Doug Dixon accrues cache of symbols from Ballard’s past
There’s no doubt Ballard is undergoing unprecedented change. Large apartment buildings are being erected and new architecture is changing the face of Old Ballard. Businesses are opening and closing, and with them gone are the signs and iconic things that once told people they were in an old maritime village.
Many of those symbols of the past are being taken down, however, they haven’t left Ballard.
John “Doug” Dixon, general manager of Pacific Fishermen Shipyard, has been collecting the signs and furnishings of businesses in Ballard as they close for years.
Where does he put them? In the shipyard, of course.
Amid Pacific Fishermen Shipyard you can hear grinders and pounding; you can smell the acrid metallic scent of welding; but what you see there is something out of a time capsule: a mosaic of Ballard emblems and maritime Americana gathered in a place that embodies the historic essence of Ballard. The shipyard itself is the insignia of an age. It represents the maritime industry that built up a fishing village into one of the largest cities in Washington back in the early 1900s, and the industry remains a vital economic and cultural resource today.
Dixon is a symbol collector. Everything he as accrued has a story. Preservers and buoys from sunken boats hang from the ceiling of the office with hats, lanterns and old crabbing pots. Dixon has accumulated all kinds of relics, including the Viking Tavern sign and booths from Ivar’s old location on 15th Avenue NW. There are other things, too, like an old street sweeper machine, coolers, refrigerators, boats and statues.
Break area where a boat hangs with the words "Snoose Junction" printed on it, a name associated with Scandinavians and chewing tobacco.
Dixon’s passion could also be his undoing. He recently fell from a chair and broke his femur while hanging a sign. Though injured, Dixon is still on the job, but is working from home. He has fashioned a makeshift office in his dining room. Dixon invited the Ballard News-Tribune to his home in North Beach to chat about his collection. His home is like the shipyard, made up with anchors, rigging, maps and pictures of boats.
Dixon has been living in the area since 1977. He was born on the shores of Lake Erie in Cleveland. He went to school on Michigan for architecture. He later drilled for oil in California and came to Seattle in 1977 when King Crab was taking off. He worked as a naval architect and designed fishing boats. Northwestern, a fishing vessel featured on the Discovery Channel’s, Deadliest Catch, is one boat Dixon helped design.
As an architect Dixon has an eye for patterns and emblems, and so his appreciation for things that were made in the past is not surprising. However, Dixons said that collecting the signs is more nostalgic for him, a way to remember the good times in Ballard and the way it used to be. He started collecting signs as things began to change in Ballard.
“I was just distressed with the gentrification in Ballard, and I saw too many places where I used to hang out going out of business,” said Dixon.
As places closed, many business owners found that the terms in their lease said their signs needed to be moved. They would have had to pay someone to come take the signs away. As the general manager of a shipyard, Dixon had access to a crane.
“They’d say ‘we are going to have to hire a truck to take it down,” and I’d say, ‘I’ve got a crane. I’ll take it down for you.’ And so I would take it down and then put it up in the shipyard.”
Dixon became known as the guy to call if someone needed a crane, and with an eye for rare things, Dixon more than obliged. Also, he explained that the Pacific Fishermen Shipyard is known for hosting barbecues and that making up a space that encapsulates the history of Ballard is a priority.
“We do a lot of barbecues in our shipyard. We do it ‘Ballard Oil style’ – alder smoked salmon and cod, and we do that in the yard for usually up to 200 people. … We just have a desire to make it look warm and friendly and some of the old signs of the bars we used to drink at were good to have.”
Of all the bars maritime folk would venture to after a days work, the Viking Tavern was a popular place. But today the Viking is gone, and a condo development is being constructed where it once was. Before a demolition crane tore into the walls of the Viking, Dixon plucked the sign with his crane and propped it up in the shipyard. He also purchased the old Viking cooler, which now resides in the shipyard office.
“The Viking Tavern was a favorite of ours. It was just a grand old place from the 50s where we would water down, and to have it go to a condo was criminal -- at least we are preserving their memory.”
The Valhalla Tavern’s neon sign is another relic Dixon acquired. Dixon explained that the Valhalla Tavern was once where the Old Piquliar now stands today on NW Market Street. Now the sign resides above a covered break area in the shipyard where workers have lunch, smoke cigarettes and drink coffee.
“We are really honored to have that one.”
Dixon is currently working on getting or at least remaking the sign from the Vasa Sea Grill, a fishermen’s tavern that used to be on Ballard Avenue NW.
