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Matilda Steier still smiling at 105

Press Photo by Dustin Monke Matilda Steier, middle, laughs with her children, Lorraine Meschke, left, and Frank Steier, right, while celebrating her 105th birthday on Saturday afternoon at St. Benedict's Health Center in Dickinson.

The year Matilda Steier was born, Theodore Roosevelt was president, Mother's Day was first observed and the Chicago Cubs won their last World Series.

As a young bride, she lived in a three-room house where she hand washed clothes and didn't have indoor plumbing or electricity.

In her 105 years, the one thing Matilda wishes she could do again is farm the North Dakota prairie with her husband, Thomas. When asked what she missed most about farming, Matilda said, "milking cows."

"Because that's the only time we got to sit down," her second daughter Marcelline Stinchfield said.

Seven of her eight children and their spouses -- Lorraine Meschke, Frank and Clara Steier, Marcelline and Robert, Jeanette and Chuck Forster, Donna Steier, Clara Steier Jorgensen and Bill and Raymond and Bonnie Steier -- gathered at St. Benedict's Health Center in Dickinson on Saturday to celebrate their mother's birthday and to reminisce about the good times and bad. The missing one, second-youngest Maryanne O'Donnell, was in Ireland.

"We said, at 100, this will probably be the last one," daughter Donna Steier, referring to big birthday celebrations.

Matilda Huck was born May 1, 1908, in Mandan, the fourth child of Germans from Russia immigrants. Her parents rented farms throughout her childhood and eventually settled in Center.

"On the last farm, we had an auction sale and then my parents moved to Center," Matilda said with a slight German accent that never escaped her in 105 years as an American.

Her father didn't know how to drive, but purchased a Model T because their church was 25 miles away.

"If the boys didn't want to go to church, then I had to drive the car," Matilda said. "There was no highways or anything. There were just gravel roads and they were deep. You really had to hold the car and if not -- whoop!"

She met her husband, Thomas Steier, at a party held by a cousin. In 1929, she married him at a ceremony in Scheffield. Her parents couldn't make it due to winter weather.

"I drove to the church in a bobsled," Matilda said, referring to a horse-drawn sleigh.

The two then began farming in the Scheffield community, between Dickinson and New England, in the dust bowl days. They stayed in the area despite the mass exodus of those who tried to make it on the North Dakota prairie during the Great Depression.

"Hard times," Matilda answered when describing her first years of marriage. "You couldn't afford it (moving away). You had to stay here."

Their first house was a three-room stone house that got so cold in the winter that the bed sheets would freeze to the wall at night and the water in the drinking pail had ice in it.

In the mid-1930s, she remembers southwest North Dakota being plagued by grasshoppers.

"We were in church and we went out and prayed the Rosary and then all of a sudden it got dark," Matilda said. "And we looked up and there were grasshoppers -- it was just so thick and they landed, then everything was just -- the grasshoppers were just that thick.

"And when we got out on the road, the oil was running off of the road where the cars went over the grasshoppers and killed them. When I come home, I couldn't see through my windows. They were full -- the screens were hanging full of grasshoppers. And they ate my carrots and beets and stuff. My garden was cleaned out -- completely. They ate everything."

The stone house was eventually replaced with a new house in 1947, which was when the family first got electricity and indoor plumbing. They replaced a coal stove and an outhouse with an electric stove and a bathroom.

There was also no more hand washing of clothes. Instead, they upgraded to a wringer washer.

"I wrung myself through it one day," Marcelline said with a laugh. "Instead of releasing it, she wrung me back out. But it didn't hurt, my arm was so skinny."

Thomas died on the farm in 1952, but Matilda decided she wanted to stay there and farm with the help of her children.

"I drove the tractor and then when we planted corn, Jeanette, I drove the tractor and she was on the cultivator," Matilda said of her fourth child. "She had to keep so it doesn't scrap the corn out -- to try to keep it straight."

Matilda got some push back from her male family members for choosing to stay on the farm, said Lorraine, her oldest child.

Matilda packed her bags and gave up farming in 1959.

"I finally had an auction sale," she said. "I sold the machinery first and I kept the cows and I milked the cows until August. A farmer from Lefor bought three cows at the auction sale and at night I heard cows! I thought, 'Gee, I don't have cattle anymore.' I got up, looked out the window, there was three cows that come back 11 miles!"

The farmer came and got them, as he had been looking for them.

"It hurt," Matilda said of leaving the farm. "I had a new house on the farm and almost a new barn and I had to leave everything behind."

Once the farm was sold, Matilda moved to Richardton and began working at the Assumption Abbey, and then at St. Mary's Church school as a cook for 11 years until her youngest child, Raymond, graduated from high school.

"When the kids were all through school, I quit working and I traveled," she said. "I took a lot of bus trips."

Matilda traveled throughout the United States and Canada on senior citizen bus trips until the late 80s or early 90s, she said.

She got to visit West Germany in 1975, which was the first time she flew on a plane. The first flight took place only five years before she was born.

"The first time we saw an airplane, we were in New Salem for the Fourth of July and they had a plane there and everybody just stood and watched that plane -- they said, 'Don't get too close!'" Matilda said with a smile.

She moved to Dickinson in the mid-90s, to Hawks Point in 2009 and finally to St. Ben's in 2010. A cancer scare, the second of her life, brought her to Dickinson.

Matilda said the years have brought many changes to the area.

"If I had to raise my family now, I don't think I could take it," she said. "There's so much different going on. It was more quiet then."

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
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