From horse and buggy to a microwave: 107-year-old woman shares fun memories of life in Dickinson

An exclusive interview with a centenarian resident of Edgewood Hawks Point, located adjacent to Dickinson State University campus and in the heart of Blue Hawks country.

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Helma Lein holds her Brag Book, a scrapbook filled with nearly 107 years of memories in letters, poems, and news clippings.
Photo by Allison Engstrom / The Dickinson Press

DICKINSON - At nearly 107-years-old, Helma Lein's scrapbook-style 'Brag Book' is a remarkable collection. The tome includes cream-colored birthday letters from former President and First-Lady Barrack and Michelle Obama, carefully cut newspaper clippings from major events, a lifetime of accomplishments and delicately handwritten poems.

Helma's daughter inspired the book as a way to document the family's history for future generations.

"She said 'I think you should put things on paper because there are grandchildren coming and great grandchildren someday and they should have something to read about you'," Helma recounted as she reminisced on the life she has lived while flipping through the colorful pages.

Each page of the book is filled with a lifetime of Helma's memories, some of which are preserved only by her favorite pastime - writing. Her handwritten records predate inventions that the modern world would find unthinkable - cars and television, even the microwave, an invention that Helma remembers seeing for the first time clearly.

Helma is a writer and has been published in newspapers and even penned her own book that has sold over 400 copies.


"I thought if I could sell 10, I'd be happy," Helma said, noting that she believes that writing is not only a good pastime and brain game, but an activity that has also helped her learn a lot over the years.

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A page in Helma's Brag Book shows a news clipping of the book she authored.
Photo by Allison Engstrom / The Dickinson Press

Born in 1916 on a farm just outside of Mandan, with her 4 siblings, Helma remembers her family instilling their heritage and culture in the children. She fondly remembers memories of her father playing his accordion at dances, and the Norwegian language the family spoke until the time they started school. She also remembers her mother dying from the flu epidemic.

“When my dad came to America, he got a piece of land, I think the government was giving some for I don’t remember now $5 or something like that,” Helma said.

Aside from being a musician, her father was a talented carpenter who built the family's farm outside of Mandan. From cows to chickens and pigs, Helma worked on the farm alongside her siblings. She spent a few years driving a horse and buggy, even during the harsh North Dakota winters.

“Well when you're that young you don't know anything about the future, so you just help with the work and just play when you want to play,” Helma said.

When Helma wasn’t helping on the farm, her favorite game to play was baseball with her siblings. As time went on, Helma with the help of her cousin, convinced her father to let her go on to college.

“My cousin who was a teacher and was staying at our house, she would always talk to him about letting one of us go to college…and I was the one he picked,” Helma smiled.

At a time when women's roles were typically domestic, Helma attended college and pursued secretarial studies. Shortly after, at just 20 years old, she was hired as a secretary at the Bismarck Tribune. Working there, she learned the now lost art of shorthand, a method of writing quickly that uses symbols or abbreviations for letters.


Her writing journey would see her cross continents.

It was around this time that Helma met her husband, Ray, who was soon drafted into WWII after the attack on Pearl Harbor. From Mandan to Jamestown to Bismarck, the then-North Dakota native would live in Seattle and then down to San Diego where Ray was stationed.

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A letter Helma received from The White House on her 100th birthday, signed by the Obama's.
Photo by Allison Engstrom / The Dickinson Press

After her husband was discharged from the service, the couple moved to Ray's hometown of Wing, North Dakota, and opened up a grocery store, following in his parents' footsteps.

“That was a smart thing to do because he knew all the people in that area and we had a lot of good customers,” Helma said.

Working in the store showed Helma just how much the war had impacted people's homes.

“I think the war depleted people's kitchens, and household goods and it was amazing how many didn't have this and didn't have that, even washers and dryers,” Helma said.

It was during the 1950s when the first microwave was introduced, and the Leins stocked their shelves with the captivating invention. Helma remembers just how awestruck people were by the appliance.

“My husband put a potato in the microwave and reached in and got it in five minutes and it was soft,” Helma chuckled, “The people looked at him and said ‘We want to touch it’ and so they passed it around and they just couldn’t believe it.”


The Leins continued to explore the world, thanks to a promotion from their store supplier that rewarded high sales with trips. Helma documented every moment of her travels across multiple countries, from symphonies in Austria to days spent on the beaches of the Bahamas. However, watching bullfights in Mexico, Portugal and Spain were the most unforgettable experiences for the couple.

Helma laughed as she recalled how the bullfights made her think of a ball game at first, but the sheer number of people who came to watch was astonishing to the North Dakota girl.

She shared a profound experience for her, when she and her husband had the opportunity to revisit Pearl Harbor, a moment she described as sensational.

The couple raised three children, visited ten foreign countries and continued to run their rural grocery store. Ray Lein passed away from esophageal cancer when Helma was 68 years old, nearly 40 years ago. But, as always, Helma persisted.

She eventually moved to Dickinson to be closer to her family and has been a resident at Edgewood Hawks Point for fifteen years, where she is known to staff and residents as the wonderful Helma who loves everything from music to crafts.

Christina Pugh, the life enrichment director at Edgewood said that she could listen to Helma's stories all day long, marveling at Helma's still sharp mind and remarkable talent as a writer at almost 107 years old.

“I've never met somebody Helmas age, and seeing just the brilliant mind that she has and the talent she has as a writer at almost 107 is remarkable,” Pugh said.

Today, the centenarian continues her work on a series about her travels, starting in Vienna.


Smiling and with a sparkle in her eye, Helma's optimism remains as strong today as ever.

"If I live long enough, I'll cover the ten countries we visited," she said with a smile and a wink.

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As a 15-year resident at Edgewood, Helma spends her free time writing and adding pages to her scrapbook.
Allison Engstrom / The Dickinson Press

Allison is a news reporter from Phoenix, Arizona where she earned a degree in journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. After college, she worked as a middle school writing teacher in the valley. She has made her way around the U.S. driving from Arizona to Minnesota and eventually finding herself here in Dickinson. She has a passion for storytelling and enjoys covering community news.
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