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103-year-old woman credits 'hard work and good food' for long life

When Bernice McFarlane was born none of the following had been invented: zippers, traffic lights, penicillin, ballpoint pens, nylon stockings or milk cartons.

Most women washed their hair only once a month and used Borax or egg yolks for shampoo. The average worker made between $200 and $400 per year, but sugar only cost four cents a pound and eggs were just 14 cents a dozen.

William Howard Taft was the 27th president of the United States.

The Metropolitan Life Tower in New York City was completed in 1909. At 50 stories (700 feet), it became the tallest building in the world.

The Wright brothers had made their first successful powered flight just six years before.

The estimated world population was 1.7 billion people.

My, how things have changed.

The tallest building in the world now is the Burj Dubai. It has 160 floors and stands 2,684 feet high.

The largest commercial airplane today can carry approximately 525 passengers at one time.

There are now more than 7 billion people in the world.

And - as of Oct. 11- Bernice McFarland is 103 years old. She has a wry sense of humor, excellent hearing and a pretty good memory, although she refers to her daughter now and again for details and to get the dates right. She has 11 grandchildren and lots of great- and great-great-grandchildren ... neither she nor her daughter are exactly certain how many.

That daughter, Leota McFarlene, shares what her mother said at the first birthday party after she'd moved from her home in Cloquet to Sunnyside Health Care Center, after falling ill when she was 100 years old.

"It was the first one birthday she'd had here," Leota said. "Mother said, 'The first 100 years were good. The second 100 aren't starting out very well."

She was born Bernice McKibbon - fraternal twin to Bert McKibbon - in Battlecreek, Neb., on Oct. 11, 1909. The 1910 census put the population of Battlecreek at 819. (It's now just over 1,200.)

Bernice and Bert were the first children born to James and Gertrude McKibbon, who raised five boys and two girls on their northern Nebraska farm.

Bernice said she was expected to help milk the cows, feed the chickens and find the eggs, plus whatever other chores needed doing.

She and her siblings would walk about two miles to a small country school that she attended until part way through the ninth grade.

"I got a couple months into ninth grade and I had to go help shock and pick corn," she said. "I never went back."

Bernice met her husband, Chester McFarlane, at a dance.

"We used to have barn dances," she said. "Everyone would go."

She doesn't remember exactly how they met, just that they started "going together" after that.

They were married at the courthouse just across the state border in Yankton, S.D., in 1934, during the Great Depression.

"Gracie and Clarence [Chester's brother and sister] stood up with us," said Bernice, who was close to 25 years old at the time. "I was an old maid."

She chuckled.

Chester gave her a white gold wedding band, quite a coup in the Depression years. Still, that didn't mean there was money to spare for a honeymoon.

"We did farming, so we got married and went home and started working," Bernice said.

Chester farmed with his brother first, later taking over the farm near Bloomfield, Neb., himself. Bernice worked around the neighborhood, "house cleaning and taking care of kids."

"I'd make about $3 a week," she said.

She wore dresses that she sewed herself most days - but not always.

"I had a blue dress with a white lace front," said Bernice. "Dad gave me $10 and I went and got a pair of shoes and that dress. I was in my 20s. It was my Sunday best."

She would wear that blue dress to the Methodist Church on Sundays.

When asked if they stayed after church to socialize, she nodded and said they socialized "some."

"I think they did most of their socializing on Saturday nights when they went to town to buy groceries," Leota said. "The men would go to the bar and have a beer and the women would stand on the corner and talk."

Their oldest child, Dwayne, was born that same year. A couple years later, a daughter, Alice, was born. Leota was born in 1940.

All three kids were born at home with no problems, with the doctor coming to their home for the births.

Dwayne was born in Bloomfield; both girls were born in Correl, Minn. The McKibbons lived in Minnesota for a few years and then moved back to Bloomfield when Leota was around 5. When she was about 10, in 1950, they moved to a farm near Clark, S.D., where Chester farmed and worked for the Soil and Conservation Service.

Bernice said they farmed with horses and tractors.

"Even when I was little, they had both," Leota said. "They needed horses because the roads were so bad and so muddy, everything else got stuck."

Bernice recalls some cars, as well. There were a few different kinds of Fords, and a Terraplane automobile (built by the Hudson Motor Company between 1932 and 1938). She never drove any of them. In fact, she never learned to drive.

She did try ... once.

"Alice was going to teach me," she explained. "She had the car by the clothesline. I got in, she told me to go, and I hit the clothes line. That was it. I said 'no' after that."

The family never got rich, but they always had enough to eat on the farm. They listened to radio programs for entertainment - Leota recalls the Lone Ranger and the Green Hornet - and did lots of chores.

Leota said her mother never stopped working, it seemed. Once her own kids were old enough, she would babysit other people's children, then come home and get things in order there.

"There's just endless work on a farm," Leota said. "I remember Mother mending and cleaning at night, and babysitting little animals, anything the moms wouldn't accept. A lot of farmers would just toss off [those little ones], but mother would have it in front of the cook stove to stay warm and she'd bottle feed it."

Chester had a soft heart, it seems, so soft that he would even lift up the plow to try to avoid a rabbit's home if he found one in the field.

"He was a good man," Bernice said. "He wasn't mean or anything. And the kids could almost run over him."

She said he laughed a lot and worked hard.

When asked if he was a good dancer, she chuckled.

"Better than I was," she said.

They moved to Esko in 1963.

"One of our neighbors was an implement dealer and my Dad would go with him sometimes to buy farm machinery," Leota said. "When [the neighbor] bought an implement shop in Esko, he wanted Dad to come. It's hard to make a living on a small farm, so we went.

"Then when the implement shop closed, Dad went to work at Hongisto [Implement] until he retired. He did repair work on old farm machinery there."

Even after retirement, when they lived in town, Bernice and Chester still gardened. Bernice canned, Leota said, and made all kinds of apple butter from the apples that grew on their property.

"Mom was working right up until she came here, because she got sick," Leota said.

Chester died in 2000, when he was 97.

When asked for the secret to a long healthy life, Bernice's answer was to the point: "Hard work and good food, I guess."

Leota reckons they both lived a long time because they ate healthy farm food, basically "organic" food before anyone called it that. Her mom's incredible cooking was probably another factor, she said.

"I remember her lemon meringue pie," she said, holding her finger and thumb about four inches apart to illustrate how high the meringue would be. "And her cinnamon rolls, caramel rolls - you can't find stuff like that in a store."

On her 100th birthday, when she was still living in her home on 21st Street in Cloquet, Bernice's family gave her a big party. On her most recent birthday, Bernice was celebrated with two parties.

So what stands out about the past century, what invention, what event? Is it the hybrid automobile, the airbus airplane, cellular phones?

Bernice looked back on more than a century of living with a practical eye.

"When washing machines finally got a motor in it," she said. "I remember the first washer - you'd push something back and forth on it. There was a wringer, yes. Then we got a gas-powered washer next."