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Kids and History

August 5, 2018

Road Scholar July 2018 (2)

“Wind up the Apple Tree – hold on tight!     Wind it all day and wind it all night!”

Fourteen giggling kids ages 9 – 13 formed a line – tallest kid to shortest – and proceeded to wind themselves up. They were playing a game that pioneer farm children who lived in this place many years ago might have played. The kids – and their grandparents – were part of an Inter-Generational Road Scholar program that was exploring Whidbey Island. As a presenter/performer, I was introducing them to Ebey’s Landing, the Ebey family and life as a pioneer.

That morning at the motel, they learned a bit about Rebecca Ebey and her long trek from Missouri to Whidbey with her two sons, Eason and Ellison, in 1851. They learned that over 120 years later, many of the lands, farms, and forests of those early pioneers were preserved: at Ebey’s Landing. Later, we played Cat’s Cradle and taught each other string tricks and fooled around with simple wooden toys that Eason and Ellison may have whittled and then played with. Then, we took a bus out to the Reserve.

It was a beautiful sunny day and the wind off Admiralty Inlet wasn’t too strong. As we walked along the trail to the Jacob Ebey Farmhouse, I talked a bit about Whidbey Island farming – then and now. Did they know that Whidbey Island – back in the 1920’’s – produced more wheat per acre than any other place in the US? That- today- 50% of the world supply of cabbage seed is grown right here? The grandparents were suitably impressed; the kids were busy chasing one another and goofing off. But everyone listened as I described the back-breaking work of clearing the land and the fears that first winter when the potatoes froze.

Then the mood changed as I taught them the game. They looked a little foolish, but I could tell they were game. The grandparents joined in the singing as the little line wound up tighter and tighter…

Road Scholar July 2018 (3)

“Stir up the dumplings —  the pot boils over!”

Laughing and lurching back and forth, the kids unwound themselves – and managed to keep the line intact. Their grand-parents and I applauded.

We finished the session with a group shot on the steps of Jacob’s farmhouse. As cameras clicked and kids tried out silly poses, I thought about Jacob Ebey. His wife Sarah bore him twelve children, but only seven made it into adulthood. I could almost imagine him peering out the window at this bunch – with a big smile on his face.

Road Scholar July 2018



July 26, 2018




It was an early fall day as we wound up Old Mountain Road to the top of Beech Mountain in North Carolina. I was a novice storyteller living in nearby Jonesborough, TN; I was on my way to meet a legend.

At my first National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, I had become vaguely aware of an old man, a traditional teller, who had – along with others – started this festival. People said he came every year. I quickly found out it was true; he had performed every year – for 30 years. He had also received a Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Education Association in Washington DC and been written up in newspapers and magazines from Los Angeles to New York. I was more than a little intimidated.

As we climbed the mountain, I remembered hearing stories about how Ray sometimes “schnookered” visitors. A Yankee reporter would stop his car and ask where Mr. Hicks lived. Ray would smile…”over yander” – and the duped driver would continue on up the road. By that time, as a gullible Yankee, I’d been schnookered a few times myself….

When we reached the house, firewood was stacked all the way around the porch. Inside, there was no greeting; Ray was in the middle of a story. He sat in an old upholstered chair near an ancient wood stove. The floor was bare planks. After a few head-nods and smiles, I sat – and listened. His speech was so strange. An anthropologist once said that George Washington and Daniel Boone would have recognized it. I had a little more trouble. But gradually, I was drawn in, fascinated by what I was witnessing. At funny moments, his face would crinkle up with glee – and he’d laugh with us. This was FUN!

At one point, I wandered into the kitchen. Ray’s wife, Rosa, was drying apples. As she put yet another huge tray of apple slices on top of the old wood stove, we talked. Bundles of herbs hung in every corner of the room. We went into the spring house and she showed me her preserves. Then she dipped a tin cup into the water and handed it to me. I will never forget the taste of that ice-cold spring water.

Later, in the car, in hushed tones, I talked about what a unique experience it was. “I’ve just witnessed a piece of living history!” Jim, the driver, nodded. He’d heard it all before. But for me, that afternoon was so special… a gem I would hide away inside me to keep…forever.

For the next three years at the festival, I always went to Ray’s tent early – to be sure and get a seat. In between, I read every Jack Tale (the stories Ray told) I could get my hands on. Bit by bit, I began to really understand; I even got the jokes! Each year, Ray would sit – in a brand new pair of overalls – onstage in his chair… and 800 people in that tent listened. He was kind and generous and funny – and utterly genuine.

I have a souvenir from those times – a buckeye nut. In Tennessee, the saying goes that if a friend gives you a buckeye nut, you must keep it always and never lose it. The nut is kind of bumpy and old and worn – just like the man who gave it to me. Both Ray and his wife, Rosie, are gone now. But I will never lose that nut…not ever.

                                                                          Rosa, Ray, Jill Johnson 1


Jacob and Me

June 24, 2018


This handsome farmhouse, caught between two shafts of light on soltice eve was built over 150 years ago by Jacob Neff Ebey. Jacob and I have more than a nodding acquaintance with one another: Isaac Ebey was his son and Rebecca Ebey his daughter-in-law. In my show, “Rebecca: the story of Rebecca Ebey”, Jacob played an important supporting role.

Like so many of those early pioneers, Jacob moved around – a lot. Born in Pennsylvania, he married Sarah Blue and moved to Ohio. There, he and Sarah had eight children- five of whom survived to adulthood. Isaac was his second child and first son. In 1831 the family moved to Illinois. There, in the Black Hawk War, Jacob was a captain in the same battalion as a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. Then, in 1840, they moved again – to Missouri. Finally, following his son Issac west, Jacob and the remainder of the family joined him here on Whidbey in 1854.

