BREWSTER – In 1923 the list price of a new Ford was $265, Harold Carter unsealed the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun in Egypt, and a Hershey bar cost ten cents…oh, and Mary (Fike) Johnson was born August 22 in Iowa. That was 100 years ago this year and a conversation with her today is like taking a moderated tour through a century of history.
“I have a memory bank of 100 years of memories…happy memories,” said Johnson.
“We left the cornfields if Iowa on August 1, 1930,” recalled Johnson of those early Great Depression years.
The Fike family, including Mary and three siblings, visited relatives during a month-long trip to Cashmere where Johnson’s father joined his sister’s family.
“They were all picking apples, and his sister’s family had five boys, so they made lots of money,” said Johnson. “My Dad had four girls and we didn’t know how to pick apples,” she giggled.
Father Fike did not make his fortune with four poor apple pickers but did find work at the Rock Island Dam that was built between 1929 and 1933. He later hired on with the Great Northern Railroad and that employment took the family to Moses Coulee, where Johnson attended a one-room school through the eighth grade. She then bussed to Wenatchee to finish high school.
Johnson attended the new Wenatchee Junior College for both its proximity and affordability.
“I was in their second graduating class,” Johnson said.
With her associate’s degree Johnson next attended Central Washington College of Education (now Central Washington University) in Ellensburg and received her teacher’s degree so she could begin teaching in Wenatchee. There she met and married Johnny Johnson who served in the civil service during World War II where he taught Navy pilots how to fly by instruments. One of his students was a fellow named Francis Crane who reappears later in the story.
Mary continued teaching until the couple started a family.
“I taught until I got pregnant,” said Johnson with a mischievous chuckle. The birth of baby Terry in 1944, was the first of six children.
The WWII teacher shortage allowed Johnson to acquire a War Emergency Certificate and return to teaching first grade students in Wenatchee.
Over the next 20 years, Claudia, Tim, Kevin, Lisa, and finally Keith, the youngest born in 1964, would join the family. Johnny went to work for his former flying student, Francis Crane, at Crane Orchards which relocated the family to Brewster.
With a pilot in the family, the story goes that Mary learned to fly a plane before she learned to drive a car. The flights the couple took occasionally came with their own brand of excitement. Son, Keith, told of one memorable trip to a friend’s cabin at Domke Lake northwest of Lake Chelan near Lucerne. Among the amenities awaiting the visitors at the lodging was a rattlesnake under the bed.
“I wanted to return to teaching first grade,” said Johnson. “I went to Pateros, I went to Brewster, I went to Bridgeport but apparently I was over-qualified so they would not hire me.”
That was in 1978 and Johnson’s disappointment became a major benefit for Brewster because it was also the year she started The Children’s House.
“That was during the years when all the migrants were coming in and all the orchards were hiring,” said Johnson.
The Children’s House served the childcare needs of most of those families, so many in fact that Johnson said it’s hard to find adults in Brewster today whose children did not attend The Children’s House.
The Johnsons enjoyed 51 years of marriage before Johnny succumbed to cancer in 1995. Friend Jack Wood has been a companion to Mary for the last decade or so.
In 2018 The Quad ran a story commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Brewster institution. Keith, who was 14 when The Children’s House debuted, assumed operations of the facility in 1998.
Mary Johnson’s family will celebrate her century mark with an open house from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, August 19, at her home on 315 ½ S. Bridge Street.
It will be another happy occasion to deposit in Mary Johnson’s 100-year memory bank.
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