By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — What is Millie Packer’s secret to a long and happy life?
Millie turned 100 on March 25 and says she thinks the secret is staying active.
“I like to be active. I think that’s why I’m as old as I am. I can’t sit still. Well, I can (sit still) now. But I used to like to walk and go bike riding. And six children kept me busy. And the farm,” she said.
Millie is a resident at Sandy Ridge Apartments at Colfax Health and Rehabilitation Center.
She and her husband, Tim, lived on a farm on the Rusk prairie not far from Menomonie.
Millie and her neighbor, Millie Wagner, used to go for bike rides during the summer when they were neighbors on the farm.
Surprisingly enough — the two Millies are still neighbors at Sandy Ridge.
“Millie was my neighbor lady. We had the farms next to each other, and here we end up in the nursing home together. We were very good neighbors. Millie and I would go bike riding in the summer months,” she said.
And not only were the two Millies neighbors with the same name — but they also share the same birthday month of March.
Although Millie Packer did not grow up on a farm, she was glad that her children had the opportunity.
“It was an ideal place for kids. They still talk about it now. I am amazed. We didn’t have anything. I didn’t think they thought as much of the farm as they do. It was a wonderful experience with the animals. They could run around the farm. Climb in the hay loft. Go down in the ravine. All the kinds of things that kids like to do. The farm was in Rusk not far from Exit 45,” Millie said.
Iowa to Madison
Millie grew up in Waukon, Iowa. Her mother died when Millie was three, a victim of the Spanish influenza pandemic that killed an estimated 50 million to 100 million worldwide.
Later on, Millie lived with her grandparents.
“We moved around quite a bit. My mother died when I was three years old from (the World War I) flu. We lived in Dubuque, Iowa. People were so afraid of that flu that they wouldn’t even come for the funeral,” she said.
“When I was growing up, my grandparents didn’t believe in (radios and newspapers). But I did get to the library, and that was a wonderful thing to be able to get a library book. I like to read. I can’t read as much as I used to, though. My eyes are not that good anymore,” Millie said.
When Millie was old enough to strike out on her own, she moved to Madison, Wisconsin. “I worked for the mayor in Madison. Housework. There were no jobs to be had and I had no training, so that’s all I could do. So I worked for the mayor and his wife. They had two grown daughters, and I had my evenings off, so it was wonderful,” Millie said.
“The pay wasn’t so good, but everything was cheap. You could ride the bus for five cents. I met my husband at the YW. He was going to the (University of Wisconsin- Madison) Short Course. They had a dance,” she said.
“Jobs were scarce in the ‘30s and ‘40s. After the Short Course, we came to the farm. My father-in-law wanted to know if his sons wanted to work the farm. And we said we would. We knew nothing about farming. My husband knew about cows. My brother-in-law knew about pigs. So that’s how they started farming. We didn’t know the people. Usually farm people have relatives all around. We didn’t know anyone. We would have been ‘foreigners.’ We were all new there. My brother-in-law left in 1950. He didn’t think there was enough money in farming. It was an ideal place for a small family,” Millie said.
Millie and Tim had five daughters and one son.
“I never wanted to be a farmer’s wife, mostly because they were always so poor,” she noted.
At first, the Packer family did not have any running water or any electricity on the farm.
“If you were going to wash anything, you had to heat up the water on the wood stove and then throw the water outside when you were done. It was tough. I was so happy when we got electricity and the REA came through. It was wonderful! I felt like dancing all night long! We finally had lights! And my husband dug a trench from the well so we could have running water. Finally we didn’t have to haul water in milk cans,” she said.
Although Millie’s husband called himself Tim, his “real” name was Mortimer.
“It was such an unusual name. He was named after his grandfather. And he hated it. So he picked the ‘Tim’ out and called himself Tim. For business deals he used his initials MA — Mortimer Allen,” Millie explained.
“In later years, when I got off the farm, I traveled. All of kids are scattered now,” she said.
Millie Packer’s children live in Washington, California, New Mexico, Michigan.
“I traveled to visit my children. I didn’t think I’d ever get off the farm. But I did,” she said.
