Interview with Ilene Sparre

Dublin Core


Interview with Ilene Sparre


Hanford (Wash.)
Richland (Wash.)
Richland (Wash.). Public Schools


An interview with Ilene Sparre conducted as part of the Hanford Oral History Project. The Hanford Oral History Project was sponsored by the Mission Support Alliance and the United States Department of Energy.


Hanford Oral History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities




Those interested in reproducing part or all of this oral history should contact the Hanford History Project at, who can provide specific rights information for this item.

Date Modified

2016-06-29: Metadata v1 created – [RG]

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Bauman, Robert


Sparre, Ilene


Washington State University - Tri Cities


Northwest Public Television | Sparre_Ilene

Ilene Sparre: You know, I spoke on the radio once. In the first six--at 30 seconds, I goofed it up so bad I just relaxed and said I already look like a fool. And then I was really good. [LAUGHTER] They invited me back. You know, it was the first 30 seconds that was so bad. [LAUGHTER]

Man One: I've had more than 30 seconds of bad radio in my time, so don't feel bad. [LAUGHTER]

Woman One: 30 seconds is pretty good.

Man One: That's excellent, really.

Robert Bauman: That’s not bad, actually. That's very good.

Man One: Anytime you're ready, I'm good.

Bauman: Okay.

Man One: Let's see. Your back light looks good.

Man Two: Yeah. Looks fine.

Man One: Okay.

Man Two: Yep.

Bauman: All right, we'll go ahead and get started then. So let's start by maybe first having you say your name and spell it for us.

Sparre: Okay. I am Ilene Gans-Sparre. And Ilene is I-L-E-N-E, Gans--G-A-N-S-, and Sparre--S-P-A-R-R-E .

Bauman: Great. All right, thank you. Today's date is August 28 of 2013. And we're conducting this interview on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. So let's start by having you tell me a little bit about your family and how your family came to Richland. What brought them here and when?

Sparre: Well, my father had eight children, and we had two cousins living with us and grandma. So there was 13 of us. And he bought a farm in Richland close to Benton City on the clift. And there was a little river down there which we could walk to and fish in. It also had quicksand, which we learned to stay away from. [LAUGHTER] But it was a good place for all of us children to run around in. And, of course, he thought children was money because they could work on the farm, except, he had six girls, which kind of changed that. [LAUGHTER] But he had a dairy most of his life besides the farming. We just loved it because we had not so much rain, like on the West Coast. And we had all that sagebrush to run around in. And it was just great living out there. And of course, we did what other farmers did. We saved food for winter. We canned, we froze. We had a dirt cellar. And my dad built our house. Wasn't too good at first, but it got better. [LAUGHTER] Because there wasn't any money much. But we had a great life and lots to eat.

Bauman: So where did you move from?

Sparre: I think he moved from Idaho. He had inherited a piece of property. His father was 66 when he was born. And he was born in Lapwai, Idaho. And his father had gotten this property, 80 acres, for being in the Civil War. And my dad inherited that. But there wasn't any money in Idaho. There wasn't a lot of food and it was very difficult. So he managed to sell that and got this piece of property in Richland. And we built everything from scratch.

Bauman: And what were your parents' names?

Sparre: Ellen and Jesse Gans.

Bauman: And so what sort of crops did you grow on your farm?

Sparre: Actually, I remember the watermelon. I remember the potatoes and filling our dirt cellar with potatoes and onions and carrots. And then before the war, we always went to Yakima and picked hops, and got fruit and brought that back and canned it. But things changed during the war.

Bauman: How so?

Sparre: Okay. Well, my dad, because he had so many children, they did not want him in the army. But they made him go in the National Guard. And then he worked in the dairy on the farm during the day. And he guarded it at night. So he had to do that for two years. And in fact, he got in trouble quite a bit because he kept falling asleep while he was guarding in the middle of the night after working all day. [LAUGHTER] He got threatened with court martial a couple of times because he couldn't stay awake, you know?

Bauman: Where was he guarding?

Sparre: Hanford Project.

Bauman: Oh, okay.

Sparre: They confiscated him for that and he was pretty close to it--you know, where our property was. And when they said do this, you did it. [LAUGHTER]

Bauman: So on your farm, on your property, what other--did you have any other buildings? Barns?

