Actress brings Thea Foss to life

The legendary Thea Foss will come to life Dec. 8 at Broadway Center's Theatre on the Square when living history actress and acclaimed storyteller Karen Haas dons the period clothing, persona and Norwegian accent of the lady who founded Foss Maritime, the largest tugboat company in the western United States, and whose name continues to be honored today through Thea Foss Waterway and Development Authority and the nearby Thea's Park.

Tacoma Historical Society is hosting Haas for "So Many Things To Do Yet: The Saga of Thea Foss" thanks to a grant from Greater Tacoma Community Foundation. Society Director Mary Bowlby expressed gratitude for the foundation's gift. "In this day, funding for cultural services is hard enough as it is," she said.

She also noted support from Humanities Washington, a non-profit organization and public foundation that provides cultural and educational programs to the people of Washington. Through its Inquiring Minds series, with which Haas is involved, Humanities Washington offers 29 speakers presenting 42 topics in the humanities for non-profit organizations, scholars, parents, writers, teachers, students, documentary filmmakers, journalists and other groups and individuals across the state. Humanities Washington is sponsored by the state legislature through the Office of Secretary of State.

Haas did quite a bit of research on Foss in order to develop a presentation that is entertaining, informative and historically correct. She spent hours in the Northwest Room of the Tacoma Public Library, read books on Foss published by Foss Maritime, went online, and listened to a series of oral histories created under the auspices of Pacific Lutheran University, one by a woman whose sister worked for Foss. Still, "the research is never over," Haas said. "There is always something new to find."

Focusing on women in history is gratifying for Haas. Among her characters, dressed in authentic period costumes, she portrays four different women of 1855 in a program titled "Sisters in Time." She also offers presentations as Mrs. Calvin Adams, wife of a St. Louis tavern keeper, during the time of the Lewis and Clark expeditions; Eastern Washington missionary Narcissa Whitman; and Wagon Master Karen who traveled the Oregon Trail. With Bowlby's help, she debuted her Thea Foss at Tall Ships 2008. "It was her in 1912, the year they got their first tugboat," Haas recalled.

Haas remarked that she finds Foss "truly fascinating. She was a strong lady and very intelligent. It's a story that should be told because she is someone who really pulled herself up by her bootstraps." Foss' life in the rugged "man's world" of the Tacoma waterfront back in the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century impressed Haas. "She worked and lived in a rough and tumble area of town but she was always a lady."

Thea Christiansen Foss was born June 8, 1857, in Eidsberg, Norway. She married Norwegian immigrant Andrew Foss in 1889 after arriving in the United States and settling in St. Paul. The couple had three sons, Arthur, Wendell and Henry, who became a civic leader in Tacoma.

The Fosses moved to Tacoma soon after their marriage to find better opportunities and escape the harsh winters of Minnesota. While her husband was away earning money building houses, Thea Foss stayed behind in their floating house and earned a good deal of money fixing up old rowboats and either sold them or rented them out for use. When Andrew Foss returned, he was amazed at her financial success and decided that was where their future lie, building rowboats. Thus, Foss Maritime was born. As Haas put it, "A little Norwegian woman cleaning rowboats was the start of a multi-million dollar corporation."

Haas said she was touched by Thea Foss' strength and gentility. "She acted out what she believed. She lived by this credo: 'We are members of one great body, and we must consider we were born for the good of the whole.'" Foss passed away in 1927 just prior to her 70th birthday.

For Haas, storytelling is second nature, a skill she developed through the pure enjoyment of it. "I've always been a storyteller," she said. An elementary school music teacher for 10 years, she used her storytelling skills with her students. She participates in re-enactments at Fort Nisqually, Fort Steilacoom, and San Juan Islands National Historic Park. In 2005 she was the recipient of the Association of King County Historical Organizations' Heritage Education Award.

Haas often incorporates music and sing-alongs in many of her performances. An accomplished accompanist on guitar and piano, she is the pianist for Metropolitan Ballet of Tacoma and Swing Shift Contra Dance Band.

Her desire to help revitalize the art of storytelling has led her to conduct workshops for beginning storytellers of all ages. "I look at everyone as a storyteller," she said. "History, to me, is people - who it happened to, why it happened, and how things are different because of them."

Tickets to "So Many Things To Do Yet: The Saga of Thea Foss" are $5, available through Tacoma Historical Society's exhibit center and gift shop at 747 Broadway. Call (253) 472-3738 or e-mail


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