By Steve Guntli
Before she became a country music star, Loretta Lynn was the wife of a lumberjack, living in a cabin in Custer and making money on the side singing in local bars. One woman wants to commemorate that time in the music legend’s life with a park in Custer.
In January, Arlene Hartley, a Vancouver resident who lives in Birch Bay in the summer, petitioned Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws and nearly a dozen other county officials with her ideas for honoring Lynn. Hartley’s ideas range from a small park at the former site of Lynn’s cabin to historic plaques scattered throughout Custer, Birch Bay and Blaine.
Hartley is a longtime Loretta Lynn fan, and she’s wanted to do a project like this for decades. It wasn’t until last summer, when she bought one of Lynn’s old cast-iron heaters from a local fan, that she was inspired to begin the project in earnest.
“This could put Custer on the map,” she said. “I always thought it was crazy we had this big star right in our backyard, and most people don’t even know about it.”
Lynn and her husband, Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn, lived in Whatcom County from 1948 to 1960. Lynn raised the couple’s six children in a small cabin in Custer while Doolittle worked as a lumberjack.
In 1953, Doolittle bought Loretta a guitar, and she taught herself to play. Before long, she was a fixture at local pubs and restaurants like Bill’s Tavern on Portal Way in Blaine, which has since been demolished.
In 1960, she recorded what would become her first hit single, “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind),” and the couple moved to Nashville to pursue her music career.
Today, Lynn is the most-awarded female country singer of all time, the performer of more than a dozen major hits and the basis of the Academy Award-winning film, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” based on Lynn’s bestselling autobiography. Now 83, Lynn continues to record with major musicians like Jack White, Paramore and Carrie Underwood.
Hartley would like to see a small area of Custer designated as Loretta Lynn Park, and hopes to see a street named after the singer. She would also like to see commemorative plaques in places like the Lynden Fairgrounds and the former site of Bill’s Tavern to mark where Lynn has performed.
“Before she was performing, she was winning blue ribbons for canning at the Northwest Washington Fair,” Hartley said. “There’s an incredible amount of history around the area.
Hartley said she’s been communicating with Lynn’s granddaughter, Tayla Lynn, a singer in Kentucky. Hartley said Tayla supports the project and has offered to come out to Washington to perform some of her grandmother’s songs.
Hartley hopes the tribute concert can happen this summer, regardless of whether or not the county decides to move forward on her other projects.“We’ve had great support from locals who really want to see this happen,” she said. “I’ll keep working at it and hopefully we can get something done.”
Anyone willing to share stories or artifacts from Lynn’s time in Custer can contact Hartley at firstname.lastname@example.org.