Sparre: Oh, we had lots of barns for the cows, you know. And of course, back then, there wasn't milking machines. So they had to be milked by hand. And the older brothers and sisters helped my dad with the milking before they went to school and after they got home. And we were all out there working all the time. [LAUGHTER] One of my fondest memories as a child was trying to start the car. You had to crank it. And mother was trying to start it but I was only three or four and I couldn't crank it fast enough. So my other sister put her foot in on the clutch. And I put my foot on the gas. And we sit on the floor. And when mother said let go of the clutch, and give it a little gas, but keep your foot on the brake, we did it. And we got it started. [LAUGHTER] This, you know, three and four-year-old.

Bauman: [LAUGHTER] What kind of car was that?

Sparre: I have no idea. But it was an old Model T.

Bauman: Now, did you have electricity and telephone?

Sparre: It seems like, eventually, we got electricity. But we started out with candles and kerosene lamps and outhouses. We never had an inside bathroom in those days.

Bauman: And what about telephones?

Sparre: Oh, no. There wasn't a telephone anywhere. Anywhere around our area, there wasn't telephones, you know? I'm sure there must have been in town. But I don't think that I remember, when I was real little, there wasn't anybody to call. [LAUGHTER] The world was different then.

Bauman: Do you remember who any of your neighbors were at the time?

Sparre: Well, across the field, Peterson. His last name was Peterson. And he was our neighbor and my dad's best friend, which is probably why we settled there. Why we got the opportunity to buy that property. He had the farm next door. And it was very upsetting because he did get drafted in the army and he did not come home from the war. Which was very upsetting to my father because he had lost his older brother in World War I. You know so it was very meaningful to him.

Bauman: Sure. Sure.

Sparre: And then somewhere around the area lived the Shipleys. Claude Shipley, who was an aunt by--I mean, an uncle, by marriage. He married my dad's older sister. And his family lived around there. But where, you know, I don't know. [LAUGHTER]

Bauman: What sort of irrigation did you have for your crops? Do you know?

Sparre: Well, the river was there. And somehow, my dad knew enough about old world irrigation. There was no ditches or anything, but he knew how to get the water from the river to the plants. I don't know how, but it's funny. A lot of those things were passed down from generation to generation that, nowadays, people just don't know. But he did know.

Bauman: So you mentioned your father working for the National Guard at Hanford. Was your family able to stay on their land?

Sparre: On our land. We were until--when they had the accident. Some radiation leaked and the cows ate the grass and got radiation. And it affected the milk. I guess it was a temporary thing. But it did affect a lot of us. It did not affect the two babies. And they were in the study that they did on the radiation because the babies had the mother's milk. But it affected all of us older ones except the one sister who was allergic to milk. She didn't have a thyroid problem, but the rest of us six did have a thyroid problem. And my dad then found out what was going on out there. He did not know. They didn't tell the people around what they were building. And so consequently, everybody was happy. And then when he found out and his two years were almost up with the National Guards, and they said you couldn't sell your property. But he sold it anyway. And we moved. And they didn't stop him.

Bauman: So what time frame was this that this accident happened?

Sparre: Well, this was probably 1941, '42, somewhere along—

Bauman: Before the war.

Sparre: When exactly the milk was contaminated was somewhere between '40 and '42. Maybe '43. You know, somewhere in that area. We moved away, I think, in February, in '43. So he was really pretty upset about that.

Bauman: You mentioned that almost all of you developed thyroid problems?

Sparre: Yes.

Bauman: When did that--

Sparre: Well, when you went through puberty, it came out. And nobody in the family had ever had a problem. Including my mother got it. And nobody had ever had that problem before in the family, you know? So, just naturally, everybody assumed it was--and being so close to Hanford, our cows probably got more than somebody further away. But, again, I was a child and they didn't tell me these things. But I was probably called Snoopy, because I was always sitting in the kitchen behind the stove where they couldn't see me and listening to all the adult conversations around the stairs. [LAUGHTER] So I was so curious about everything and every single night, I listened to the news. Gable Heater was on and we listened to the news. We had the blackouts. We had to make sure. And since Daddy found out, we made sure there wasn't a speck of light anywhere around our farmhouse. So it was quite a different world.

Bauman: So you had a radio and that's how--

Sparre: We did have radio. So we probably had electricity by that time. And since Hanford had electricity, they probably came out and put it in the places around.

Bauman: So about how old were you then when you moved away?

