Monroe native, known for his love of old tractors, dies at 73

MONROE — He always said he’d rather burn out than rust out. And that’s exactly what he did.

Jerry Senner worked at Monroe’s Western Heritage Center, a museum he created at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds, until he died of natural causes at home Nov. 29. He was 73.

The Monroe native wanted to share Skykomish Valley history with stories of mining, logging, farming and working on the railroad. It was important to him that people be allowed to touch the artifacts in the museum and see how things worked.

He was fervent about his favorite hobby, restoring antique tractors — particularly if they were old John Deeres. He started the Sky Valley Stock and Antique Tractor Club, which today has about 120 members. Senner had more than 20 of his tractors on display at the museum and about that many at home.

He also fixed other farm equipment, including old plows, mowers and threshing machines. The annual Tualco Loop threshing bee was his idea and he ran it for many years.

Senner saw value even in the smallest, rusty relic. He long wanted to open an interactive museum to display the agricultural heirlooms he collected, researched and restored. He established a nonprofit for the Heritage Center in 1996 but didn’t find a space to house it until 10 years later.

“This whole thing started as a love of tractors and has evolved into a love of history,” his son, Mike Senner, said at the Heritage Center on Thursday. “You could point to anything in this room and he could tell you the story of it. … He had the gift of gab.”

Today, the museum houses several exhibits with pieces that move to showcase old-time action. There are corn grinders, a water wheel, hay rides and milk machines.

Although Jerry swore he’d never milk another cow after growing up on a Monroe dairy farm, he often found himself demonstrating how it was done. He wanted people to understand how food got to the grocery store.

He was most comfortable in a John Deere baseball cap, jeans and a flannel shirt with two front pockets. He wasn’t particular about much. But he had to have his blue Smithsonian notepad in his shirt pocket.

“If he didn’t have it, he was lost,” said his wife of 54 years, Nancy Senner.

A celebration of Jerry’s life is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at the Snohomish Community Church, 13622 Dubuque Road. The family is asking people to show up in farm clothes and baseball caps.

Caleb Johnson, a museum volunteer who shared Jerry’s love of tractors, is organizing a candlelight vigil at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Heritage Center. He hopes people will share their memories at the event.

“We always said we bleed green,” Johnson said, the color of John Deere tractors.

Memorial gifts can be made to the museum to help continue Jerry’s mission.

“They don’t make them like Mr. Jerry Senner anymore,” said Snohomish County Parks Director Tom Teigen. “We want to honor the passion and love Jerry put into this place” by working with the nonprofit’s board to keep it open.

Jerry met his wife at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Nancy had never traveled west of the Mississippi River and Jerry had to coax her over the Rocky Mountains.

They married and settled in Monroe, where they lived most of their lives. The two raised a daughter, Connie Bray, and three sons, Steve, Chris and Mike Senner. They have 11 grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and a fourth on the way.

When Jerry’s children were young, he’d take them fishing on Wagner Lake. He’d wait until they weren’t looking, reach over and tug on their line. It took the kids quite a while to catch on.

“He was sneaky,” said youngest son Mike Senner, of Powell Butte, Oregon. “He didn’t get much fishing in when we were young. He was too busy making sure we were having fun.”

While he knew a lot about history, Jerry had trouble keeping track of important dates in his life such as his wife’s birthday and their anniversary. Surprisingly, he was the only one in the family who remembered his daughter’s 16th birthday. He gave her a gold necklace with a delicate heart to commemorate the occasion.

“There was this sensitive side of him that would show up,” said Bray, 53. “That soft side of my dad, I’ll never forget.”

Jerry was kind and clumsy. He once cut his foot with an axe while trying to show his boys the right way to remove a stump. No matter how severe the bleeding, bumps or bruises, he insisted that a Band Aid was all the fixing he needed.

He earned a living, trying his hand at different trades. He installed septic tanks, dug wells, worked in the salvage business and sold real estate. He served as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medic for more than 20 years.

“For him, it was about caring for the community. That’s who he was,” said Mike, 48.

Jerry was known to bring ex-convicts home from the Monroe prison. He’d put them to work and give them something to eat.

“These people needed a hand up. That’s the way he saw it,” Mike said. “It’s that fireman’s mentality. Everybody’s running out and he’s running in.”

Jerry went on five mission trips to Malawi. He sent a restored John Deere tractor to the southeast African nation and showed up to teach the farmers how to use it. He helped them plow fields, build wells and irrigate crops.

“He was always about everybody else,” said his granddaughter Shaun Faulds, 22. “He was so nice, that word doesn’t do him justice. He was such a kind man, you could see it in his eyes.”

Jerry’s boyish-blue eyes lit up when he told people the stories of his keepsakes, played a prank or helped others.

He got his last joke in while working on a puzzle with Nancy the day before he died. They completed it, but, as usual, Jerry had hidden one piece. Nancy found the missing piece under the table where he’d stashed it.

He continued to serve others, even after his death. The family donated his pacemaker to Doctors Without Borders.

“We thought it was the most perfect thing,” Bray said. “It’s the last giving thing for him.”

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; anile@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @AmyNileReports

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