Jessie Beeksma Eerkes: The last of a generation

Jessie Beeksma in a recent photo - Submitted photo
Jessie Beeksma in a recent photo
— image credit: Submitted photo

Oak Harbor had a hole in its heart this Christmas: Jessie Beeskma Eerkes was missing for the first time since 1913.

The last in an entire generation of Oak Harbor’s Dutch community, she died Dec. 17, 2009, at the age of 96. Her funeral at the First Reformed Church on Dec. 21 attracted a large crowd that reflected on someone who had been a loving “aunt” to all of them for decades.

“I never knew her not to be smiling,” her nephew and retired Oak Harbor banker Barney Beeksma said last week. “She was just happy with life.”

It was a life that spanned most of Oak Harbor’s history, from its hardscrabble rural beginnings to its prosperous “Navy town” present.

Gary Eerkes, one of Jessie’s four children, remembered his mother as “very lively from the get-go; quite a lady who was a little bit ahead of her time, and she had a terrific sense of humor.”

She was dedicated to her family, church and community. Gary remembers that his supportive parents had their own kind of discipline that kept the kids in line. “A favorite saying among all the brothers when we crossed the line was ‘I’m gonna tell mom,” he recalled. “It’s the indication of the respect we had for her and Dad. “Their discipline was, ‘we didn’t want to disappoint them’. She was so consistent, we always knew where she stood.”

Following is Jessie’s life story supplied by her son Gary.

Jessie Anna Beeksma was born on the family farm in Clover Valley on August 12, 1913. Her parents, Bokke and Adriana Beeksma, were Dutch immigrants who had come to the Island in 1911. Jessie was the youngest of eight children. The farmhouse where she was born was located on what is now Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, just north of the main gate. When the base was built, the farmhouse was moved to Taylor Road where it still stands.

When Jessie was a young girl there were no paved streets in Oak Harbor and the only way of reaching the Island was by boat. Her given name was Jeltje, but her first grade teacher “Americanized” it to Jessie.

In high school she was on the committee that selected “Wildcats” and “purple and gold” as Oak Harbor’s mascot and colors, respectively. She lettered all four years in track and basketball. She was class president for two years, in numerous school plays and a member of the school paper staff and honor society. She graduated in 1931, four years before the Deception Pass bridge was built.

In the early 1930s Jessie worked as a telephone operator. At this time all telephone circuits for North Whidbey were routed through the telephone office located on the east side of Midway Blvd. across the street from Smith Park. According to Jessie, it was not uncommon for a complete evening to pass without anyone making a single phone call.

In the mid 1930s Jessie candled eggs at the end of the Oak Harbor Wharf for the local farmers. Although this dock is now gone, the dock’s concrete water tank can still be seen today at low tide. This was also the dock the Mosquito Fleet steamers used to transport passengers and freight between Oak Harbor and the rest of Puget Sound up to the mid 1930s.

Jessie married Ernest (Erk) Eerkes in 1934. For the next several years they owned and operated the Eerkes Springs Resort which was on the northwestern shore of Crescent Harbor. This popular resort was situated along that portion Torpedo Road that parallels the beach. The resort closed in 1941 when it became part of the NAS Seaplane Base. Eerkes Springs still appears on USGS topographic maps and according to the late Whidbey historian Dorothy Neil, was the site where the first three settlers arrived in Oak Harbor in 1849.

When construction began on the Seaplane Base in 1941 the family moved to a home on SE Pioneer Way. This home still stands and is the first house west of the Skagit Valley College Whidbey Campus. The home also has the distinction of being where the Bowmer family started publishing the first Oak Harbor newspaper in 1911. Further, it is the childhood home of Angus Bowmer who went on to start the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore.

During World War II, there was a severe housing shortage on the Island. In response, Jessie and Erk opened up their little home to young Navy couples looking for a place to stay. The country was at war and they, like many other families in the community, did what they could be meet this need. Two of the couples that roomed in the Eerkes home became lifelong friends.

In the ensuing years Jessie concentrated on being a wife, mother, homemaker and community volunteer. In the 1960s she was a chaperone for the Oak Harbor High School cheerleaders when the basketball team went to state. She was very active in the Reformed Church and holds the distinction of being the longest baptized member in the church’s history. Some of the church activities for which she will be remembered include: Sunday school teacher, Orcas Island youth camp cook for over 30 years, Holland Happening community dinner, and even spending a week at an outreach program in Harlem, N.Y. Jessie also volunteered in the Oak Harbor Senior Center kitchen until she turned 80.

In retirement she enjoyed traveling to such places as Alaska, New England, the Southwest, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands.

Jessie enjoyed an exceptionally healthy and long life. She lived by herself and drove her car until a few months after her 95th birthday. The one exception was an encounter with breast cancer in 1970 which she met with determination and a positive attitude. For years after she provided support to other women who were diagnosed with this disease.

Being a member of one of the original Oak Harbor Dutch families, Jessie is “Aunt Jessie” to many Whidbey families, namely, all the Beeksmas, a number of the Fakkemas, all of the Eerkeses, all of the Kingmas, and a number of the Riepmas. Unofficially she is the same to at least a hundred more Whidbey residents.

Jessie is survived by four children: Ernie Eerkes, a retired personnel administrator for the Oak Harbor School District; JoAnne Young, a retired elementary school teacher; Gary Eerkes, a retired Western Washington University computer science professor; and Al Eerkes, a retired Bank of America senior vice president.

With her passing, Oak Harbor will never be quite the same.

Many saw her for the last time at her funeral. Gary Eerkes overheard a cousin, Keith Fakkema,say, “I didn’t recognize her because she didn’t have a smile on her face.”

That smile will be missed.

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