Sparre: When I moved away? Six. When the people starting to build Hanford came in, our little town of a couple hundred people suddenly became a quite big town of city people who were not always good like farmers. And they just invaded everything and there was a lot more crime suddenly. And the streets were crowded. And going to school, they had two sets of classes, early morning classes. And then you had to take all your books and everything and move all your stuff away because somebody else was going to use your desk in the afternoon. And I went to kindergarten but they put me in a year early because I was a pain to my mother. [LAUGHTER] I just was this little kid that thought I knew everything. I was not a good little kid. Anyway, she took me down to school when I was four and put me in kindergarten. [LAUGHTER] And they took me. Then when I went to first grade, there wasn't enough room in the classroom to have a desk, so they put a bunch of us good kids at a big table. Two sets of classes. There were so many people.

Bauman: So it was first grade when you started to see the growth in the number of students because of Hanford site?

Sparre: Well, I think more like in kindergarten; that was really there. Except most people didn't send their kids to kindergarten. You didn't have to. And most people didn't bother. And they were moving and all that. But my brothers and sisters didn't go to kindergarten. But she sent me to get rid of me. [LAUGHTER]

Bauman: What other memories do you have of the school? Do you remember any teachers?

Sparre: Well, yeah. I remember--I was a teacher's pet, of course. [LAUGHTER] I do remember that. I do remember a note she sent home, could you try to teach Ilene to be a little neater? [LAUGHTER] But the teachers were overworked because they had to teach two full classrooms. I mean, it all happened so suddenly. And our little town didn't have that many teachers and there weren't that many. And the workers from Hanford came in, but of course, they didn't send teachers. They just--they didn't really--I don't know if they really realized how little we were--the little town was. We didn't have but a little co-op where we could get flour and sugar, you know, the basic staples, along with the cow food and the grain and things that we needed on the farm. And then suddenly, there wasn't enough food and they had to go bring in food from other towns and set up another store. And they were building, but there wasn't enough builders. And it was total confusion. And before Hanford came in, we knew everybody in town. But suddenly, Daddy didn't want to go shopping there anymore. He went to Prosser. It was equal distance to Prosser or Kennewick, so he just went to Prosser.

Bauman: I know you were very young, but do you remember any of the businesses or stores that were in Richland?

Sparre: Well, I remember where we got the food for the cattle and the flour. And my parents went to town only once a week and that was on Saturday afternoon. And just once a week. And then we started going to Prosser to get food. But outside of that, I don't think there was a library. There was a school. I think there was a post office, but it was all so little. Little tiny town. And there was a gas station. But I remember our church, that one Sunday it was closed because Hanford took over our church property. And so the next Sunday, the pastor spoke on the radio. And I recognized that voice. And it was the first time I'd ever heard a sermon--listened in church, really. And that's the day I accepted Jesus as my Savior. Because I listened, you know. And when he talked about being a sinner and needing to be saved from sin, I was such a bad little girl. I knew I needed a Savior. [LAUGHTER] So I did.

Bauman: So what church was that?

Sparre: That was the Assembly of God. He spoke on the radio and how we could get another property and build another church. But it was just, like, they didn't give us any choices, just was closed sign. And they didn't give us time or anything. It's just, okay, it's shut. But then everybody knew it was war and you did what--we all cooperated because we knew what was going on.

Bauman: Do you remember any special events when you were growing up? Picnics or--

Sparre: Well, yes. I remember there was always--in Richland Park, every summer, there was a story hour, where they told stories, and there was a picnic, and there was a little wading pool and we got to go swimming in the water. Of course, I was little. There was a little bathroom there. And one memory I have is I was only three or four, maybe not even four. But I went to the bathroom by myself and I looked for--oh I remembered how to spell woman. And the last three letters were M-E-N, and so I went in the men's. And there were men in there. I came out real fast! [LAUGHTER] And I said, this is supposed to be the women's. And the man said it to me, it says M-E-N. Women is W-O-M-E-N. Always look for W-O. Okay. So I found it. [LAUGHTER] I guess that's one of my memories of being at the park--in the Richland Park down there. And they had some kind of event down there every year when we took a picnic--that was before the war. And, again, Daddy didn't cooperate much with the town or the people after the war because there was so many people, and farmers kind of like [LAUGHTER] small crowds.

Bauman: Do you know if your father or mother belonged to any organizations in the community? The Grange or anything like that?

