By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — Genevieve (Penny) Noer grew up on a farm in the Town of Otter Creek during the Great Depression.
She and her husband, Juul, owned and operated Noer’s Drug in Colfax for many years.
“I was an Erickson. And we had Erickson School just across the road from our house. My grandfather must have donated the land for the school since they called it Erickson School. August was my dad, and Christ Erickson was my uncle. I lived on the farm and farmed with him until I finished high school and left home. I went to Minneapolis and worked for Northwest Airlines in the general office for three years,” Penny said.
“Juul and I got married when I was 20. We’ve been married 63 years now. Juul is 90 and in pretty good health,” she noted.
Penny recalls going out to the barn to help with the chores on Christmas Eve when she was a girl.
“I was born in 1930, and we were poor. It was hard for everybody (during the Great Depression). I think I started going to the barn when I was seven or eight years old to milk cows, morning and night, before I went to school and after I came home,” Penny said.
“On Christmas Eve, when I was growing up, we would always, all of us kids, except maybe the youngest ones, we would go to the barn and help with the chores, and then we came in, our mother would have everything all ready for us. We opened our gifts on Christmas Eve. One gift each. I suppose all mothers had to do that in those times. One gift for each child,” she said.
“I remember one gift I got was a little toy piano. A tiny little piano. I don’t know whatever happened to that,” Penny said.
Penny attended Erickson School until she was in seventh grade.
“When I was in seventh grade, they closed Erickson School because you needed a certain daily attendance. I don’t know what it was, but we didn’t have that. So they closed our Erickson School, and Dad said we could go to Twin Valley, but that was over two miles away. And if it was over two miles away, you could go to Colfax to school. I was going to be in the eighth grade. And he decided I might as well go to school in town to eighth grade. I could ride the bus. We had to pay bus fare then,” Penny recalled.
During the time she attended the country school, Penny remembers the Christmas programs they would put on every year.
“We had school programs at Erickson School. They’d put up a stage. My dad was always on the school board. We lived so close to the school. He was always on the school board. He’d always have to go and get the furnace going in the winter, plus being a farmer with all the chores. He would go, he had others to help him, and they’d put up a stage, and we’d have our Christmas program. They’d hang up curtains. And we thought it was the greatest thing. We had a play. And we had recitations. And singing. We had a piano at the school. I think the teacher, at least some of them, played the piano so we could sing. It was pretty simple compared to what they do now,” Penny said.
After the drought of the Great Depression, water runoff caused soil erosion in hilly areas that created large gullies across the landscape.
Pine plantations became a solution implemented by many farmers to stop the progression of soil erosion.
“My mother said we should plant some trees. You could get the trees for free or next to nothing. We planted a lot of trees. Some of them were Norways. They are still growing there. They are huge. We planted some spruce trees so we could cut them for Christmas trees,” Penny said.
In the meantime, while they were waiting for their own trees to grow, a neighbor, Earl Hammer, had spruce trees.
“He would let us cut a tree from his land. I don’t ever remember going to buy a Christmas tree. We did, after we (Penny and Juul) were married. When we were home on the farm, they might not have been the most beautiful Christmas trees, but we always had a Christmas tree,” Penny said.
Penny Noer’s sister, Vergene Viets, now lives on the farm that is their “home place” on county Highway N northwest of Colfax.
After finishing eighth grade in Colfax, Penny continued her education at Colfax High School.
“I had a good education, a good start at the country school. I was valedictorian of our class when we graduated. I think the top ten percent of my class were all taught in country schools. I have to thank my dad and mother. I think they were both so smart, when I think back to all they did and how they managed in those hard times,” she said.
“Everybody knew the Noers because they owned the drugstore. Juul worked in the drugstore with his dad. And Juul’s sister Pauline was in high school with me. Same grade … I got to know Juul, and we started dating before I was out of high school. But we didn’t get married until 1950. I graduated in ’47,” Penny said.
“After we got married — we were married in August — he got recalled to the Navy during the Korean War in the reserves. He had to go out to the East Coast for over a year. He was stationed on a hospital in charge of a sick bay. He was stationed out there, and I lived with his folks in Colfax rather than living with my folks out on the farm,” she said.
“Right about that time, the gal who was working for them (in the drugstore) quit, and they wanted me to work in the drugstore. I worked in the drugstore with his folks while he was in the service,” Penny said.
