I went to La Conner expecting quilts. But I also got pig sculptures, talking barns and postcard views.
Nestled behind flower fields in the wide Skagit Valley, La Conner is a classic chocolate-box town. Fancy Victorian houses rise on a hill behind a waterfront of restaurants and shops squeezed into clapboard buildings. On one side, the Swinomish Channel, cutting off Fidalgo Island, calmly reflects the misty skies and Rainbow Bridge; on the other side lush green fields stretch all the way to the Cascades.
There’s plenty of Victorian fussiness in La Conner — a Quilt Museum inside a Victorian mansion, endless craft and gift shops. But there’s also a quirky side, if you know where to look.
Gables and clapboard
The first thing to do in La Conner is park your car and start exploring on foot. (Pick up a map at the information center on Morris Street, or find one at lovelaconner.com.) Founded in the 1860s by farmers and traders — including John Conner, who bought the whole place for $500 and named it after his wife, Louisa — it was the first county seat. With its prime location between water and fields, La Conner became a hub for farming and steamer traffic from Seattle. Smelt canning and logging thrived.
Many of the homes, warehouses and shops built in the 1890s are still there in near-perfect condition. First Street, running parallel to the waterfront, is full of narrow alleys leading to boat docks, a plush Victorian saloon (the 1890s Lounge, still a fine place to get a drink), and clapboard shops with swinging signs. The boardwalk beside the water is newly finished, running from Morris Street to Commercial Avenue and offering calm views of the orange Rainbow Bridge, the boat docks and the Swinomish reservation across the channel.
At the end of the row, turn left up Commercial Avenue to start climbing the hill. The triangular cream-and-green original City Hall proudly bears its 1890 date over the front door; one block further are the pristine white towers of Sacred Heart church. Trek up Third Street and turn right at Calhoun to Fourth, and you’ll be passing gingerbread houses with neat scalloped trim and ornate porch awnings. A few come in pairs, many are labeled with historic dates and owners. It’s all impeccably dollhouse-neat.
If you make it to the top of the Fourth Street hill, you’ll find the Skagit County Historical Museum squatting like unattractive barracks at the dead end. Let the kids play on the interactive stone sculptures underneath the tree across the road (a Swinomish canoe and a tiny tug) before heading inside — this is a museum where you can walk into history. One gallery is dedicated to business and farming: walk up into a recreated 1890s general store, peer into a cannery labeling machine, and bend down to the license plate on the slick Ford “horseless carriage.” The other gallery is devoted to indoor pursuits: vintage toys and rocking horses, player pianos, Victorian mourning dresses, and a wealth of buttons. The current exhibit (through April 12) displays historical medical equipment, from human to veterinary.
Head back down the hill and along Second Street, where you’ll find a quiet Butterfly Garden next to the white clapboard garden club — with cozy benches and a fountain, it makes a good resting point. Just across the street is the Gaches Mansion, a Victorian gem with green-trim turret, lace-covered windows, fireplace tiles and circular wood trim. Rescued from neglect, it’s now home to the Quilt and Textile Museum, where antique quilts (including a delightful tablecloth “signed” with embroidered names) inhabit the first floor, and contemporary art quilts occupy the upper two. As I came back down the narrow, wood-paneled servants’ stairs, past vintage christening dresses with hand-made lace, volunteer Anne Brenaman got out her spinning wheel and began work, bathed in the mansion’s soft gold light.
Pigs and Palm Trees
You can explore the quirky side of La Conner on foot. A printed walking tour will take you around to the town’s many outdoor sculptures, which include a ghostly-thin face, a curvy heron, a Coast Salish-style Rose Window, and a life-size bronze dog perched on a bench. Way more eclectic, though, is the odd yard-art. A life-size pink calico pig stands graciously on the front porch of 607 Third St., just behind a leaping dolphin. Around the corner on Benton Street is a courtyard with a metal palm tree; a totem pole hides behind the hedge at 532 Third St. At 509 Second St., you’ll find an entire Asian garden complete with pagoda and roofed walls, while over on Center Street, there’s a low-slung brown house with an identical mini-house mailbox.
For more fine than folk art, the Museum of Northwest Art on First Street shows work by artists that flocked to La Conner’s misty light: Morris Graves, Guy Anderson and, more recently, Mary Randlett.
But if you really want quirky, come back for a festival. The Historic Smelt Derby Festival celebrates its 50th anniversary on Feb. 28, and while there haven’t been smelt in the channel since the canneries closed down decades ago, the tradition still continues. A pancake breakfast, fun run and other festival trappings are joined by an all-day fishing derby (it’s mostly salmon, not smelt), fish printing for kids and other smelt-themed activities.
In March, La Conner gets a jump on tulip tourists with the now-official Daffodil Festival. The rich, diked flower fields that surround the town like a quilt hold just as many daffodils as tulips, and the daffodils bloom earlier, their bright yellow shining against the gray Skagit sky and snow-capped mountains. Riding a bike is the best way to see them, and you can don your Victorian best to join in the Tweed Ride on March 28.
The other quirky thing about La Conner’s fields is that they talk — and so do the 58 historic barns dotted around the county. Thanks to some creative local groups, you can scan a QR code at certain fields to hear the “field” telling you about what’s growing and how (see talkingfields.orgfor a map); or pick up a printed map of historic barns from the Information Center and dial 360-355-3039 at each one to hear about the history and style.
Pastries and Pierogies
La Conner has seen a bit of a renaissance in the last year, with new retail shops and restaurants. The Calico Kitchen is still the best place for piled-high breakfasts, Mount Baker-sized cinnamon rolls, crunchy toffee bars and excellent espresso. But for lunch, I tried newcomer Anelia’s Kitchen and Stage, which specializes in Polish food. Housed in an airy former bank building, the cafe does pierogies that are crispy on the outside and richly smooth on the inside; fresh, inventive salads with homemade dressing; and a hearty mushroom soup that sings with dill and paprika.
La Conner might look like a Victorian chocolate-box town — but it has a few surprises just under its lid.