Bill Hewitt built Tillicum Village on Northwest traditions

Blake Island seems miles, even decades, removed from metropolitan Seattle. The island was once a popular gathering place for the Duwamish and Suquamish Indians. There’s evidence that Seattle’s namesake, Chief Sealth, leader of the Suquamish, was born on Blake.

But the island is only eight miles  from Seattle’s Pier 55. The 45-minute charter trip across Puget Sound affords magnificent views of the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges, as well as Seattle’s skyline. Deer, otter, and other wildlife inhabit the 473-acre island. Carved totem poles, depicting bears, ravens, and eagles, stand like stiff, silent sentries protecting a sacred place. Clam nectar is ladled out of big pots and served to visitors as they reach the terraced lawn in front of Tillicum Village at the water’s edge.

“That’s the best appetizer I’ve had in years,” says one lady. She crushes the clamshells with her foot before entering the longhouse’s heavy wooden double doors. The building is constructed of cedar posts and crossbeams and sided with split cedar planks.

Tillicum Village–”Tillicum” means “friendly people” in Chinook–celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. It has built a reputation on fresh-baked salmon, prepared inside the longhouse on cedar stakes over alderwood fires in the traditional manner of the Northwest Coast Indians. Guests file past circular fire pits where orange-pink slabs of salmon have been baking for an hour. Generous portions are served buffet-style on fish-shaped trays. Following the meal, the lights dim. Patrons sit quietly at long tables at right angles to the stage anticipating “Dance on the Wind.” Some 100,000 people a year visit the village with as many as three tours departing the Seattle waterfront daily in July and August.

Tillicum Village was the vision of William S. “Bill” Hewitt ’42. The Seattle native wanted to build and operate a unique restaurant and cultural center in a longhouse. He grew up in Bremerton, where his father owned a restaurant near the naval shipyards. While completing a degree at Washington State College in home economics and hotel and restaurant administration, he opened The Cougar Den, a small eatery in downtown Pullman to help pay for his education.

Hewitt’s training in the food industry would pay dividends during World War II. Drafted into the Army, he was assigned to the general’s mess hall in the rear echelon away from the firing lines at the Battle of the Bulge. “That was the best break I ever had,” he said.

After the war, he returned to Seattle. He was hired as a relief manager for Clark’s Restaurants and later worked for Western Hotels. For two years, he was food department manager at the Newhouse Hotel in Salt Lake City. Later, he opened Hewitt’s Café on 4th Avenue in downtown Seattle, then launched Hewitt’s Catering Service. Early on, he catered for youth and church groups. He learned to bake salmon Indian-style with the head and backbone removed, and prepared the first “potlatch-style salmon bake” for the Boeing Airplane Co. in 1958. It was a big success, and business grew. He began looking for a place to build a longhouse to showcase his service. Blake Island proved to be the ideal site.

Hewitt’s plan was to open Tillicum Village in April 1962 to capitalize on the tourist trade generated by the Seattle World’s Fair. He thought the village would turn a profit from the beginning, gain momentum, and become a magnet for local organizations and groups. The venture’s continued growth would ensure prosperity for years to come.

But things didn’t go quite as smoothly as hoped.

From the living room of his waterfront home near the Fauntleroy ferry landing in West Seattle, Bill Hewitt pointed out Blake Island, flanked by Vashon Island to the south and Bainbridge Island to the north.

“There was nothing out there when we started,” Hewitt said of the site that is now Tillicum Village. If allowed to build on Blake Island State Park, he agreed to take care of the pit toilets.

Mark Hewitt, who succeeded his father as president in 1990, was 11 or 12 when the logs being towed across Puget Sound to be used in construction of the original building were scattered to kingdom come in a storm. He remembers playing on the logs after they were rounded up and stacked on the beach.

“It was a gamble,” Bill Hewitt explained.