“He was also in the service during World War II. He was in charge of a hospital ship sick bay out in the Pacific. I knew (Juul’s sister) Pauline, she was a good friend of mine, and I used to hear about him, but I didn’t really know him then. I never thought I would ever marry him. It was kind of a fairytale,” she said.
“But even when I was in high school, I was doing the chores. When I was growing up, we raised beans and cucumbers and tobacco. Raising tobacco is a lot of hand work. We had to hoe it and help harvest it. Then we’d hang it up in the tobacco shed. When it was dry, we’d put it in our barn where it was warm and moist,” Penny said.
“All during the winter, my dad stripped tobacco and put it into bales. He was so fussy. It had to be just right. Nobody else could do that. We sold the tobacco for pretty good money. I think it went to make cigars. We had to pick tobacco worms because they didn’t want any holes in the leaves. And then when you were harvesting it, you had to chop it down and then wait for it to wilt. Tobacco was a lot of work. We planted tobacco and planted tobacco. Then after that we hoed tobacco,” she said.
“After we were married — he’d had a year or two of college — but Juul decided he wanted to be a pharmacist, so we moved to Madison. I worked at Ray-o-Vac, in the office, and he went to college, and then he got into pharmacy school,” Penny said.
“Juul had the GI Bill … Without the GI Bill we would have had a really hard time. His parents didn’t pay. My parents didn’t pay. But Juul had the GI Bill, and I worked, and he worked in a drugstore … he worked in many of them in Madison, whichever one needed a pharmacist’s helper, because he had worked with his dad so much,” she said.
“First we started out in an apartment in an old house. We shared a bathroom with at least one other family. At the time, I didn’t mind it so much, but now, I don’t know how we did that,” Penny said.
“When I was home on the farm working with my dad, I was the last one there to work. He so appreciated me that he bought War Bonds for me in my name. We were living in this awful apartment on the backside of an old house in Madison. And I said, ‘you know, I’ve got some bonds I could cash in,’ and we did. And we bought a new house trailer and moved that to Happy Acres in Madison. And it was a happy time for us. It wasn’t very big. It had one bedroom and a bathroom and a kitchen and a small living room. We lived in that while he finished pharmacy school,” she said.
The Ray-O-Vac office was just a block off the square in Madison.
“Juul would drive me to work, and then he would go to the university and spend the day there. He had a lot of lab work in pharmacy, or he’d be working in a drugstore, and then he’d come back and pick me up, and we’d go home to our trailer. It was really some of the best years of our life,” Penny said.
“Just about our only entertainment is that we would eat out at a root beer stand. There was an A&W Root Beer stand, and that was really a treat for us to go out to the root beer stand on Friday night, and then we’d go out to a movie once in a while. Well, I shouldn’t say it was our only entertainment. When you’re in college, you can get tickets for all of the events on campus (at a discount). So we went to a lot of events on campus. Basketball games, boxing, lectures, things like that,” she said.
“When we came back to Colfax, he was in the Navy reserves, and then they called him back for the Korean War. And that’s when I lived with his parents and worked in the drugstore with them,” Penny said.
When Juul Noer returned from serving during the Korean War, he took over the drugstore, and he and Penny and their three children — Julie, Beth and Kurt — lived in an apartment above the store.
“Juul had gone to school in Madison with an architect who was a friend of ours. Juul had the architect plan a house for us, and we moved from the drugstore into the house. We had three children upstairs in the drugstore. That was quite a chore. Especially when you had to buy groceries and carry them all upstairs,” Penny said.
“We moved in on my birthday, January 28, 1960. After we lived there a while, Kurt would have been three, and Beth would have been five and Julie was six. I had those three. I don’t know how long we’d been living there, but I said, ‘I think I’m in Heaven. I think we should have another baby.’ We had another baby, our daughter, Nancy. I am so thankful I did that. We’ve had a wonderful life. God has blessed us,” she said.
For the next 53 years, up until this fall, Juul and Penny Noer lived in that very same house on First Avenue.
When the Colfax Health and Rehabilitation Center’s new facility was finished, the Noers moved into one of the assisted living apartments.
Penny says she does not know what Christmas will be like in their new apartment since it is their first year there.
“It will be the first year for us and the first year for the building,” she said.
“We are like a small family here. We all look out for each other. We meet for meals and activities. It’s a wonderful place. Whenever I see anyone from the board, I thank them,” Penny said, noting that Juul Noer and Del Gunderson served on the CHRC board of directors together for many years.