FONT & AUDIO

MORE STORIES


Arlene Birge turned 100 years old in March, and her life reflects a century of incredible experiences and the importance of family

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Arlene Birge pauses for a photo shortly before her 100th birthdayLocal resident Arlene Birge has lived through two tornadoes, two trainwrecks, a natural gas explosion, and she endured Montana and Minnesota winters with temperatures -40 degrees and snowdrifts as high as the windows on their barn.

Even more remarkable about Birge is that she recently celebrated her 100th birthday. She has seen a century of change and lived to talk about it.

Childhood years

Birge was born during a snow spring blizzard on March 22, 1922, in Poplar, Montana in the Northeastern part of the state. She had her guardian angels working overtime from her first breath. She laughed as she recalled that 1922 was well before "pampers," and her mother had hung her diapers on the clothesline the morning before she was born, because it had been so nice and warm. A storm hit in the afternoon, and the clothes were frozen stiff by evening.

"A neighbor delivered me, and my father had to go get these frozen diapers off the clothesline so they could dry and put them on me," she said with a smile.

The community where she grew up was made up of farmers and ranchers, and much like Birge's family, many of the families lived at least a great distance from the closest neighbor. She indicated that it was a necessity to be self-sufficient, since help was a great distance away when there was sickness, an emergency, or a baby being born.

The community school was the heart of the community, and the building was used not only for school, but church and community events.

"People came maybe 15 miles for church on Sunday--some in a buggy, and they came from all around--from farms and ranches," Birge noted of the community members, and the distance they would come to gather for church at the school building.

Birge came from Norwegian heritage, with her parents immigrating from Norway. She was born in Montana, but she did not learn English until she started school when she was six years old. She also had friends in the community who were also of Norwegian descent, and spoke Norwegian, in addition to English. Her heritage has been a way of life for Birge, passed down to her own children.

"Our celebrations and our holidays are always Norwegian customs, and always have been," said third daughter, MeriLe Glass. "She has always raised us in the tradition of, "if you come into house, we are going to feed you," because that is how she raised us, and that is how I raised mine. You are kind, you are respectful, and if somebody needs you, you will step up and help."'

"They all worked together," Birge said of the timeframe that she grew up. "If one needed help, somebody came to help. Even when the babies were born. My neighbor lady delivered the babies because we were 17 miles from town. Our neighbor delivered all three of us, and another neighbor delivered my younger brother."

Because of the severe winters, children in elementary school did not attend school until March or April. The snow would become so deep, it was a challenge just to get to town. They would attend summer school because of the winters. When Birge was in high school (she was only 13 years old when she started), she rented a room in town and cooked her meals on a small hot plate. Her parents would send enough food from home for one week, and if she needed anything during the week, she had a charge account at the local grocery store.

Birge's father had a car, even before she was born.

"We always had a car, and my dad got his first car in 1914," noted Arlene of her childhood years. "Many of the people came in buggies."

A changing world

Arlene noted that one of the ways the world has changed is how people treat each other. She noted that because of people working together and looking out for each other, their community got through the depression pretty well. She recalled a time when a neighbor came down with Polio. The woman needed to go to a clinic in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they could treat her. A neighbor went around the neighborhood looking for donations to buy her a ticket to the clinic.

"I remember my father going over to his locked cabinet, and he had a check that he had gotten from selling cream from the creamery, and he gave her that. Each neighbor at each farm and ranch gave what they could, even if it was a few dollars. She got to go to Minneapolis and stayed for one year."

She went on to say that when her neighbor came back, the community was very happy to see her walk and be whole. She would not have been able to get her treatment and be able to walk again if it were not for the help of the community—even during a depression.

During the 1930's, her family was very self-sufficient and as a result, they ate very well. Her mother was an excellent cook, and they all benefitted from her Norwegian cuisine.

Birge watched the evolution of vaccinations, and the eradication of diseases like Polio. She endured many hardships and near-death experiences, including two trainwrecks and two tornadoes. When she was eight, they were living in Montana, and an ominous cloud appeared above them. Everyone had a storm cellar in the event of a tornado, but her mother had been baking bread, and the risk of a fire from the older cookstove was too great. They would have been trapped in the cellar.

"We had just got home from school, and my mom was baking bread—we had coal stoves," said Birge of the dreadful day. "We heard my father yelling, and then we saw this great big tornado-it was a big purple thing in the sky, and he was yelling for us to "get out of the house."'

She added that they grabbed jackets and headed for a slope near their house. They laid on their stomachs, with her parents' arms across them, as if to hold them down. It blew over them and they were unscathed, but the roof blew off their house. A large, framed picture that had been on the wall, had the glass from the frame setting perfectly intact against the wall. The frame had been torn to small pieces.

"Tornadoes do strange things," she said in reflection. "You never forget something like that."

ERIN MILLER PHOTOGRAPHY - Back row, from left: Justin Glass, Rachel Birge, and Vessa Sparks. Fron row from left: Kaity Sparks and Arlene BirgeRaising a family

Arlene met her husband during World War II. She also had two brothers in the war, with one in the Pacific for five years, and one was in the European theater with General Paton's tank corps.

"Those were hard years," she reflected.

