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Minnesota’s most senior citizen turns 113

Staff photo by Fritz Busch Erna Zahn, the oldest Minnesotan, is celebrating her 113th birthday Wednesday.

NEW ULM — A woman believed to be Minnesota’s most senior citizen turns 113 on Wednesday, April 14.

Oak Hills Living Center resident Erna Zahn is believed to be the tenth oldest resident in the United States and the thirty-first oldest person in the world.

“Nobody has come forward to tell me anybody is older than her in Minnesota,” said Zahn’s daughter Marley Kuckhahn of New Ulm.

Kuckhahn said she uses Wikipedia, a free, multilingual open-collaborative online encyclopedia as her point of reference for how her mother’s age ranks in the world.

“I’ve answered a lot of questions about her lately,” Kuckhahn said about her mother. “She’s still plugging along.”

Long-time Journal readers may recall newspaper photo of Zahn shoveling snow about 50 years ago.

“Get out and shovel snow. It’s really good exercise,” Zahn said in a story that accompanied the photo. “Eat breakfast, it’s what keeps me going.”

She credited religion and diet to her longevity too.

“Say your prayers. Don’t skip meals. I can’t complain,” Zahn said when she turned 111 a couple years ago.

She said bananas and dark chocolate were among her favorite foods.

Kuckhahn said she was wondering how to deal with her mother’s increasing hearing loss recently, learned that a Pocketalker (personal amplifier with headphones and a microphone) may help and found one when she walked into the Treasure Haus in New Ulm recently.

“I tried it out and bought it. It’s really wonderful,” Kuckhahn said. “She (Zahn) is able to hear pretty well using a (Pocketalker) volume control.”

Kuckhahn said she took her husband and mother home for family visit this Easter.

“It was very nice. A beautiful day to do that,” Kuckhahn said. “She (Zahn) hasn’t been out much lately, other than a few Oak Hills courtyard visits.”

Longevity runs in the family. A couple of Zahn’s sisters reached their late 90s. Her mother lived 95 1/2 years.

Zahn married Meilahn Zahn in 1935.

They had six children, 25 grandchildren, many great grandchildren, and four great, great grandchildren.

The couple remained together throughout his life, moving to New Ulm in the 1960s. Meilahn Zahn died in 1982. He was a Martin Luther College professor of music and head of the college music department from 1962 to 1975.

Zahn lived by herself in an apartment at age 109. On her 99th birthday, she rode a horse.

As a young girl, she enjoyed horseback riding. Zahn saved her pennies and rode a horse for $1 an hour while growing up in rural Wisconsin.

Sewing and swimming were some of her other youthful interests.

At age eight, it was her responsibility to have the family dinner ready and light wick lanterns while her mother worked in the family-owned IGA general store in Pickett, Wis., a small village, between Ripon and Oshkosh.

Zahn’s father was a rural mail carrier, delivering mail in a horse and buggy.

“She went to a one-room school with 50 kids until the eighth-grade,” Kuckhahn said. “I remember her telling me how she rode a horse that plowed the family garden. The family grew their own potatoes.”

After high school, Zahn attended business school in Ripon before working as a secretary for Giant Grip in Oshkosh. The company made iron products including tire chains and horseshoes, Kuckhahn said.

“Erna made our clothes, often from other old clothes,” said Marley.

One of Zahn’s favorite family stories was riding in the rumble seat of a car from Wisconsin to Mount Rushmore, S.D. in 1934. The monument was under construction at the time, with just part of a face completed.

Zahn will celebrate her birthday Wednesday afternoon at Sleepy Eye Coffee Company.

Fritz Busch can be emailed at fbusch@nujournal.com.

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