During the 1950s Ivar Haglund’s first version of his famous Acres of Clams restaurants opened on Seattle’s busy Broadway Avenue. My buddy Tom and I competed to see who could swallow the most butter clams in a sitting. Leaving our mess behind in the form of open shells, crumpled napkins, and empty paper cups, we drove into the night filling the car with self-congratulations. A true Seattle seafood feast.
Proprietor Ivar Haglund entered my consciousness years before the Broadway clam raids. Listening to the radio was more than an idle pastime in my youth — it was an aural passion. Ivar’s gravelly nasal twang became a KJR radio feature, especially when he sang with his simple guitar accompaniment. My favorite was “the Old Settler.” Ivar claimed to have learned that style of song, and many like it, from Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie. It’s curious that Ivar gave credit to Seeger and Guthrie because the 1870s “Settler” doggerel was written by Olympia politician, cartoonist and writer Francis Henry, who had been around the Puget Sound country for many years.
That song’s frequently quoted lines from “the Old Settler” were: “No longer a slave to ambition/ I laugh at the world and its shams/ As I survey my happy condition/ Surrounded by acres of clams.”
Ivar Haglund’s affinity for political radicals and their theme-songs arose from the 1930s Great Depression. He was a West Seattle native born in 1905. He came from a family (Swedish father, Norwegian mother) steeped in music, Swedish traditions, and sea-faring lore. The Alki and Seattle waterfronts were Ivar Haglund’s playgrounds. His cousins owned one of Oregon’s first public aquariums and Ivar himself tried his hand at commercial fishing.
After graduating from the University of Washington in economics in 1928, he searched for work with little success. All around him, especially near the Seattle waterfront and railroad yards, transients and proud struggling families were living in “Hoovervilles.” Ivar tried the bohemian life for a few years, strumming his guitar and walking beaches and by-ways.
Finally, encouraged by his cousins in Seaside, Oregon, Ivar opened a small aquarium at Seattle’s Pier 54, then home of the Washington Fish and Oyster Company (my employer, years later, while working summer cannery jobs in Alaska). For a time, Ivar set seines at Alki Beach to catch specimens for his waterfront tanks.
In the midst of this salty activity, Ivar got a call from Morris Alhadeff, a familiar personality at Seattle radio station KJR. Ivar brought his guitar to the interview. That 1940 radio appearance was the beginning of Ivar’s “public” exposure. His relatively ignored aquarium got free advertising and Ivar’s voice and tall tales became popular local features. In 1946, Ivar expanded his operation, cleverly using his radio personality to open the first Ivar’s Acres of Clams restaurant, initially as a fancy white-tablecloth establishment and later as the corny, fish-net decor of today.
Before Ivar Haglund died in 1985, he had become a local legend as a pre-eminent restaurateur, Seattle Port Commissioner (for which he filed as a prank), owner of the landmark Smith Tower with its huge and controversial salmon windsock flapping in the breeze, and famous feeder of seagulls. His ads and stunts were spoofs.
My last personal memory of Ivar is when I sat next to him at a 1983 screening of a new documentary about radical Seattle figure Anna Louise Strong, whom I had just profiled in a local publication.
My friend and I still enjoy a cup of clam nectar at Ivar’s on the Seattle waterfront, then stroll next door to the historic fire station to look at sculptor Rich Beyer’s touching and humorous memorial to Ivar illegally feeding his beloved seagulls.