How would you pronounce the name of Poulsbo, a tiny town on the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington State? This is a trick question, because unless you live there or you know someone who does, you are certain to get it wrong. That’s because Poulsbo may be the only town in the United States, or perhaps the world, that ended up with the wrong name. All because of a clerical error by a lowly Post Office official.
Long before that happened the site of the town was home to the Suquamish people who fished the waters of the Salish Sea, now Puget Sound, for over 5,000 years. In the 1855 Treaty of Port Elliott the Suquamish agreed to move to the Port Madison Indian Reservation, though they retained hunting and fishing rights in their ancestral lands. The area was now open for European settlers to take advantage of the forests and waterways for a lucrative logging industry. But the relatively inaccessible location of the future Poulsbo, 18 miles across the water from Seattle by rowboat, kept Europeans away for another thirty years.
It was Norwegians who first settled the area in the 1880’s. Poulsbo’s site at the head of Dog Fish Bay, now Liberty Bay, with its majestic views of the surrounding mountains reminded them of the fjords of home. Jorgen Eliason from Fordefjord, Norway, was the first to arrive in 1883 followed by Iver Moe and his family who travelled across country by covered wagon. Word spread about this “Little Norway” and more Norwegians flocked to the area. They brought their Lutheran faith with them, building the first church in 1887. Also in that year the first baby, Torvold Tallagson, was born. An interesting titbit of history, given today’s prejudice against speakers of other languages, is that Norwegian was the primary language in Poulsbo until World War II, when workers for the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard were housed in the town.
Now we come to the story of how Poulsbo ended up with the wrong name. In 1886 Iver Moe, fed up with having to row to Port Madison to collect his mail, applied for a post office for his town. He chose the name Paulsbo, meaning Paul’s Place, after the town where he grew up in Norway. A copy of his application form is on display at the Maritime Museum on Front Street. In the image below I’ve circled in red the name Paulsbo as written by Iver Moe. The “a” is quite clear. But the First Assistant Postmaster General misread it and in his approval section at the top of the form he wrote Poulsbo. The name Poulsbo entered the official record and there was nothing the town’s residents could do about it. Or was there? The post office may have changed the spelling but they couldn’t change how the locals said the name. To this day Poulsbo residents stubbornly persist in pronouncing the name Paulsbo, just as it was meant to be.
I learned all this on a recent visit to Poulsbo where my sister has just moved. She lived for decades in what used to be the quaint little town of Anacortes, also on Puget Sound. But Anacortes has recently become crowded with incomers from New York and California. They may have been looking for a small town atmosphere but ironically they brought their city ways with them, tearing down cute cottages to build McMansions and speeding through the streets with no regard for pedestrians. It was time to find a smaller town and Poulsbo fit the bill.
Arriving by taxi on a bright fall afternoon the first thing we saw was the Velkommen til Poulsbo sign beneath a statue of a stern Viking warrior. From then on it would have been easy to imagine ourselves in Norway except now the residents do speak English. But Viking images and names are everywhere. The Norwegian flag flies above many stores and there is even a tattoo parlor called Thor’s Hammer & Needle. Annual events in the town all have a Norwegian theme, for instance the Lutefisk Dinner at the Lutheran Church which is in its 107th year. Lutefisk is a Nordic dish made from dried cod soaked in lye and then boiled or baked. The traditional recipe is preserved in a journal called the Lutefisk Manifesto and apparently it takes great skill to cook it correctly. I was rather glad my visit did not coincide with this event as the lye part doesn’t sound very appetizing. But I was happy to sample the Nordic pastries at Sluys Bakery where everything in the window looked bigger and sweeter and fattier than any baked goods I had ever seen. I discovered they make excellent English scones.
There are fewer signs of the Suquamish people in Poulsbo but one day we drove to the nearby town that bears their name. Here a beautiful modern museum built in the style of a traditional longhouse tells their story. We walked to the nearby cemetery where Chief Seattle, or Sealth, is buried. The original grave marker is a stone Christian cross but in 2011 two twelve foot high cedar poles were installed, carved and painted with the Chief’s story.
On the day we left Poulsbo I chatted to our taxi driver about how much I enjoyed the town. Despite my sister’s constant coaching on how to pronounce the name I said “Poolsbo” instead of “Paulsbo” by mistake. He chuckled. “That always makes me laugh” he said, “We can always tell a stranger from a neighbor in this town.”