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Couple finds island retreat on Diamond Lake

By Fred Willenbrock For The Spokesman-Review

DIAMOND LAKE, Wash. – Many people are searching for a place to escape the dangers and stress in today’s world. Some have found this imaginary safe island in their homes or on outdoor trips.

A Seattle couple found a real island in northeast Washington this fall for their dream retreat.

Diamond Lake is 50 miles north of Spokane and its only island has a long history of providing solitude for generations of families stretching back to 1946. Marion Mitchell, who turns 100 in December, has written about it and still talks about the spiritual revitalization the island provided her.

Today’s owners face a pandemic, urban riots and traffic gridlock; for Mitchell it was the Great Depression, World War II, Castro’s takeover in Cuba and tragic family deaths.

“I loved that place,” Mitchell said during a telephone interview from her daughter’s home in Virginia where she now lives. She said she was excited when told a new family was getting the opportunity to experience what she and her family had for decades.

In a book of her memoirs she published five years ago, she wrote that after the tragic deaths of a son and her husband, she returned to the island and sat on the large boulders by the water.

She wrote: “The sun caught the wavelets, and they burst into sparkling diamonds as far as my eyes could see. In that moment, I realized that this acre of ground surrounded by beautiful water, was now mine to care for, God’s gift to me, and I knew this was where I belonged.”

New family on the lake

On Labor Day weekend, Todd and Christie Biesold had their own modern-day vision while visiting friends on Diamond Lake. They were kayaking around the island and learned it was for sale.

The Realtor took them by boat to the island and the process to make it their new summer retreat began. They took possession this fall.

The Biesolds live on Mercer Island. Their children are 19, 20, 22 and 26.

They brought their youngest son to Washington State University the week they found their island.

“We are empty nesters,” said Todd, 57, the CFO of Merlino Foods, one of the premier wholesale food distributors in Seattle. Christie, 50, does part-time property management.

A Seattle newspaper article written during Merlino’s 115th birthday celebration said the common ingredient for the best restaurants in the region is that they use Merlino Foods, especially if it’s Italian.

At their 98,000 square foot warehouse in Seattle’s downtown Sodo district, trucks are loaded with the finest Italian food ingredients imported and made locally. Hundreds of kinds of pasta, canned tomatoes, cured meats and cheeses are loaded on trucks. They supply many other products such as dried apricots, marinated white anchovies, bulk spices, specialty flours, Italian white truffle honey, Italian black summer truffles, pancetta, pâté, prosciutto, pasta, pickled peppers, caviar, escargot and 27 kinds of salt.

The company started in 1900 selling olive oil. After immigrating here from Italy, Angelo Merlino began importing it from his homeland and the business was started.

Phyllis and Bruce Biesold, Todd’s parents, bought Merlino Foods in 1976. Bruce did everything at the business and Phyllis did the bookkeeping at home at night. Their two sons, Jeff and Todd, both started out driving delivery trucks. Now, Jeff deals with sourcing, procurement and customers. Todd handles financial and legal issues. Their sister recently rejoined the family business. Some of the 10 grandkids have worked in the warehouse during summers. Before theCOVID-19 pandemic they had 100 employees.

Todd said he, Christie and the rest of the family all love to cook. At Merlino’s office they often cook Italian meals using their products. Todd said he loves to bake and pizza dough is a specialty.

West looks east

Born and raised in Seattle, Todd grew up working at Merlino Foods. After earning his Bachelor of Business Administration degree in public accounting from Gonzaga University and passing the CPA examination, he attended the University of Washington School of Law. In 1991, Todd rejoined Merlino Foods on a full-time basis and helped to grow the company.

“We knew our long-term plan was to go east – we liked the climate – we have friends and family here,” Christie said. “I grew up in Spokane.”

She said she plans to spend most of her summers on the island while Todd will go back and forth to work in Seattle.

They both said the turmoil in the Seattle area wasn’t the reason they purchased an island escape, but it is on their minds like everyone else’s.

“BeforeCOVID-19, traffic jams prohibited them from leaving their home after 5 p.m.,” Christie said. “It’s terrible.”

“I can’t imagine that most people like what is going on in their city,” said Todd. He also doesn’t know of any restaurant owners planning any new restaurants in the Seattle area. Some are looking east he said. One of his big customers, Seattle chef Ethan Stowells, plans to open restaurants in Spokane.

Todd’s customers are primarily restaurants. He said his company has suffered since restaurants have shut down or reduced service but his company has managed to stay open with reduced staff.

He and his brother have joined other business owners in Seattle criticizing the city and state governments for the handling of protests, rioting and homelessness. They have also voiced their concerns about new city taxes and minimum wage requirements that have hurt restaurants.

Seattle will always be the heart of their business, Todd said. But they have begun distribution in the Spokane area and other places in Eastern Washington and north Idaho. He said they see this as a business friendly, growing region.

He plans to increase Merlino Foods presence here and eventually have a distribution center in Spokane.

Why buy an island?

