Seattle Now & Then: Willowmoor (later Marymoor) Farm, 1921

(Click to enlarge photos)

THEN: Taken from the hillside overlooking the estate in September 1921, this east-facing photo features 28-room Clise mansion at its center. Inspired by Dutch landscape, James Clise constructed a functional windmill along the winding Sammamish Slough. (Webster & Stevens, Courtesy Ron Edge)
NOW1: An aerial view captured 100 years later displays colorful fall foliage. The windmill, partly hidden by leaves, stands above a deviated slough, glimpsed in the lower left corner. The city of Redmond peeks out below the Cascade mountains. (Jean Sherrard)
NOW 2: The windmill remains a beloved Eastside landmark. The distant rear of Clise mansion can be seen to its left. (Jean Sherrard)
NOW 3: The back of Clise mansion, with its Tudor-style gables, is framed by fir trees. (Jean Sherrard)
NOW 4: The Sammamish Slough, connecting Lake Sammamish to Lake Washington, was lowered by nine feet in 1916 with the completion of the Ballard locks and ship canal. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in The Seattle Times online on Nov. 25, 2021
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on Nov. 28, 2021)

Model Willowmoor (later Marymoor) farm sparkled from the start
By Jean Sherrard

A crown jewel among King County parks, Marymoor Park has sparkled through several incarnations.

At the north end of Lake Sammamish, Marymoor’s 640 acres attract an estimated 3 million visitors a year, boasting sports facilities, performance venues and a 40-acre, off-leash dog park.

Our “Then” photo, taken a century ago, features a landscape carved from a verdant river valley first inhabited by the Duwamish Tribe for at least 6,000 years.

Wealthy banker and investor James W. Clise, who had arrived in Seattle one day after the great fire of June 6, 1889, was lured to the property by its abundant fish and game. In 1904, he built a hunting lodge on 78 acres along the Sammamish Slough and named the estate Willowmoor, after the trees flourishing near the water.

What began as summer retreat from city life, however, soon evolved into something more substantial. Within three years, Clise had embraced the role of a gentleman farmer. He added 350 acres, converted the lodge into a 28-room, Tudor-style mansion and proposed moving there with his family from their Queen Anne home.

In a 1961 Seattle Times interview, daughter Ruth Clise Colwell remembered her horror at the prospect: “It seemed to me that it would be like living at the end of the earth and that I would never see my friends again.”

Her fears soon eased when the estate became a bustling hive of activity. Her ambitious father imported “tough and wiry” Morgan horses from New England and filled the farm with hardy Ayrshire cattle imported from Scotland. Clise deemed the stock ideal for the Pacific Northwest’s similar climate. “Father’s great interest,” Colwell said, “was to improve the condition of the farm and better the life of the farmer.”

Willowmoor’s model dairy was considered years ahead of its time, and milk from the free-ranging cattle was roundly prized for a rich flavor and high cream content. Convinced of its health benefits, carmaker Henry Ford insisted on serving milk only from Clise cows at his hospital in Dearborn, Michigan. Visitors from around the world studied Clise’s innovative methods.

The showcase eventually expanded to 28 buildings and 40 employees. Clise traveled widely, particularly to agricultural countries, continually seeking to improve and expand upon his bold experiment.

In 1921, in failing health, Clise sold the farm. A later lessee, Walter Nettleton, changed its name to Marymoor to memorialize a daughter killed in a childhood accident. In 1963, King County voters funded Marymoor as a park. Ten years later, Clise mansion was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

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