeks later; we never found out who put it up.
By 2018 I knew of the Sehmel family, but not of any connection to the island, so my curiosity was piqued. After asking around I was directed to William and Gyda’s son, Charlie, who lived near Wauna
As I learned after a painful evening calling voters during an election in Seattle about 20 years ago, I’m terrible at cold-calling, but here I had exactly nothing to lose. When Charlie picked up the phone I made sure the words “Herron Island” were clear in my nervous and jumbled introduction. “Herron Island? You live on Herron Island?” he asked a little incredulously, adding, “My dad and I logged the island!”
Amazingly I managed not to miss a beat. Would he be willing to tell me more? Why yes, yes he would. Pay dirt. Turns out Charlie was a gifted and eager storyteller, and a few days later I was on my way to the house where he lived with his wife, Sue. As a result of a stroke he had suffered a couple of years earlier while on a hunting trip in Eastern Washington, Charlie could only walk with difficulty and had to spend most of his days in a recliner in his living room, bowls of fresh fruit that Sue had cut up for him arranged on an end table. “I’d be lost without her,” he would later say. “I’m just as helpless as a 1-and-a-half-year-old kid.”
He agreed to let me record him, so I turned on the app on my phone. The stroke had not yet affected Charlie’s memory or his storytelling. The stories came pouring out. There was his father Bill, a no-nonsense logger that Charlie drove a truck hauling logs for in high school and who bought Herron Island in 1951 when Charlie was 19. His mother Gyda, who didn’t think going into debt to buy the island was such a good idea until Charlie translated the giant firs into visions of profit that the family eventually realized. Then there were the challenges that island logging presented, like getting heavy equipment across before there was a ferry. And being the boss’s son in charge of the logging crew, a role that took inexperienced 20-year-old Charlie some time to grow into. That, and the lack of entertainment that a young man his age needed, made him think of life on the island at first as a jail sentence. He didn’t mince words: “I hated being on the island,” he said.
And finally about how all that changed over the years as he grew to love the place: the hunting, the salmon, the whales, the beauty of it that was all his to enjoy, even though by then the island had been pretty much all clear-cut.
Once the island was logged his parents saw no point in holding onto it to keep paying taxes. Charlie wished they could keep it but by that time that island was a liability. Tommy Morris sold it in April 1957; the rest is the history we know.
“Am I boring you?” Charlie would stop and ask from time to time. I had to laugh; was he kidding? This was catnip for me; I couldn’t get enough. I was looking at a past that had been completely hidden from view since none of it had made it past the arrival of the developers. That sent me down the local history rabbit hole that I occupy with glee to this day. It was also a privilege to get to know one of the principals in the story, a rare opportunity for a historian
Charlie Sehmel died at home earlier this year, three weeks shy of his 91st birthday, of complications from his stroke. He did not want a service.
But he said nothing about a shoutout in the local paper. Thanks for sharing your stories, Charlie. I owe you.
Joseph Pentheroudakis is an artist, historian and avid birder who writes from Herron Island.
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