Key Center can be a busy place, and unless one is an old-timer or paying close attention it’s easy to miss the blue house on the west side of the road, on a slope between Sunnycrest Nursery and Sound Credit Union. The Key Peninsula Fire Department purchased the property and the adjacent pasture, a total of about 4 acres, from the estate of Don and Shirley Olson on Dec. 15 as part of a possible expansion plan. (See “KPFD Buys Second Key Center Real Estate Parcel,” in this edition.)
The name Key Peninsula was the winning entry in a contest sponsored almost 100 years ago, in 1931, by local businessmen eager to come up with an identity for their remote but unnamed outpost of a community. The commercial hub was Key Center, at the intersection of the Longbranch-Gig Harbor Road that ran the length of the peninsula and the road that wound its way over the hill connecting Glen Cove on the east and Vaughn Bay to the west.
If you name it, they will come; that was the hope. And they did.
Today Key Center is the closest thing to a town center on the KP. Stores and services, eateries and health care providers, a bank and a nursery, a barber and a library, a fire station and a thrift store all line the short stretch of the Key Peninsula Highway as it emerges from under the shadows of sky-high evergreens
Don died in 2011, Shirley in 2020. They built the house in 1953, and it was where their daughters Donna, Claudia, Darcie and Debby would grow up.
Don was born in 1927 in what would later become Key Center. His Swedish-born grandfather Andrew Olson had filed a homestead claim in 1888 to farm 145 acres west of today’s highway. Sunnycrest Farm on Olson Drive is part of the original homestead.
Don and Shirley met in high school and married in 1947. Shirley was born in Longbranch to George and Minnie Rickert, also in 1927. Her grandfather August Rickert and grandmother Hulda had emigrated from Germany in 1883. After a few years in Wisconsin and Minnesota, the family moved to Longbranch in 1901. By the 1920s, Shirley’s grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles all owned property at the south end of the peninsula. The section of the highway south of Filucy Bay was known as Rickert Road to the locals.
The move from remote and rural Longbranch to the Olson family’s turf in Key Center agreed with Shirley, her daughter Claudia Loy said. Don and Shirley rented for a while near Key Center, and in 1952 bought the land next to the highway from Don’s father Elmer.
“My mother loved living there,” Loy said. “She could see whatever was going on. She was raised at the end of the road in Longbranch and was ready to begin a life that wasn’t as rural and remote. She loved having the store across the street, the fire department, the library. She never wanted to be anywhere else.”
There were a few more houses on that block in the early years. Loy remembered Charlie Wells, who would later become captain of the Herron Island ferry, and his sons Joe and Mike; the family eventually moved to the island. There was no lack of neighbor kids for the girls to play with, in addition to their many cousins and friends. “We used to roller skate on the highway,” Donna Summerhays remembers. “Can you imagine? I’m afraid to even cross that road now.”
Shirley loved to entertain and joining the Rickerts and the Olsons meant plenty of aunts, uncles and cousins to invite for dinner and parties. “Our house wasn’t big, but it was bigger than that of most other relatives, so we had big parties,” Loy said. “But with so many of us around being related, we joked that we had to go off the peninsula to find a husband.”
And then there were the dance parties at the civic center and in Longbranch. “Our parents and a group of their friends always went,” Summerhays said. “On Halloween they all went in the same costume theme. We grew up as kids going to dances at the Longbranch hall, sleeping on the benches there. Claudia and I are great schottische and polka dancers.”
Don was one of the first volunteer firefighters when District 16, the first fire district on the peninsula, was organized in 1952. He would go on to serve as the department’s second volunteer chief from 1955 to 1957, succeeding Earle Knapp.
Don was one of the first responders in the early morning hours of Feb. 4, 1970, when a fire engulfed Dominic’s grocery store and Ken Brones’ hardware and lumber store, burning the buildings to the ground. He was awakened by the roar of the flames across the road.
Key Center was reborn from the ashes, resuming the trajectory it was set on in the 1930s. More businesses sprouted along the west side of the highway. Around 1982 Claudia and her husband Dale Loy bought the nursery that Isamu “Sam” Momii had run for a few years north of the Olson house and started Sunnycrest Nursery. Don put up the building “once he was sure we were serious,” Claudia said. The Loys sold the business about four years ago.
With the sale of the Olson property the face of Key Center will almost certainly be transformed once again, perhaps in time to mark the 100 years since the naming of the peninsula and the birth of its business district
And throw a huge dance party with schottisches and polkas.
UNDERWRITTEN BY NEWSMATCH/MIAMI FOUNDATION, THE ANGEL GUILD, ROTARY CLUB OF GIG HARBOR, ADVERTISERS, DONORS AND PEOPLE WHO SUPPORT LOCAL, INDEPENDENT NONPROFIT NEWS