Matthews Beach Park in northeast Seattle is on the shore of Lake Washington, off of Sand Point Way NE at NE 93rd Street. At twenty-two acres, it is Seattle’s largest freshwater bathing beach, and the beach is only one aspect of the park. The park has picnic, meadow and play areas. The park has a direct connection to the Burke-Gilman Trail which crosses over Sand Point Way at NE 93rd Street. Matthews Beach is the final outlet of Thornton Creek, where it enters Lake Washington. The creek is visible along the access road into Matthews Beach.
The Matthews family was so willing to share the use of their property with neighbors that the area first began to be known as Matthews Beach in the 1920s while still under private ownership. The first appeal to the City of Seattle to buy the property was in 1928. Ironically the Parks Department vigorously opposed the purchase due to differences of opinion between those who wanted to acquire more parks in Seattle, and those who wanted monies to be allocated to maintenance of already-existing parks.
This tension between acquisition of parks land and maintenance of already-exisiting parks is familiar to activists of the Wedgwood Community Council who worked very hard to acquire a pocket-park site called the Morningside Substation, only to be told by the Parks Department that all development plans would be left on hold until after passage of a levy for park maintenance in 2014. As of this writing the project is still in limbo, as the Parks Department has said that the project can’t be developed until the year 2019.
Since the City of Seattle was not able to go ahead with purchase of the Matthews Beach property in 1928, the Matthews family could easily have redeveloped or sold the site at any time. It is a tribute to their stewardship and the efforts of north Seattle community clubs and activists that finally in 1951, the City purchased Matthews Beach. This blog article will not cover the story of the property purchase, but will outline the lives of Mr. Matthews and the Roy Land family who lived at Matthews Beach in the 1930s.
John G. Matthews: from Kentucky to Seattle
Barbourville, in the southeastern corner of Kentucky, is known for its annual Daniel Boone Festival, commemorating that frontiersman’s exploration of the area in 1775. In the 1800s Barbourville was a rural area of small farms, where John G. Matthews was born in 1864. Though he started out life as the son of an Irish immigrant farmer, John G. Matthews was able to go to college and he became a civic leader in his hometown. By the time he was 45 years old in 1910, Matthews had been district attorney, president of a bank in Barbourville, and operator of a coal mining business. We do not know what drove John Matthews to move away from the place where he was born, but something caused him to make a sudden break and move to Seattle in 1910, where he lived until his death in 1937.
In 1909 the Alaska-Pacific-Yukon Exposition (AYPE) on the campus of the University of Washington received national newspaper coverage. In the days before television, radio or ease of travel, world’s fairs were very important in helping people learn about the world beyond their homes. Every state in the Union was invited to have an exhibit of their history, geography and commerce at the AYPE in Seattle. We may speculate that John Matthews read newspaper reports about the AYPE and perhaps he knew people from Kentucky who had attended, but there is no indication of whether he visited the AYPE himself.
Matthews was 45 years old when he moved to Seattle in 1910, leaving behind all of his associations in Kentucky and his status as a businessman in that community. The lure of Seattle must have been strong enough for the Matthews family, with wife Amy and their three sons, ages 11, 8, and 6, to make such a drastic move away from Kentucky. The family settled on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, and John Matthews continued the practice of law as well as his investments in industries such as coal and timber.
Matthews prospers in business in Seattle
By 1916, in addition to his law work in Seattle, John G. Matthews was also president of Matthews Motor Car Co. on Capitol Hill’s Broadway. The next year he expanded into a Ford car agency and service center in Ballard.
Matthews continued to juggle all of his interests and investments. On the census of 1920 one would have thought John Matthews would list himself as an attorney, but instead he listed his occupation as “timberman – logging.” In 1921 he represented an association of loggers in the Port Orchard area, Kitsap County, to get a ruling allowing “auto logging.” The transporting of logs via truck was new at that time, and the Washington State Highways Committee had issued a temporary order prohibiting the practice while its safety was evaluated. Matthews argued that the order closing highways to auto logging was a great hardship on the industry and that they were already self-monitoring to prevent overloading of trucks or other abuse of the roads.
