“Bunnies are our best friends, indeed, they do delight and give glad dreams”. When I first saw this slogan on a Victorian-style sign outside Grandma’s house turned store which is home to Bunnies by the Bay, I thought how incredibly quirky or possibly how soul-saddened. It turns out that possibly both of these responses are right for the two sisters who founded this company.
The eccentric fence with its whirligigs made from kitchen utensils and animal cut-outs suggest a care-free, gay, Gypsy-like establishment in this small town of LaConner, Washington. The jello moulds and the wooden spoons incorporated in the exterior décor gave no hint of the tragedy that seeded the growth of this successful stuffed bunny producing company.
A calamitous fishing accident in 1983, one of the worst in U.S. commercial fishing history, took their father, uncle and cousin as well as eleven other Anacortes fishermen. A few years later these two young sisters suffered the loss of their brother in another fishing accident. Krystal Kirkpatrick and Suzanne Knutson almost didn’t survive those twin blows. When their grief was too much to bear, their grandmother advised them to keep their hands busy. The two started stitching bunnies, inspired by the childhood stories of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit.
At first the sisters sold their handmade creations at craft shows and later at a shop in Anacortes. Soon their bunnies, each with its own personal story and occupation, were presented at Bloomsbury House where Marilyn and I first saw them.
We decided as part of our journey south from Vancouver down to Seattle, Washington, we would visit LaConner since a feature in Victoria Magazine made Bunnies by the Bay look too good to be true. Interesting, there was no mention of the tragedy that had sparked this store but rather an upbeat story with photos showing the adorable creatures that the sisters create. Many shots also featured the interior of Grandma’s house painted in camouflage drunken stripes of aqua, pink and bone.
The demand for these individually crafted creatures which are both expensive to make and to buy pushed the girls almost into bankruptcy. At that point they were discovered by a retired senior manager for a Hong Kong plush-toy manufacturer. Jeanne-Ming Hayes made connection with an Asian manufacturing plant and new vigour was infused into this whimsical operation. Just last Fall, this lapine endeavour was rediscovered. Hallmark Cards took readily to the idea of turning the bunnies’ stories into cards and paper. No good commercial idea can go unexploited.
To me there is an irony that the quiet coast of Whidbey Island could not keep Jeanne-Ming Hayes quieted. In 1792 Captain George Vancouver extolled the virtues of Whidbey Island. “In the beautiful pastures bordering on an expansive sheet of water, the deer were seen playing about in great numbers. Nature here has provided a well-stocked park.” Two centuries later, this fertile refuge is still an idyllic destination. In the harbour in nearby Deception Pass, many old style wooden boats bob in the clear water. On the shores are many more wishing to join their chums but no longer sea-worthy.
In the background of the harbour in Deception Pass State Park, old growth timber is still common. These forest giants, a few split by lightning because their height makes them vulnerable, bear little resemblance to any trees that we see here. Only recently on a journey to Vancouver Island did we gawk in awe at similar biggies in Cathedral Grove.
On the protected waters of Penn Cove is LaConner, a true artist colony. This village of wooden houses and stores could be the set for a cowboy movie. Long piers extend into the water like fingers of a hand trying to grip the crystal blue liquid. Precisely because this village is off the beaten path, no major commercial improvements have been made. The artists who live there and the many people who attend painting workshops and excursions end up at Bunnies by the Bay and like us, leave with more than just one creature.
We bought five, some for gifts and several for us. Not surprising then that a small visitor to our home questioned, “If you don’t have any children, why do you have so many toys?”