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It would be an exaggeration to say the humble strawberry
built Orcas Island, but not much of one — ripe, sweet
strawberries have been a huge part of Orcas Island’s
history and culture for centuries. The current
Strawberry Barreling Building in Olga is a monument to
a past industry. Glen Rodenberger was the strawberry
king of Orcas. In 1935, he formed The Orcas Island
Berry Growers Association with Ethel Pinneo (who filed
the papers), Alvin Meyers, Oscar Carlson, and George
Loomis. In 1936, Rodenberger was only one of three
strawberry growers in the state
(olgastrawberrycouncil.org). The following year, a
canning and processing plant arrived, and word got out
that strawberry growing and processing was profitable.
The strawberry industry exploded. The local farmers had
more than 450 acres of strawberry farms on Orcas Island,
most of them the coveted Marshall strawberry. The
Friday Harbor Journal wrote at the time, “It is said
there are only three certified strawberry plant growers
in the state of Washington and one of these is Rodenberger.
Strawberries from Orcas Island are usually a week or more
earlier reaching the markets than those grown on the
mainland in this part of the state.” To this day, the Olga
Strawberry Council continues the good work of the
founding council.

At its height, the Olga strawberry industry employed 300
pickers and processors. The folks of Orcas process 13
tons of fruit each day. Many of the workers were young
workers from Bellingham. As the country plunged into
The Great Depression, the humble strawberry kept area
folks employed and sustained the local economy through
the hardest bumps. When WWII came into full swing in
1943, the demand for labor in heavy industry drained
the berry industry, and the strawberry processing on
Orcas ended. The Friday Harbor Journal made fewer and
fewer mentions of the Rodenberger’s berry kingdom,
ending with this sad statement in 1943, “The Rodenbergers
began digging and trimming strawberry plants on Monday.
Owing to the small acreage the work will not last long.”

After the berry boom, The Strawberry Building became
storage, then a restaurant in the 1970s, before coming
back under the management of The Strawberry Council,
which reshaped it into the beautiful space it is today.
A signature spot on Orcas, The Strawberry Building
attracts visitors year-round. The beautiful space was
recently rebuilt following a terrible fire in 2013. The
fire was believed to be arson, and the entire east side
of the building was destroyed. Orcas being Orcas, no one
sat still. The island rallied. Seattle architect Ben
Trogdon designed the new space. He said, “I had the great
honor of working with the wonderful community of
volunteers, artists, and the cafe proprietor to restore
and revitalizethe unique character of this beloved
building.”After considerable effort, The Strawberry
Building reopened in April, 2015. An airy, spacious
interior, it is the perfect place for its current
uses — art studios, gallery space, and a café.

The Strawberry Building is listed on the Washington State
Register of Historic Places. As with many agricultural
buildings, it is solidly built, making it a heavy community-
owned and cherished anchor in Eastsound. It may not be the
booming, noisy, bustling facility it once was, but for what
it lost in industrial production, it gained in community
affection. Not only is it an exceptional community space,
it is a shining example of how preserving architecture’s
intriguing past can make for a beautiful future.

 

"It is a shining example of how preserving architecture’s intriguing past can make for a beautiful future."