When asked if they dreamed of buying an island they said not really, but had searched for what an island offers: privacy.

“My husband is social but prefers not to be social all the time,” said Christie. “I like to be social but need a private place to go.”

She said the island is perfect because it faces south down the lake to the undeveloped end but is just 200 feet to the shore in the back and the Willow cove development with docks and lots of people and activity.

Todd said that since he will still be working it was important to be close to the airport and Spokane.

Like Marion’s family, they plan to make this a place their friends and family can come together, Todd said.

They don’t plan to be here in the winter when the lake freezes and several feet of snow can build up, Christie said.

“The land itself is amazing,” Todd said. “And they did a good job on the remodeling of the house.”

The one-acre, rock- and tree-covered island is 200 feet from shore. The channel is shallow enough to wade across. The sale included a shore lot with garage. A large flat bottom aluminum boat with motor to transport people and supplies was also part of the deal.

The remodeled 3,000-square-foot house has three bedrooms, three baths and electric heat. It is served by a public water and sewer system via a pipe buried in the lake bottom. They plan to connect to the fiber optic system across the channel.

“No major additions or changes,” Christie said. “Just clean up.”

The couple said the boat trip to the island wasn’t a negative for them.

“In the pouring rain – not so fun,” Christie said. “But it is part of the experience; we both grew up on water with boats.”

Past owners wanted to build a bridge but were denied permission by state and county officials.

Island history

Centuries ago, sand and gravel dislodged from a glacier to form a natural dam, which in turn created the exceptionally clear Diamond Lake that exists today. It is mostly spring fed and is part of the Little Spokane River watershed. It is 2.5 miles long and a half mile wide with depths up to 60 feet.

The island remained undeveloped long after the shoreline was lined with cabins. People boated to it to picnic and have romantic rendezvous, according local historians.

Like many parcels of land in the west, it got into the hands of a railroad company. The Northern Pacific sold the island in 1944 to D.L. Thompson and he sold it to John Ortner, Marion Mitchell’s father, in 1946. It didn’t have a name so Ortner named it Ortner’s Island.

Ortner owned a commercial greenhouse in Spokane called Minnehaha Floral Company. He and his company workers built a summer cottage on the island.

The project wasn’t simple since there was a shortage of building materials after the war and there wasn’t truck access to the island. Ortner salvaged building materials and barged them to the island in summer and skidded across the ice in the winter.

When Mitchell’s husband, Stan, returned from the war in Europe in 1946 the couple toured the world for his job as a metallurgical engineer. The couple, and eventually their three children, returned to Ortner’s Island for vacations.

“I grew up on the island in the summers where my grandparents would tolerate at least six noisy cousins and my brother and sister. There was not a day that we didn’t play pirate, build forts and shipwreck each other over the numerous rocks that surrounded the island. We found ourselves often begging for one more minute in the water,” wrote Mitchell’s son Chris Mitchell. “The island, after so many years remains a little heavenly refuge close, yet very far from civilization, as most know it.”

In 1970, the Ortners deeded the island to Marion and her husband. They converted the original cottage to a Bavarian -style chateau. A design the couple had admired while traveling around the world including living in Cuba and quickly escaping while Fidel Castro was taking over.

Mitchell wrote that they continued to return to the island for summer vacations and dreamed of retiring there.

After returning from the Vietnam war, their son became a commercial diver. In 1976, stationed in Singapore for a job, he died while trying to save another diver. Less than two years later Marion’s husband died of cancer.

“I went to the island, after laying my husband to rest next to our son in the Newport Cemetery,” Marion wrote.

For 27 more summers, Marion returned to Ortner’s Island after wintering in her Seattle condominium. She graduated in 1942 with Home Economics from Washington State University. She began using those skills teaching cooking classes in Seattle and writing a food column for The Newport Miner.

She made improvements to the property and planted flower and herb gardens that are still growing today. She always rowed to the island in her little boat.

In 2004, she passed the ownership to her children and they eventually decided to sell it.

“I leave it with a light heart satisfied that it will be cherished and it will ring with the joy of young people who are making it their special place. I hope the footprints I have left here will provide my successors with memories of yet another friendly ghost who once passed this way,” she wrote.

Renovation leads to sale

Diane and Brock Maslonka bought the property in 2006. In the beginning they had partners with construction experience but plans for developing the island didn’t prove feasible because of building restrictions. After renovating the house, the Maslonkas took sole ownership and put it on the market.

They sold it for $1,237,500, close to its appraised value including the mainland parking area.

Dick Bockemuehl, a realtor with Century 21 Beutler-Waterfront, has lived on Diamond Lake and sold real estate for 36 years. He was involved with the sale of the island when it was first listed by the Mitchells and again this fall.

Bockemuehl said there are more potential buyers for waterfront and other types of rural homes than there are listings.

Many of these buyers are from large cities looking for secondary vacation properties or investments. He said they recognize that they can get the same type of property in the rural areas of this region for much less than in the cities.

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