Arlene was working for the Red Cross in Detroit, Michigan, in the Veteran's hospital when she met her husband, Larry Birge, where he had been injured during the war. Arlene and Larry were married and moved to Bozeman, Montana to attend college at Montana State University. Arlene later graduated with a business degree and initially worked as an office manager. After moving to Oregon, she worked as an assistant to the Dean of the School of Business at Oregon State University until she retired after nearly 20 years.

"I went to Oregon State, and my office was directly below where her office had been, because I worked in the business wing," indicated granddaughter, Kaity Sparks.

She added that many of the same people who had worked with her grandmother were still there and remembered her.

Another tornado that devastated their community in Minneapolis went over them, but Arlene recalled that it dropped socks and underclothing in the field behind them. They went to the basement during this tornado. Merile was four years old at the time, and she was upset that they had left behind her doll and her cat. Birge went back and retrieved them, and Merile still has the doll to this day.

"I still have the doll, sixty years later," MeriLe said of the incident.

Shortly after the tornado, Arlene had her loafer shoes she was wearing blown across the basement from a natural gas furnace. She had severe burns on her arms and face. A medicine for burns had been developed, and her skin healed well from the burns. She was in the hospital for a long period of time.

"I wouldn't go and see her for a month, because it scared me," recanted MeriLe, who was four at the time.

Arlene shared that due to the frigid winters in Minnesota, she and Larry moved their young family to Oregon in 1968.

"It was such a tough winter, I decided I wanted to come to a better climate. I did a lot of research and contacted realtors and the chambers of commerce in all kinds of places and decided that Corvallis would be a good place to move to. That is why we moved there," she explained of their decision to migrate across the country to Oregon.

MeriLe recalls that she was 10 years old when they moved to Oregon in 1968.

In the late 1970's, Birge took her eight-year-old granddaughter on an Amtrack train trip into Montana. Their train went off the tracks in the Idaho mountains, and both were not hurt. They had to climb out and wait for a bus to take them into the nearest town.

RAMONA MCCALLISTER - At a birthday party hosted by daughter, MeriLe Glass on Saturday, March 26, Arlene Birge celebrated with friends and family--some from far away. Shown from back, left: Sharon (Sheri) Koshioi, and Corky Birge, Birge's Son; front left: Arlene Birge and Sheryl Westenberg, twin to Sharon Koshioi. Sharon and Sheryl came from Minnesota just to celebrate Arlene's 100th birthday. They had not seen her in more than 50 years, since she left Minnesota.

At a birthday party hosted by daughter, MeriLe Glass on Saturday, March 26, Arlene Birge celebrated with friends and family--some from far away. Shown from back, left: Sharon (Sheri) Koshioi, and Corky Birge, Birge's Son; front left: Arlene Birge and Sheryl Westenberg, twin to Sharon Koshioi. Sharon and Sheryl came from Minnesota just to celebrate Arlene's 100th birthday. They had not seen her in more than 50 years, since she left Minnesota.

Moving to Oregon

MeriLe moved her Mother over to Prineville in 1998 when her health issues required her to be closer. Her father, Larry, joined them later. MeriLe recently retired as an elementary instructor for Crook County Schools. She indicated that she learned a great deal about her Norwegian ancestry through her mother, including the customs and cooking recipes.

On Saturday, March 26, MeriLe had a birthday celebration for Arlene at the Prineville Golf and Country Club. There were relatives and friends from far-away places to come and celebrate with her, including friends from Minnesota. Twins, Sharon (Sheri) Koshioi (Pearson) and Sheryl Westenberg (Pearson) came all the way from St. Cloud, Minnesota to wish Arlene a happy birthday. It was the first time in over 50 years that they had seen Arlene, and it was an emotional reunion.

Sharon lives approximately one hour from where they rode horses with Arlene's family. Here father and Larry Birge were in the auto parts business together.

"We have known Arlene the longest of anyone here, except MeriLe and family," commented Sharon of their attendance at the party.

Arlene glowed and was all smiles at the love and support of her family and friends who came to celebrate her.

Staying connected to heritage

She started doing Ancestry.com about five years ago.

"She says often, 'guess what I learned today?' She is in contact with relatives in Norway, and they send information back and forth. It keeps her brain sharp," noted MeriLe.

Birge shared that she had even been able to trace a Banker who taken all the money from the bank where her father and several other farmers and ranchers had deposited all of the money from their spring crops--where she grew up in her early years in Montana. He took all the money that was deposited one year after a particularly good year of crops (just before she was born). He had taken the money, closed the bank, and went to Canada. She traced him back to Minnesota, where he later became a teacher, to her chagrin.

Arlene has been to Norway three times, and Merile noted that during one of the trips, she was able to go back to the homestead where her family grew up. MeriLe and her daughter, Kaity have been to Norway four times each. They value their visits, and cherish how the family treats them when they visit.

"When we go over there, you are just treated like a king or queen, you are treated so well. It makes it nice to feel so wanted when you go over there," Birge said wistfully.

"I am just thankful that she is still healthy and all with-it. She has done a lot, and she has helped my kids, and helped me raise my kids. I wish everyone had that perspective, because I see so many kids, they don't know their grandparents, and they don't know about life before (their heritage)," concluded MeriLe.

Birge has four children, 10 grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren.


You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.