Sparre: No, we always went to the fairs. But we went to a church. That was the only time we were anywhere was church. Or if there was some reason the community was getting together for some cause or something. And then they'd notify people and we'd have a potluck and get together. I think they had some Richland Day--something once a year that they did that with. And people were sick or needed help, people would get together and do things. I do remember that. And outside of that, I don't remember much, except my dad used to play the fiddle and the violin and the banjo. So people came and, at least once a month, they played music all evening. I do remember that. But, you know, there weren't very many people in those days. [LAUGHTER] And everybody was coming from a long way. I mean, we didn't have a tractor. Nobody had a tractor around, anywhere around. You plowed with the horses, you know? The world was really different in the 1930s and early '40s.

Bauman: Did you have any specific chores as a little girl on the farm?

Sparre: Well, yes. We had to feed the calves--the baby calves. There was always, on a dairy, there's always baby calves. And we would make pets of them, and of course, every time they were slaughtered, we'd cry. [LAUGHTER] Because those were our pets. But we had to feed the baby ones. I was little, but still, I had to feed them whenever there was work to be done, you know? I mean, we had to participate. When I was little, I had to pick--I was only five, and I had to pick a box of cherries in the morning and a box of cherries in the afternoon. I was only five, you know? [LAUGHTER] And I didn't get my box in the afternoon finished, so my dad and everybody sat down under the tree and wouldn't go home till I finished my box. Ever after that, I worked first, played later. I mean, it's just amazing. Now, they don't want kids to work. But it was one of the best gifts our father gave us--was the ability to work and know that was a part of living. And he made it so much fun, you know? He participated with us. And I have a memory of a truckload of food coming--because we're such a big family--that during the war, they came to our house and dropped off four or five boxes of food. And my dad said no. And he picked up the boxes and put them back on the truck and said, we do not take handouts. We take care of our own. Give this to somebody who needs it. And even though we looked at those oranges and thought, whoa, that's nice. But that was a wonderful gift he gave us, because none of us were on welfare. And a big family, we all got an education. We all went to school. We took care of ourselves because he gave us the gift that we worked. We help others, but we don't need the help ourselves.

Bauman: So you mentioned--you talked about how this small little town changed quite a bit, obviously. Do you remember when you or your family first found out that something was going to be built not too far from your property?

Sparre: Well, my dad came home from town and he says there's rumble, you know? And, of course, he always listened to the radio in the morning and at noon and in the evening--with the news. And of course, we knew about Pearl Harbor. And we knew about the war before then, except we weren't involved. And then suddenly, we were involved. And then the government army and everything--trucks--started rumbling into town. And he knew it was something about that. And almost immediately, they came by and enlisted him in the National Guard, whether he wanted to or not. He was in. But you couldn't object because there was war. And then, of course, they started rationing the food. But we didn't have a problem because we were on the farm. We had our meat, our vegetables, our fruit. And the only thing we didn't have was sugar. Mother canned the fruit without sugar and then we each got like a 1/4 of a cup of sugar a month to last us. And if we used it all at once--and we hid it because my dad liked sugar in his coffee and he'd take a pinch out of each one so we wouldn't miss it. So we worked hard hiding our sugar. [LAUGHTER] And the first thing, I remembered getting up in the morning to go see if my sugar was still hid. [LAUGHTER] It was the consequences of war!

Bauman: So you did not have to move initially with the construction of Hanford?

Sparre: No. No, because we were out in the country. But we weren't far from Hanford, you know?

Bauman: Right. And then you did move. Where did you move to?

Sparre: Sunnyside. Daddy had studied the issue, and it was a consensus of opinions that if there was a fallout from Hanford, it would not reach Sunnyside. So it sounded like a good place to move to. And it was good farmland. He got a place in Sunnyside.

Bauman: Are there any other things--memories you have of the community of Richland or growing up on the farm that we haven't talked about yet?

Sparre: Well, it's hard. I can still see the school for a little school--very little school--and coming into town.

Bauman: Where was this school?

Sparre: Well, as you came into town, it was right up the hill. First thing you saw was the school. Wasn't very many students. Very little school. And of course, there were the Tri-Cities. The other towns were a little bit bigger, but Richland was always pretty small. It was a farm town.

Bauman: Do you remember any of your classmates, any of your friends at school?

Sparre: Well, I remember the Peterson boy next door. But after the war, he moved. The widow and her son moved. And that's all I remember of that. Mrs. Cherry was my teacher. I remember that because it sounded like cherry. [LAUGHTER] I'm sure it wasn't quite cherry, but that was as close as I got to it--the name.

