Inside Gig Harbor’s Sunny Hill Farm

If This Land Could Talk: A Story of Family, Farming, and Fortitude in Gig Harbor

Ruth Martin sits under a wrought iron candle-burning chandelier and describes her love of the land her home sits on, in the historic Cromwell community of Gig Harbor.

“We weren’t looking to buy something like this. We just stumbled on it in 2002. It felt special, but the exact opposite of the downsized house we thought we wanted” she laughed, thinking about the sprawling 15 acres with five structures including the 4,000-square-foot main house.

“We want to be good stewards of this land and the heritage of the families that came before us,” she muses. “I love the nostalgia and want my family to have the multi-generational experience I had growing up. It’s all about family.”

11092015_SunnyHillFarm_JS_038Sunny Hill Farm is all about family, and has been since 19-year-old Frank Samuelson set foot on the property for the first time in 1898. Frank, an immigrant from Sweden, and his wife Marie from Norway, purchased 80 acres of forested waterfront property in the remote Hales Passage region. Without roads or land access they proceeded to clear the property, build the first dwelling and eventually fill it with their 14 children during a time when neighbors were few and life consisted mostly of work and family.

A large family was a bonus in on a farm. Sunny Hill Fruit Farm produced everything from apples to eggs and vegetables to cherries, but their largest crop was strawberries.

Martin Samuelson confirmed the importance of family on the farm. “I was 4 years old when I learned to pick strawberries alongside my mother,” Martin wrote for a Cromwell Community reunion. “My Dad built a little carrier just for me. We had a lot of fun on the farm but we worked hard together picking fruit, hoeing, thrashing peas. We’d sit around in the evening and husk beans, sing songs and make play out of it.”

Cromwell, known as Little Norway or Hales Passage during the Sunny Hill Fruit Farm era, grew thanks in part to the elder Samuelson’s community support. He donated land for the school, the cemetery and the Emmanuel Lutheran Church. In 1962 Frank Samuelson Jr. sold the property to a new family, with new energy and ideas. Robert Dowd Martin and his wife Virginia purchased 15 acres on the uphill side of the property, where the deteriorating original farmhouse still stood.

Virginia was a trailblazer for her day, preserving and repurposing a variety of building materials from demolishing sites in the ’60s. “Workers and neighbors must have thought I lost my mind”, Virginia wrote in an email to current owner Ruth Martin (no relation). “I was notorious for hopping in my truck and going on salvage scouts up and down the west coast.”

Her efforts paid off as the Martins turned Sunny Hill Fruit Farm into Samarhill (a conglomeration of the names Samuelson and Martin) during the decade they lived on the land. The Martin family used ingenuity, hard work and family values to create the estate.

When the Robert Dowd Martin family arrived in the early 1960s, they inherited a chicken house, barn, smoke house and pump house, all in differing stages of decay. During the next decade the property would undergo it’s most aggressive transformation. Martin was a Weyerhaeuser executive, and occasionally would have access to quality wood building materials. And Virginia made use of every scrap and board.

11092015_SunnyHillFarm_JS_042Today the property looks much like it did when the Robert Dowd Martins left in 1972. The original Samuelson farmhouse remains, in a much-altered state, and currently is known as the “pool house”. The Martins added the swimming pool, storage building, and garage. Additionally, they built a home for Robert’s father, today known as the “cottage”.

But the biggest impact Bob and Virginia Martin had on the property was the main house. This is where Virginia’s unique salvage ability came in to play.

The Martins acquired a duplex government-housing unit from an area known as Salishan near the current Tacoma Mall. The housing units were being torn down and Robert knew they were very well built, so he barged the unit to Olalla and then hauled to the farm.

The duplex now makes up the north and south ends of the house, and a new two-story structure was built in-between. Virginia found an old barn in Cromwell and bought it for the lumber, which she used for the kitchen ceiling.  Robert came home from work with two Redwood Cedar window casings that were installed in the South bedroom facing the pond. Virginia salvaged bricks for the fireplace from Western State Hospital and kitchen windows were salvaged from the train roundhouse building in Tacoma. She also salvaged a lot of items from old houses on Yakima Avenue in Tacoma that were all being torn down at the time.

“We would find carved panels in the walls that had been covered by sheetrock. We found etched glass windows that no one had noticed because the houses were built so close together.” Virginia died in January 2015 but shared her thoughts with current owner Ruth Martin. “I still dream of living there. I remember the sun on the hill behind the house as I fixed breakfast. It is just a beautiful spot.”

The Robert Dowd Martins left the property in 1972, and over the next three decades the land would change hands many times.  An effort was made for the property to be a mental health retreat, but the owners struggled to keep it viable. The house was then rented out by the room and was a communal living home until Ruth and Tim Martin stumbled upon it in 2002.

The current owners have rechristened the property Sunny Hill Farm. “It’s not a fussy house” Ruth Martin said, “It’s a farmhouse and I think the name fits.  We were really taken with the property more than the house.”

Ruth and Tim Martin have two of their grown children and their families living on the property with them. It has become a gathering place for their large extended family and a place for family celebrations as well as multi-generational everyday living. “It’s priceless to me to have daily contact with my grandchildren as I do, all living here on the property” Ruth mused. “We hope to stay as long as we can.  We like to play in the dirt (garden) and work on our long “To Do” lists. It’s a balance managing a property like this. But it’s really all about family.”

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