109 and counting

Erna Zahn, born April 14, 1908, in Pickett, Wisconsin, becomes one of the few people to celebrate her 109th birthday today. Staff photo by Clay Schuldt

Erna Zahn


By Clay Schuldt

Staff Writer

NEW ULM — On April 14, 1908, in Pickett, Wisconsin, Erna Zahn was born. This Friday she becomes one of the few people to celebrate her 109th birthday.

Zahn’s hometown of Pickett was located near Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Zahn lived and worked in Oshkosh for a time, but visited her parents in Pickett often.

Her parents ran a store in Pickett. It was mostly a grocery store, but they sold everything from fabric to farmer’s overalls and gloves.

Zahn was the second of four children. She had an older brother and two younger sisters. As the oldest sister, she had a lot responsibilities from a young age. When she was 8, it was her responsibility to have dinner ready while her mom worked in the store. This was in the days before electricity was widespread. Zahn still remembers lighting wick lanterns.

It was also a time before automobiles. This was a challenge for Zahn’s father, since in addition to owning a store he was rural mail carrier. As a postal worker, her dad delivered mail through rain, shine or massive blizzards by horse and buggy. After an especially cold Wisconsin winter, he decided he had enough of delivering letters and decided to focus on the family store.

Relying on horses for work was a struggle, but it was a great hobby. As a young woman Zahn loved horses. Her favorite activity was horseback riding. Zahn frequently rode a horse by the name of Tiptoe. Tiptoe was a specially trained horse who could do tricks. Zahn has photos of the animal lying down on his side as she casually sits on him.

Zahn said she only gave up horseback riding after deciding to have kids, but to this day, she still asks around if anyone in the area rents horses.

Zahn lived through many historical moments. She is one of the few people alive for both Chicago Cubs World Series championships in 1908 and 2016, although she admits she’s not much of a sports fan.

In 1934, a group of friends drove out to see the construction of Mt. Rushmore. Zahn rode in the vehicle’s rumble seat the entire way. Mt. Rushmore was less than half completed on her first visit. Only Washington’s head was finished. She remembers seeing men working on the faces and she has the photos to prove it.

A year later, in 1935, she married her husband Meilahn Zahn. They remained together until his death in 1989. The couple moved to New Ulm for Meilahn’s work. Meilahn was the head of the Martin Luther College music department from 1962 to 1975. He retired from teaching in 1977 and passed away in 1982.

Their granddaughter, Bethel Boeder, followed in granddad’s footsteps and is a piano teacher at MLC.

Erna and Meilahn had six children. Three graduated from MLC. Their oldest son Richard is 80, soon to be 81.

“I can’t believe I have a son who is 80,” Erna said. It’s a statement few mothers ever get to make.

In addition to her children, she has 22 grandchildren, 50 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren. A Zahn family reunion can bring in over 100 family members.

“I am thankful they are all well and healthy,” she said.

Asked about the secret to her long life, Zahn said it came down to diet and exercise.

“I don’t skip meals,” Zahn said. “It is the same all the time.” Zahn read that eating regular meals helped the body stay in rhythm and helped maintain health. She is still able to enjoy a bowl of ice cream every day.

As for exercise, Zahn tries to walk every day.

“If the weather is good, I walk,” she said. With a walker, Zahn tries to make a four to five-block round trip every day. It is hard to argue with the results.

These days Zahn lives semi-independently at Realife Cooperative near New Ulm Medical Center. The Zahn family has no big celebration planned for her birthday this year. Erna instructed them to save the big celebration for next year when she turns 110.

In the United States, only 22 out of every 100,000 people reach age 100. Even fewer reach the status of super-centenarians (110 years or older). The exact number of people 109 years of age in the United States is unknown, but the Gerontology Research Group has identified only 34 super-centenarians.

Regardless of the statistics, reaching 109 years is an impressive and rare feat. Asked how it feels to be 109-years-old, Zahn said, “I am getting used to it.”


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