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The curious case of ‘Crazy’ Callen
by Reneé Mizar, Communications Coordinator, Museum & Arts Center in the Sequim-Dungeness Valley
Sequim bears little resemblance to the dry prairie it once was. One constant, however, is the community’s gathering to celebrate the ingenuity that transformed it into fertile farmland more than a century ago.
Now in its 118th year and deemed Washington’s oldest continuing festival, the Sequim Irrigation Festival spans 10 event-filled days of parades, pageantry and old-fashioned fun that remains a celebration of a single idea realized.
History credits D.R. Callen as one of four men who introduced the prospect of irrigating the Sequim Prairie by diverting Dungeness River water via gravity-driven ditches — an engineering endeavor considered so wildly inventive at the time that he was subsequently dubbed “Crazy” Callen. He was a founding member of the Sequim Prairie Ditch Company, incorporated in November 1895, and the growing success of the landscape-altering feat was first celebrated with a community picnic near his namesake Callen’s Corner on May 1, 1896.
Though his reputation is cemented in local lore as a visionary, scant information exists in the area’s historical record about Callen himself. Among the brief mentions and passing snippets alluding to his life beyond that role are that he learned about irrigation ditches while living in Colorado or Utah, arrived in Sequim in the 1880s, was born in Pennsylvania, and his first name was David.
“Callen’s story had intriguing gaps and contradictions,” said Pat Willis, a Museum & Arts Center in the Sequim-Dungeness Valley research volunteer. “I’d really love to know why he came out here. Yes, the prairie was filling up with people, so to speak, but Sequim was hard to find. How did a Pennsylvanian find Sequim?”
To uncover more about him and demystify sometimes conflicting information, Willis and genealogy enthusiast Kathy Bare began researching Callen in depth a few months ago by scouring numerous locally based history books, written accounts and archival documents relating to the origins of local irrigation and its individual innovators; examining land and census records; conducting genealogical research online; and contacting historical repositories across several states.
In working backward through time to create a chronology of Callen’s life, what they found is the still-unfolding story of a multifaceted man. Civil War veteran, carpenter, farmer, schoolteacher, divorced father of at least six children, intrepid pioneer and dabbler in doctoring and dentistry — all are apt descriptions of one David R. Callen.
Research shows Callen was living on the North Olympic Peninsula by 1891, having left Kansas in 1888 for Colorado. (His wife and children moved to Michigan.) Land records reveal he purchased property in Port Angeles in 1893 and owned six acres on the Sequim Prairie by the following year. Documentation places him in Sequim until at least the fall of 1904.
Unable as yet to locate Callen in the 1910 Federal Census, Willis said the David Callen she found listed in the 1920 Federal Census as living in Waterford, Mich., appears to be the same man, a belief bolstered by the fact that Callen’s children also lived in the state. Additionally, a couple of those children are buried in the same Pontiac, Mich., cemetery as a David R. Callen who died in 1922 and shares the same birth month/year as Sequim’s irrigation pioneer.
Bare said she hopes to uncover more information about this David R. Callen, including confirming if he is indeed Sequim’s irrigation innovator, while visiting Pontiac on a longer trip this summer. Both researchers remain driven to complete the ongoing project.
“David R. Callen fascinates us because he has been a hero without a story,” Willis said. “Reconstructing that story gives Sequim a little more of its own history — how irrigation transformed the desert prairie into rich farmland because Callen insisted water could run uphill.”
To contact Willis, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 681-2257.
The 118th Sequim Irrigation Festival, which includes the Crazy Daze Breakfast named in honor of “Crazy” Callen, is May 3-12. Visit www.irrigationfestival.com for event details.