The San Juan Historical Society and Museum presents a history column the first Wednesday of each month on The San Juan Island Update (www.sanjuanupdate.com). It is a volunteer project of Museum members Shaun Hubbard and Robin Jacobson.
Etta Lightheart Egeland, lover of hats, at age 17 and 102 – Photos courtesy of SJ Historical Society.
“It’s always a good day!” – Etta Lightheart Egeland, on any given day of her life in response to “Have a good day!”
This is National Women’s History Month, designated by Congress in 1987. Who better to feature this month for women’s roles in island history than Etta Egeland? She was the godmother and engine of San Juan Island historic preservation for nearly all of her 105 years. Etta’s recollection, documentation, and interpretation of island life were singularly and collectively notable and unparalleled. We think someone should design a superhero action figure of her.
Etta Elizabeth Lightheart was born November 10, 1896 in a log cabin at Straitsview, her grandfather Peter Lawson’s farm on the west side of the island. She was the only daughter of Alexander Lightheart and Annie Lawson Lightheart. Her earliest memories were of being at her grandmother Fanny Lawson’s funeral in 1900 at Valley Cemetery and then later as an older child witnessing a dispute between her aunt and Roche Harbor’s iron-handed John S. McMillin over her aunt’s right to cast her ballot for the party she wished in an election.
Glancing through old issues of the Journal newspaper, one can find many interesting mentions of Etta’s activities, such as these:
- 1913 – “joy ride” with aunt Lizzie Lawson (presumably in a newfangled automobile brought onto the island)
- 1915 – honeymoon with husband Harry Egeland on a steamship to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco’s world’s fair
- 1953 – first display of San Juan Island historical artifacts in the County Courthouse – years ahead of the San Juan Historical Society’s official establishment in 1961
- 1993 – Grand Marshal of Friday Harbor’s 4th of July Parade
- 1996 – her 100th birthday party at the Grange and the Town of Friday Harbor’s proclamation of Etta Egeland Day
Etta loved the County Fair, where she was either employed or volunteered for over 70 years. She had also run a farm, worked at the pea and fish canneries, been a night telephone operator, a tax preparer, worked in the school kitchen and on the ferry in the snack bar. She also enjoyed serving as a history guide on island bus tours, a natural role for her.
Etta believed in making things happen. Her dedication to the community was most visible when she spearheaded efforts and inspired others to join in the establishment of local parks, the garden club, and the historical society. When it came to the preservation of island history, what didn’t she do? She envisioned it. She organized it. She preserved it and she shared it. She would say she wasn’t the first and she didn’t do it alone, but at the San Juan Historical Society and Museum Etta was a founder, director, curator, docent, researcher, and trustee. For about 50 years. The Etta E. Egeland Resource Center at the San Juan Historical Museum is named for her.
Etta was still doing her own gardening and chopping kindling for her woodstove when she was 100. She adventured by land and sea at age 104 when she went four-wheeling and kayaking. She had already ridden bareback, cruised on a motorcycle, and jetted to Europe.
She was also a beloved mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother. She instilled in her family a love of island history and community service. Etta passed away on September 9, 2002, when she was just two months shy of celebrating her 106th birthday. She had lived in three centuries and through 21 U.S. Presidents. Historic preservation may have been her passion, but she was thoroughly modern. She was extraordinary.