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In 1895, Grover Cleveland was President of the United States, Stephan Crane published The Red Badge of Courage, and a six-dollar railroad trip from Minneapolis to California took four days. It was also the year that Erna (Friemann) Boelter was born on a farm near Spring Valley.
Erna, who now lives at the Good Samaritan Center in Preston, turned 105 last Thursday, an age which just might make her the oldest resident of Fillmore County.
Her long life has been a very full and gracious one according to her adopted son, John Boelter, of Rochester. "Her family and her religious life have always meant an awful lot to her," John said last week. "I would say that’s her secret to such a long life."
Erna’s father, Otto Friemann, was born in Germany in 1866, as was her mother Agnes, in 1872. Otto and Agnes were childhood sweethearts and arrived by boat in New York City in 1893. Later that year they were married in Baltimore and then headed west to Minnesota, where Otto worked as a farm laborer near Spring Valley. A few years later, the by-then growing Friemann family bought a farm in Section 15 of Carimona Township.
The day I visited Erna at the Good Samaritan Center she said that she was feeling pretty tired and so I wasn’t able to talk with her very much. She sat up in her wheelchair and smiled though when she showed me a letter from President Bill Clinton, which congratulated her on the event of her 105th birthday.
I decided to do a little research and find out what was going on in Fillmore County that second week of November, 105 years ago when Erna was born. I discovered that several of the news items bore a striking and uncanny similarity to the events of today.
• Noting that the grain prices were at extremely low levels, the editor of the Spring Valley Mercury wrote: "Many farmers do not wish to sell grain at the present low prices, and not having room to store it on their farms have it stored in elevators and warehouses." The editor argued that this would have an even further depressing effect on the market prices as the grain was "in sight" and he encouraged farmers to keep their grain stored at home.
• Around the Spring Valley area that week, various residents were reported to be recovering from typhoid fever and rheumatism. And a farmer named George Leonard got his hand caught in a corn-husking machine and lost several of his fingers.
• A notice out of Preston shows that concerns with courthouse equipment (like the on-going problems with the boiler at the present courthouse) are part of a long Fillmore County tradition. The 1895 paper reported that the new furnaces installed in the courthouse "have never given satisfaction and will be taken out. The county has not paid for them and will not be a loser by the change."
• Even though, 1895 was an off-election year, there was already speculation as to the next year’s presidential race. "The people are bound to put the Republicans back in power next fall to pull the government out of the slough of bankruptcy," the Mercury editor writes. "That is the usual way. The Republicans took to the government in 1860, when the Democrats had all but ruined it, and brought it up to a solid basis; and in 1896 they will have to do it again. It is only history repeating itself."
Erna married Frank Boelter in 1920 and they farmed near Preston. Over the next several years Erna gave birth to three children, two boys and a girl. In 1934, Frank had surgery for a brain tumor and by 1936 was enjoying good health again, when he suddenly died from a ruptured appendix.
Erna moved her family into Preston and over the years provided a home to numerous foster children. She also raised two of her nieces when their mother died. In 1944, she took in a one-month old baby named John, and finding that she couldn’t part with him she decided to adopt him.
"Apparently I was a keeper," John told me with a laugh.
After John graduated from Preston High School in 1962, Erna moved to Rochester where she worked at Bach’s Music Store and also at the State Hospital. She stayed active and took care of herself right up until she was 99 years old, when she suffered a stroke.
"She was pretty disgusted when she found out that she wouldn’t be able to live on her own." John said. "She had enjoyed good health her entire life."
Ann Ott of Preston is a good friend of Erna’s and has visited her frequently at the Good Samaritan Center over the past several years.
"She’s always loved to talk about the old days, about coming into town in a horse and buggy and going to church," Ann said. "She’s really a remarkable woman."
By Al Mathison