Wauneta woman still going strong at 101 years old

Friday, January 25, 2013

Submitted by Doris Craig and Evelyn Madison

WAUNETA, Nebraska -- Elsie Emma Sophie Bartels Becker, sixth living child and second daughter of Carl and Doris (Fortkamp) Bartels, was born on Jan. 24, 1912, on the parents' home site (NE 1/4 7437) on the Ough Divide, Dundy County, south of Enders, Nebraska. She was the first child born on this farm.

Her parents and five older siblings had moved there about a year earlier from the Elk Creek (Johnson County ) area of Nebraska. Carl liked the level, rock-free ground and the family was drawn to the established German Lutheran neighborhood at St. Paul"s. The family had moved into their new bome about a month prior to Elsie's birth.

The winter Elsie was born was an especially bitter one with tempeatures regularly dropping well below zero. Shortly before she was born, her father, Carl, suffered frostbite to his feet one day when venturing to Enders for supplies in the frigid conditions. With care, however, he did not lose any toes.

Elsie was baptized, attended school, and was confirmed at St. Paul's Lutheran Church. She was a member of the Walther League.

Last year, she was honored during her 100th birthday celebration with the presentation of a lovely quilt the group had made commemorating the fact that she is the last living charter member of the organization.

Music has played a big role in the life of the Bartels family, and notably for Elsie. In 1925, a mail order piano arrived. "What a joy when it arrived," she said. Elsie spent many years playing the pump organ for church services at St. Paul's The first time she played was on her 15th birthday and she still enjoys any time there is a sing-along or she has a chance to play her triangle with others at Sunrise Heights.

Elsie attended two years of high school in Enders, Nebraska, but was unable to return to school after the 1928 Thanksgiving holiday. Elsie was needed at home to help care for niece, Bonnie, after her mother, Frieda Bartels Crosson, passed away at 24 years of age from complications of childbirth. Elsie aided in all household duties for the family.

In 1928, when she was 16, Elsie met a young man from Iowa. Otto Becker was in the area to help with harvest. He returned to Iowa when the work was done, but two years later, while traveling west to California with a friend in search of work, he stopped at the Bartels farm to visit Elsie. For the next decade, during the depths of the Great Depression, the young couple corresponded, seeing each other only during harvest season.

Otto would travel to Nebraska during corn harvest, and return to Waverly, Iowa. The rest of the year he worked in a canning factory and was a movie projectionist. He had the honor of showing the first "talkie" at the local theatre, and his role was featured in a newpaper write-up that Elsie still has.

Otto decided he would try his hand at farming in Nebraska and rented farm ground near Haigler. Elsie and Otto were married on Dec. 18, 1939, at St. Paul's Lutheran Church with Rev. Wendling officiating. The couple set up housekeeping in a cute three-room cottage in the Doane community west of Benkelman.

A year later, Doris Marie arrived. She was named after her grandmothers. After two years in southwest Dundy County, the family moved closer to Wauneta and rented land from Phil Williams and made their home on the Ough Divide.

In 1942, with the corn crop still standing in the field, Otto suffered a ruptured peptic ulcer and had emergency surgery. While he spent three weeks recuperating in the hospital, family and friends gathered the crop at a shucking bee, with the women providing a bountiful meal for the 15-20 men. In time, Otto's health improved, but hired help and assistance from Elsie's family were needed for awhile.

Additionally, during World War II, a prisoner of war camp was established near Atlanta, Nebraska, with work details sent out to farms across western Nebraska. A temporary work camp was set up between the Ough Divide and Benkelman to house a group of POWs. In addition to Mexican nationals, the German POWs, under the watch of armed guards, helped pick the Beckers' corn.

In 1945, the family was blessed with the arrival of a second daughter, Evelyn Ann (named after the radio performer "Evelyn and Her Magic Violin," as there weren't any other grandmothers to name her after).

After the arrival of their second child, the Becker family traveled east to Iowa to visit Otto's family. It was the first trip home that Otto had made in six years. The 600-mile trip to northeastern Iowa took the Becker family 12 hours in their 1929 Chevy.

After that trip, they made a point of visiting his family every year. This afforded Doris and Evelyn the opportunity to get to know their Iowa relatives as well as their Nebraska relatives. This certainly was a blessing.

In 1952, the family moved to another South Divide farm, the Earl and Nellie Wiley farm, just south of Enders. (Chris and Annie Pursley now own this farm.) The Beckers lived there for 33 years, raising wheat, corn and milo, and establishing a black Angus cow/calf herd. They purchased a sloping quarter of ground nearby and had terraces built.