Over the course of the years 1910 to 1924 in Seattle, John Matthews’ wife Amy was very active in PTA work, beginning at Lowell School on Capitol Hill where her three sons attended. In 1918 Amy was head of the Broadway High School PTA, and in 1923 she was elected president of the Seattle Council of the PTA.
By 1924 Amy was living at another address on Capitol Hill, while her husband John went to live on the property of what would become Matthews Beach on Lake Washington at about NE 93rd Street. All three of the Matthews’ sons were in college or law school, on their way to becoming attorneys. In 1925 Amy Matthews accompanied her youngest son, Paul, to university in Los Angeles, and she spent the rest of her life there. On the census of 1930 in Los Angeles she listed herself as a widow. This was not technically true since John G. Matthews lived in Seattle until his death in 1937, but “widow” was sometimes used euphemistically to describe a person who had separated from their spouse.
Matthews becomes part of the northeast Seattle community
The year 1926 marked a time of growth in the northeast Seattle areas of Matthews Beach, Sand Point, Wedgwood and Meadowbrook. Electricity and water utilities had been put in, which made life a lot more convenient and led to more people moving to the area. As of 1926 the neighborhood had a beautiful new brick school building called Maple Leaf, and a private bus service had been organized. These factors drew neighbors together in many cooperative activities, and there is evidence that John G. Matthews was a participant. His name is listed as one of the subscribers to the Northeast Transportation Service bus company, the private bus service that had been organized.
Neighborhood residents of the 1930s told me that Mr. Matthews, as he was always known, used the Northeast Transportation bus service as a social outlet as he would sometimes just ride around and chat with the other riders. Mr. Matthews seemed to be in semi-retirement mode, as he no longer had a downtown office. On the census of 1930 he listed himself as a real estate broker, and he did make efforts to plat and sell some of his property near Matthews Beach, extending into the present-day Wedgwood area.
The Roy Land family at Matthews Beach
In 1930 twenty-four-year-old Henry Land and his wife were living at 11038 35th Ave NE in Meadowbrook, and Henry worked as a mechanic at one of Mr. Matthew’s car companies. Henry was concerned for his father Roy, living near Portland, Oregon and struggling with the lack of work during the 1930s Great Depression years of economic difficulty. Henry told Mr. Matthews about his father, Roy Land, who was an experienced teamster. The term “teamster” in those days meant someone who was skilled in harnessing and handling horses to pull wagons, farm equipment, road-grading or excavation equipment. Mr. Matthews agreed to give Roy Land a job if he came to Seattle.
The desperate years of the 1930s motivated many families, like the Lands, to migrate in search of work. They had already lost their farm home and so Roy and Anna Land made their way to Seattle with what they had left: a horse team and wagon, and the four youngest of their twelve children, Howard, 14, Opal, 10, Dorothy, 8, and Maxine, 6. Pet the cow went along, and the family stopped each night, camped, and milked the cow. There was no Interstate-5 freeway and the process of travelling by wagon from Portland to Seattle was a slow one. Many other people who were traveling from state to state, looking for work, were also camped along the roadside.
The Land family lived on the Matthews estate rent-free in exchange for helping with work around the place. It didn’t take Mr. Matthews long to learn that Mrs. Land was an excellent cook. Elderly and alone, Mr. Matthews very much enjoyed sitting around the Land family’s big oak dinner table. Even in such hard times, the table was laden with food Mrs. Land had made, such as jams, jellies, vegetables she had canned, home-made bread, canned meat, and milk and cream from Pet the cow. There were always extra mouths to feed, as sometimes the family had people living with them and they always invited visitors, including door-to-door salesmen and sailors from the Sand Point Naval Station, to stay for a meal.
The Land girls liked to take a little canoe out onto Lake Washington and, although they had been told not to, they once paddled all the way down to the Sand Point Naval Station at about NE 70th Street. The sailors took the girls to the mess hall for something to eat. In the lean years of the 1930s Great Depression, the sailors knew that some neighborhood children were probably not getting enough to eat, so they always invited visiting children to come in. They also knew that the Land family frequently entertained sailors in their home for dinner, so they wanted to repay the favor. The girls never told their mother about this little adventure. Mother would have felt humiliated if she knew her girls had received a “handout.”
