Bierwagen in rare company as a true community leader
If there is salt in Nevada County’s earth, much of it probably fell from Ernie Bierwagen’s brow.
More than anyone I know, Ernie is the salt of the earth.
I was fortunate to attend a celebration Sunday at Lake Wildwood to honor Ernie’s 25 years of service to the Nevada Irrigation District board of directors.
His term officially concludes at the end of the year after he decided against seeking re-election. He’ll be 88 years old next February, but he would have served until 100 if his health was better.
I first met Ernie 18 years ago when I was covering NID as an ambitious but slow-on-the-draw reporter. He took the time to teach me where water comes from around here, since I always assumed it came straight from my faucet to my sink. I said I was ambitious, not smart.
Ernie’s family came to this country from Russia in 1881, settling in South Dakota. They moved to Nevada County 100 years ago this month, starting a little farm in Chicago Park.
“I was born right over the place where I’m sitting now,” Ernie told me from his home during a talk we had a couple of months ago. “My grandparents and their four boys, including my dad, came here during the boom.”
Ernie’s hands are working hands, tough and calloused. His face is weathered, shaped like clay by the wind and the rain and the sunshine Mother Nature has delivered in various degrees to his family orchards over the years.
He is happiest when he is on his tractor, but recognized long ago that he must be at the table when decisions are made about the water that sustains us all.
“When I first got on the (NID) board, the district was $600,000 in debt, had no reserves and was at the mercy of the insurance industry,” he remembered. “We got a new manager (Fred Bandy) and things started to turn around. We started charging for what it cost to deliver the services.”
When guys like Ernie say they don’t feel so good, they mean it.
“I collapsed in church last Thanksgiving from kidney failure,” he told me. “I have a dialysis machine at home, which really restricts my movement.”
In fact, Ernie must be hooked up to the machine 11 hours a day just so he can spend a few hours on his tractor.
Local journalist Dave Carter has followed Ernie’s NID board career from day one. “I put him in that unique small group of community leaders such as Bob Paine and Eric Rood who served their entire lives in some capacity. You may not agree with him politically, but he is consistent in what he believes in.”
Most who spoke of Ernie on Sunday used adjectives such as integrity and honesty and honor and faith to describe him. His dedication is underscored by the fact that he was never late to a meeting and missed only two of them in 25 years.
He encouraged citizens to study the early formation of the district, when a handful of farmers and ranchers got together more than 80 years ago because they knew Nevada County’s future depended upon its ability to deliver water.
He spoke of the so-called “social revolution” that seems to be occurring in Nevada County, but cautioned that, “a new era doesn’t wet the ground any easier than the old era.”
Ernie said he was fortunate to have been placed on this earth to serve. And his service has extended far beyond the boundaries of NID. Ernie received an award for his 50 years of service to the Farm Bureau, and a special award from Nevada County’s Superintendent of Schools Terry McAteer for his many years of service to the Chicago Park School District.
When the NID board adjourns its meeting later this month, Ernie will step away from his elected seat for the last time. Hopefully, that will give him more time to sit on his tractor, renewing acquaintances with the soil he has helped nourish.
We have all been better for having him.
Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. His column appears on Tuesdays. Contact him at 477-4299,
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