Thursday, October 4, 2012

Childhood Memories of Lillian Vernhardson Fries

When I ran across a notebook containing history of Richard (Dick) E. Johnson, Jr.’s family I was immediately captivated. We are so familiar with the early settlers but somehow they all seem to fall into a specific ethic background: Croatians, Scandinavians, English, Germans, and Italians. But how often do we think about Icelanders? Not very often. Yes, we all know where Vernhardson Street is but most likely just thought it was a Scandinavian family name. I know I did.

Scandinavian normally refers to Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland are somewhat differentiated into western Nordic counties. Icelandic and Farose have Germanic roots, and both were under the rule of both Norway and Denmark at one time in their history. So perhaps we can be excused for our lack of geographic and cultural knowledge. (see note 1 below)

Now, let’s get back Dick Johnson’s story. Jón Vernharðsson and Jón Haflidason were friends back in Iceland. Jón H. eventually followed his friend to America and on to Gig Harbor.

John Vernhardson
Jón Vernhasson arrived first in Canada in 1893 with nine other family members. He was 24 years old. His future wife, Jonina Sigurdardottir arrived with her father, first husband, and two children in 1900. Jón met Jonina in Markerville, Alberta where he was the postmaster and storekeeper. They first resided in Canada before moving to Castle Rock in 1903. Shortly after, friend Jón Haflidason joined them in Castle Rock. Upon their settling in the U.S., as was common, both men altered their names. Jón Vernharðsson became John Vernhardson. Jó Haflidason drastically altered his to John Hall. In Castle Rock, both men worked for the railroad. When they heard better wages were paid at sawmills, they changed jobs and moved to Hoquiam.

Jonina Sigurdardottir Vernhardson

They wanted to live in the country. They wanted to be independent. They were saving their money. Many a night was spent at the table drawing up plans for the dream house. Ironically, when the house was finally built by a farmer living near them, he made a smaller version of his own home rather than the home the immigrants dreamed about for so long.

The Vernhardsons knew an Icelandic woman in Aberdeen who had a brother-in-law living in Gig Harbor. His name was Pearson and he described his farm in glowing terms. So, the two Johns took a trip to Gig Harbor to see the land. Each paid $500 for a fourth of a section amounting to 40 acres, which they split.

Jonina and children Sam, Sadie, Lillian, and Sarah followed on a boat to Tacoma and arrived in Gig Harbor  March 9, 1910. Lillian’s father made an effort to speak English and encouraged her mother to speak English to the children. John Hall had stayed behind in Gig Harbor after they bought the land and built a small home for the Vernhardson family to live in while they cleared the land, planted the crops, and built a larger home. Mr. and Mrs. Pearson brought the family a big pot of soup that night.

The two Johns cut down fir trees, dug out and burned the stumps, and used the lumber to build a barn. John V. got a job at the sawmill at the Head of the Bay, which was a good thing. He had cleared all his land and made a farm of loganberries, alfalfa, and pie cherries but it never was a real farm. The soil was just too poor. They did have a couple of cows and once butchered, they used the entire animal, nose-to-tail as the term goes. They were able to grow potatoes, carrots, and rutabaga in the garden. They also ate a lot of salmon which daughter Lillian described as “I liked to go with my father in our rowboat across the whole bay where the handsome, black-haired Yugoslavs had their boats full of salmon.” And, they raised chickens for the eggs as well as eating the chickens when they stopped laying. Jonina was into saving and reusing things so she figured the salt water the fish were boiled in had to have food value. As a result she gave it to the chickens for water. This turned out to be a fatal mistake. Soon the yard was filled with dead chickens.

Then there were the mink they thought they would raise. The mink managed to continually get into the chicken coop, again dead chickens.

Papa Vernhardson was always experimenting, first the alfalfa crop, then his berries, then his cannery. The berries, however, were the most successful.

Sarah Vernhardson (left) and sister Sadie Vernhardson Fechter, 1925
in a costume contest. They won.

Not all was trying, though. They still managed to have good times and celebrations, especially Christmas and the Fourth of July. And, of course, there were always the visits with other families either at the Vernhardson home or at the other family homes. Their best friends were probably the Sauness family. Both their farmhouses were very similar two-story homes. In 1997, both homes still had occupants.

Mr. Vernhardson was always interested in politics. When he first learned English, he read Eugene Debs’ “Socialist Worker.”  Although he was a Republican, he along with the majority of Gig Harbor, did vote for Teddy Roosevelt.

But along with John Hall, Mrs. Vernhardson, and Grandpa, he also read Icelandic papers printed in Winnipeg. John V. also read “The Weekly Ledger” printed in Tacoma. None of the others could read English.

Mr. Vernhardson was a charter member of the local Masonic Lodge and Peninsula Light Company, President of the Peninsula Berry Growers Association and the Gig Harbor Guernsey Cattle Club.

We need to thank Richard Johnson, Jr., for providing the Gig Harbor History Museum with a notebook filled with pictures not only of Gig Harbor but also Iceland. His father married Sarah Louise (Sigrun) Vernhardson in 1930. Johnson Sr. eventually purchased the Vernhardson home and farm. He worked for Washington Highway Department, U.S. Bureau of Public Roads and the Bureau of Reclamation as well as on the first Narrows bridge. When his family tired of frequent moves, he went to work for Peninsula Light Company where he worked 25 years, retiring in 1967. He set up Peninsula Light Company’s engineering department. However, after retiring he decided retirement wasn’t for him. He took the state license exam and became a licensed surveyor and practiced for several more years. In 1995, he and Sarah celebrated 65 years of marriage (he was 88 at the time).

Note (1) Geographically speaking, Scandinavia only refers to Norway and Sweden as it is the name of the peninsula on which those two countries are located, although part of northern Finland is also located on the Scandinavian Peninsula.
However, politically and economically speaking, Denmark is also classified as a Scandinavian country; Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) is the flag carrier of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, for example.
Culturally speaking, the matter gets a little more complicated. Finland has close cultural ties with the Scandinavian countries, Sweden in particular, but Finnish is not a Germanic language like the Scandinavian languages.
However, Icelandic and Faroese also have Germanic roots like the Scandinavian languages, which makes these countries closely connected with Scandinavian cultures.
In addition, Iceland used to be under Danish rule (Norwegian rule before that) and the Faroe Islands are still under Danish rule, so there are close political connections as well.  
This information was from Larissa Kyzer per “Ask Eyglo”  In Iceland Review Iceland Q&A, FAQ,

© 2012 Harbor History Museum. All rights reserved.


  1. There are many pictures of the family in the museum photograph collections.

  2. Thanks for sharing these stories about my ancestors. After moving up to Kitsap County, I found out my relatives had lived here in Gig Harbor, and buried here too. We moved to GH 3 years ago, and I'm still proud of the fact that there's a street named after my step great-great grandpa Vernhardson.