Every summer Mrs. Land made a big garden and in the fall the family would go to Yakima for fruit and to the mountains for berries. These would be canned and preserved for food for the coming winter. Dorothy Land recalls her surprise when, as a child, she visited a neighbor and saw only a pot of potatoes in the center of their table for dinner. At that moment Dorothy realized that though her family might be considered poor, her parents were rich in resourcefulness and in trust in God for all their needs. Roy and Anna Land did not hoard their resources and were not miserly, but gave away milk, cream, butter and vegetables to neighbors who had less than they did. When the garden season was over the Land family would take the bus to the Pike Place Market and fill their shopping bags to overflowing with vegetables and fruit for only two or three dollars. After shopping, Mr. Land would take his wife and daughters to the Balcony Cafe for lunch for 15 cents per plate. The girls regarded going to the Market as a special treat, so as adults they always held their sisterly reunions there.
The Matthews lakefront estate was full of delights for the Land children. In the summer they spent many happy hours swimming and jumping off a log into the water. They played on the estate lawn, where there was a row of poplar trees in front of Mr. Matthew’s house. In winter the children loved to slide on the frozen pond made from the Thornton Creek overflow on Mr. Matthews’ big field at 105th Street and 41st Ave NE. That field was the neighborhood playground winter and summer.
The first Maple Leaf School was located on NE 105th Street at the corner of 35th Ave NE in a three-room building with outhouses. That was similar to what the Land children were used to in the rural Oregon school which they had attended. But by the time of the Land family’s arrival in Seattle, the Maple Leaf School had moved into a large, modern brick building at the corner of NE 100th Street and 32nd Ave NE. For the Land children, entering that school in 1930 was a leap into the modern era. They had never been in a school which had electric lights or indoor plumbing.
With Mr. Matthews’ help and referrals, Roy Land was able to get back on his feet financially. The Meadowbrook area was still so rural in the 1930s and 1940s that people still did excavating for houses using a horse-drawn scoop shovel. They might have driveways graded or have their gardens plowed by a horse team. Roy Land found jobs to do around northeast Seattle, continuing to work with his horse team into the 1940s. On the census of 1940 Roy Land listed his occupation as “plows with team.”
The Matthews property is preserved for a public park
The Meadowbrook, Sand Point and Matthews Beach areas had almost no commercial development and were sparsely populated until World War Two brought workers to the Naval Station and more people living throughout northeast Seattle. A fortunate side-effect of the unfortunate 1930s Great Depression and 1940s war years was that most civic projects were put “on hold.” The Matthews estate was “on hold” as well. After John G. Matthews’ death in 1937, his descendants held their lakefront property. If times had been more prosperous, they might have sold it, but because of the economic depression years, the property was saved to eventually become a city park.
An additional legal complication was that John G. Matthews and his wife Amy had never divorced, although they had lived separately since 1924. As John Matthews’ widow, Mrs. Matthews may have had some legal ownership rights to her husband’s property, which had never been resolved after his death in 1937.
In 1950 Mrs. Amy Matthews came to Seattle to visit her two older sons, John Jr. and Julian, and Mrs. Matthews unexpectedly died while in Seattle. Amy Matthews was thirteen years younger than her husband, so when she died in 1950 she was 74, about the same age John Matthews had been when he died in 1937. In the year following his mother’s death, John G. Matthews Jr. worked out the estate issues. Finally, in 1951, the City of Seattle was able to go forward with purchase to obtain the beach and park which today is so much enjoyed and appreciated by residents of northeast Seattle.
Census and City directory listings for the John G. Matthews family.
Interviews with Wedgwood and Meadowbrook residents who had known Mr. Matthews, and interviews with Dorothy Land Sprinkle whose family came from Oregon and lived near Mr. Matthews.
Newspaper articles describing John Matthews’ activities in Seattle and the struggle to acquire the site for a Seattle park.
Property info: Note the comment below, asking about land claims. Some other sources indicate that Matthews had a homestead claim, but that cannot be true because no such claim is listed on the Bureau of Land Management site. All the land along the shore of Lake Washington was already taken in land claims by the 1870s, and John G. Matthews was only five years old at that time, and was living in Kentucky. There was a Stewart Matthews who had a land claim a little farther to the north on the shores of Lake Washington, so perhaps the confusion results from this name.