The original building cost about $400,000. Friends in the plumbing and electrical trades provided him in-kind services for stock. First-year gross sales of $25,000 came to only five percent of the expected sales volume. The seasonal nature of the business, confusion regarding docking facilities on the island, and the fact that another company controlled virtually all of Seattle’s tourism compounded Hewitt’s difficulties. Debts soared. He went to the Chamber of Commerce for advice. Those reviewing the project said his only option was to file for bankruptcy. He would not consider doing that.

“The catering business supported us at the start,” he explained. Fortunately, the year after the World’s Fair ended, he and two partners landed the catering contract at the Seattle Center. But nine months later, he sold his half interest to focus on Tillicum Village. With hard work, perseverance, and faith he managed to get the operation on a sound financial footing.

“It took nearly 15 years,” he said.

“One thing we find challenging is the preconceived idea people have of what they will find at Tillicum Village,” Mark said. “What we do well is share the Pacific Northwest, with its water, islands, mountains, salmon, clams, native culture, deer, and lowland forests.”

“Visitors will tell you what sets our place apart is the people,” the senior Hewitt added.

Tillicum Village employs about 10 people year-round in its Seattle office. Another 12 to 15 work on Blake Island. In the peak summer months the island staff swells to nearly 60, most of them Native Americans.

From the start, none were more important than Hyacinth and Winnefred David, Native American elders and longtime village employees. They instilled a great respect for Indian tradition in their large family. The two youngest sons, Joe and George, have provided leadership and inspiration to fellow artisans in expanding the boundaries of their classical art forms, including the village’s totems, masks, and other carvings on display. Brothers Benny and Douglas also worked at the village.

The Native American dance program, which had remained virtually unchanged since Tillicum Village opened, took on a new presence in 1992. Greg Thompson Productions began working on a stage set and script based on individual dances of the Northwest Coast Indians.

“We wanted something more professional, including the timing of the show,” Mark explained of the result, “Dance on the Wind.” While individual tribal customs differ, the tribes share many of the same traditions passed on from elders to their children and grandchildren. The Paddle Dance welcomes visitors to the potlatch, the ceremonial Mask Dance comes from the West Coast of Vancouver Island, and the Blanket Dance from the Lummi. The Dance of The Terrible Beast is a favorite. It tells in story and dance of a mythical creature that could fly like a bird, swim like a fish, walk upright like a human, and disappears at will.

Over the years, Tillicum has baked salmon throughout the world: on top of Mount St. Helens, Greece, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Mozambique, and Namibia–the latter during a celebration marking delivery of a new Boeing 747-400 to Air Namibia. But in 1993, the world came to Tillicum.

In November of that year, at the invitation of President Bill Clinton, the fifth ministerial meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference was held in Seattle. Lea
ders from 14 member countries convened at Tillicum Village for a day to discuss the future of trade throughout the Pacific Rim.

“We had two things going for us,” Mark said, “a remote location that officials thought would be secure, and our ability to work with the White House and U.S. State Department in preparing the site during the week prior to the event.”

Preparations for the November 20  meeting began in mid-summer. Nearly everything had to be removed from the village’s front lobby and longhouse, stored in vans, and parked a quarter-mile away. New carpeting was installed. Special furniture was brought in. Selected Indian art from Tillicum’s collection was displayed. Millions of dollars of electrical communications equipment was installed to provide satellite links throughout the world. Six hundred media representatives were housed under a huge tent erected on the island’s northeast point near Tillicum Village. The president and APEC delegates arrived at 9:45 a.m. The meeting concluded mid-afternoon.

“That was a lot of work for one day,” Hewitt said.

After relinquishing control to Mark, Bill Hewitt would visit the village several times on weekdays and nearly every Saturday and Sunday. He enjoyed collecting tickets, passing out plates in the buffet line, and answering questions about the village’s history.

While those visits became less frequent over time, Hewitt was aboard the Good Time charter boat operated by Argosy Tours April 28, a beautiful Sunday afternoon–the day before his 85th birthday. The previous evening’s attendance had topped 600, and nearly 600 pounds of salmon had been prepared.

Hewitt sat quietly in the sun outside the longhouse taking in the scene and observing the people before entering the dining hall.

“It’s a nice feeling to see people have a good time,” he said.