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Did Eliza Island have a black cat ranch?

James Wardner spun a faux fur tale

Eliza Island
Eliza Island
By Audra Anderson Assistant Editor

In the late 19th century, an era lacking fact-checking, when susceptible journalists devoured odd or scandalous stories, Fairhaven investor James Wardner fooled media nationwide with a faux fur tale. 

Wardner moved to Fairhaven in 1889, intrigued by the prospect of the town becoming a terminus for a transcontinental railroad. In about a year, it became evident Fairhaven was not destined to be the next Chicago, but now financially invested in the success of the town, Wardner wanted to “falsely inflate his property values,” said Jeff Jewell, research technician at Whatcom Museum.

“He seeds the press with sensationalized stories, and one of these is his black cat ranch on Eliza Island, where he was going to raise black cats for their fur and supposedly export 500 cat pelts a month,” Jewell said. 

Speaking with a young reporter from the Fairhaven Herald, Wardner said his black cats on Eliza Island, located about 8 miles from Bellingham, would be sustained by fish from the sea. Men would be employed to seine fish in the bay, feed the cats three times a day, then round them up at night. 

The story was picked up by papers around the country — including The Seattle Times, New York Tribune and Sioux City Journal — and printed as fact.

“… A grand skirmish was made to get black cats. The Pacific Coast States were ransacked, and nearly every incoming train was loaded with black cats, which were immediately taken to the island, or ‘cat factory,’ as we called it,” reads a Sioux City Journal article.

Newspapers were fascinated by the capitalistic venture.

“A new industry is always interesting. And it is especially attractive if it shows great possibilities and hints of perhaps becoming a source of national wealth. There comes at this time from the new State of Washington a report of such an industry,” the New York Tribune wrote. 

Wardner printed excerpts from the articles in his 1900 autobiography titled, “Jim Wardner, of Wardner, Idaho. By Himself.”

“He uses the way the stories are published to verify what he’s doing: ‘They printed it in the papers as being true, therefore it must be true, and I’ll put that in my book, citing them as the source,’” Jewell said. “It was kind of backhanded and twisted, but all done in good humor. There were no cats killed making this story.”

In a Seattle Times article included in the autobiography, the cat ranch is apparently “sold” after Wardner failed to create an “endless chain” by feeding the felines to one another.

“We are reliably informed by Mr. Samuel Weller, late general manager and purveyor to Wardner’s black cats, that the vicious and cannibalistic experiment of putting cat into cat by means of soup resulted disastrously to the cats,” the article reads. 

The myth was eventually debunked, but that didn’t stop Fairhaven from celebrating the bit of odd history, like in the 1990s, when black cat banners hung from the neighborhood’s light poles. It also didn’t stop the tall tale from spreading locally. 

“People would tell this story quite often as if it were true, just as James Wardner did. In fact, I don’t think they realized what he had done,” Jewell said. 

Coincidentally, Fairhaven was home to a small colony of cats in the late 1980s and ’90s — feral felines in the back of the former Fairhaven Restaurant, now Belle Bridal. Employees would step out from the service door to feed the cats, and even built them a house, Jewell said. 

Eventually, “the Humane Society rounded up the cats and fixed the parts that worked too well and gave them off,” Jewell said. “But back in the day, people would tell me, verbatim, that these were the descendants of James Wardner’s cats.”

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