At Hovander Homestead Park, longtime volunteers reach a benchmark

In their 80s, Bill and Janice Ellingson have volunteered year-round for 13 years
August 30, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.
Bill, left, and Jan Ellingson stand with their dog Angel on Thursday, Aug. 24 at Hovander Homestead Park in Ferndale. The pair have volunteered and cared for the animals at the park for 13 years.
Bill, left, and Jan Ellingson stand with their dog Angel on Thursday, Aug. 24 at Hovander Homestead Park in Ferndale. The pair have volunteered and cared for the animals at the park for 13 years. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Staff Reporter

FERNDALE — In the early morning, Hovander Homestead Park is a quiet place. But once the gates to the 350-acre public park open at 8 a.m. and Bill and Janice “Jan” Ellingson pull up to the big red barn and get to work, the silence is likely to be broken by laughter. 

Bill, 85, and Jan, 82, have been volunteering at the park for 13 years, every single day except for illness or snow drifts.

In that time, the long-retired couple has done everything from leading tours of the historic Hovander House to watering and pruning plants at Fragrance Garden, tending to farm animals, moving picnic furniture, picking up trash and sometimes locking up the park at closing time. 

photo  Jan Ellingson, right, laughs at her husband Bill's joke before feeding the animals. The couple said they love how much fun they continue to have together. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

“All we do now is feed the animals and pick up trash in the parking lot,” Bill said.

“Well, that was your vacation,” Park Ranger Kevin Nancel said with a smile, eliciting laughter from Bill and Jan. 

The camaraderie among the Ellingsons and the Whatcom County Parks & Recreation staff working at Hovander is evident. They share stories and jokes — including pranking Bill by regularly hiding plastic snakes for him to find — but the staff also assist Jan and Bill in their daily duties. 

photo  Bill Ellingson dumps dirty water from the ducks' coop. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

“They're like family to us,” West Region Lead Ranger Jill Jacoby said. “They support us. They take care of us. I know they say we help them, but they actually help us. They check on us. It gets a little lonely out here in the winter.” 

“These young people out here, Kevin and Jill, they’re just like our kids,” Bill countered. “They’re a blessing to us.” 

64 years and counting 

After feeding the park's farm chickens and ducks, changing their water, and then moving on to the rabbit hutches to stock the bunnies with hay, Bill and Jan shared details about how they got together. 

The couple met in high school in West Texas when he was a senior and she was a freshman. They married shortly before she turned 18. 

“We fell in and out of love so many times we decided we better just get married,” Bill said with an impish grin. “So now we've been married for 64 years, going on 65.” 

photo  The ducks run free from their house into their pen. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

When they first met, Jan was living on a range, so she was always around animals. Bill raised livestock for 4H. Their shared love for both animals and kids has continued through the decades, including the 35 years Bill worked for the federal government in the military and the decade the duo spent running a church camp in Colorado. 

Initially, Jan was told she couldn’t get pregnant, but after adopting a girl and a boy, she gave birth to a second daughter when their older kids were 10 and 8.

“I dearly love kids; they’re just a part of my life,” Jan said. “My mother was the baby of 12.” 

photo  Granddaughter and park employee Maisie Coolidge, left, holds Winnie, her grandfather Bill's favorite chicken, in the hen house. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

Bill and Jan’s 19-year-old granddaughter, Maisie Coolidge, has been visiting Hovander Homestead Park with her grandparents since she was young enough to pull around in a buggy. This is her second summer as a seasonal employee, and it’s clear Bill and Jan enjoy having her around — and vice versa.

“I love them,” Coolidge said. “I have so many good memories coming out here, especially.” 

As for how Bill and Jan feel about each other, their playful banter reveals deep feelings. 

“He's so fun,” Jan said. “He's good to me. He treats me very well. I pretty much get my way. That's why I like him.”

“Just remember, she said that, I didn’t!” Bill said. “So you see who the boss is.”

A bench in their name 

Bill and Jan don’t know it yet, but their eldest daughter, Tanya Kimmer, and her husband David have organized a GoFundMe to raise money to purchase an honorary park bench in Bill and Jan’s name as a “thank you” for their years of dedicated service at Hovander. The $2,500 goal would include bench installation.

photo  Granddaughter Maisie Coolidge and grandmother Jan Ellingson hug during chores at the park. When Coolidge was little, she would join her grandparents for chores, and now she is a summer park employee. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

Although they’ve never received money for what they do, Bill and Jan receive payment in other ways. 

In addition to getting to take duck and chicken eggs to share with some of their fellow retirement home residents, they also receive close friendships with park staff and community members, and a sense of pride and enjoyment in what they do. 

“We love it out here,” Jan said. “I tried to get them to put a trailer down here so we could live here and they won't do it.” 

"When you can get up in the morning and say ‘I look forward to work,’ that's when it's fun,” Bill said. “When it gets to the point where you're dreading it, that's the time to quit. I haven't reached that. Not even close to it.”

“You won't, either,” Jan said. “Until you're on your knees, you're never going to.”

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