Thursday, March 29, 2018

Betty MacDonald's unique sister Mary Bard Jensen

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Jean Ernst and prolific island artist Art Hansen. (Courtesy Photo)

‘You knew everybody’: Island elder recalls Vashon from 70 years ago

Long before it became a proving ground for sheepdogs and their handlers and before Tom Stewart created his sprawling estate, 160 acres of land bisected by Old Mill Road belonged to Frank Ernst, a pilot from Minnesota who raised beef cattle as a hobby.
It was 1949, and Frank dynamited the acerage to clear it for his cattle, a move Ernst’s wife, Jean Ernst, says would nearly get him killed today. She and the couple’s children frequently moved the irrigation pipes across the fields during the dry season, stepping over electric fences the whole way. As a pilot for Northwest Airlines, Frank travelled a lot and when he was gone, chores fell on his wife and children.
Today, Jean is 98 and lives at Vashon Community Care, but says that pipe-moving chore is her secret to long life, even though she hated it at the time.
“It was physical fitness. We moved the irrigation pipe on that farm from April to October,” she said, accompanied by her daughter during an interview at the center last week.
Jean’s daughter Martha Ernst explained that there were a total of four pipes: one at each end of the 160-acre field and two at the middle, and every day she and Jean would move the two at each end 20 feet and the two in the middle 20 feet until they met in the middle.

“Then you would have the long moves (back to the ends) and we would do that every day stepping over electric fences,” Martha Ernst said. “She (Jean) does credit that with good health. It was physical fitness before it was en vogue. But we bitched about it.”
Both Martha and Jean said they did their fair share of complaining about the task, and Jean said one day she refused to move over the electric fence because the workers they hired wouldn’t turn it off.
“You think it doesn’t hurt when the electricity goes all the way up (your body)?” she said. “It damn near killed me, so I fired him. Frank agreed.”
But life on Vashon was more than pipe moving and accidental electrocutions. Jean, a Minnesota native who recalls the cold Midwest winters, lakes and sparse trees, speaks fondly of the 1900’s 12-room log lodge she, Frank and their children moved into at Lisabeula once they moved to Vashon in 1949.
“He (Frank) sent me out here and introduced me to a man who was out here, and he took me all kinds of places: Everett, Vashon … and I picked Vashon, and he (Frank) agreed,” she recalled. “We had a beautiful 12-room log house on a lot of acres, and next door to us lived Betty MacDonald’s sister (Mary Bard) and her husband, Clyde Jensen. They were grand neighbors.”

Jean recalled a favorite memory of Bard that occurred shortly after moving to Vashon when she was making a braided rug.
“I needed some beige material and … I saw her (Mary) on the road, and she said, ‘How are you doing?’ and I said, ‘Just fine, except I’ve run out of beige material and I can’t find any.’ She looked down and was wearing beige pants, and she took off her pants and went home in her underpants. Can you believe that?” Jean said.
Jean was 30 years old and had two children, Martha and her older brother, Bobby, when they made the move west so Frank could pilot then brand-new SeaTac’s first puddle-hopping flight to Asia.
“They went to Anchorage and then Chenega, which is at the very end of the Aleutian Chain, and then he went to Tokyo, and then he went to Guam, to Manila,” Jean recalled. “He was gone two weeks.”
It was during these trips that she was responsible for moving the irrigation pipe for Frank’s cows who all had names.
“They were his friends, his pets” Martha said.
Frank was “a different breed,” Jean and Martha said. You had to be if you wanted to be a pilot at that time.
“He was like almost worshipped that he was flying like that (so far),” Jean said. “No one else on the island flew or did anything.”
Before working for Northwest, he was a private pilot in Milwaukee and flew the first beer to the White House once prohibition ended. Beer companies hired pilots to get their beer to the capital first, and Frank Ernst flew Schlitz — “The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous”— there.
“He landed in a mud field, they came out in a limo, got the beer, asked Dad if he’d like to come to the White House to meet Roosevelt, and Dad was a teetotaler and said, ‘No,’ turned around and flew home,” Martha said.
Back at home, Frank’s travels to what was then called The Orient caused him to be close to the island’s Japanese-American population.
“Most of them still had families in Japan, and Dad would take things from the families here to Japan, and then he would bring things back and forth,” Martha said.
Jean called him a “carrier” and said he knew the Mukai family well.
But he was also known by the children of the island thanks to a spring-fed lake he had built at the end of his pasture that froze in the winter of 1958 and allowed for ice skating.
“At the end of the pasture where the sheepdog trials are, there’s a lake. It’s very overgrown now because for insurance purposes it’s a nuisance. And it froze so solid. … Burton School would call, and Dad would say, ‘It’s still frozen solid,” Martha said. “School would be out early, Puget Power came and put down this huge light; Mom and another woman made chili, and we skated there. For a week, everybody was there, and we had chili feeds and bonfires.”
Martha said there was “something so special” about Burton School principal Bob DeHope calling each day to ask about the lake.
“It was fun,” Jean said.
It was part of a different Vashon that both Martha and Jean remember — a Vashon where “you knew everybody.”
“That was something we used to talk about. You used to be on the ferry and everybody would go upstairs and you knew everybody,” Martha said. “One day in the ’60s Mom went to Seattle and on the ferry boat realized she didn’t have her purse and she had no money and no way of getting back on the island. She went upstairs and after talking to friends walked off the ferry with a ferry ticket and $100, which she was going to pay back, but that’s the way it was.”
Jean recalled the grocery store, Kimmels, the “wonderful store” that used to occupy the southeast corner of Bank Road and Vashon Highway.
After Frank and Jean’s children were grown, Frank was mandated to retire from the airline when he turned 60 — in 1966. They sold the large log home to islander Claudia Smith, who still lives there, and moved into the old Lisabeula schoolhouse that they had been using to store hay. Jean had bought it from the school district years earlier for $500 — a deal she is proud of to this day.
“I bought that schoolhouse for $500. We used it to store hay through the windows, and when Frank retired we made it into the cutest damn house you ever saw,” she said.
Seattle Times articles from the 1960s refer to the schoolhouse-turned-retirement home as “a tribute to the family’s boundless creativity and undaunted enthusiasm.”
“‘People used to drive by slowly shaking their heads at our folly,’ recalls Mrs. Ernst. ‘Now they’ve had to change their tune,’” a Seattle Times article about the home quotes Jean saying.
Martha says that her parents moved into the home out of necessity as they sold the log house and realized they had nowhere to move.
“Island carpenters came out of the woodwork, and Mom and Dad moved there in the fall of 1966,” she said.
The Seattle Times article reported the home went from hay storage shed to liveable house in two months.
The Ernsts lived in that schoolhouse for nearly 20 years until Frank Ernst underwent open heart surgery and caught hepatitis in the 1970s. He sold 100 acres of his pasture to Tom Stewart, a man he had been mentoring for many years.
“He (Tom) was really good to us and to my husband — much respect,” she said. “It (the selling of the land) was a good sad.”
Frank and Jean decided to move to Molokai, Hawaii — a place he fell in love with after years of flying back and forth — before he died at the age of 80 in 1986.
Jean stayed in Hawaii, but moved back to Washington in 1991. In 2013, she moved into VCC and was staying in an upstairs room. While there, she fell and broke her leg and was moved to a downstairs room near the entrance.
Her love for the facility and Vashon is apparent.
“I love it,” she said.
Martha said her mother jokes that breaking her leg was one of the best things that happened to her because she’s very social and her new room allows her to mingle more easily.
“I’ve had a fun life for an old fart,” Jean said.

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