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(Black Cat)

Our favorite cat tale: Fairhaven's James F. Wardner and the
Consolidated Black Cat. Co. Ltd., Part One

(James F. Wardner)
James F. Wardner

By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal of History & Folklore, ©2003, last updated July 2011
      My first experience with history research began four decades ago when I assisted the late Bellingham historian, Galen Biery. Galen, who devoted the last forty years of his life to collecting original history sources and photographs and interviewing descendants of the original Bellingham Bay pioneers. He taught me many valuable lessons about sorting the wheat from the chaff and he was kind enough not to laugh when I made my first truly laughable mistake. He referred me to a newspaper story from the 1890s and one item stumped me. The story referred to "Mayor Hizzoner." I carefully researched the available lists of officers and could not find a mayor by that name. He sighed and told me: "I think the writer was referring to "His honor." (Biery died in 1994 and his collection of material is housed at the Whatcom County Museum of History & Art.)
      After eating humble pie, I asked him sometime later about one of the most famous legends from the history of Fairhaven, James F. Wardner's Consolidated Black Cats Co. Ltd. Supposedly Wardner formed such a company on a ranch on Eliza Island in Bellingham Bay, which actually became the site for the early version of Pacific American Fisheries. Galen told me that he had never been able to find solid evidence of said ranch, but he said that Wardner's notes hinted at such an enterprise and it was such a delightful story that he just got out of the way and let the fur fly, as we historians learn to do. Folklore is often more fun than dry history.
      When I lived in the Fairhaven district in the late 1960s and early '70s, my favorite haunts were Rex and Marion Odell's Kulshan Tavern, located in the Waldron building; the Fairhaven Restaurant next door and Le Chat Noir restaurant. The latter was in the Mason building, across the street, which Fairhaven-native Ken Imus restored when he moved back home after making a small fortune in California. While imbibing the Kulshan's last 25-cent, 16-ounce beers in the state, we often laughed over the hocus-pocus story that we suspected was a hoax dreamed up by an inventive young reporter in 1891 about Wardner buying Eliza island so that he could have a ranch for kitty cats. Not a place to pamper them; oh no; he wanted to shave their fur and sell the pelts to fur traders to compete with the popular pelts from seals or otters, or so the tale went.
      Wardner was one of the most famous of the Western boomers. He boomed his namesake town of Wardner, Idaho, in the 1880s and then moved to Fairhaven, now south Bellingham, to help Nelson Bennett boom his new town on the bay. Bennett was building the first standard-gauge, common carrier railroad north of Seattle and it opened on Dec. 24, 1889, on a diagonal southeast from Fairhaven to old Sedro. So pioneers such as Bennett and Wardner are important for us to know about as we study northwest Washington history.Wardner moved to Fairhaven in 1889 and rapidly formed several companies that provided lumber, water and electricity for the booming new town. Newspaper reporters hung on his every word and he almost always provided great copy.

    'What'll you feed 'em, Mr. Wardner?'
    'Fish! There's so many salmon around Eliza Island that you couldn't get any more of 'em in the water unless you made 'em smaller. I've hired a real cat man, Sam Weller of Cincinnati, to run the ranch, and he'll have a crew to seine fish and feed the fish to the cats.'

Sam Weller and the black cats
      As I researched Wardner's life over the past decade, I kept an eye out for stories of the black cats. James Moore, who retired a decade ago as director of the Northwest Washington Regional Archives in Fairhaven, referred me to Dorothy Koert's wonderful book, Lyric Singer, a biography of Bellingham's poet laureate, Ella Higginson. In the book is Ella's memory of the Black Cat story. Koert also elaborated about the cats in Looking Back, a book she co-wrote with Biery in 1980. Their combined notes relate this story about how a Fairhaven Herald reporter dogged Wardner one day in 1890, eager for a new story:
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      Wardner says: 'Sorry Earle, nothing new today.'
      Seeing the reporter's disappointment as he turned to the door, Wardner shouted:
      'Wait a minute, son! I'll give you a story on a whopping big deal I've been keeping under my hat. I've got a 2,000 acre island about six miles from here under option. I'm going to buy it, build a dock and a lot of shelter houses here and there, and raise black cats for their pelts. Thousands of 'em! Maybe a million!'
      The reporter began scribbling. He asked: 'What'll you feed 'em, Mr. Wardner?'
      'Fish! There's so many salmon around Eliza Island that you couldn't get any more of 'em in the water unless you made 'em smaller. I've hired a real cat man, Sam Weller of Cincinnati, to run the ranch, and he'll have a crew to seine fish and feed the fish to the cats.'
      'Who'll you sell the cats to?'
      'We won't sell cats, we'll sell their pelts, I figure we'll turn out 500 skins every month after we get rolling, and they are worth $2 apiece on the fur market.'
      'What're you going to call the business, Mr. Wardner?'
      'Consolidated Black Cat. Co. Ltd. we're issuing $200,000 worth of capital stock and it's a sure-fire deal.'

