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Lifetime of blessings: Helen Zinnel marks her 104th birthday

Helen Zinnel holds a doll that she outfitted in a dress stitched from plastic needlepoint canvas.

FULDA -- 1908 was an eventful year:

The Boy Scout movement began.

The first around-the-world car race went from New York to Paris.

Robert Peary set sail for the North Pole.

London was the setting for the Summer Olympics.

The first passenger airplane flight was documented.

President Grover Cleveland died.

Henry Ford produced the first Model T automobile.

Western bandits Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid were supposedly killed in Bolivia, after being surrounded by a large group of soldiers.

And Helen Ruckelshausen Zinnel was born.

As she was just an infant, Helen can't be expected to remember any of those other happenings from her birth year. But Helen's mind is still sharp, and she does recall many details of her 10-plus decades of life on this earth.

Born Feb. 16, 1908, Helen marked her 104th birthday Thursday and will celebrate the occasion today with family during a party at Maple Lawn Nursing Home in Fulda.

She grew up on a farm near Brewster, the third child of four in the Ruckelshausen family.

"We grew corn, had chickens, pigs, turkeys and chickens," Helen said. "It was a lot of work. I always took care of the chickens, gathered the eggs."

Helen and her siblings attended the District 46 school, about a mile and a half from the farm. She graduated from the eighth grade, but didn't pursue further education.

"I worked in the bakery in Worthington for two and a half years," she said. "Then, of course, I got married."

She and husband-to-be Harold Zinnel met at St. Matthew Lutheran, the church she attended while living in Worthington. (Trinity Lutheran in Brewster was her home congregation.) Their first date was to an outdoor movie. Harold and Helen courted for more than two years before they were married in 1933. Although it was during the Great Depression, the wedding was quite big, Helen recalled.

"I don't remember much about the hard times," she added. "My dad had the farm, and it was paid for, so I guess we did OK."

The Zinnels farmed in Graham Lakes Township for 11 years before moving back to the Ruckelshausen home place near Brewster.

"When my brother moved off, we moved to my folks' farm, and then we bought it," she explained.

They had three children, one daughter and two sons: daughter Eileen Johnson lives in Pipestone, while sons Wayne and Gene still live in the Brewster area. Helen now has eight grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandchild.

Since she had grown up on the farm, Helen was used to rural life, and she took well to the role of farm wife.

"We always had livestock," she said. "We milked a lot of cows, but we had a milking machine, so we didn't milk by hand."

While Harold grew corn, beans and flax, Helen spent a lot of time in the kitchen, preparing meals and baking for her family and the hired help.

"I always had good meals," she said. "We always butchered our own meat and stuff, and you canned it. I always baked bread, doughnuts. I'd make a wooden spoon full of doughnuts, and my nephews would come over, and by the time they left all I had left was a spoon."

The big meal was at noon, usually featuring some sort of roasted meat, and for the evening meal, Helen would put together a hotdish.

The Zinnels moved in to Brewster sometime in the early 1970s, and not too long afterward, Harold died while they were en route to Florida for the winter. They'd been married for 39 years.

Harold and Helen had wintered in Florida for 12 years, and Helen returned there a few more times before she switched venues.

"For 33 years I went to Texas," she said. "I had my own home there, had a lot of friends. Got a (birthday) card from there yesterday. It didn't hardly have room enough on it for all the names."

As a widow, Helen indulged her interest in travel. She often took her grandchildren camping and went farther afield via motorcoach.

"I took 12 bus tours -- one to Alaska and Nova Scotia and different smaller ones," she said. "Alaska was the best. We went through North Dakota, to the Peace Gardens, Banff, Lake Louise. We traveled on the bus for 16 days and then flew back."

Eventually, Helen moved into the assisted-living facility in Fulda, and more recently when her mobility declined, into the adjacent nursing home. Her small room is decorated with photos of her family and examples of the needlework she created over the years. A big stack of word jumble books -- a favorite pastime -- sits by her bedside.

At 104, her body has begun to give out, and Helen has to rely on a wheelchair to get around. But she escapes the confines of her room as often as possible, spending time in the common areas of the facility and taking part in activities. She enjoys playing cards -- pinochle and 500 are her favorites -- with visitors.

Although her mother and father lived to 92 and 90, respectively, Helen is surprised as anyone that she's had such a lengthy life.

"When I was 50, I didn't think I'd live to be this old," she reflected. "I was in the hospital five times with blood clots in my legs. I was in the hospital a long time, but I outdone that."

Helen continues to count her blessings each day.

"I can't walk, but I've still got a lot to be thankful for," she said. "I have a good mind, and I know how thankful I should be for that. And I'm not grouchy, which some people would be at my age."

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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