Louella Eldien believes in ‘giving back’Louella Eldien knew what it means to “give back” and “pay it forward” long before those terms became fashionable. That, she said, is because she grew up in an era where simple gifts and gestures of kindness were “just what you did.”
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Louella Eldien knew what it means to “give back” and “pay it forward” long before those terms became fashionable. That, she said, is because she grew up in an era where simple gifts and gestures of kindness were “just what you did.”
Born in Isanti County near Cambridge, Minn., Eldien and her family moved north in the 1930s because her dad was in search of work. After he was hired on with the railroad, they moved to Coleraine.
“We had a little camping trailer and we all crammed into it,” she related. “There were four of us kids and my mother and
dad, and we camped there for one whole summer.”
When Eldien was in first grade, her family moved to Cloquet, where her father got a job with Wood Conversion (later known as Conwed). She attended Jefferson School for first through sixth grades and then went to Cloquet High School.
“When I was in high school, I peddled newspapers,” she said. “My sister had a route, I had a route, and Duane [her future husband] had a paper route and we’d all get together. I was 13 at the time I met him.”
Eldien’s brother worked at an ice cream store in downtown Cloquet.
“Every once in a while when he couldn’t work, I’d go and work in his place for a quarter an hour,” she recalled. “We’d get a quart of ice cream a day to take home, but we didn’t have a freezer. There were six of us, and when I got home my dad would cut it up into six pieces and then we’d eat it.”
As a teen, Eldien worked for an elderly widow who lived on Chestnut Street in Cloquet, doing cleaning and taking care of the woman after she fell and broke her hip. She also worked for the McEcherns, who had the big house in Park Place that eventually became known as the Potlatch staff house.
“I did cleaning, baking and ironing for them,” she said. “It was all stuff that I’d done at home, but this way I got paid for it – 50 cents an hour! One Saturday a month, I’d go to another house in town and iron from 6 a.m. to noon, and I did mainly that sort of domestic work.”
Following Eldien’s high school graduation, she worked at Wood Conversion up until the time she and Duane were married.
“At that time, after a female employee got married she was not allowed to work there,” she explained.
The Eldiens had two daughters, and in 1960 the family moved to their current home in rural Esko. Louella kept busy with yard work, gardening, taking care of the children and sewing for other people as well to bring in a little extra cash.
“I learned how to sew from my mom and in high school,” she said. “My mother sewed all the time. She’d take coats apart and make snow pants and jackets out of them.”
It didn’t take long for Eldien’s sideline to grow into big business.
“The customers would come with grocery bags full of fabric and say, ‘I’d like pantsuits and blouses to match,’” she related. “They’d find a pattern they liked and then I’d make 10 of them. I’d get meals ready for my family but I seldom got to eat with them because that’s when it was convenient for my customers to come for fittings. My girls had home-made clothes all through school, and they didn’t think anything of it because that’s the way we did things in those days. I also made a lot of wedding and bridesmaid’s dresses for people. I made wedding dresses for both of my girls.”
Though Eldien finally decided she needed to cut back on her sewing business, to this day she still alters and hems things and she upholsters furniture as well.
“I’ve just gone from one thing to another,” she attested. “I’m always busy and my hands don’t stay still. I just can’t sit!” she added with a laugh.
Most of the projects that keep Eldien busy these days are volunteer projects, and one of them is a very special one at her church, St. Matthew’s Lutheran of Esko.
“Lightning struck our home in 1999 and gutted it, and the church was so good to us during that time,” she explained. “One of the men gave us the keys to the home of his mother and dad, who had moved into a nursing home, and said, ‘Use it! It’s sitting there full of furniture,’ so we rented it from him for three months until we could move back into our own home. We also received gift certificates for restaurants and others brought meals to the house. It was just mind boggling! Everyone was so generous and so thoughtful, and I wanted to pay them back for all of the things they did for us. To repay them, I thought maybe I could make baby quilts every time there is a baptism [at times, up to 25 a year]. The women’s organization often gives me quilt bats, and people are always giving me material for them as well.”
When Eldien’s husband was hospitalized in Duluth recently, she decided to make use of her many trips over there to bring six of her homemade quilts and a couple of fleece robes to the new housing project for homeless veterans in Duluth.
She also makes pillows for fellow church members to take to orphanages when they go on mission trips to Africa and Haiti, serves as an election judge, and she and her husband process all of the Campbell soup labels, pop tabs and cents-off coupons collected by Esko School to raise money for classroom equipment such as SmartBoards.
“It give us something to do and it’s kind of fun,” she commented.
It came as no surprise, therefore, that when Eldien was asked to volunteer as a tutor to assist adult learners as part of the AEOA Adult Literacy Program, she immediately said yes.
She took the required training and was assigned to tutor a woman in her 30s who had indicated she’d like help in learning to read. The two meet for an hour once a week, year round, at the Cloquet Public Library.
For a while they worked in workbooks on math, spelling, history and other subjects, which Eldien said the woman needed to use in her everyday life, and more recently, they’ve read and discussed books about everything from the Underground Railroad to the Congdon murders.
“We’ve hit on so many good subjects, and so much of it is about history,” said Eldien. “What could be better?”
Eldien said the two have also read practically every book written by popular author and humorist Janet Evanovich.
“We have the most fun with them because she really likes to be happy,” said Eldien of the woman she tutors. “I just enjoy helping her as much as I can. I think a lot of it for her is social, too, but that’s important for her. She’s always there right on time, and she’s a very caring person. She knows all the librarians by name, and she even brought a card for all of them to sign when my husband was in the hospital. She’s really connected to me now and I think considers me as one of her friends.”
On a personal level, Eldien is fond of inviting neighbors over for dinner and always keeps cookies in the freezer to take to friends. At the start of the year, she collects calendars and takes them to people in nursing homes. Eldien is also high on the value of keeping neighborhoods as closely knit as possible.
“For 15 years, those of us on Kangas Road held a neighborhood picnic, but after a few of the neighbors died, it kind of faded out,” she related. “I just think it has to be done again, and it takes next to nothing to do it. There are some new people down the road that we haven’t met yet. I think it’s so important to keep that going because we’re kind of like a family around here. We watch out for them and they watch out for us.”
After a lifetime of believing that those simple gifts and gestures of kindness were “just what you did,” Eldien is modest but sincere about all of the things she does for other people.
“I just think volunteering is so important,” she stated. “If you do something for somebody else, maybe they’ll pass it on, but if you don’t do anything, who’s going to pass it on? We have to do what we have to do.
“A couple of years ago I taught two of the little neighbor girls to sew,” she related. “They came over every Tuesday afternoon, and we had the best time. Then, the oldest girl made a little lap robe as a wedding present for her aunt, and I thought that was wonderful.”