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What Ivar Haglund could teach us now

Credit: Ivar's

Last week, I went out to the Nordic Heritage Museum with KUOW producer David Hyde and we walked through the new exhibit about Seattle’s legendary restaurateur Ivar Haglund, called “Keep Clam and Carry On.”

For those who love and remember “old” Seattle, the exhibit is a must, capturing as it does the quirky spirit of a man who is as local as it gets, and whose restaurants are still waterfront icons on Elliott Bay and Lake Union.

But beyond nostalgia, does the Ivar Haglund story have any relevance to contemporary Seattle?

Born in Seattle in 1905, Haglund was a local boy of mixed Scandinavian heritage — he was half Norwegian, half Swede, and I can only imagine the internal struggles that must have set off. His family lived and owned property in West Seattle that had been obtained from city founder David “Doc” Maynard, which adds the patina of pioneer pedigree.

Ivar was a bohemian, a folk singer whose friends were artists like Mark Tobey, musicians like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and a variety of socialists, communists and other outsiders. His roots were local, but also steeped in music and the alternative culture that existed here before World War II. Were he born later, he might well have been marinated in the soggy culture of grunge.

1950s-Ivar's Fish Bar w Clam Trolley-Oil FilterHaglund was also part P.T. Barnum. His waterfront restaurant started as an aquarium in the 1930s showing off the sea life of Puget Sound. It expanded from a fish & chips stand to a genuine sit-down seafood restaurant in the postwar 1940s, not for longshoremen and dock workers, but for Seattle’s growing middle class. He sponsored clam-eating contests and octopus wrestling matches, he filled his Acres of Clams restaurant with nautical flotsam, jetsam and curiosa, like a “clam gun” which was a hunting rifle with a shovel attached to the end.

As our connection with the port became less about cargo and shipbuilding, the waterfront began to transform into a place for tourists, families and the downtown lunch crowd. Before the current waterfront makeover plans, there have been many others, mostly incremental, but Ivar’s was part of early waterfront transformations reflecting an economy driven not by sailors but by “knowledge workers,” be they the old Boeing families of the ’50s and ’60s or the Amazonians of South Lake Union today. We take waterfront dining for granted, but that wasn’t always the case. The longshoreman has given way to the cruise ship passenger, the halyard to the techie’s lanyard.

Ivar was also the man who loved publicity stunts and cornball humor. Surveying this in the show — from life-size clam costumes to goofy cartoons — Ivar seems like a one-man Fremont, doing capitalism with a twinkle in his eye, yet always aligning himself with ordinary folks, not the powerful. His restaurants remain resolutely populist in appeal, even as their food has improved. In this Haglund was assisted by a media eager for his stunts. When a train carrying syrup spilled near his restaurant, Ivar made pancakes, ran outside and was photographed spooning the goo with a ladle onto a stack of cakes, an image that went around the world.

Running ClamsIvar could turn almost any lemon into lemonade — or clam nectar. My ex-father-in-law, a food broker for grocery chains, used to tell the story of how Ivar launched a line of canned clam chowder, which turned out to be awful. What did Ivar do? Admitted the mistake, invited the food reps out on a boat in the middle of Elliott Bay and let them throw the cases of bad soup over the side, thus endearing him to the sales force. When Ivar “saved” the Smith Tower by buying it in the 1970s, he flew a fish windsock on top. The city bureaucrats said that was illegal, and Ivar launched a good-humored battle to save the sock, and got the city to back down and give him a variance so he could let his fish flag fly.

In moments like that, following the rough times of the Boeing recession, Ivar seemed like a savior of the Seattle spirit — entrepreneurial, individualistic, and often unexpected and funny. He played to the Northwest’s old slacker sensibility. His theme song was the old regional folk tune, “Old Settler’s Song,” about a pioneer who comes to the region for riches and fails, but stays anyway, bewitched by the beauty and the bounty:

“I tried to get out of the country
But poverty forced me to stay
Until I became an old settler
Then nothing could drive me away…

No longer the slave of ambition
I laugh at the world and its shams
As I think of my pleasant condition
Surrounded by acres of clams.”

Though Ivar became enormously successful in the food and restaurant industry, he never seemed to lose touch with the idea that there is more to living here than money, and that, in turn, was good business.

One striking moment for me in the museum exhibit was stumbling across a massive 1950s TV set that looked just like the one I grew up with. On it was a black & white episode of the KOMO-TV’s old children’s program, Captain Puget. Ivar would come on and sing folk songs, and Don McCune — the Captain and kiddie host — would talk about maritime history and show nature footage and cartoons from a set that was supposed to be the cabin of the Captain’s sailboat. It was a daytime program designed to instill Northwestness in local children.

While Ivar died in 1985, the man and his restaurants still can fill that kind of niche. Ivar promoted local sea life and the world of Puget Sound and the good-natured side of the Seattle persona. I know a number of locals who take pride in initiating their offspring into regional rites. One friend says his family for generations had dipped its newborns into a particular Hood Canal Bay. For me, I’ll always remember the look on my granddaughter’s face when we took her to Acres of Clams and she tasted her first raw oyster — somewhere between bafflement and delight.

Such small events as eating a fresh local oyster or sipping clam nectar or eating a piece of truly fresh salmon or chasing crabs in a tide pool are still significant events in the process of growing a population that is rooted to place. The lesson for us is that Ivar Haglund leveraged his localness into success; he didn’t consider success to be making Seattle like everywhere else.

We need to heed that now more than ever.

Disclosure: Ivar’s named a cocktail, Mossback Nectar, after the author in 2010. Ivar’s CEO Bob Donegan won a Crosscut Courage Award in 2013.

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