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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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Barbara Johnston Celebrated 106th Birthday On March 3

Issue Date: March 3, 2021

Very few people are alive to celebrate their 106th birthday, and even fewer are well enough and alert enough to enjoy it. Former Grover resident Barbara Johnston is one of the few. Due to failing vision and hearing, she is now a resident of New Care Convalescent Center in Crivitz, where staff and fellow residents helped celebrate her 106th birthday at noon on Wednesday, March 3.

Due to Covid-19 considerations, the larger party that her family and friends had hoped for could not be held.

Amber Sekey, Activity Director at NewCare, said Johnston remains alert, involved, spry and independent.

Johnston was well known throughout Marinette County for many years, thanks to her involvement in 4-H and other activities. She told a Peshtigo Times reporter in an interview several years ago that she credited her longevity to eating a dil pickle and taking a spoon of apple cider vinegar every day.

The story that follows, written by Mary Ann Kulberg Wadsworth, recounts celebration of Johnston's 100th birthday in 2015. It was originally published in the March 4, 2015 issue of the Peshtigo Times:

Barbara C. Johnston was guest of honor at a party for her 100th birthday on Sunday, March 1 at 9:15 a.m. at Harmony Methodist Church.

Born Barbara Catherine Meyer on March 3, 1915, she was the 10th of 12 children of Peter Meyer and Anna Kardach Meyer. She shared the farm home in the Town of Grover with six brothers and five sisters. First born was Cecelia, then Mary Anna (called Marie), Francis Xaviar, George Julius, John Casper, Julia Ann, Anna, Peter Joseph, Anastasia (called Hattie), Stephen Francis and Valery Ralph.

Woodrow Wilson was the country's 28th president at that time, and in a few short years, the United States would enter WWI. The price of gas had surged to 25 cents a gallon, the average family made $1,076 a year, and a new car sold for $642.

The median price of a new home was $3,200. The telephone was invented. There was no electricity or indoor plumbing in Barb's life until many years later in the 1950's, when she was in her late thirties, a farm wife and mother. That indoor plumbing was one of two things that she said were wonderful events, besides the birth of her children. One other wonderful, memorable event was when the work horses were sold.

Barb attended a one room school through 8th grade, and said she loved to run, skip and jump rope all the way to the Bartels School, at least a distance of 80 acres, as she determined from her remembrance of the size of the family farm. Skipping and jumping rope were only possible if she could convince one of her brothers to carry her two quart metal lunch pail. That lunch pail contained a big slab of homemade bread, topped with lard and brown syrup, which she called syrup bread.

There was no butter. In the winter, the school was never very warm. Her lunch pail was put next to the big wood stove, with the hope that by lunch time the bread would not be frozen and she would be able to enjoy eating it.

The students played outside games during recess and Prisoners Goal and Fox and Geese were two of her favorites. They both involved running and escaping being tapped, so you could make it to the safety of Goal, which was touching the side of the wood shed, or to the center of the snow covered maze of trails for the Fox and Geese game. She was already a fast runner, usually helping the younger kids on their side of the school, always having fun, except for one day when the bigger boys came over from the other side of the school, ran through the maze, spoiling the snowy pattern.

When she had had enough of that devilry, she said, I pounded them up! and belatedly saw the teacher watching out the window. No trouble followed, however, either from the boys or from the teacher! Problem solved.

Barb worked in the garden required to feed a large family, did other farm chores as well, running wherever she went and down the long trail to bring the cows in from the wooded pasture by the river. She learned, starting at 8 years old, how to sew and helped her mother clothe the family. (Her mother had been blinded when only 13 years old when an accident occurred in the potato field, when potato bug poison splashed in her eyes.)

The farm also had chickens, pigs and work horses. Years later, as a farm wife, Barb would learn to drive a team of horses, not always a happy or fun occasion. She distinctly remember ROCK, the big dark horse who knew how to misbehave big time, like refusing to take that one last step forward, that one last step necessary to start the lift of the big hay fork that engaged the pulley system to the hay mow. That big, bad rock just would not usually or easily do that last step, no matter the size of the switch used to convince him! Therefore, it kept his good team mate from moving forward as well. So, it was back the team up to the starting position and try again, and again!!!

It was a funny thing though, as the boys too had their troubles when bringing the team up from the pasture after school. Rock made it impossible to be caught, or even to be chased in the right direction, which was up the lane towards the barn. But let Rock see dad drive in the yard and park his vehicle, and then he decided that he had better cooperate. It must have been a memorable lesson that dad had taught Rock!!!

A happy day for Barb was when the horses were sold and a tractor purchased. However, she decided she wasn't going to learn to drive that tractor! She was not sure what make of tractor it was, but it was yellow in color.

With early fond memories involving sewing, Barb was encouraged by her teacher to join 4-H in her last year in grade school. She made a dress and entered it in the County Fair competition, receiving a 3rd place prize which was an exciting, major achievement for her. At that time, the Fair was held in Marinette at the Marinette County Normal School for Teachers, and there were only three prizes available for all entries submitted. Her sewing expertise, starting so young, was always a major part of her life. She later taught her 4-H students how it should be done, enjoying the challenges and rewards of seeing her budding seamstresses earn blue ribbons at State Fair competitions thereafter. She said that two sewing machines in her home was always a necessity.

