Little by little, performance by performance, Langley resident and storyteller Jill Johnson is restoring the island’s knowledge of its heritage.
Johnson has traveled the state and parts of the country for the past 13 years performing “Little, But Oh My!”, the story of a fiery little woman named Berte Olson who was the face behind the first ferry line at Deception Pass from 1920-1930 before the bridge was constructed. Now the story is making a comeback where it all happened.
“Little, But Oh My!” will be performed by Johnson at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 5 at the amphitheater in Deception Pass State Park. The performance will overlook the very passage where Olson ran her first ferry line business from Fidalgo Island to Whidbey Island. Johnson combines her love of storytelling with her background in theater to create an immersive experience as she often goes into character in her colorful presentation. The show will also include musical numbers throughout from Whidbey nautical group Shifty Sailors to give the story a maritime atmosphere. Admission is free.
The show made its debut at the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in 2003 before being selected as part of the “Inquiring Mind” series of Humanities Washington. The nomination led to performances beyond Whidbey, as the inquiring mind series aims to bring humanities programs to isolated communities, and national recognition.
The show later received further praise, as a CD of Johnson’s performance was awarded an honors designation in a national juried competition sponsored by Storytelling Magazine, the national magazine for storytelling.
“After traveling the state and country to tell Berte’s story, it’s really interesting to bring the show back to where the story takes place,” Johnson said. “The last performance was two or three years ago, so this time will be different. Over time, the audience has changed, I’ve changed and my relationship with Berte has changed in very subtle ways.”
Olson is described by Johnson as “a little bit of a thing” who could barely see over her a ship’s steering wheel, but wasn’t afraid to stand up to anybody. Born in Norway and raised on Whidbey, Olson was the oldest of her 11 surviving siblings. Her experience caring for her siblings during her upbringing in Clinton and San de Fuca gave her a toughness admired by other rough-and-tumble sailors, and that grit was crucial as she became the first woman on Puget Sound to skipper a ferry boat and own her own ferry company.
Johnson says the nickname “Little, But Oh My!” derives from people’s reaction to her height before they discover her tough yet ladylike nature.
“In 1922, she bought a boat that was designed to hold 12 Model T’s,” Johnson said. “She charged 50 cents for one way, 75 round trip and 10 cents for walk on passengers.”
Coupeville-based historian Roger Sherman describes Olson’s story as “a part of our island heritage” that is under-appreciated. Sherman, whose area of expertise is nautical history, has studied Whidbey’s seafaring history for decades, and even owns the wheel from one of Olson’s boats, The Acorn. But he says Johnson’s thorough research skills found loads of information regarding Olson that he missed.
“The research I did on the Deception Pass ferry company was pretty complete in my opinion, but then she got my information and did more research,” Sherman said. “She came up with all kinds of stuff that I didn’t come up with myself. She’s an excellent researcher.”
Storytelling comes naturally for Johnson. During her days as a teacher, she would grab her classes’ attention with a tale. Her theater background made her an animated story teller from the start.
Johnson spent time in Jonesborough, Tenn. during the National Storytelling Network Conference, where she was taken under the wing of some of the country’s most talented orators. She has since moved on to become the Seattle liaison for the National Storytelling Network.
“Storytelling is one of the best ways to bring a community together,” Johnson said. “It’s kept communities together for centuries, and I think it’s coming back as an art form.”
For Johnson, Olson’s story is as much about a piece of Whidbey’s history as it is about a woman who stood up in a world of men. She was a pioneer for women in Puget Sound as the first female to skipper a ferry boat and own her own ferry company. Even after the Deception Pass Bridge’s construction put her line out of business, she operated ferries from Port Gamble to the peninsula and from Brinnon to Seabeck.
“People should come to the show to get to know a fascinating woman, to learn a bit about Whidbey heritage and to have a lot of fun in a beautiful setting,” Johnson said. “She’s part of the history of this place.”