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Sunspots - Lillian Ehlers

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When Lillian Ehlers was a young girl growing up on the family farm about six miles east of Hancock, a team of four to six horses pulled first a one-bottom, then later a three-bottom plow and cultivator. A horse-drawn corn planter seeded two rows of corn at a time and animals were raised, then butchered, at home.

“I was outside all the time, I didn’t like housework,” Lillian said. So, when her father asked for help with outside chores, she enthusiastically volunteered.

“I could drive a four- or six-horse team,” she said. “We raised wheat, barley, flax and oats, along with corn, on a farm of about 400 acres.” In addition to the home place, the family owned hay land by Clontarf. “We had cows and horses to feed, as well as chickens. We had a dog named Sport that looked like a shepherd, very intelligent. He could round up the cows and get them all in without any help.”

Born March 12, 1908, to parents Thorvald and Inga Marie (Sletten) Maanum, Lillian was fourth in a family of four girls and one boy.

“Kids found their own amusement when I was growing up,” said Lillian. “We didn’t have the money or the time to go into town. Personally I liked nails and a hammer. When Dad was looking for nails, he could always find me with them, pounding and boarding things up.”

“Once, when I decided I needed a wagon, I found two wheels about the same size and an axle in the grove where we piled used and broken machinery and household items. I found a box to put on top. But unfortunately it didn’t go anywhere,” said Lillian with a smile.

Her dad’s first car was a Krit. “When I was about nine or 10, I would go out to the garage and practice shifting. It had Presto lights that were lit with a match.”

After attending District 29 country school, Lillian was a student at Benson High School, graduating in 1926. She began nurse’s training at Fairview Hospital before back trouble forced her to change her plans prior to graduation. She returned to Benson to attend Normal Training School for teaching, graduating in 1928.

Then came the ‘dirty 30s,’ remembered Lillian. “We’d get no rain for an entire season and I’d help Dad gather up tumbleweeds to use for feed. You had to get it when it was green or it would be too prickly for the animals to eat.”

The family managed to keep their farm during the Depression: “We learned how to save. We canned a lot of meat and had a big garden,” she said. “There was no refrigeration, so we’d bury carrots in sand and pork chops in tallow.”

The family lived in a small shack until Lillian’s father had saved enough money to build a house.

“He hired a carpenter from Hancock to build a square four-bedroom house. Dad and I made many trips back and forth to Clontarf with a team of horses and a wagon to pick up the lumber. The house had a bath upstairs and a deck from which we shook rugs. There was a foyer, living room, kitchen and dining room downstairs. We called the maple floor a dance floor because it was big and a lot of work to maintain.”

Thorvald paid about $4,000 for the house. “There was no mortgage, he paid cash,” said Lillian.

He also had his own electric plant with 12 large batteries to charge for electricity. “We had piped heat and running water. He had a portable motor to clean grain and run the milk separator.”

Following her graduation in 1928, “I taught kindergarten through junior high students in country schools near Danvers, Benson and Morris for 13 years,” she said. “Sometimes there was only one student per class and anywhere from 15 to 25 students in the school. We learned to teach grade by grade from a book called a ‘curriculum.’”

Even in such a diverse classroom setting, there were few disciplinary problems, remembered Lillian. “I told my students the first day of school that I wasn’t making any rules, that they were old enough to know what to do, unless they behaved in such a way that I would have to make rules. Teaching in those days was very different from now; I learned to improvise and be my own janitor.”

She recalled when a fifth grade student was working on a puzzle on the floor and an eighth grade student walked by and kicked the puzzle, sending pieces in all directions. “I was told by one of my instructors that when teachers made rules they had to back them up.” With that in mind, she firmly told the eighth grader to pick up the puzzle and then held her ground. He eventually picked up the puzzle pieces.

“Later in the year that eighth grader came to me and said, ‘Can you come back and teach us again? We had fun.’ Kids like to be disciplined, to know where their boundaries are. I feel I did a good job and some students still remember me.”

After three years of teaching, Lillian met Gerhard “Gil” Pederson. They were married in a parsonage in 1931. Lillian wore a $12 chiffon dress with a cape and carried a bouquet of peonies from her sister’s garden, tied with streamers. After the ceremony there was lunch at her sister’s home.

Gil worked in Morris at the Dolvas Grocery Store for $21 a week. The couple had two children—Charles, now deceased, and Ann of Aberdeen, S.D. There are also seven grandchildren, seven great grandchildren and one great great-grandchild. Gil died in 1967.

Lillian continued to earn her teaching degree by attending night courses and summer school. She later taught in Morris until her retirement in 1970. She remarried to John Ehlers (pronounced EEL-ers) that same year.

“John was a good cook and I remember we liked to go dancing every Saturday night. We also traveled. In the late 1970s we saw the Passion Play in Spearfish, S.D. We’ve seen a geyser erupt at Yellowstone, visited Mt. Rushmore and the Badlands, as well as sites in California and a bus trip along the Baja Peninsula.”

The couple attended church in the Crystal Cathedral. “Now when I listen to the service I remember where we sat,” said Lillian. “On Easter morning we attended Easter service in the Hollywood Bowl which was tremendously impressive. As the sun rose over the mountain, the choir sang ‘He is Risen,’ and their black robes dropped to reveal white robes beneath.” The memory still brings tears, she added.

Lillian recently hosted her 105th birthday celebration in the West Wind Village dining room. “We had the whole dining room and served cake and ice cream,” she said. She invited some of her former neighbors to be part of the program.

When I turn 105 I want to be like Lillian—sharp as a tack and remembering life’s precious moments. So I asked her the question everyone asks her: “What is your secret to a long life?” She summed it up in one word: “Moderation. Moderation in everything.” 

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