Barb was known in the area as the seamstress to call to make a bridal gown, bridesmaid's dresses and dresses for mothers of the bride or groom. She made children's clothes, draperies and curtains, whatever was needed, and she participated in making and sending over 300 dresses, all the same pattern, but with many different color combinations, along with diapers and other garments, to children in Haiti.

Barb married Edward William Johnston in 1932 and they moved to her present home, a two story farm house that is now more than 100 years old. When asked how she and Edward met, another easy chuckle accompanied her reply. Oh, it was a Halloween costume party at the Grover Town Hall. He picked me up out of the crowd, and I was dressed as a man!

Evidently, her costume wasn't convincing, she said. At that time, the country was in the midst of the Great Depression and it wasn't long before WWII began, with the U.S. entering in 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Over the next several years, their four children were born. The first three were home births, Kenneth Levin, now living in Illinois, Donald Fred and Ralph Duane, residents of the Town of Grover, and a daughter, Mary Ann, now living in Florida. Barb's sons have all served in the Armed Forces.

At the present time, her family also includes 12 grandchildren, and 16 great-grandchildren. One of her grandsons has also been in the Service.

Barb worked on the farm, helped to hand milk their 16 cows, mothered her children and continued running for her own joy, across the farm acres and anywhere else when she could, even staying ahead of her almost grown children when that time eventually arrived.

Her son, Ralph was also a runner, competing in track events in high school and qualified for state competition. However, he once remarked, I still can't catch my mother. Barb was always helpful in church and community events, despite the difficulty of getting wherever she needed to be. She did not decide to get her driver's license until she was 65 years of age, and a widow, after 48 years of marriage. She continued driving until she was 96. Barb said she is still thankful for all those friends and family, who for all these years, have made sure she has a ride when she needs one.

She was Superintendent of the Home Economics Building at the Marinette County Fair for 20 years, and a long time sewing project leader for the Little River 4-H Club. Her family donated part of the land and labor to develop the nearby park sharing the Little River name. She took an active role in the Marinette County Homemakers, including their Forestry program, with participation in planting many, many trees, and keeping picture and record books of these events.

The Harvest Supper and other activities at the Harmony Methodist Church were tops on her list of importance and necessity. Barb always enjoyed having flowers in her garden, especially the beauty of graceful, colorful cosmos. Eating healthy came naturally to her, and an apple still tops the list of her favorite daily foods. She has enjoyed many bus trips, eventually traveling in 38 states, the District of Columbia, Canada, Mexico and far away Bombay, India, when she was 80 years young. She giggles when she tells of visiting this beautiful park in Pena, India, and of her joy in being there, and then her irresistible urge to run, and run she did, totally surprising the people nearby, who shouted, Grama, Grama Grama! As always, so many years later, still has her love of running!

Barb has had positive effects on the lives of others, by her hard work and the loving care she exhibited in numerous areas. She is a testament to positive thinking and stern discipline in her own daily activities, and her vibrancy and enthusiasm are delightful parts of her personality. She has been, and still is, an inspiration. She is thanked for her joyful spirit, for examples she set and the encouragement she continues to give, that all things are possible.

In closing, Wadsworth said many of Barb's family and friends know she loves and enjoys all the wonders of nature. "One sunny, gorgeous fall day a few years ago, I called her and asked if she was available and would like to go on a tour of the countryside to see the colored leaves. She immediately said, Oh, yes! I surprised her when I picked her up in my fun car, a bright red Roadster, a two passenger, 1978 Ford Roadster, with long front fenders, a black convertible top, and away we went.

"She giggled and she laughed for the first 20 minutes as we slowly drove the scenic Rustic Road near Sweetheart City in Middle Inlet, one of the most beautiful areas in the fall that you can imagine. Huge, lofty gold and orange and red maples painting the sky above us and covering the roadway like a carpet, with a variety of rusty gold and green ferns still dotting the forest floor. It was absolutely lovely in every direction. To both of us, it was confirmation that "Life is so Good' and meant to be shared with those you love."

She thanked Brody and Kiana Johnston for the beautiful music they performed at the church for Barbara's 100th birthday party, and especially for learning Barb's favorite hymn, "His Eye is on the Sparrow," a poem written in 1905 by Civilla Martin that was set to music. It was inspired by words of the Gospel to Matthew 6:26. Some of the words follow:

Why should I feel discouraged?

Why should the shadows come?

Why should my heart be lonely

And long for Heaven and home...

When Jesus is my portion,

My constant friend is he:

Let not your heart be troubled,

His tender word I hear,

and resting on his goodness,

I lose my doubts and fears:

though by the path he leadeth

But one step may I see.

His Eye is on the Sparrow and I know he watches me....."

In closing her article, Wadsworth added, "It is of special significance for the family to be here today, as Kiana and Brody's great, great, grandfather, Darwin McPherson, was one of the founders of the Sugar Bush Methodist Church in Harmony in 1877. That was just six years after the disastrous Peshtigo Fire. The original name chosen for the Church, Sugar Bush Methodist, was a result of where the survivors met to pray after the fire here in the Upper Sugar Bush"a stand of large sugar maples that miraculously remained untouched by the flames that fateful day, Oct. 7, 1871. That grove of maples still stands on private land within a mile of this church. Some years ago, Barb honored those church founders with a beautifully embroidered wall hanging listing all their names. It remains hanging on the west wall of the adjoining Friendship Hall."

She added a final wish: "We hope, Barb, that you enjoyed this special occasion that you have made possible for us to celebrate. Happy, Happy 100th Birthday. Our love to you..."


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