Virginia Stegora looks back on a century of hard work and many changes
By Tina Snell, Staff Writer
Virginia Stegora is sharp, articulate and has a memory that would rival people half her age. It’s hard to believe she is turning 100 years old Friday, Oct. 11.
Stegora has been living at Harmony House in Pierz for six years. Most of her history is in Morrison County.
“I was born in Philadelphia, Pa.,” she said. “But my family moved to St. Paul when I was just 1 year old.”
Her parents, Stanley and Anila Pulak, immigrated from Poland when they were both teens, met in Philadelphia and married.
Family lore is filled with stories about there not being any work in the 1910s, anywhere on the East Coast.
“I was told my parents had friends in Minnesota and that’s why they came here,” she said. “Others traveled with them and my sister Mary and me. But, there were no jobs here, either.”
Another daughter, Helen, was born in 1915.
During that time, Minnesota was a public-domain or federal land state where unclaimed land was surveyed, then granted or sold by the government through federal and state land offices. When the area became part of the United States, a few prior land claims by early pioneers were settled in the courts, though most of the land was unclaimed. This unclaimed land became the public domain, was surveyed, divided into townships (36 square miles), range and sections (one square mile each within the township) and then sold through land offices.
“Dad received 40 acres in 1917, near Harding, from the government,” said Stegora. “I do remember lots of rocks on that property.”
After they settled, eight more children were born to the Pulaks. Caroline was born in 1917, Paul in 1920, Eddie in 1921, Josephine in 1923, Julian in 1928, Eleanor in 1930, Bernice in 1932 and Stanley, who died young, in 1935.
Stegora remembers that while growing up, each child had a job. When young, they could wash and wipe the dishes. When they got a little older, they could help clean the house. A little bit older and they would be gathering wood to heat the stove. Then they would be out in the barn helping with the animals or in the fields.
Washing clothes was an all-day affair. The boiler on the cook stove had to be filled by carrying water. The water was heated to boiling. Then more water was hauled to the stove to be heated to a boil, just to rinse.
There was a time when the clothes were taken to the Platte River where a stove had been installed. That way, the water was close at hand for washing.
Then, Stegora said the laundry had to be starched and pressed, every piece. The three irons were heated on the stove. She said they weighed a ton.
“We raised 20-30 dairy cows, milking them by hand,” she said. “We also had chickens and pigs for meat and sold the chickens’ eggs in Brainerd each Saturday.”
There was also the requisite large garden to help feed the household of 10. Anila canned about 600 quarts of food each year.
“Besides our other chores in the summer, we also had to weed the garden every day,” she said.
School was mandatory. The walked the 1.5 miles daily to District 149 Country School, situated about three miles northwest of Harding.
But, it wasn’t all work, said Stegora. “We had fun, too. There was always time to play. One of our games was ‘Auntie Auntie Over the House.’ We would throw a ball over the house to our siblings on the other side. That was a huge accomplishment for the younger kids.”
The children also played hide and seek along with singing in the evening before bed.
Stegora met her husband Joseph at a house party when she was about 18.
“Joe was two years older and lived just on the other side of the woods from us, but went to school in Harding. We didn’t ever venture far from home, so we never met before that.”
They married in 1933, and as wedding presents they received four dairy cows from her parents and one from his.
The Stegoras had their first child, Gerald, in 1935.
“We rented a farm on (County Road) 49 for a while, then purchased 40 acres only to find it was full of flies and gnats. We sold it to one of the neighbors,” she said. “Then we rented another farm with a 15-foot by 15-foot granary. That was our home for about five years. There was no insulation and no stove or chimney. We had to cut a hole in the roof when we installed a stove.”
The Stegoras had their second child, Virginia, in 1940.
They then moved to Joe’s parents’ farm for one year, then to another place near Harding.
Besides his dairy cows, Joe also had a portable feed grinder which he took from farm to farm to grind grain for other farmers to make some extra money.
When they grew tired of moving, the Stegoras borrowed $25 from Virginia’s mother to put down on a 160 acre farm.
‘We applied for a loan and got approved, but the money never arrived. So we borrowed the money ($5,000) from my brother-in-law and cancelled the bank loan,” said Stegora.
The farm, with a house, barn, fields and pastures, was their home for 27 years. They raised their family there and didn’t leave until Joe got lung cancer at age 61.
“Joe couldn’t take care of the farm any longer. We moved to Gerald’s cabin on Crow Wing Lake and lived there until he passed away at age 64.”
Stegora said the biggest change in farming came when horse and buggies, or horse and plows, made way for cars and tractors.
“It sure made farming easier,” she said.
When growing up, there was no electricity or plumbing. But when the Stegoras bought their farm in 1944, both had already been installed.
“It was so nice not to have to carry water to the house,” she said.
After Joe died, Stegora sold the farm and moved to the Kamnic Lane Apartments in Pierz. While living there, she got a job taking care of an elderly man in Arizona plus doing his housekeeping. She was gone for four years. When she returned to her apartment, she was there for another 10 years before moving into Harmony House.
When asked about her secret of longevity, Stegora said, “I never smoked or drank and ate very little processed food. For most of my life, I ate only what I grew or raised. I had lots of hard work during my life, no matter where I was. I plowed fields, put up hay, took care of the farm animals and the home.”
Stegora said, “Hard work won’t kill you.”