A street paving project in Bret Lunsford’s 14th Street neighborhood first unearthed his interest in Anacortes history when he was a child.
“They dug right through the old city dump that was down there. A lot of the kids, we’d go down there and hunt for treasures, old bottles,” he said. “That hooked me — that there were layers of Anacortes history beneath the surface.”
Lunsford, 44, has been digging into local history ever since, at one time as proprietor of a darkroom at The Business and more recently as a volunteer researcher, a family historian and a member of the Anacortes Museum Foundation.
“For as long as I remember I’ve enjoyed building my knowledge of Anacortes history,” he said.
Lunsford became a professional historian last month with the publication of his first book — “Anacortes,” a pictorial history. The entertaining and information-packed book, $21.99, with a set of companion postcards, $7.99, is part of Arcadia publishing’s popular 42-volume “Images of America” series.
A book signing and slide show presentation of images from the book is 7 p.m. Thursday at the American Croatian Club of Anacortes across from Causland Memorial Park.
The “Images of America” series celebrates the history of the country’s neighborhoods, towns and cities. Using compelling vintage photographs, each installment presents stories that shaped a community’s character. “Anacortes” offers a concise introduction followed by 200 lively images — one or two per page — described in interesting and detailed captions.
“I think it’s a very engaging style for a lot of different audiences,” Lunsford said.
The photos make a reader want to know more about the subjects, from the fancifully costumed 1911 Elks Club members on the cover to Henrietta “Bubble” Finley writhing with an octopus near the end. The book is filled with people building boats, cutting lumber, canning fish, building a town, celebrating and playing. Many cultures are represented, including local tribes, Scandinavians, Asians and Croatians.
The book has just enough text to explain the story of each photo and provide its context to the overall story. Lunsford went through every published history of the area he could find to see what photos were used.
“I made notes on what was already out there, and the quality,” he said. “I tried not to have too much redundancy.”
He said historians such as Wallie Funk, Theresa Trebon, Terry Slotemaker and others had covered the pioneer era.
“I wanted to focus more on the first half of the 20th century,” he said. “I could still talk to living sources. I love to do oral histories.”
Lunsford thought the lively era would be relevant to readers, who will be able to connect the historical images with the present.
He tried to cover different key topics as thoroughly as possible — mills, fishing, commerce. Ultimately, the result is a story of how things have changed.
The publisher encouraged Lunsford to run his draft past as many historians as possible.
“Wallie Funk and Bill Mitchell were big helps,” he said.
More than half the photos are from the museum’s collection, mostly the Funk collection. Lunsford said the museum has such a wealth of photos that he found many outstanding unpublished images. After viewing thousands of photos he narrowed his search to about 1,000 that were good enough to scan and consider. He used 200 of those in the book.
“I see this as like a catalog of the museum’s collection. This is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “Photos are so compelling. It’s a great way to get people interested in the museum.”
Publishing a book is new to Lunsford, who has had a long career as a musician and owner of the Anacortes recording label Knw-Yr-Own.
Lunsford has dug into a number of book-worthy topics over the years. He researched Anacortes fishing history for the Croatian Club and for the documentary “Anacortes — The Perfect Port.” But a genealogy project with his daughter Maddy finally encouraged him to seek a publisher.
“Last year I worked on a Maricich family history, which is my mother’s family. My daughter was doing it as her senior project. Before we knew it we had a book. It made me aware that doing a book was in reach,” he said.
He has a solid background in Anacortes history. His mother’s father came to Puget Sound from Vela Luka, Croatia, in 1906. After fishing out of Anacortes, Gig Harbor and other ports, he returned to Croatia for a bride, then brought his family to Anacortes in 1925.
Lunsford liked going down to the docks as a kid, where he saw fishermen working on their nets. The mills were still smoking, the canneries still processing fish. He said he loves talking to people, especially oldtimers, and hearing their stories.
“I’ve always just loved Anacortes history,” he said.
His mother and sister both had antique stores, and he sold second-hand items at The Business. And through the darkroom, he was exposed to people’s historical images.
“I got a taste of what Wallie Funk did during his photo push in the ‘50s,” he said.
In the early 1990s Lunsford met eccentric local character “Bubble” Finley, by then about 90.
“She simply walked in to The Business with a bunch of photos from her collection. She wanted reprints,” Lunsford said.
When he asked what she was going to do with the negatives after he was done, her answer was a melodramatic “Throw them away!” Lunsford did her printing free in exchange for the negatives, which became the core of his own historical photo collection. Two images of “Bubble” are in the book.
During her life, she performed in an Oriental Wonders show, painted, threw parties and sculpted fanciful creatures out of cement, driftwood and seashells. She built a cabin on Guemes Island at age 16 and clashed with bootleggers.
“I started to think how book-worthy she was. I was interested in doing a fishing history of Anacortes or a history of Bubble. I contacted Arcadia and they said what they really needed was a general history of Anacortes.”
He invested his own time in the effort, and will receive royalties if the volume sells.
“I didn’t get an advance. It’s basically a labor of love,” he said. “It just became compelling.”