Over a century of stories: Saginaw woman spread positivity, recalled historic events

Martha Westlund witnessed over 10 decades of history in her 105 years, from the fires of 1918, to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Martha Westlund_web.jpg
Martha Westlund pictured on her 102nd birthday, Oct. 5, 2017. (Photo courtesy of Cindy Shelton)

When Tim Westlund recalls his late mother’s life, he doesn’t focus on the inevitable hardships she endured, such as the loss of loved ones or life during the Great Depression. He doesn’t remember things like arguments or slamming doors.

Instead, he speaks of time spent on the deck at their family home on Grand Lake, and late nights eating ice cream. He speaks of her beloved pets and competitive nature around game shows.

Tim doesn’t think of the negative aspects of life when speaking about his mother, because negativity was not something she brought to the table. Instead, Martha Westlund spent 105 years ingraining positivity into the lives of those around her.

“She was always positive,” Tim said. “I think that’s why she lived so long.”

Living history

Martha was born Oct. 5, 1915, in Duluth to August and Agusta Wickstrom, and spent most of her life at her home on Grand Lake with her husband, Joy Westlund, and four children: Diane, Gary, Terry and Tim.


Before marrying, Martha worked alongside her sister, Eleanor, on her family’s farm and attended school in Proctor.

Martha Westlund’s parents, August and Augusta Wickstrom. August Wickstrom worked on the Great Lakes, and was in Detroit when the 1918 fires burned northeastern Minnesota.
Martha Westlund’s parents, August and Augusta Wickstrom. August worked on the Great Lakes, and was in Detroit when the 1918 fires burned Northeastern Minnesota. (Submitted photo)

Martha witnessed historic events like the Minnesota fires of 1918 and the first person to walk on the moon, in 1969. She experienced the firsthand effects of the women’s suffrage movement and the Great Depression. She watched the world change around her as technology advanced and populations grew.

“Things had changed a whole lot from back then to now,” Tim said. “She never really did understand why we text so much.”

Martha was thrilled when she set up her first email account, and was able to communicate with her daughter, Diane Tiseth, who had moved to Florida, but Tim said she always preferred to talk on the phone or in person.

Martha Westlund speaks with Duluth Mayor Emily Larson at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center in 2017 during the city's celebration of residents over 100 years old. (Photo courtesy of Tim Westlund)


“Talking to Mom was different than talking to others,” Martha’s son, Terry Westlund, recalled. “Her knowledge of today and years past was far beyond mine.”

Martha’s children said they would often call upon her expansive knowledge to guide them in their current lives, even as adults.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, Martha refused to shutter her home to her children. Having lived through the influenza pandemic in 1918, she not only brought knowledge, but also hope for brighter days ahead.

“She would give me strength, just going over there, because she had such a positive outlook,” Tim said.

Martha was the oldest person to receive a COVID-19 vaccination at Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet. She died peacefully of natural causes at her Grand Lake home March 6, 2021.

Life on the lake

Martha’s husband preceded her in death, but her family, friends and animals always kept her company on the lake.


Joy had purchased the Grand Lake house for $10,000 in the early 1940s, and the couple raised their family beside the water, establishing what is now known as “Westlund Road.”

They flourished beside the lake, with Joy working in construction and Martha busying herself with rental cabins.

However, no matter how busy they got, the two always took time to enjoy smaller things in life.

Martha Westlund sits with her grandson, Shawn Westlund, during a Fourth of July celebration at Grand Lake. (Photo courtesy of Cindy Shelton)

“There wasn’t a sunset that ever happened at Grand Lake that Mom and Dad weren’t either out on the pontoon boat or on the deck just sitting together, waiting for the sunset,” Terry said.

He shared that toward the end of the sunset, Martha and Joy would often race to the top story of the house to catch the last glimpse of sunrays before they disappeared into the water.

The deck of the home was a common gathering place for friends, family and neighbors, with six grandchildren and five great-grand children joining the crowd.


According to Tim, many days were spent creating memories on and around the large space that overlooked the water.

Time well-spent

Later in life, Martha continued to pass the time by watching the sun rise and set on the lake, having long conversations with loved ones on the deck, watching game shows on television and reading.

Her family and friends helped to care for her, with her son, Gary Westlund, bringing her groceries and mowing the lawn while Tim visited her throughout the day.

Tim and his wife, Lori Westlund, live near the Grand Lake home. Following his retirement five years ago, Tim began checking in with Martha several times a day, typically stopping by her home once every three hours.

Every night at 10 p.m., he would make her a bowl of ice cream and they would chat while she ate about two-thirds of the treat, giving the rest to her dog, Tibby.

“Her animals were always very, very important to her,” Tim said, explaining that Martha took better care of Tibby and her cat, Pepper, than she did of herself.

Martha Westlund with her beloved pets, Pepper and Tibby. (Photo courtesy of Tim Westlund)


Martha loved watching game shows, and would often compete aloud with the participants on the screen, as well as with Tim and his wife.

Her favorite shows were “The Price is Right” and “Wheel of Fortune.” She was good with words, and loved to race to see who could solve the puzzles first.

Tim said the volume was often so loud that most of the time they just shouted “What?” back and forth to one another.

He shared that his mother never lost her wit, and people who tried to write her off as being old were often surprised at how capable she was.

“She always kind of surprised you, no matter what you were doing,” Tim said.


  • Red sky remembrance: Martha Westlund, 102, recalls the time of 1918 Cloquet fire The 1918 Cloquet fire remains the worst natural disaster on record in Minnesota history. News Tribune reports at the time detailed the loss of life and, in many cases, near-total devastation. The paper described "fiendish flames" and fire tornado...
  • City will celebrate 100-year birthdays The city of Duluth's annual 100-year birthday party is Wednesday at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, where six people celebrating their centenarian birthdays will be honored. Molly Doboszenski, 100; Thelma Kortkamp, 100; Ann Maloney, 1...

When Martha wasn’t spending time with loved ones, she could often be found reading. The Bible was always her first pick.
Martha’s daughter-in-law, Sandy Westlund, recalled Martha's relationship with religion, and how sincere she was when she prayed.

During Martha’s last days of life, she sang old gospel songs and was in a deep state of prayer. Sandy said she believes Martha’s faith granted her peace in her final moments.


“That was a very private part of her, but we spent many hours … in the scriptures and in prayer,” Sandy said. “She lived her faith. She didn’t speak of it so much.”

A celebration of life will be held at a later date. To sign the guest book and offer an online tribute, go to!/Obituary .

Martha Westlund opens holiday greeting cards from her grandchildren. Martha had six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. (Photo courtesy of Tim Westlund)

This story was updated at 2:45 p.m. April 6 with additional information about care provided to Martha Westlund. It was originally posted at 5:39 p.m. April 5.

This story originally listed an incorrect city for Martha Westlund and misattributed a quote. It was updated at 1 p.m. April 6. The Pine Journal regrets the errors.

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