How Key Center Got Its Name


Colleen Slater

Visell Lumber complex in the 1960s when Ken Brones owned it, with Dominic’s store on the left. Courtesy KP Historical Society

Key Center, now with over 30 businesses, professional services and organizations, began with the ideas of two men—Alden Visell and Elmer Olson—more than 85 years ago.

Elmer’s father, Andrew Olson, was one of the first settlers in the area. He owned 300 acres that included his homestead northwest of the present Key Peninsula Highway, plus an adjoining relinquishment that extended into Glencove.

Andrew supplied wood for the Winchester brick kiln in Glencove. His ox team dragged the wood from Vaughn Bay, creating a track for traveling. He sold a lower portion of land to kiln manager Hans Nicholas Petersen, and their boundary became the county right of way from Glencove over the hill to Vaughn. It is now known as 92nd Street, but for many years was simply called "Over the Hill Road."

Andrew gave up ownership of 92nd Street instead of paying taxes on it. Elmer contributed gravel from a pit just above the present post office when the lower road (aptly named Olson) to Vaughn was built in 1924, also in lieu of taxes.

Visell built a store at the new crossroads where 92nd and Olson met at what later became the intersection with Key Pen Highway. It was an extended complex for lumber and hardware at one end and groceries, food lockers and more at the other.

Elmer registered Sunnycrest Farm, Hatchery, Dairy and Berries in 1929 and became a full-time farmer. He and his family constructed a berry shed (now El Sombrero), a milk pickup station and an auto camp just behind what is now the vacant building next to El Sombrero. A barber also had a shop there.

Gene Brown put up the first gas pump in Key Center across the street. His small store included a soda fountain and stood right next to the road on the property where O'Callahan's is now. It was the first place in Key Center to sell alcohol.

In 1931, Visell and other local businessmen sponsored a contest to rename the peninsula, first called the Indian Peninsula and later the lower Kitsap Peninsula. Ed Stone won $25 for suggesting "Key Peninsula" because of its resemblance to an old-fashioned key. Nelson Peck proposed calling the business area Key Center, and a community celebration was organized.

After a week of balloting at the store, Elsie Olson, Elmer’s wife, was named the mayor of Key Center and presented a bouquet of "Key Center flowers"—skunk cabbage.

The number of businesses more than doubled in the next 15 years. Elmer added a small café at the end of the berry shed, Ed Gabrielson built a larger service station, and Ralph La Flamboy started the Wood Preservative Product Co., purchasing brush and ferns for the floral business.

A cabinet shop was built nearby in a building later shared by other businesses that became known collectively as the KC Trading Post. It is now called The Landing.

The first KP fire station was built in Key Center in 1954 and was equipped with one fire truck.

A fire, which was started after a burglary, destroyed the Visell complex in February 1970. Lumber, hardware, grocery and butcher shop, freezer, storage units, liquor store, attorney’s office, barbershop, apartment, garage with tools and equipment all burned. The fire was discovered at 3 a.m. by Don Olson, who lived across the street, when he awoke to the sound of windows blown apart by the heat.

Ken Brones, who then owned the property, was uninsured but determined to rebuild. He filled in the gully below and behind the complex and built a separate structure for his business. Dominic Marietta, then owner of the grocery section, opted to reopen only the liquor store, but across the street between the restaurant and gas station.

Purdy Realty built a new market that Walt Schmidt leased in 1972 and later bought. He eventually planned a new building, but opted to retire and sold it in 2002 to Don Stolz, who kept it until building the new Food Market.

A variety of stores and services still make this the main business area of the peninsula, living up to the name Key Center.