It’s always a good day!

Posted March 6, 2019 at 5:48 am by

Etta Lightheart Egeland, lover of hats, at age 17 and 102 - Photos courtesy of SJ Historical Society

Here’s this month’s his­to­ry col­umn from the San Juan His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety and Museum…

“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.

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Categories: History, People


  1. Wow! Tru­ly a life well lived.

    Comment by Lynn Burke on March 6, 2019 at 11:44 am
  2. this is My Aunt Etta…i miss her stories…i miss her very much, i miss the twil­do cab­in, her home, we always came right to Aunt Etta’s just after get­ting of the fer­ry, she always made me home made bread pudding…the house smelled of pud­ding and cook­ies, sug­ar cookies…she last cooked my favorite foods when she was 102 years young…one of the last sto­ries i remem­ber was when she was 105 years young… about what it felt like to be this age she was, i asked her; “Aunt Etta? what does it feel like to be 105? and she said, well i woke up…and she laughed and said and when i look in the mir­ror I’m always surprised…because i always think of m

    Comment by louise lightheart -parks on March 6, 2019 at 10:58 pm
  3. Louise, thank you for shar­ing some mem­o­ries of your Aunt Etta. Her kind­ness and humor were inspi­ra­tion for so many. (My reply on behalf of the San Juan His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety and Museum.)

    Comment by Robin Jacobson on March 7, 2019 at 1:06 pm

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