“It looks like the sign might be gone but what we are going to do is maybe get a good photograph of the Vasa Sea Grill and then reproduce it and put it up so we have that piece of history. The Vasa Sea was an important tavern.”
A good description of the Vasa can be found in the Deadliest Catch’s Captain Sig Hansen’s memoir, “North by Northwestern.”
“The Patio Room was smoky and raucous, crowded with old sailors and fishermen, most of them Scandinavian,” wrote Hansen. “Many of them rented rooms in the run-down boarding houses above the storefronts – the Princess Hotel, the Sunset, and the Starlight. Back then halibut season lasted for six months, and so for the other six months these fishermen would just hole up in their hotels and spend their money at the bars.”
Not far from the Valhalla sign there is another neon sign. This one is from the Yankee Diner and Grill hangs on the side of large warehouse. Dixon joked that the sign had a precarious way of coming to the yard.
“Well that one just kind of stuck to the crane as we were driving by.”
Above barbecue pit there is a large blue sign with white writing on it that says “Kolstrand Marine.” When asked about the sign, Dixon’s smile abruptly changed to a frown.
“Now that is an unfortunate sign. That’s where I fell off my chair and broke my femur – putting that thing up.”
Dixon said he was treated at Swedish Hospital in Ballard and that it has certainly been a painful ordeal. Still, he is glad to have the Kolstrand sign in the shipyard.
According to Dixon, Kolstrand Marine was longtime businesses located in the building where Ballard Hardware & Supply Co., Inc. now resides. When owners of the hardware store took over the building they took down the sign and put it in their storeroom. When they recently changed their name to Ballard Industrial, they called Dixon and asked if he wanted the sign.
Dixon has also found other prizes from the past like his Ivar’s sign, lights, booths and tables.
“When Ivar’s closed on 15th we all cried. They sent all their furnishing to a liquidator, and we went down there and bought what we could.”
Dixon and the crew set everything up in a covered area in the yard. Sitting in a booth, one has a strange feeling of being out place; you half expect someone to bring out a basket of fish and chips or fried clams.
In the same area is a huge sign that says, “Louie’s Cuisine of China.” The sign is from the old Chinese restaurant on 15th Avenue NW that recently closed. Dixon said that that restaurant, too, was a hangout for him and his friends.
“We spent a lot of quality time at Louie’s and to have it close was sad. … We actually stole that sign – well maybe half of it.”
Dixon said that the sign is two-sided, and when the place officially closed, he gathered some friends and loaded one portion of it on a truck. The owner of Louie’s guessed it was Dixon and told him he could take the other portion of the sign -- among other things. He also took their Chinese lanterns. Above the Ivar’s booths there is a shoal of Louie’s lanterns suspended with Ivar’s lamps. The lights swim together above one’s head in a strange irony that echoes the past.
Deeper into the shipyard is the red neon sign from the Copper Gate. It rests above a small tool shack under a large warehouse. Inside the warehouse sparks fly as welders fuse metal rigging to huge steel structures. Workers come and go paying no attention to the sigh. However, from a certain angle, it looks as if the Copper Gate never closed, but simply moved to the shipyard. Inside one might still find a burly bartender serving pints to soot covered patrons or hipsters sitting at a hull-shaped bar after the 5’ O'clock bell.
“Oh yeah that was really sad to see that place go under. That was the case where they needed someone to remove the sign, and they didn’t have anyone to take it.”
Dixon, of course pitched in his crane services.
Always looking for more signs, Dixon now has his sights on other jewels from the past: the neon sign from the Buckeroo Tavern in Fremont and the 2 Bit Tavern sign in Ballard.
“Those aren’t maritime places, and you don’t want to discuss hoofed animals on boats. It’s bad luck. I might not bring those in on second thought.”
Dixon said his favorite signs in the yard are either the Copper Gate or the Viking Tavern. He explained that being able to see the signs everyday is a real joy and an honor for him.
“It’s great. I really love it. It brings a smile to my face.”
Beyond an honor, Dixon said that collecting all these signs is also a message. In the midst of the dramatic change, he wants people to remember Ballard’s roots. He said that the signs are a link to the past and where Ballard came from. Dixon wants people to know that the industry that built up a community is just as important today as it was then.
“It’s iconic that’s for sure, but really it’s a statement. It’s a statement that Ballard is not going anywhere. It’s a symbol of what Ballard was and what it will be.”