In 1960, Otto and Elsie received the Conservation Award, for the stewardship of their land. For a time, Elsie also raised hybrid Austra White chickens and eggs, but had to give up the enterprise due to losses from the large number of coyotes living in the nearby canyons. The family also had several milk cows for their own milk, butter and cream.

Otto did the farm work, taking on an occasional hired hand. But when Doris and Evelyn were in their teens, they took over field chores, one-waying, disking and rod weeding. "Their dad said they were the best help he ever had," said Elsie.

When the daughters were grown, Elsie also helped with field work, and laughingly admitted to taking out a fence or two. The girls were active in 4-H, honing their skills in cooking and sewing. Like their mother before them, they attended grade school at the parochial school at St. Paul's.

During the winter of 1984, Otto and Elsie moved to a home in Wauneta, Nebraska. Elsie enjoyed her yard and flowers, usually having fresh flowers displayed in their home.

As their daughters grew up and moved farther away, Elsie and Otto had the opportunity to travel and enjoy the scenery of the Pacific Northwest, Wyoming, Colorado and the Black Hills. Elsie later took a trip with her daughters to the "awe-inspring Redwood Forest" in northern California and Crater Lake in southern Oregon. One of her life-long dreams was to see the Redwoods. Other trips included time with the family for long weekends on the beach in Manzanita, Oregon, and at the Sun River Resort near Bend, Oregon.

After Otto passed away on Feb. 16, 1987, Elsie continued living in her home, taking care of the yard and using the riding lawn mower to manicure her sloping yard (which worried her family and neighbors), but she never tipped over and would not allow any of us to do the mowing for her.

She volunteered for many years at the nursing home including playing the piano for sing-alongs. She also was a member of Irma's Hot Shots (kitchen band) that played at the Senior Center. The group entertained at the nursing home and at various venues around Wauneta.

Elsie now plays her triangle at the nursing home when Violet Long entertains at sing-alongs. She keeps a steady beat to the music.

On May 24, 2008, at the Wauneta High School class reunion, Elsie was awarded honorary graduate status from the Enders High School of 1930 by the Wauneta-Palisade High School, which Doris had arranged as a surprise. If EIsie would have been able to complete high school, 2013 would be her 83rd class reunion.

EIsie has resided at Sunrise Heights since November 2008. She is the sole survivor of the immediate Bartels family and the sole survivor on the Becker side of the immediate family. Two sisters-in-law, Ida Bartels and Margie Bartels, also reside in the Wauneta area.

Elsie celebrated her 101st birthday with a family dinner on Jan. 20, 2013. Family attending from afar included those from Oregon, Colorado, Iowa and various Nebraska towns. Sunrise Heights honored her and Ida Bartels (who shares the birth date and is also a Sunrise Heights resident) with ice cream and cake on Jan. 24, 2013.

Elsie has stated that it is the simple things which have brought her the most fulfilment during her years.

Among the simple pleasures she still holds dear are the smell of her mom's bread baking and coffee cake with its cinnamon and sugar fragrance (both her daughters can smell these wonderful fragrances, too). Among other remembrances are the joy of preparing meals togather, pickling time, burning freshly shelled corn cobs in the cook stove, a clean hen house with fresh straw, and baby animals of all kinds.

Elsie's life from the time she was a young child to today has always been centered around her family and the simple joys of life and the farm and in her community.

The lessons of hard work and patience taught to Elsie as a child remain with her today. "Our parents were very firm in teaching us to live by the Golden Rule -- to treat others as we would like to be treated. We learned it at home and at school. We were expected to live by it and we tried," she said. Elsie and Otto taught this lesson to their daughters as well.

Elsie's family consists of daughters, Doris Marie Craig and Evelyn Ann Madison, sons-in-law, Darrell (Dee) Craig (deceased) and Randy Madison. Four grandchildren: Monica Craig Longhofer, Jeffrey Craig, Karla McAfee Williams and Jason McAfee. The grandchildren's spouses are Duane Longhofer, Gina Craig, Jim Williams, and Kelly McAfee. Step-grandchildren are RaeLynn Madison Johnson and Clayton Madison. Great-grandchildren are Emily Craig, Vaughan Williams, Brody Delaney, Jillian Longhofer and Nevaeh McAfee and step-great-grandchildren, Kayli Galluzzi and Kaylin McAfee, Sonja, Morgan, Riley, Carter, Walker and Levi Johnson and Cienna, Caylee and Caden Madison.

We are proud to be Elsie's family and we give Praise to our Lord and Saviour for her continued good health to reach this milestone and beyond.

Excerpts for this article were taken from The Wauneta Breeze, April 4, 2002, issue.