Amboy siblings recall childhoods at ‘the Big House’

Family, community ties grow stronger

By Eric Florip, Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter

Published:

 

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AMBOY — As Judy Steigmann and her three brothers walked up to an old white house near Amboy, memories starting pouring out.

They call it “the Big House.” This 10-bedroom homestead was home to the entire family once. The four siblings — Steigmann, Dave Johnson, Jerry Johnson and Darrell Johnson — remember the bedrooms they occupied decades ago. Before long, their childhood reflections veered toward stories of youthful mischief and easy laughter.

The Johnson family was bigger in those days. Lawrence and Marien Johnson had 10 children together; Dave, Jerry, Darrell and Judy are the only four surviving. They all now live within a mile of each other in north Clark County, still close to the Big House. All of them consider the area home, and wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else.

All retired, the four have grown close through their involvement with a multitude of organizations in the community. They’ve also grown close through loss, enduring the death of siblings and spouses over the years together.

“I think since I’ve known them, they’ve started bonding more because there’s only the four of them,” said Georgene Messner Neal, a friend who recently helped compile the Johnson family history. “They’re just kind of becoming closer together.”

10 Johnson kids

At 82, Dave is the oldest of the four. Judy is the youngest at 67 — and the only one born in Clark County. All of the other Johnson siblings were born before the family moved to the county from Eastern Washington in the early 1940s.

Lawrence Johnson, their father, briefly worked at the Kaiser Shipyards in Vancouver during World War II, then spent years working “in the woods” logging, Dave said. The Johnson children attended various schools as the years passed.

Dave remembers working odd jobs as a youngster shortly after arriving in Clark County. At one point, he delivered The Columbian by bicycle and horseback. He also ran the projectors at the movie theater in Amboy. His younger siblings tagged along sometimes, but Dave knew his responsibility and took it seriously. No one was allowed to touch anything on his watch.

“He wouldn’t let me do anything more than breathe,” Jerry said.

Others recall simple summer days spent at one of a few local swimming holes. Judy laughs about learning to swim only after one of her brothers shoved her in. Darrell cringes at the thought of one pond they used to swim in, full of bark and other debris from a nearby mill.

“When you look back on where we swam out there, it’s a wonder any of us are alive today,” he said, laughing. “We pushed the stuff aside to swim.”

Many of those childhood stories involve “brother Donny,” who was closer in age to them than several of their older siblings. When Donny was killed in a car accident in 1964, the tragedy hit hard, each said.

Dave was the one who received the call from police. In the middle of the night, he rushed to tell his father and siblings in person. Jerry was getting ready for a hunting trip when Dave knocked on his door.

“He said, ‘Donny was killed last night,’ ” Jerry said. “Boy, I about went through the wall.”

Donny was 22 when he died.

‘Great community’

Dave, Jerry, Darrell and Judy haven’t always seen each other as regularly as they do now. Each has lived away from Clark County for a time, and had their own lives to some extent. They mostly saw each other for holidays and family reunions, Judy said.

As they’ve grown older, the four have bonded through shared volunteer work and shared grief. Dave, Jerry and Darrell have all lost spouses.

As the four spent an afternoon last fall going through old family photos and records, it was clear they aren’t above a little sibling rivalry and ribbing. At one point, Dave found their height and weight statistics as infants.

“I was the biggest baby,” he said.

“You’re still the biggest baby,” Darrell said, grinning.

Jerry describes the dynamic this way:

“We still have our heated discussions once in a while with each other,” he said. “But we’re about as close as four people can be.”

Every Wednesday, the four dine together at the Meals on Wheels lunch at the Mt. Valley Grange in Amboy. All say they appreciate the rural way of life they’ve come to know in north Clark County — living slowly, and taking care of friends and family.

They’re all members of the Grange, in addition to numerous other organizations and activities. Among Judy’s talents is her work as a professional clown, Miss Hootie. (“I take after my brothers,” she said.)

For Judy and her brothers, deep roots in the area have become deeper in recent years.

“It’s just a great community,” she said. “We all help each other, and I think that’s what communities are all about.”