To hear Mary Ritchie’s stories is to take a guided tour of Lopez. Her family connections crisscross this island—and others—like tree roots, forces of growth unknown to newcomers. Fittingly, this interview included two of Mary’s daughters, Maribelle Doss and Barbara Jennings, and niece Valerie Yukluk.
Mary Kelton was born in Tacoma in 1926, but when she was a toddler her family moved to Blakely, where her dad, Bob, logged with cousins, the Spencers. During the Depression, Bob became a foreman at the Civilian Conservation Corps camp on Orcas, so the Keltons moved. His crew quarried the rock and built the tower on Mt. Constitution, as well as the road. Mary started school at Doe Bay, then attended Westsound — a sawmill site then, no tourist haven. “That whole bay was full of sawdust,” she says.
Throughout high school in Eastsound, during the war, Mary served as a volunteer lookout in Deer Harbor. “You had to listen for planes, then call it in: what direction they’re flying, what type of plane,” Mary says. “Luckily there weren’t that many planes in those days.” She and her siblings also worked summers at the resorts, and for Orcas’s many fruit producers. Mary remembers picking sour cherries — “horrible; juice running down your arms” — and strawberries, which were packed into barrels.
Graduating in 1944, Mary headed to Bellingham for college. The next summer, she “inherited” a job as a fire lookout on Church Mountain. Her mom and sister Iris were working there, but when Mary came to visit, Iris happily ceded her spot. “We were just up there on a rock,” Mary relates. “They’d come up once a month with mail and food.” She remembers one bad thunderstorm: “pretty scary.”
Illness sent Mary home from college, and in 1946, she moved in with her Lopez cousin Shirley Plummer and started cooking at the “new” school—less than half its current size. Maribelle remembers “a kitchen like a closet, and they served us lunch in the library.”
Movie Nights at Legion Hall were social highlights, and one night Romayne Ritchie sat down beside Mary. “He knew who I was,” Mary relates, “and he’d already decided I was the one he was going to marry.” In 1947, his hopes came true.
Mary and Romayne settled off Kjargaard Road and started their own family: Maribelle, Norine, Barbara, and Rex. After a brief stint running dairy cows on the mainland, they moved back to Lopez, off School Road, and then down to Barlow Bay to care for Romayne’s mother. Romayne milked, and Mary tended children and a huge garden, often canning into the night.
In 1963 Romayne’s mother moved off Lopez, and the Ritchies bought a farm in the middle of the island. Later, they donated land around the church to allow power installation. Mary’s family took turns with Iris’s hosting Easter egg hunts for all the cousins, which grew so large they finally got 4-H to run them — and it still does. Other big community events included the picnic at Odlin on the last day of school, where folks attended whether they had kids or not. Mary remembers “all the men showing up for lunch after haying.” July Fourth was at Odlin too, with baseball and other games. No parade, but the owners of Charles Island shot off fireworks by Richardson.
Mary wouldn’t say so herself, but Barbara says, “There isn’t anything our mother can’t do.” Her kids used to tease that she’d “clear an acre before breakfast.” She was a 4-H leader for sewing and provided sewing guidance for the new Home Ec teacher. “If your kids are doing something, you kinda have to know how to do it too,” she says, so she always dived into whatever they volunteered her for. Valerie remembers her aunt making personalized Valentine cookies for everyone in school, year after year. Long after her kids were done with 4-H, Mary continued to serve on the San Juan County Fair Board. She is, her children agree, “the driving force in our family.”
Another Mary Ritchie legacy: the wreath sale which supports the cemetery. In the 1950s, Mary’s sister-in-law urged, “‘You’ve got such beautiful greenery, you should be making wreaths.’” The first year they sold six, to benefit a family with a hospitalized child. Later sales raised money to mow the cemetery — the Ritchie girls’ job. Today, nearly 350 wreaths are sold, plus other decorations. Family members still have a hand in the wreaths, but Mary sticks to ornaments, including some astonishing crocheted snowflakes.
In the 1980s, the Friday Harbor Journal name Mary Citizen of the Year, and in 2001, she was awarded the second-ever Community Spirit Award on Lopez. Romayne passed away in 2008, but Mary, with 10 grandkids and 19 great-grandkids, continues to garden avidly, make fried chicken and pies for the family’s huge cider-pressings, and plan her next project. As Maribelle puts it, “Mom always has a plan.”