Reporting from Vashon Island, Wash.—The Betty MacDonald Farm is still everything its first owner described in her memoir "Onions in the Stew": a beautiful retreat with a breathtaking view of Puget Sound, lush fruit trees and bald eagles nesting just outside the windows.
The farm in the 1940s and '50s was the ideal spot for MacDonald to raise two daughters while cranking out bestselling books that detailed, with a contemporary comedic sense, every step, and misstep, that led her here.
"When I bought the place in the '70s from Don MacDonald," Lawrence recalls, "there was nothing but chicken droppings and straw" throughout the buildings and grounds. And though there are wonderful mementos of those days, including a tiny Betty MacDonald Museum in the main barn, the two suites Lawrence makes available to guests are romantic and furnished comfortably, with every convenience.
MacDonald, who was born in Seattle, insisted that she lived "a perfectly ordinary life." But there was nothing ordinary about her success in turning the absurdities of her life — raising chickens alongside the kids, trying to find work during the Great Depression — into books that still feel absolutely modern to today's readers.
MacDonald started gathering material as a young bride, married to her first husband, in the '20s, when he decided to become a chicken farmer in a soggy, remote area of the Olympic Peninsula. MacDonald's fish-out-of-water memoir of that life, "The Egg and I," became a bestseller in 1945 and then a hit film in 1947 starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. It also made stars of MacDonald's fictional neighbors, the Kettles, who themselves became an entertainment franchise in the Ma and Pa Kettle films and TV series.
Throughout the Great Depression, her first husband left in the sticks, MacDonald burned through a series of jobs as a single mom and continued to write. "The Plague and I" chronicles her yearlong stay in a sanitarium for tuberculosis, and "Anybody Can Do Anything" is garnering fresh appreciation in the wake of the Great Recession as a handbook on how to piece together work when there isn't any.
It's no wonder that fans of MacDonald, who died of cancer in 1958 at age 49, come to retrace her steps around Puget Sound and end up at the sprawling 6-acre retreat where she finally found happiness.
Vashon Island is a short ferry ride from Seattle — and a tranquil world away. Betty and Don MacDonald bought the land here in the early 1940s; they puttered and ran a modest farm, and raised Betty's daughters from her first marriage, Anne and Joan. And Betty began to publish her books, including her beloved children's series, the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books.
My friend Paula, who lives in Juneau, Alaska, and I are both big MacDonald fans, and we wanted to check out the farm and reread some of our favorite MacDonald books. So in May we arranged to stay a night in the Cottage, a wing of the giant barn that can accommodate four. It was ideal for us. There's enough room to spread out, comfy furniture to lounge in, just the right mix of deluxe and funk (a wobbly floorboard by the door is deftly covered with a swatch of carpeting), a lovely deck overlooking the water, a kitchen and two bedrooms. The giant Douglas fir outside the picture window happened to be the home of two nesting bald eagles. Inside, there's a giant wood stove that Paula kept roaring.
Each suite is stocked with DVDs, board games and books, so it's almost impossible not to relax. After Paula and I each called dibs on a bedroom, we strolled through the gardens and orchard, checked out the greenhouse, played with Lawrence's friendly terriers, Bailey and Lily, and soaked in the lushness of spring. The ground was covered with a sprinkling of forget-me-nots. All we could hear were the cries of nesting chickadees and flickers, with the occasional call of an osprey or eagle.
We headed into the barn to check out the artifacts in the museum: framed news clippings, posters from "The Egg and I" movie, faded signs from the MacDonald days and more.
We also got to peek into the other suite, the Cedar Loft, which is breathtakingly romantic. It's up several flights of stairs, in the topmost area of the barn. Just when you think you'll arrive in a cobwebby attic, a door opens to reveal a luxurious suite with a cozy bedroom, full bath and kitchen, all smartly furnished with antiques and with the same amazing view we had from the Cottage. (The Loft is a favorite with honeymooners, Lawrence says.)
After we settled in, we went to town for lunch at the Hardware Store and strolled through charming shops and galleries. There's always something to do: nature and beach walks, birding activities and horses for rent. We also hit the local supermarket, because as a fridge magnet in our kitchen said, "Bed and Breakfast — You Make Both." Lawrence furnishes eggs (of course) and coffee, but we picked up dinner fixings as well as a few other things for breakfast. We knew that once we were back on the Farm, we wouldn't want to leave to make a supply run. Or move off the deck or the couch.
Paula picked up a copy of "Onions in the Stew" and went for a long soak in the claw-foot bathtub. I dived into some long-missed tales (so wise, that Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle). And we watched the sun set over Puget Sound and the trees, to a soundtrack of birdcalls, and realized what an honor it was to share, more than half a century later, a taste of MacDonald's ordinary, and quite splendid, life.