End of an era: Longtime West Seattleite talks Tillicum Village sale

May 10, 2009 10:27 pm
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By Keri DeTore
Reporting for West Seattle Blog

If you drive down Avalon Way with any regularity, you may have noticed the office of Tillicum Village is shuttered. It closed after the Hewitt family of West Seattle, which has owned and operated Tillicum Village since 1962, sold the operation recently to Argosy Cruises.

Tillicum Village is a popular tour destination on Blake Island, directly across Puget Sound from West Seattle’s western shores, built in the style of a tribal longhouse, offering Native American entertainment and salmon barbecue to visitors; you can read its history here.

So what does the sale mean to its former owners, and the operation? We sat down to talk with Mark Hewitt, former Tillicum Village owner (and son of its founder Bill Hewitt):

The transition of Tillicum from the Hewitt family to Argosy was “as smooth as anything could have been,” Mark Hewitt (left) told WSB. Argosy has always provided boat service for Blake Island and has a full understanding of the operations. Plus, he says, they have the financial resources to continue the operations at Tillicum and make necessary improvements.

Mark is staying on in an advisory role and says he’s comfortable that he’s entrusted Tillicum to a company with deep local roots. Many of Argosy’s leaders live in West Seattle including VP of Operations Ralph Pease, who has been a close friend of Mark’s since childhood.

Employees who worked at Tillicum under the Hewitt family are continuing on under Argosy, he says. Some have asked about the artisans who displayed their crafts at the Avalon Way office; Mark says they will have their wares displayed at Tillicum Village, and possibly on the Argosy boats going to and from the island. This is particularly important to Mark, who says: “(Art) is a great monument to something that might otherwise fade from memory. It’s a hard time for artists; we as a civilization need to maintain (the arts) through hard times as well as good times.”

The Avalon Way office itself will likely be sold, he says.

Selling Tillicum Village to an entity that would respect and carry out his father’s dream was very important to Mark, who spent much of his life there. Though the family moved to West Seattle when Mark was a teenager, he remembers when, as a child living on Vashon Island, his father would look out their window at Blake Island and muse that there must be something they could do there.

That “something” became the longhouse where Bill Hewitt (left) could bake salmon in the traditional Northwest Coast Indian tradition, and provide tourists with a special cultural experience. One of those “tourists” in 1993 was then-President Bill Clinton, who gathered at Tillicum with world leaders during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting held that year in Seattle.

The Hewitt kids had their own special experiences splitting their time between Seattle and Blake Island. Mark remembers having to deal with the threat of fires on the island: “We’d get a call that someone could see a fire on part of the island. We’d jump onto the jeep and drive as fast as we could to that area. At age 15, hanging on the back of a jeep going 45 miles an hour through the woods, bouncing up and down…that was cool!”

Another memory that stands out for Mark was sharing a long boat ride with his dad: “We ended up using a water ski to paddle three-quarters of the way from Blake to Alki. We kept trying the motor and I’d ask my dad, ‘do we have gas?’ and he’d say, ‘yes we have gas.’ So we’d paddle for a while and try the motor again and I finally asked, ‘are you SURE we have gas?’ and he answered, ‘yes we have gas—it was on Empty when we left Seacrest.’ He assumed that even though the gas gauge read Empty, it would still be enough to get us to and from Blake Island—it wasn’t. At least we didn’t have to keep stopping to try the motor anymore.”

Like Mark Hewitt, his own kids, most of whom still live in West Seattle, worked and played at Tillicum. Last year, son Clint, an 8th grader, played the starring role of the Easter Bunny during Tillicum’s Easter celebration. His daughters worked in the office and in ticket sales.

So what’s next for this family whose lives have been so wrapped up with Tillicum Village?

“I don’t do ‘nothing’ well,” says Mark, and while he continues to work with Argosy at Tillicum Village, he also maintains positions on a number of tourism-related boards, including the Advisory Board for the Bachelor of Applied Science in Hospitality Management degree at South Seattle Community College. He’ll also stay busy keeping up with his kids who are graduating from Chief Sealth High School and SSCC; daughter Georgia Mitchell is a finalist for this year’s Miss West Seattle Hi-Yu Festival (as reported in this recent WSB story).

Mark is also an artist, and while he will try to find some time for painting and sculpting, he also plans to continue traveling with his wife, Carrie. The importance of travel, he says, “really hit home with the Goodwill Games. Tillicum Village hosted the Soviet Union; when I was growing up, they were supposed to be evil people who wanted to kill us. Meeting them I realized, they’re just like us. They’re worried about their jobs and their kids…we really are all the same.”

While travel is an important part of his life, he’s always happy to return to West Seattle. “We have great views, we have the water…it’s a suburban-type atmosphere in the city. How much better can it get?”

Photo notes: Mark Hewitt, by Keri DeTore; photo of Bill Hewitt and Bill Clinton reproduced from “The story of Tillicum Village” with permission

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