Daniel Jefferson Harris was an eccentric. As an enterprising businessman, he knew how to make a fortune—though his means were sometimes far from scrupulous. Bathing and shaving ranked low on his list of priorities. During the late 1800s the miserly Harris did turns as a warmonger, a bootlegger, and, eventually, a real-estate magnate. To residents of Fairhaven, however, he is known as Dirty Dan and he is their hero.
Come mid-spring, a heady mood settles over Fairhaven’s downtown. The Dirty Dan Days Festival is looming, and revelers are itching to celebrate their city’s hirsute homeboy in all his unwashed glory.
The last weekend of April is devoted to live music, piano racing, and a clam chowder cook-off, all held outdoors—in Harris’ honor—near the Fairhaven Village Green. Here, a life-sized bronze statue of Harris lounges, legs crossed and bench-ridden. Now into its tenth year, the festival is a bustling nexus of activity that continues to draw eager crowds. But where does Fairhaven’s founder fit in to all this?
Only loosely, as it turns out.
Fairhaven’s plat was filed on Jan. 2, 1883, says Ralph Thacker, a retired Fairhaven resident and eminent Harris scholar. And Harris’ birthday was Feb. 16, 1833—still a couple months shy of April. The festival’s Spring-time date was likely chosen out of convenience, he says.
“Dirty Dan Days is a commemoration of Harris,” Thacker says. “Since the actual founding occurred in January, people probably wanted to wait for nicer weather to celebrate.”
Thacker is a bearded, bespectacled 78-year-old with lanky limbs and a full head of longish white hair. He sits in a wheeled office chair at his dining-room table, flanked by three other identical chairs—as if a company meeting were about to take place. When Thacker isn’t gesticulating emphatically with his hands, he splays them out on the vinyl tablecloth or steeples his fingers in thought. Wearing slacks and a wolf-emblazoned sweatshirt, Thacker looks every bit the amateur historian ardently seeking the truth.
“That’s the kind of person I am,” he says, his widening eyes exaggerated and distorted by thick trifocals. “If I’m interested in something, I have to find out everything about it.”
Thacker’s fascination with Harris began in late 2001, after he moved from Southern California to an apartment overlooking Fairhaven Bay. (The best view in the city, he says.) A sailing enthusiast, he would often gaze out his living room window at the marina below, crowded with yachts and sailboats. Thacker wondered what Fairhaven’s waterfront had looked like prior to the marina’s existence, before in-filling extended the shoreline in the 1900s to accommodate a fish cannery, a shingle mill and a lumber mill—all now defunct.
“I realized I had to go back before the logging industries, before the development…before the city even existed,” he says.
Thacker knew Harris founded the city in 1883; that seemed to be undisputed fact. But he wanted to learn more. Thacker wanted to know everything about this man—not just the quirky anecdotes and colloquial lore.
“Oral history tends to be exaggerated with each telling,” he says. “What starts as a foot-long fish story turns into a tale about a 100-foot fish caught on a 10-foot pole.”
Most of the stories about Harris probably contain small kernels of truth, Thacker says. Often, though, there is no documentation; some of the claims, such as the rumor of Harris rolling his piano into the bay to spite its late-paying renter, seem almost ludicrous.
“I thought, ‘Let me find what’s in print—what I can document with as much accuracy as possible,’” Thacker says.
And so, in early 2002, his research began in earnest. Thacker spent countless hours poring over newspaper microfilm at the Fairhaven Library. Inside the Whatcom County courthouse he perused legal documents from the late 1800s, looking for any references to Harris.
Many of Thacker’s initial findings were trivial at best. Take, for example, this diary entry by Whatcom County Sherriff James Kavanaugh on Sept. 22, 1867: “Sam Brown gave ‘dirty Dan’ Harris a beating night before last. I treated him for doing it.” And on April 30, 1886, the Whatcom Reveille, a prominent local newspaper, ran this juicy tidbit: “Dan Harris of Fairhaven has bought a fine Jersey cow.”
But every so often Thacker would unearth a gem. From letters written to the Bellingham Bay Reveille by Harris’ brother, George, in 1890, Thacker gleaned that Harris was born on Long Island, N.Y., and was the second-oldest of six siblings. While in his teens, Harris lost his father and became the primary provider for his family, Thacker says.
At 15, Harris joined a whaling expedition and arrived at Bellingham Bay in 1854. He began acquiring tracts of Bellingham acreage through land claims, eventually parceling out more than 200 50-by-100-foot lots to establish the city of Fairhaven. By the end of 1883 he had grossed nearly $22,000—a hefty sum in those days, Thacker says.
But before this prosperity—the land, the wealth, the celebrity—Harris had some scuffles with the law. Thacker discovered court records detailing Harris’ not-so-honorable endeavors, including arrests for selling liquor to First Nations People (the Canadian equivalent to Native Americans) in 1855, for inciting the Stikine tribe of British Columbia to attack the Lummi in 1856, and for buying illicit goods—with someone else’s money—and smuggling them from Victoria, B.C., to Bellingham in 1867.
“Harris was quite the character,” says Brian Griffin, a retired Bellingham businessman and author of a book about Boulevard Park. “If you’re interested in Fairhaven, you’ve got to know about Dirty Dan.”
As the impetus behind the Harris statue’s commission, Griffin organized private fundraising, lobbied in City Council meetings, and contacted the artist, Robert McDermott, with his idea. McDermott faced an interesting challenge: sculpting a man known only from written physical descriptions and a single grainy photograph.
“I decided to depict him in his youth, as a relaxed guy looking over his city,” says McDermott, a Blaine sculptor who completed the statue in 2003. “He was the father of Fairhaven, whether he was liked or not.”
Harris spent his final years in Los Angeles, where he died on Aug. 18, 1890. But in Fairhaven’s Village Green, draped over a matte bronze bench, his legacy endures—as a man with a vision, overseeing the future of his city.