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by Karl Arnold Belser 

(From the December 23, 2003 issue of The Almaden Times)

Stove  Mary  Hut

Mary Bernal Chooses Simple Life in Quonset Hut

Mary Bernal’s Morgan Hill Quonset hut buzzed with activity as family and friends descended upon the home for the annual Christmas cookie exchange.  The hut, with its yellow ends, gray unpainted cylindrical galvanized iron roof with window rows shaded by flat plates is nestled in front of the green rolling hills that comprise her more than 100-acre ranch.  Shaggy tan Belgian horses looked curiously onto the arriving guests while cows grazed on the other side of the dirt driveway.  People parked in a gravel circle surrounded by a dark brown wooden barn, hay making equipment and a yellow tractor.

The huge country kitchen faces onto the entry porch.  It contains a chrome and aqua wood-burning stove that gives the house its warmth.  The kitchen table was loaded with cookie trays and the room smelled faintly of wood smoke and spiced cider. Next is the living room with bookshelves, easy chairs, a bare tree branch covered with lights and decorations and a wall of family pictures.  Beyond the living room is the sleeping area walled in reddish, knotty pine.  It includes a bathroom, several closets, and two bedrooms, one of which brims with hobby material including cake-decorating equipment.  Mary taught cake decorating before she retired.  All of the rooms seem large because of the round, 10-foot high ceilings, even though the Quonset hut covers only a 20 by 56 foot area.

The house bustled with neighbors, Mary’s classmates from the South Side Senior Center, her relatives and friends.  Each person brought 3-dozen homemade cookies to share and took a 3-dozen assortment home. 

Mary Bernal, now a small cheerful gray-haired woman, and her deceased husband Marshal Bernal, a Spanish land grant descendant, built this Quonset hut in 1947 from a war surplus kit.  Mary said that in those days they were land rich and cash poor.

“You couldn’t get nails after the war because a lot of things were still rationed.  So Marshal obtained a bucket of used nails and we hammered the nails straight.  I got blisters on my hand that took weeks to heal.”  She held up her left hand and stroked her thumb and forefinger with which she had held the nails.  Then she added, “Water pipe was rationed too.  Our spring is about a quarter mile up the canyon,” pointing up toward a large hill behind the house, “and we could only get 20 feet of pipe per month.  It took us more than a year to get running water, so in the early days we had to carry water jugs from a neighbor’s house.”

Mary was born in Monterey.  When her father died in 1920, she was only 6 and her mother was pregnant with a sixth child.  The children were separated.  Mary spent some of her early years in an orphanage, the building that is now the Notre Dame Catholic Girl’s School.  Later she moved to the Catholic Convent in Saratoga and then to the Los Angeles area.

Mary returned to San Jose as a young woman and met her husband at a local dance club.   They started their life together in Morgan Hill where she accidentally discovered her youngest sister.  The two sisters were able to reunite the family.

Mary now lives alone, and she doesn’t drive.  Her two sons, Mark and Micheal, live in modern homes near the ranch property.  Mary’s sons and neighbors provide transportation that allows her to lead an active and independent life.

Visiting Mary in her Quonset hut is a trip back to a simpler life of the past.  Mary clearly enjoys where she lives, and likes sharing her experience as the matriarch of her family.  She may be wealthy by today’s standards, but chooses to live her charming lifestyle in the Quonset hut she and her husband built rather than live in one of today’s “monster homes.”

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Last updated November 11, 2005

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