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By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — Millie Packer says she does not know how — or why — she has lived so long.
Born on March 25, 1914, Millie celebrated her 105th birthday on Monday, March 25.
“It’s a long, long time. I don’t know why. I really don’t,” said Millie, a resident at Ridge Crest Manor Assisted Living in the Colfax Health and Rehabilitation Center.
When asked what her secret was to living such a long life, Millie said she did not have an answer.
While Millie is currently a resident in the assisted living/community-based residential facility at Colfax Health and Rehab, up until about a year and a half ago, she lived in one of the Sandy Ridge assisted living apartments at CHRC.
“I miss being at my apartment. I miss being able to walk around. I love to walk. I have always walked a lot,” Millie said.
“I was always active. I liked sports. I used to bowl, and I used to play pool … my brother and I were always together. He was interested in sports, so I got interested in sports,” she said.
Millie had only one brother. Their mother died during the Spanish influenza pandemic during World War I when Millie was three years old.
An estimated 50 million to 100 million people worldwide died from the Spanish flu, which tended to kill young, healthy people who would develop a deadly pneumonia that progressed rapidly over the course of a few days.
“My mother told my aunt, ‘don’t put them in the orphanage.’ So my aunt took care of us. She was really good to us,” Millie said.
Millie grew up in Waucon, Iowa. She lived with her grandparents, and later on, her aunt went to Madison to find work.
“We had rough times, and tough times and happy times. And that’s all you can ask,” she said.
“My aunt was working in Madison, and she asked if I wanted to come to Madison to work. There weren’t any jobs. I didn’t have any training. All I could do was housework. So I went to Madison. That’s where I met my husband. He was in the [UW-Madison Agricultural] Short Course,” she said.
Millie had worked as a housekeeper for the mayor in the Madison. The mayor and his wife had two grown daughters, and Millie had the evenings off. She met her husband at a dance.
Millie and her husband, Tim, owned a farm near Rusk in the Town of Red Cedar not far from Exit 45. Her husband had one semester left of the short course when his father asked Tim if he wanted to farm.
“There weren’t any jobs to be had, so his father asked my husband and his brother if they wanted to farm. He said, ‘sure’ because he couldn’t get any work. There wasn’t any work. And I really marvel at how much he got done by himself. His brother went to Chicago. He didn’t feel like he was making any money on the farm, so he went to Chicago. [Tim] had the farm by himself,” Millie said.
Millie’s husband’s “real” name was Mortimer.
When Millie first met him, she asked a logical question.
“I asked him what his name was, and when he told me, I laughed. I suppose I shouldn’t have laughed. He never liked the name. So he cut it short and made it ‘Tim,’” she said, noting that her husband had been named after his grandfather.
Millie said when she heard the name “Mortimer” all she could think of was the cartoon.
Walt Disney had originally wanted to name his mouse Mortimer but eventually settled on Mickey. In time, Disney developed the Mortimer character, who became Mickey’s rival`and fancied Minnie.
“My husband was interested in cattle, and my brother-in-law was interested in pigs, so when my brother-in-law went to Chicago, we took over some of the pigs. They were some of the lean type. When he took them to the Cities to the stockyard, he got eight cents a pound. He said he would never again raise pigs,” Millie said.
“One time it was so cold in that old hog barn. He went to the hog barn, and when he came back to the house, he had all the little piglets with him. He thought they were frozen. We warmed them up in back of the stove, and they came back alive. I couldn’t believe it. We didn’t have pigs after that. We raised mostly soybeans and cattle,” Millie said.
“We had tough times, but I guess everybody did. When we’d talk with the neighbors, they had the same problems we did,” she said.
“Everything was second-hand, used. At the time, I didn’t like farming. Or at least I didn’t think I did. But our kids all loved it. They have good memories of growing up on the farm, so I’m glad they were brought up there,” she said.
Millie and her husband had six children — five girls and one boy. Her son and one daughter are both gone now, both them victims of cancer.
Millie said she always helped her husband with the farm work.
“I couldn’t let him do all that farm work by himself. But milk a cow? I’d never milked a cow!” she exclaimed.
Although Millie started out milking cows by hand, the work became a little easier when they were able to use milking machines.
Millie says she and her husband did not have any vacations from the farm, either, although they did go to the Minnesota State Fair a couple of times.
“I always wanted to go to the fair, and then finally one year we went. Didn’t know much about the Minnesota State Fair, so I stayed up where my husband was, and that was Machinery Hill.”
“I wasn’t interested in Machinery Hill. The next time we went, I said, ‘I’m not going to Machinery Hill.’ So I walked around and around, and I enjoyed it,” she said.
Millie received flowers from her family for her birthday — a bouquet of pink roses and a bouquet of daffodils and purple irises.
“That’s what I like about spring. The flowers. And I saw a robin this morning. So spring is coming,” Millie said.
On the Packer farm, there was a circle driveway, “and in that big circle, I had peonies. It was full of peonies. We didn’t do any special care with them, and they were there for years,” she said.
Millie’s peonies were pink and white, and then eventually, she got some of the darker, magenta peonies.
“I liked my flowers, and I liked my cooking. I made lots of bread,” Millie said, noting that while she did not bake bread every day, when she did bake bread, she made five loaves at a time.
“When the kids would go swimming at Cedar Falls where they had swimming lessons, and when they came home, they’d be so hungry to get that fresh bread,” she said.
Bread warm from the oven with butter and sugar is one of Millie’s favorite treats.
In fact, when asked about her hobbies, Millie said she loved to cook and would keep an eye on magazines and newspapers for new recipes.
“I liked to experiment and try something new and different,” she said.
Angel food cake is Millie’s favorite.
“When I was growing up in Waucon, my aunt would give me a dollar, and I could go to the lady in the neighborhood who made cakes, and I always ordered an angel food cake from her for a dollar,” she said.
Angel food cakes, Millie noted, are a little tricky, since you have to beat the egg whites until they are stiff and then carefully fold in the flour.
Millie liked to make angel food cakes from scratch, but one time, she tried an angel food cake mix.
She did not like the result.
“It was kind of tough,” she said.
“I think it’s a wonder [the woman in Waucon] could make enough money selling cakes,” Millie said.
When Millie made angel food cakes, she would save the egg yolks and make what was called a “gold cake.”
“Sometimes I had really good luck with those. The top would be light and fluffy like angel food. But then the next time I’d make one, the top might be solid,” she said.
“I tried to stir it the same way, so I don’t know what I did wrong. But it would divide, and be partly fluffy and partly solid.”
Of all the places she has been, Madison holds a special place in Millie’s heart.
“I really liked Madison. It sure has changed now. I went back some years back. I couldn’t remember half of the places I used to go on the bus for a nickel. Can you imagine? Go on the bus, all over, for a nickel. Of course you didn’t get much for wages, but then, you didn’t need it,” she said.
Millie is happy she was able to do some traveling with her daughter to California and Washington.
“I thought I would never get off the farm. My daughter took me. We went to the Dakotas once in my new car. And that was fun,” she said.
When asked how she ended up in Colfax, Millie said her two daughters, Mary and Sally, live here, and they wanted her to live in Colfax, too.
Millie has three grandchildren, and she says while she does not have any great-grandchildren, she does have a great-grand-dog.