'I still have a farm. Yeah, I am a farmer!' says 113-year-old North Dakota woman
NORTHWOOD, N.D. — This week, Iris Westman celebrated her 113th birthday. Westman was born in 1905 and is a 1928 graduate of the University of North Dakota. As the oldest living North Dakotan, she still owns and rents out some of the family farmland she grew up on, possibly making her the oldest living farmer in America.
"I still have a farm. Yeah, I am a farmer!" says Westman.
Westman grew up on the farm with her parents and brothers. Two sisters both passed away when Iris was a young girl.
"Of course any memories I have of growing up have to be on the farm. I didn't know anything else," adds Westman.
The Westman family grew grains and raised chickens, horses and cows.
"Wheat was the big money crop," she says.
Like all farm kids, she had daily chores.
"I sure learned to wash dishes," she says. "My mother was a good baker but she didn't like to wash dishes."
Gathering eggs was also a part of Westman's childhood.
"I didn't like to all the time because of the hens were on the nest and they bit!" she says.
"My dad was a good farmer. My dad, the farm, was selected, I don't know why, as an experimental place for certain types of grain. I remember one (field) was durum and it looked very promising to be a money maker. My dad took me out to see this field, I think it was durum wheat. Oh it was high and the wind was blowing it just gently like an ocean wave. It was beautiful. Well that night the rust struck. The next day we went out to look, and it was all rusted, gone. He burned it so it wouldn't spread."
Westman's father had a threshing machine and threshed grain for seven neighbor farms. Each farm provided one worker. The threshing crew would eat in a small car on wheels. She remembers it was "a cook car, like a little room on wheels with shelves on each side, and there was a stove on one end."
She attended public school in Aneta, N.D., with her three brothers.
"We all graduated from high school, but only Sidney, my younger brother, and I were the only ones who graduated from college," Westman says.
Her father drove the kids three miles one way daily.
"I'll say bus, but it was our private bus. My dad fixed up a wagon with a canvas top so in the winter time, well at least we were a little sheltered from the wind."
From as early of an age as 5, Iris knew she would go to college. Her parents instilled it in her.
"The talk at home was of course we were going to college, that was from both of my parents ... I don't think my mom had more than three years of schooling. My dad had an eighth grade education, but both my folks did reading. My mother, well, she read farm magazines. There was one called The Farmer. And one was the Dakota Farmer. And my dad always said, to get ahead you have to have education," she says.
Following her high school graduation in 1923, Westman enrolled at UND, and her dad helped her with tuition.
"I think he borrowed money sometimes to pay tuition because he felt it was important," she says. "I had gone to the university one year, and I was offered a job. I didn't apply for it, to teach a rural school. And I thought, hey fun, earning a little money. I think I would get about $70 a month."
After one year of teaching, Westman went back to UND.
"I graduated from college in 1928," she says.
Westman taught at several rural North Dakota schools and then moved to Worthington, Minn., to teach. She went to summer school at the University of Minnesota.
"And I got my degree in library science, and I became a librarian," says Westman.
Westman never married or had children. She retired from being a librarian in 1972 and returned to North Dakota in 1990. Today she resides within 30 minutes of her home farm.
When asked what she thinks about how different the land her dad farmed is from how it is farmed today, what does she think her dad would say?
"Well, he would have loved the machinery. Although he would have missed the horses. He loved the horses," she remembers.
And what has kept Iris Westman healthy for 113 years?
"That's God's business. I have eaten properly and lived decently," she adds with a chuckle.