The Aebi family can be traced back to the 13th Century in Switzerland. Theodorus Durst Eby, Jacob’s first American ancestor, settled in Pennsylvania – and the land he tilled is still being farming by the Amish… strange to consider as I look out on Jacob’s alfalfa fields. Those fields of Jacob and his son, a rich panoply of brown and yellow and green, are still there – thanks to Ebey’s Landing, the 17,000 acre preserve created in 1978. Third and fourth generation descendants of Central Whidbey’s pioneer community still farm some of those lands.

Jacob and Sarah named their farm – right next to their son’s land claim – Sunnyside. He didn’t have much time to enjoy it; he died on February 24, 1862 only four years after it was built. His younger son, Winfield, wrote in his diary: “This is a day of sorrow and mourning. Our dear Father died…. I shall feel very lonesome I know…. I have so long been with him.” By the time Winfield died three years later, the Ebey family had lost so many: Jacob and Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca and their daughter, Hetty, and Isaac and Winfield’s sister, Ruth. Overcome with grief, Jacob’s oldest child, Mary Ebey Bozarth, created the beginnings of the Sunnyside Historical Cemetery, located on Jacob’s claim. Eventually all the Ebey family grave sites were moved to this spot and remain there today.

I have been to those grave sites many times, stood beside them, read the names, and thought about this family that- through research and imagining- I have come to know. They are like old friends – Jacob and Sarah and Isaac and Rebecca and the others. I picture Jacob: the farmer, the old warrior…bearded…sturdy and strong. The farmhouse reflects the man: simple yet beautiful. I am so glad it is still here.

Berte Olson is back!

May 24, 2018

2018.0601 FFSN Flyer-QSG

Teaching and Storytelling

May 20, 2018

Holy Rosary


It was a field day for the 5th and 6th graders of Holy Rosary School at Camp Casey near Coupeville on Whidbey Island. The day had been sunny and full of outdoor activities. Now, at dusk, it had become rainy and cold. The hall selected for the storytelling had no heat; the kids were shivering – and I left my jacket on. As I launched into the session, they huddled together – but they were listening.

I told them about the 6th graders who were my test audience many years ago when I was a beginning teller – and how valuable their feedback was. As I did, their faces melded into the faces of all the middle school groups I have faced- as a teacher and a storyteller. Sixth grade, for me as a storyteller, is an IDEAL audience: old enough to have really mature insights and still young enough to let their imaginations run free. Though I was cold and they were cold, we were together; a community.

When the session was over, they all applauded and then, trooped out: the usual noisy, boisterous middle school bunch. As I watched them go, I wondered – as all teachers have done since the beginning of time – did they really understand? Did they “get it”? Storytellers don’t have much more indication than classroom teachers do about things like this. Oh yes, I have slam bang sessions where the kids are so jazzed and wired afterwards that I KNOW I have made an impact. But many sessions are much like this one: i.e. the kids are attentive listeners, responsive, present – but, in the end – non-committal. And you wonder….

And then I received the above in the mail – neatly stapled to a piece of construction paper. After almost forty years, it still amazes me when kids actually LEARN something I taught them. To the fifth and sixth graders of Holy Rosary School: thank you. Teaching and storytelling: a sublime combination.

Finally… a video!!

May 10, 2018

It’s only taken me four years to do it – but I finally have a video. The performance took place in the town of Bauan in the Philippines: the same town where I taught ESL as a Peace Corps Volunteer almost fifty years ago. A roomful of third graders… some hesitant but willing teachers… and an eager storyteller ready to share.

Go to the “Links” site on this website and then click on “Storyteller Jill Johnson in the Philippines”. ENJOY!!


Storytelling Between Generations

March 14, 2018

Oh no, the kids aren’t interested in my stories.”

Are you kidding?? They’re only interested in what’s on their cell phones!”

These are the kind of remarks I get at presentations for elders: in senior centers, assisted living communities… at a hospice recently in New Zealand.


But -for thousands of years, elders were the primary educators of children and youth. These educators taught many things: practical life skills, the history of their people to give the young a perspective on current events, and the values and beliefs that formed the cornerstone of their society.

Question: Are these things still relevant and valuable today? Of course, they are!


I am sure you have heard – as I have – children or grandchildren at a funeral, lamenting… ‘Why didn’t I ask questions? Why didn’t I listen? Now, s/he’s gone – and I can’t do either…’ As a storyteller, I am committed to demonstrating to elders how valuable their contributions are. Yes, they need a little help sometimes – to structure their stories, to make them relevant to young people in the 21st century. But, most of all, they need to have the faith that they have something valuable to contribute to younger generations. And they DO. I have seen kids – 10, 12, 14 year olds – sitting, dumbstruck, as an elder describes riding a horse to school, or searching for a child lost in a snowstorm. At the National Storytelling Festival in Tennessee, I watched hundreds of kids, bussed in for a special day, sit rapt, listening to the stories of a wonderful 84 year old storyteller – Kathryn Windham. “She is SO cool!” said one teen. And she was….







However, elders, you don’t need to be Kathryn Windham to tell engaging stories to young people you care about. Yes, the world is changing. But stories of persistence and humor and courage and wit are always relevant – no matter when they took place. And when those stories come from someone you know, someone you love, the impact can be even stronger.


At the hospice in New Zealand, things really began to pop when a great-grandmother finally spoke up. She described telling stories to her great-grandchildren – and their reaction: “Granny… you DIDN’T??!” There were smiles, laughs, nods – and suddenly everyone wanted to talk. Stories poured out of them; stories that their descendants needed to hear. My last words to them were, “Tell them. Tell those stories.” I hope they do.



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