Arts and Entertainment

Storyteller brings Berte Olson back to life at Deception Pass

Whidbey skipper Berte Olson stands on the bridge of the ferry “Acorn,” which she helped design and build in the early 20th century. - Photo courtesy of Jill Johnson
Whidbey skipper Berte Olson stands on the bridge of the ferry “Acorn,” which she helped design and build in the early 20th century.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Jill Johnson

She may have been extraordinarily small of stature, but she was bigger than life when it came to making things happen.

Berte Olson was the first woman to skipper a ferry boat in Puget Sound and the first to own her own ferry boat company.

The incredible life of Olson is recreated by professional storyteller Jill Johnson in a historical presentation with music titled “Little, But Oh My! — the Story of Berte Olson” at 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 7 at the Deception Pass State Park Amphitheater in Oak Harbor.

Born in 1882 in Stavanger, Norway, the 9-year-old Olson and her family became one of the early Scandinavian homesteaders on Whidbey Island.

In 1916, Olson married Swedish fisherman Agaton Olaf Olson, thereby changing her name from its original Olsen, Norwegian, to the Swedish spelling of the name.

“Olson was barely five feet tall,” Johnson said, “but what she may have lacked in physical stature, she made up for in grit and determination. She marched to the tune of her own drummer.”

That tune created the rhythm to which Olson would set the pace of her life as a woman of many firsts.

In 1919, Berte and her husband, “Augie,” were awarded a contract for the first regularly scheduled ferry service between Hoypus Point on Whidbey Island and Dewey’s Landing on Fidalgo Island.

The Deception Pass Ferry Company started out with a scow. Later, the husband-and-wife team designed and built their own ferry boats, quite a feat at the time. They were the “Deception Pass,” which carried 12 cars, and the “Acorn,” with its maximum load of 16. Berte became an accomplished pilot, business manager and supervisor of the vessels’ maintenance.

In 1924, the little company expanded to include the Oak Harbor-Utsaladdy run between Whidbey and Camano islands.

Later, Berte and Augie fought a fierce but losing battle against the construction of the Deception Pass Bridge.

“Berte, in her own indomitable way, did all she could,” Johnson said.

“She went many times to Olympia to lobby against the bridge. Her family thought she was crazy, but she was a formidable opponent. But Berte was no Tugboat Annie; she was always very polite and ladylike,” Johnson said.

When the bridge opened in 1935, it put the little company out of business. The marriage suffered the same fate, and Augie headed down to the Steilacoom line.

Olson convinced Alexander Peabody, the president of the Black Ball Line (precursor to Washington State Ferries) to sell her the franchise for the Port Gamble-Shine ferry run on Hood Canal. From that, she created her own ferry boat business, the Olympic Navigation Company.

Later, she would own the run between Seabeck (Kitsap Peninsula) and Brinnon (Olympic Peninsula) and two new boats, the “Lake Constance” and the “Klatawa.”

“She kept it all going through World War II, raising her family through all of it, until 1950, when the Agate Pass Bridge was built,” Johnson said.

Olson died in 1959 at age 77 in Seattle. Her ashes were scattered where the Hood Canal Bridge was built. Johnson said (with a sly smile) that legend has it that the ghost of Berte Olson had something to do with why that bridge sank in 1979.

Based on more than three years of research, with extensive interviews with surviving family members and fellow mariners, “Little, But Oh My!” traces Olson’s life from Norway to Whidbey Island, and through her career as a skipper and businesswoman and her retirement in 1950.

“It was the people I talked to who created this story,” Johnson said. They included the skipper’s son, Ivan Olson of Anacortes, who, in the end, gave Johnson his mother’s ferry cap.

The show also includes an exhibit of more than 25 historical photographs of Olson, her family, the boats and landings. Musical interludes featuring maritime and Norwegian folk songs add to the show’s storyline.

Johnson portrays Olson, starting with her youth and moving into the girl who becomes the full-fledged businesswoman, weaving narration and music together into an entertaining performance about a woman with a firecracker spirit.

“She was stubborn, and when she had an idea, she ran with it,” Johnson said.

The show premiered at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in

March 2003 and has since been performed throughout Western Washington. Joining Johnson will be the five musicians who helped her create the original show, which she said makes this performance extra special. A CD of a live performance of the show recently received an “honors” designation in the 2006 Resources Awards competition of “Storytelling World” magazine.

After bringing Olson to life for more than 50 performances in four states in the past seven years, this will be Johnson’s final performance of “Little, But Oh My.”

“Now I’ve come full circle and will come to the place where Berte started,” Johnson said.

The amphitheater is located at 41020 Highway 20 in Oak Harbor. Admission is free.

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