MOST OF US have access to the world through the internet. It has made it incredibly easy to share our lives with the world. You can sit in your mom’s basement and show the world how “important” you and your thoughts are. How did we survive without it?
In the 1890s, community leaders saw an opportunity to make Port Angeles known to the world. It required a concerted effort.
We knew a great event was on the horizon: a world exposition was planned for 1893 in Chicago. It was to be called The World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World in 1492.
Columbus was viewed much differently than today. The exposition had a profound effect on American culture and promoted our industrial optimism.
Such optimism was present in Port Angeles. For the people of the First Nations, this was an ancient land that provided for all their physical and spiritual needs. For the European pioneers, it was a land of abundant resources and endless possibilities.
Washington state would have an exhibition hall. Leading citizens decided that Port Angeles, this Second National City, should be represented in some manner at the fair. It had to be decided how to best represent our city, and there were differing views on what best represented Port Angeles. They wanted to attract industry to this area.
One idea was to ship a large cedar log to Chicago and send a number of local Native Americans who would carve a dugout canoe while at the fair.
The businessmen were not as enthusiastic as the women about this project, so the women formed The Women’s World Fair Club and went to work. The first decision was to commission a painting representing Port Angeles and its potential.
As it happened, a fine artist, Count Gustaf Kalling, was in Port Angeles at the time, making sketches of local scenery and teaching art to aspiring locals. The women’s group asked Kalling to paint Port Angeles, its harbor and the Olympic Mountains.
At first, Kalling declined the request. He scorned commercial art, like that used to make posters. He painted with oils and did realistic landscapes. The local businessmen persuaded Kalling to accept the commission, hoping for an advertising poster. They pointed out the advantages of being one of the first to produce an image of a Pacific Northwest town.
The potential of being exhibited at the World’s Fair also helped. Kalling reluctantly agreed to the task for a fee of $200, which is equivalent to about $6,000 today.
Count Johan Gustaf Kalling was born on Aug. 1, 1842, in Örebro, Sweden. He was a troublesome student, only attending elementary school from 1851-59. Instead of school, he wanted to explore and learn about his surroundings.
Kalling grew up in a stable home. Maybe it was too stable and regimented; he was restless, fearless and adventuresome. He later admitted he was foolhardy at times.
Kalling first journeyed to North America in 1860 to visit relatives in Chicago. When the Civil War broke out, he decided to enlist in the Union Army, but he was rejected because he could not speak English. He returned to Sweden in 1861.
Kalling returned to North America in 1865 and used St. Paul, Minn., as a home base to explore the region. He encountered many other Scandinavian immigrants.
In 1866, he joined four other Scandinavians and traveled to Memphis, Tenn., where “a revolver and a knife are protection in an unsafe city.” They worked at a plantation, building a storehouse. He then returned to Chicago and got work as a painter.
Still restless, Kalling tried work floating logs down the Mississippi River and farming in Minnesota, but he yearned to return to places with forests and lakes.
In 1872, Kalling and two friends traveled west and ended up in San Francisco. He lived there off and on between 1873 and 1875. From 1876-77, he lived in Portland, Ore.
In 1878, Kalling arrived in Seattle and stayed for 16 years. His career as a painter was developing. While in Seattle, he made oil paintings and gave painting lessons. Yet, he was still restless and wanted to explore. That led Kalling to Port Angeles, where he could explore and sketch the vast wilderness surrounding it.
In 1892, Kalling was in Port Angeles, making excursions into the wilderness and giving painting lessons. Some of his students included women promoting the city’s representation in the World’s Fair.
The result was a landscape painting of the harbor, forest and mountains, measuring 6 feet by 10 feet. Instead of a commercial poster, they got a piece of fine art.
The finished canvas was a disappointment to some. Some leading businessmen wanted sawmills, sawdust and salmon. They thought the “industrial” look was best. They had little interest in Kalling’s painting and even less interest in paying for his work.
But the leading women believed our deep-water harbor and the Olympic Mountains would attract industry to the area. The lack of enthusiasm and financial support did not dissuade them at all. They went to work on fundraising efforts, including socials, dances and parties. The penultimate event was the presentation of the operetta “The Chimes of Normandy.”
The painting was exhibited at the fair. After, it was returned to Port Angeles. For a time, it hung in the high school. It currently is displayed along the stairway of the historic Clallam County Courthouse.
Kalling returned to Sweden in 1897 and died from a stroke in 1919.
Computers and the internet have made it relatively easy to promote people, places and organizations across the world. In 1893, it required a high level of organization and community effort. It is easy for us to forget how hard it was to accomplish this feat.
It is interesting to contemplate how the restless wanderings of someone from half a world away could be so important to a significant event in our community’s history.
John McNutt is a descendant of Clallam County pioneers and treasurer of the North Olympic History Center Board of Directors. He can be reached at [email protected].
McNutt’s history column appears the first Sunday of every month.