Bauman: And did you walk to school? Did you take a bus?

Sparre: Oh, no. We took a bus. We took a bus. Yeah.

Bauman: And was this a regular school bus?

Sparre: It was a regular school bus. I can't remember that it was very big. But it was probably a smaller big school bus, you know. And it came on the--right down here was the canal. And then there was the highway. And down here was our property, which I remembered it being a mile down there, but it was, like, half a block. [LAUGHTER] But when you're four and you're walking up there to go to school, it was a long walk. I remember one day playing in the canal and mother told us not to because the water was coming in. And my brother, who was six years older, he suddenly grabbed us and, get out of there, get out of there, the water's coming! And it came in just as we got out of the canal. [LAUGHTER] I do remember that. But didn't seem like it was a long bus ride. And it doesn't seem like the bus was full.

Bauman: I know, again, that you were young still when you moved away, but, overall, what your thoughts about growing up in Richland, in that small town?

Sparre: Well, we loved where we were. I mean, down there in the water, my brothers built a raft and had a pole. And we went all around and fished and played in there. But there was quicksand there. And one day, Daddy's prize cow got caught in the quicksand and all the neighbors came. But before they could pull it out, it drowned. Think of us kids playing down there. [LAUGHTER] But we knew where the quicksand was so we didn't go over there. And my dad was an old-fashioned man. He was a very, very good. He never lost his temper. But if he said something and you disobeyed, he did have a razor strap. And he knew how to use it. But you didn't get beat on because you didn't get spanked more than once. That was it, which was very good. Reminds me of the verse in the Bible that says, children--fathers, don't make your children angry. Go ahead and spank them if they need it. [LAUGHTER] And that's a pretty good thing. Just to do it and get it good enough and then you won't have to do it again. And that's what my father did. So we just obeyed him. And then he was so kind, very kind. So we had a great home life, you know? And he played music. And as we grew up, all of us had to play instruments. And can you imagine? He made us practice an hour a day. And all of us played different instruments. It's bad enough listening to my girls practice the piano. [LAUGHTER]

Bauman: And what instrument did you play?

Sparre: What? I played the oboe and the clarinet and the piano. Except, I really don't make music. I'm really not musical. But I played because that's what we did in our house, you know? But we had so much fun growing up in Richland. It was not that much fun in Sunnyside, because we were pretty close to town. There were people all around. And they had rules and regulations that we weren't accustomed to. Mother put us in pants and shorts to play in in Richland, and the town people in Sunnyside objected to that. [LAUGHTER] So we couldn't wear them! [LAUGHTER] I mean, it was just so different than living out in the country. Mother always had Sunday dinner and people were always over Richland. I don't remember if there were always relatives but it seems like a lot of them were friends and who they were, I don't remember.

Bauman: Your father sold your farm. Is that farm still operational today?

Sparre: Well, there's a nice house down there, you know, but what’s on it--there's quite a few houses down in that section. We walked to the back of the farm and we could fish in the--I think it was the Yakima River. And I remember catching a fish there when I was probably five. I was the only one that caught a fish that day. I remember that. [LAUGHTER] But there were so many things to do and to be inventive and play, which was really good for us. But it was just different when we moved where there were people.

Bauman: Do you know if your parents felt similarly about leaving Richland, if they were sort of disappointed that they had--

Sparre: Well, they both really wanted out. Mother knew that my father couldn't continue to guard and run a dairy. It couldn't continue to do that. He was exhausted. And yet that didn't seem to register. They didn't care. I'm sure it wasn't that they didn't care, but I'm sure the army officers had their own way of thinking and there was a crisis. It was just really hard. And so they were both very thankful to move.

Bauman: Well, I think I've asked all the questions I have. Do you have anything else you want to add?

Sparre: You know, I'd take a look at my list and I probably have mentioned--oh, this is the wrong one. But I think I pretty much covered everything that I can think of.

Bauman: Great. Well, I want to thank you very much for coming in today, Ilene. Appreciate it.

Sparre: Yeah, I wish I could remember more. [LAUGHTER] I think it's neat that you're doing this. And thank you for asking me.

Bauman: Well, thanks for coming in. Appreciate it.



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Names Mentioned

Gans, Jesse & Ellen


Ilene Sparre.jpg


Hanford Oral History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities, “Interview with Ilene Sparre,” Hanford History Project, accessed September 24, 2017,


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