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Walking past a century

Elma Sandahl, 101, plays the board game Upwords with her friend Phyllis Ellis at the Lighthouse of Superior July 8. (Maria Lockwood)

Elma Sandahl has always loved to walk, according to family stories. The Douglas County woman was born near Pattison Park on May 13, 1913. One day when Elma was age 2, she disappeared while her older sisters were supposed to be watching her. Their stepmother followed Elma’s tracks and found her more than a city block away, walking along the road. When she caught up with the toddler, Elma said she was going to get the mail.

“The mailbox was half a mile from our house,” said Elma’s sister, Sylvia Bloxham.

For years, the sisters lived just a few blocks away from each other in Superior.

“She’d come walking over here, even when she was 99, 100,” Bloxham said. “I know she’d walk a mile at a time.”

Now living at the Lighthouse, Elma still makes time to walk. The 101-year-old also enjoys collecting dolls — a hobby started in the 1950s — playing word games and making friends.

“She’s a real inspiration to all of us,” said her friend Phyllis Ellis.

When asked the secret to her longevity, Elma included walking in the mix.

“Living out in the country and good fresh air, doing a lot of walking, exercises, work — didn’t hurt us a bit,” Elma said, as well as “good healthy food and plenty of it.” Genetics may play a factor; all five of Elma’s sisters have lived to be 89 or older.

“She’s kind of a fun old lady,” said Bloxham, who is 92. “But I’m catching up with her.”

Elma, whose maiden name was Newman, grew up in the Four Corners area and attended Black River School. She and her siblings — five sisters and two brothers — walked a mile to school in all weather and took care of chores at home, from pulling weeds and helping with the garden to milking the cows and feeding the pigs.

“I didn’t have to milk,” Elma said. “We didn’t have milking machines way back then but I never did milk. I was a little bit nervous of the cows. I loved them, of course, but I was a little nervous as far as milking.”

Cooking, baking and raising flowers were her favorite chores.

Elma’s mother died when she was age 1, leaving her the youngest of four girls. Her father remarried and had another four children. Elma enjoyed growing up in the country surrounded by siblings, friends and relatives. She moved into Superior and lived with friends to attend East High School.

“I earned my keep,” Elma said, by cleaning the house, cooking, baking and occasionally caring for the children. There was still time to go out every once in a while, often to the movies. After graduation, she followed her oldest sister, Ruby, to Minneapolis. There, she continued to work various jobs, including housekeeping and waitressing. Elma met Leonard Carlson through friends.

“His cousin was going with a friend of mine, that’s how I happened to meet him,” she said. “I loved everything about him.” He was a musician, an accordionist who also worked part-time as caretaker for a well-to-do family. At the age of 19, Elma married him and continued to work as a housekeeper.

“We always looked forward to her and Leonard coming up to the farm,” Bloxham said. “He’d always bring his accordion.” He’d play polkas and waltzes while Elma joined in the dancing.

The couple moved to Detroit, Mich. during World War II and took a memorable trip by ocean liner to visit Leonard’s hometown in Sweden. They eventually returned to rural Douglas County, where Elma raised Pekingese dogs. Later they moved to Superior. The couple celebrated 48 years of marriage before Leonard passed away. Elma was married three more times, Bloxham said, but each of her husbands passed away.

Elma has been through prohibition and two world wars. She said the everyday use of electricity was one of the most revolutionary events during her 101 years because it offered advances in so many areas of life. For the Fourth of July this year, Elma got her nails painted in red, white and blue. Life, she said, is exciting. Those who know her said they appreciate the 101-year-old’s independence and spirit.

“She’s very special,” Ellis said.