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How Sentinel Island In The San Juans Came To Be Owned By A Newlywed Couple 100 Years Ago


This story originally aired on June 17, 2017.

The San Juans' last homesteaders first discovered the islands on a map. June and Farrar Burn were newlyweds. They met in 1919 at a party June threw in her log cabin in Virginia. June quickly fell for Farrar’s ruddy-cheeked smile, curly red hair, and his ability to make himself useful immediately:  gathering firewood, serving drinks, hosting as if it were his own home. Farrar was drawn to June’s lively eyes and her unmistakable, fierce spirit. In a month, the two were married.

That spring, June and Farrar pulled out a map to look for their next home. Their eyes scanned the entire world, enchanted by the possibilities of far-fetched and unknown places. They settled on the idea of an island.

June later wrote in her autobiography: “To go on an island and  pull the ladder up after us and live, untroubled by anything, that would be heaven.” Their eyes turned towards the little cluster of islands off Washington’s coast, the San Juans.Back then, the Homestead Act allowed U.S. citizens to apply to own land. If accepted, they’d get the land for little, or sometimes zero cost.

When June and Farrar applied for land in 1919, almost all of the San Juan islands had been homesteaded. All but one. A lonely, 15-acre dot in Speiden Channel. Nobody had claimed it in part because the land itself had little value. San Juan locals knew the 15-acre dot as a rocky mass, mostly grass, a few trees, and a few tiny soil pockets to grow food. But June and Farrar - having just enough determination for an island and just enough ignorance over the islands’ state - didn’t let that sway them. June and Farrar submitted their homesteading application in 1919, the end of the homesteading flurry.

In a few months, a reply from the U.S. General Land Office in Seattle came back. Their message to June and Farrar was curt: You’re too late, they said, you missed the boat. Full of optimism, June and Farrar wrote back: Keep our application, we’re coming anyways. June and Farrar took a long few months to get to Seattle, not knowing whether there’d be an island to greet them on the other end.

During their travels, June wrote to the General Land Office every week. She shared gossip from the road, treated them like old friends. Farrar called it her “direct-mail campaign for an island.”

When they arrived in Seattle, Farrar walked into the Land Office and started, “Our name is Burn,” and was promptly interrupted by cheers of “They’re here! They’re here!” from the Land Office staff. And to June and Farrar’s delight, the direct-mail campaign had worked. The unwanted, 15-acre dot was theirs.

The dot, it turned out, had a name, Sentinel Island. After a few months working odd jobs for cash and gathering supplies, June and Farrar set out for the San Juan Islands, first to Friday Harbor, where Farrar worked in a local quarry, then, finally, to Sentinel.

June remembered the day they first rowed out to their island. She sat in the back of the rowboat as Farrar pulled them closer and closer, watching the tall green lump of an island emerge from the horizon.

Sentinel lived up to its reputation. Growing food proved difficult, as did fetching water, building a campsite, and most other basic life functions. But June and Farrar had a knack for creating charming living spaces out of simple materials. They’d use cedar shakes for a shelter, flat sandstones for a cooking hearth, and simple wood carvings for adornments. June quickly nicknamed their dot, Gumdrop Island. And for the next five years, June and Farrar lived on Gumdrop, Farrar rowing over to the quarry at Friday Harbor to earn money.

After homesteading Sentinel, June and Farrar never kept still for very long. They had kids, taught English on a remote island near Siberia, and traveled the U.S. in a renovated old Dodge. At one point, June hitchhiked across the country with her young son.

June used to say, “I wonder why everybody doesn’t do their retiring first while they have the zest for everything, and settle down later on when they don’t feel like doing anything but work, anyhow.” And that’s how June and Farrar lived out the rest of their lives. It’s hard to know whether it was June or Farrar that drove their adventures, picking up life every five or so years for a new unknown. But June did have an “intensity for life” that her grandson describes as overwhelming at times.

Eventually, June wrote a book about their adventures: "Living High: An Unconventional Autobiography." Farrar continued with a hodgepodge of odd jobs, from quarry miner to store owner to small farmer. One of his favorite pastimes was singing. That’s how Farrar financed one of the Burn family’s cross country travels. A sign above their auto read: “Burn’s Ballad Bungalow - Sings and Sells His Own Songs.”

As for Gumdrop Island, the family has since donated the little rock to The Nature Conservancy. Today, it stands in its natural state: a lonely, little dot poking out from the sea.