Small town Folly, and other joys

By Bob Hicks

Down the street from my sister’s house, my home town is in the protracted process of acquiring a Folly.

A Folly in the making?Perhaps you’ve seen some on your travels to England: those little bursts of architectural whimsy sometimes found on the rolling estates of members of the minor nobility, cozy towering playhouses for the eccentrically and unaccountably rich. They serve no purpose other than the whim of their owner/designers — in a sense, they’re the original conceptual art — and they can be, when your mood and the play of light are right, delightful.

So far the Folly of Jam, Washington* seems more an astonishment than a delight. While it’s still possible that it may emerge splendidly, odds are against. For one thing, its scale seems wrong. One thinks of a Folly as a little visual surprise tucked into a larger landscape. The Jam Folly, rising like the tortured offspring of a test-tube experiment with an armadillo and a giraffe, dominates its surroundings. You might almost say it scares the bejabbers out of them.

Properly speaking (if propriety matters a whit when you’re talking about a phenomenon that gets its name from the French word for foolishness) the Jam Folly might not even be a Folly, because rumblings have it that it’s meant to have a practical purpose:  it will be a bed-and-breakfast establishment. The very point of a Folly, some experts insist, is that it has no point.

Word on the street (which is a torn-up mess, thanks to the Folly construction, an ambitious municipal sidewalk, sewage and underground-utility project spurred by federal economic-stimulus money, and groundwork for a new public library close by) is that the Folly is the vision of an immigrant from the former Soviet bloc who has been battling something of a cold war with town authorities over matters of building permits and the like. It seems possible that, having left eastern Europe, he believed himself to have landed in a golden realm of unfettered possibility, only to learn there is no escape from bureaucracy. The discovery might have been shattering. Yet he soldiers on with his American dream.

The Folly is not built from scratch. It incorporates, and now dwarfs, the shell of a sturdy old house that once belonged to Miss Gregor, who was my elementary school music teacher. (Yes, American public schools once had such things.) If Miss Gregor stepped out of her old front door today, she would unfortunately tumble 20 feet to the ground, because that’s how high what remains of her house has risen in the grander scheme of things. Despite all of its flanges and outcroppings (I photographed the project from its least flamboyant side) the Folly is dominated by its disproportionate front tower, which is topped by a series of gargantuan openings for — something. Whispers have it that the peak will be a clock tower, but a small clock is already ensconced just below it. It could be a bell tower, or maybe a walk-up lookout: it’s just possible that on a good day, you could see both the majesty of Mt. Baker to the east and the shorelines of Sandy Point and Cherry Point several miles to the west. Attach a few balloons to the Folly’s many outcroppings and you can imagine it rising up and floating toward any of the three, like the flying house in a Japanese animated movie, complete with crusty old codger, gee-whillikers boy and brightly barking dog.

Whatever you think of this landmark in the making, it’s hard to imagine it existing in the Jam of my youth, when any house a full two stories tall was considered the next best thing to a mansion. (“Look! That house has bricks! Rich people must live there!”) But that town, like Miss Gregor’s house, has been subsumed. When I moved there at age 4, a couple of months after Dwight Eisenhower’s first presidential inauguration, Jam had 850 residents. By the time I left to conquer the wide world, the town had swollen to 1,525. Today it’s busted through the 11,000 barrier, not so much through infilling, although it’s done a bit of that, but by swallowing many square miles of surrounding dairy farm into its urban maw. One drives along neatly subdivisioned roads that once were lined with farms, naming the old-time families, and passes former country churches once blessed with the presence of sweetly unobtainable Lutheran and Mennonite farm girls in freckles and pigtails. Alas, progress.

Jam is not one of those quaint historically preserved sorts of towns. Its finest downtown building was originally a bank and, for a brief and glorious span in the early 1960s, a genuinely unironic ice cream parlor so true to type that you wouldn’t have been surprised to see Betty and Veronica pop up from one of its booths. Now it’s a real estate office, with horrible bleating outsized signs marring the classic lines of its exterior. Across the street is its nearest architectural competitor, a serenely understated Prairie Style funeral parlor that is painted the most soothing and eternally restful green imaginable. The riverside park holds several fine old pioneer log buildings collected from around the county, and another fine park on the outskirts of town, Hovander Park, is home to an exceptional Scandinavian-style carpenter gothic farm house. Those are pretty much the town’s architectural treasures. I would add the unkempt greasy spoon where I first encountered the pleasures of the pinball machine, a Quonset hut that in the 1950s and early ’60s whispered intimations of the wars that had recently been endured, but somewhere along the years the building has acquired manners and a false brick front that attempts to disguise its essential Quonset-ness.

After I left home my father designed and built, with help from my younger brothers, a new house to replace the tumbly one-bedroom frame miniature that at the family’s height had squeezed in nine inhabitants. The new house, a two-story rectangle, was as fine a simple family home as you could desire, open and airy but also rustic and comfortable, with a Franklin-style wood stove feeding the spacious kitchen and dining area, and a small rockery beneath the open stairwell for my mother to design around a few fine lengths of driftwood. It was a modest and practical and quietly lovely home, without a whiff of folly. And no one has ever put it on a map of must-see tourist sites.

Now that the Jam Folly has got as far as it has, I’m pulling for it to hit the finish line. After all, ugliness and beauty are both in the eye of the beholder. If you’re going to be ugly, be ugly boldly: It worked for Klaus Kinski. And chances are pretty good you’ll get on the map.


* Jam is the original name of Ferndale, Washington, so-called because the town was built at a bend on the Nooksack River where logs tended to jam. It was a gutsy and descriptive name, and I have decided to promote it in place of its dull and prettified replacement.