“I finally learned how to milk cows, too. After my brother-in-law left the farm, I couldn’t let my husband do all of that work by himself. It’s a lot of work, but it keeps you out of trouble,” Millie said.
“We used to take Sunday rides when the kids were smaller. Finally we didn’t know where to drive anymore, we had gone to so many places,” she said.
“We had a big lilac bush by our bedroom window, and it did smell good,” Millie noted.
“My husband’s folks lived near the Loretta/Draper area (Sawyer County). They had some beautiful peonies. My husband brought some of them back and planted them in a big circle. My kids just loved the peonies … the ring of peonies lasted for years and years. I didn’t do anything special to them. No fertilizer. They grew and grew. My daughter gave me a tree peony and it is beautiful. Big yellow flowers. I like flowers. My grandmother had a lot of flowers. I guess I picked it up from her,” Millie said.
“We had hard times in the Depression. But you could raise your own food. Potatoes. Chickens. Apple trees. One of my favorite foods is apples,” she said.
Of course, as Millie likes to confess, she likes candy, too.
“I guess I ate so much candy that it kept me going. The sugar for energy,” she said.
Horses to tractors
When Millie and Tim first started farming, they used horses.
“We had those two old horses. Can you imagine farming that big farm with just two horses? And the first year, we had frost the third of September. The crop was lost because it wasn’t ripe. It took a long time to plow a field. We had 240 acres,” Millie said.
“I was amazed at how my husband was able to do that by himself. Then we got the tractor. It had steel wheels. Then we had to change that. We got things gradually. It’s nothing like the farmers do nowadays for their big machinery. We worked hard,” she said.
Those were the days when threshing crews went around to the farms to thresh the grain.
“The farmers would come around with their threshing machine, and then you had to feed all those men. I knew one time about two weeks ahead, and I thought a lot about what I was going to serve. I wanted something that wasn’t the same (as they got at other farms). You have a lot of dirty dishes. You fix one meal, then pretty soon, you have to fix something for the evening meal,” Millie recalled.
When she was a girl, “on my uncle’s farm, it was a big day when the threshing machine came and we could ride on the grain wagon and unload the grain,” she said.
Millie and her children also raised cucumbers for the pickle factory.
“I finally got a set of dining plates. I had mix and match. I wanted a nice set of dining dishes. I got enough money out of (the pickle patch) to get a full set of 12 dishes, plates, bowls, coffee, sugar and creamer and a platter. It’s kind of old-fashioned looking now. But it all matched … I think we had good luck with the cucumbers because it had been the pig field,” she said.
After Millie’s husband passed away, Millie decided to sell the farm and moved to Menomonie in 1992.
She lived in Menomonie until she moved to Colfax Health and Rehab’s former location on High Street, where she stayed while waiting for the assisted living apartments at Sandy Ridge to be ready for occupancy.
During all of those years and all of those moves, Millie kept her paper dress.
“I sent for the paper dress after I saw an ad in the paper. It said send a $1. So I did. And I got it. And I saved it all this time. I believe I got it in the 1960s. I think I can still fit into it,” Millie said.
The paper dress is silver-white in color.
Millie still has the envelope, too, in which the dress was mailed.
The dress came from the General Fabrics Corporation out of Marian, Ohio.
“I don’t know why I saved it. But I did,” she said.
“They make dresses out of all kinds of things. They do that at Stout,” Millie noted.
“I was lucky in winning prizes. Contests. I saw an ad in the Eau Claire Leader once. It was Coca-Cola. A little bag you could carry cans of pop in. I won a lot of prizes where they had drawings. A lemon grater. I used that a lot. It was fun. I even won a prize on WCCO. $50. I forget what the contest was,” she said.
“We always had newspapers. Even the Chicago Tribune at one time because my brother-in-law liked that,” Millie said.
Millie says she is really enjoying her apartment at Sandy Ridge.
“It’s very nice here. The people are so nice. And the meals are good,” she said.
“It’s nice and warm here, too. I had many a cold room in the old farmhouse. It was almost a hundred years old when I got there, but it’s warm here,” Millie said.
Millie moved to Colfax because her daughter, Sally, lives in Colfax.
“I never wanted to move in with my children and be a burden to them. But this is good. I can live in the same town where Sally lives,” Millie said.