      The next week the Black Cat story was featured on the front page of the Fairhaven Herald. Because Wardner was known nationally as a boomer in both Idaho and Washington, other editors picked it up, including those in San Francisco who reprinted the story and then telegraphed it to the New York Tribune, where the headline read, "Black Cat for Profit." National magazines followed with similar stories. In Looking Back, Koert and Biery note that the story took on a life of its own:
      Editors recalled that Wardner had promoted real estate and mining developments, had pioneered California orange groves and hog ranches, had founded several banks, started a river-navigation line between Jennings, Montana, and Canadian points, and had conceived hundreds of other ventures. His first business venture had been when he was eight years old and had raised rabbits on a grand scale in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
      After this publicity many investors wrote for information, some had profited heavily in Wardner's previous ventures, some sent money to purchase stock in Consolidated Black Cats Co., Ltd. At his parlor window, Wardner looked from the hill overlooking Bellingham Bay, raised his glass toward faraway Eliza Island, the site of his imaginary black-cat ranch, and drank a toast to the venture.
      Later he was to say that he had "turned over the trials and tribulations of a constantly increasing cat business" to Sam Weller who was a "wizard with cats," and went gold prospecting in the Cascade Mountains.

      In Wardner's autobiography, he is coy about the company and the story. He notes that the product did not equal his anticipation. In Miki Gilliland's article, "Entering Bellingham," published by Bellingham's Bayside Press in 1989, we find that:
      Writers claimed that black cats were worth $2 when taken to the Consolidated Black Cat Company owned by Wardner. A story from the New York Tribune said that several carloads of black cats were shipped from San Francisco and the cats were sheltered on the island. The felines lived on a diet of fish caught in the surrounding waters. The cats were free to lie in the sun and wander around at will. Not one dog was allowed on the island. Newspapers claimed that cat fur made excellent muffs and capes which were quite popular. In addition, people in Missouri and Arkansas created a plaster made from black cat hide if the cat had been killed in the dark of the moon the writer said.
      The Seattle Times seemed to be thrilled when the cat ranch was reported to have been sold. 'The vicious and cannibalistic experiment of putting cat into cat by means of soup resulted disastrously to the cats. Mr. Wardner's idea of an endless chain won't work in the industry . . . Goodbye to you! Goodbye to the cats forever. In good Latin, Scat, get out in the peace!'
      Today there are many wild cats who roam Fairhaven. Penny Tillson, editor of the quarterly magazine, Fairhaven Gazette, is a believer. She said the cats were brought back to Fairhaven and have intermarried with orange strangers and grey tabby travelers. Her personal descendant of a Wardner farm survivor sat on her pillow and refused to care. er personal descendant of a Wardner farm survivor sat on her pillow and refused to care.
      'People will have to believe whatever they choose,' she mewed. 'But I do believe my relatives. You know it's only dogs who lie.'

(Mason Block, 1890)
      The Mason Block was erected in 1890 at the southeast corner of 12th street and Harris avenue in Fairhaven. One of James F. Wardner's banks, the First National, opened in Christmas week, 1889, across the street in the new Fairhaven Hotel. Wardner's Cascade Club was also in this building, as was one of Wardner's offices, possibly the one where he spun his cat tale for the Fairhaven Herald reporter. Now also known as Sycamore Square, the building has over the years housed the Black Cat or Le Chat Noir restaurant. For this drawing, the artist stood southwest from the Mason Block, about where the Waldron Building stands today. This is from a rare copy of the Fairhaven Illustrated magazine of 1890.

Black cats, Sam Weller and the Pickwick Papers
      When I read the account of Wardner's conversation with the reporter, the name of Sam Weller reminded me of a Charles Dickens character, so I went back and re-read parts of his most lighthearted novel, The Pickwick Papers. Sure enough, there was Mr. Weller and I am amazed that no one has made the connection before. We read in the book about the travels of Mr. Samuel Pickwick, who is a retired English gentleman who appears to be rich. Early on, Pickwick meets Sam Weller, a young Cockney lad, who becomes his manservant and protector.
      When traveling through the wonderfully named village of Dingley Dell, Pickwick tells his landlady, Mrs. Bardell, about his new manservant, but he is so oblique and vague that somehow she mistakes his story as a proposal of marriage. In a true comedy of errors, Mrs. Bardell sues Pickwick for breach of promise when he does not follow through, Pickwick refuses to pay, and he is thrown into debtors prison. Weller is so loyal to his boss that he arranges to join him in prison. From the book:

      'Your bed!' exclaimed Mr. Pickwick, in astonishment.
      'Yes, my bed, Sir,' replied Sam. 'I'm a prisoner. I was arrested this here very afternoon for debt.'
      'You arrested for debt!' exclaimed Mr. Pickwick, sinking into a chair. 'Yes, for debt, Sir,' replied Sam; 'and the man as put me in 'ull never let me out, till you go yourself.'

      Thus Sam Weller demonstrates fealty to Pickwick by submerging his identity under his master's experiences. In Victorian England, the manservant, although invariably from the working class, often identified with the wealth of affluent employers and swore their fealty even if the boss took a fall. The servants vied for such a position from the time they were children, just as American children imagine themselves as firemen or astronauts.
      Weller was especially beloved by readers of Dickens for his manner of speech in which he juxtaposed well-known quotations with a facetious sequel. An example is: "It all comes back to me now", said the Captain as he spat into the wind." His witticisms led people by 1839 to coin the term, Wellerism, so we have the famous saying: "'I see,' said the blind man." At the end of the novel, the Pickwick Club — which inspired Pickwick's travels, is dissolved and after being released from prison, our Mr. Pickwick retires to a country villa with Sam Weller, who marries their especially sweet housemaid.
      So, always extravagant, James Wardner pulled a fast one, as they said in those days, and set in motion the story that has become his legacy in Fairhaven. The Fairhaven boom went bust in less than five years, so his financial gains fell by the wayside in memory, but his castle on the hill and the black cats did not. And he pulled the big con in a grand way, bringing Dickens's lovable character to life. But he was especially clever about it, conning not only the provincial rubes who would not connect his "Cincinnati" associate with the literary character, but even the editors from one end of the country to the other who should have known better. Perhaps a careful researcher will uncover proof that Wardner really did launch such a company and I will certainly welcome correction, since the folklore itself is such a grand tale. But judging from his short two-year stint in Fairhaven, I just do not see how he had the time to follow through on his boast, and besides, he seemed to have left his rash investments in harebrained schemes far back behind him by the mid-1880s. Regardless, there is an especially sweet ending to this story for cat fanciers and I am certainly one. During the late 1800s, cat pelts were indeed often sold as seal or otter pelts to furriers. Ensuing generations of cat lovers in Fairhaven were inspired by the Wardner folklore to adopt stray, wild black cats and gave them a loving home. As Gilliland notes in her story, the progeny of those cats are now lovingly tended by an unofficial Fairhaven "Kitty Committee."

(Cascade Club interior)
      Also from the Fairhaven Illustrated magazine of 1890, these photos show the interior of the Mason Block and Wardner's Cascade Club, where he and other financiers met to boom the town. The upper left photo is of the hallway and entrance; upper right is the reading room; lower left is the billiards room; and lower right is the card room. From the Bourasaw collection.


      Handwritten blank page at front: "only few printed." $1.50, New York Library copy, Jim Wardner of Wardner, Idaho, By Himself, New York: The Anglo-American Publishing Co., 1900. [Return]

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