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 Irma Fisher Ferguson, 104
 
“Like Mother, Like Daughter”

        Irma Fisher Ferguson has special bragging rights – both she and her mother have lived to age 102!  Irma will be celebrating her 104th birthday on May 13 with the annual event begun by her family on her 100th of celebrating Mother’s Day along with her birthday.  From her daughters to great-great grandchildren, family members will be coming from many states to celebrate the beloved matriarch of their family. 
        What is so unique, is that Irma gave her mother, Rachel Fisher, a 100th, 101st and 102nd birthday party with family and friends beginning in 1968.  “Things were more subdued then,” she recalls; "there wasn’t such a big occasion.  But the whole town was impressed, of course, and happy for her.  We had the party at home, with about 84 family – ranging from her children to great-grandchildren - and friends, and served coffee and punch.  But we did have a special cake – it was two tiers with 100 candles!  That was something to see.  I never thought about living to be 100 myself, but it’s wonderful!  I feel fine.” 

  Irma turns 104 on May 13th - Happy Birthday!
Irma Fisher Ferguson celebrates her 104th birthday on May 13th. Happy Birthday!

       She said her mother was in good health, as well, and also enjoyed her longevity.  In 1969, Rachel was Queen of the Grand Junction, Iowa, Centennial Parade – and she was one year older than the town!

Irma's mother, Rachel
        Irma’s mother, Rachel Svandahl, was born on a farm in Norway on August 16, 1868, one of seven children.  After completing the eighth grade at the age of 14, she was sent to another town to work as a maid in a household and was not able to return to visit her family for 10 years.  Irma tells that her mother’s “golden opportunity” came when an uncle living in America sent $48.00 for her passage on the condition that she help his family during his wife’s illness.  He promised that when his circumstances improved, he would find her a good job, and thus Rachel arrived in Cambridge, Iowa, in November 1892.  She spoke no English, but began learning from the children she cared for when her uncle placed her with a prominent family in Des Moines, and then by translating her Bible.  Her uncle also introduced her to her future husband, the son of Norwegian immigrants; they married two years to the day of her arrival in Iowa.  Rachel loved America so much that she encouraged her sisters to join her and soon three of them did. 
        Rachel and Carl lived on a farm near Grand Junction, Iowa, all their lives and raised seven children.  When one of their daughters died in childbirth, they adopted their granddaughter, who was only two days old and later lived with Rachel with her two children for several years.  And thus Rachel’s life was centered on her family.  “Just think,” one of her descendants remarked: "If she hadn’t taken the opportunity to come to America none of this would have happened in Iowa.  We have relatives now all over the U.S.” 

Irma story:
        Irma was Rachel’s fifth child, born on May 13, 1905.  One of her childhood memories was that her mother would serve one chicken for the entire family dinner; each was assigned a part of the bird – Irma’s was a wing. At the age of seven, she was afflicted with polio, a potentially life threatening disease.  She never let it stop her, although she always walked with a limp and had to buy two different size shoes all her life because of her impairment.  It did make her shy, she believes; nonetheless, she graduated from high school at the age of 16 and was salutatorian of her class.  She attended college for a year, before marrying W. D. (Spike) Ferguson on April 19, 1923. 

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        Spike was a partner in Ferguson-Diehl Construction Company and the early years of their marriage were marked with the birth of three daughters, after which Irma began helping her husband build his business.  Her youngest daughter, Carla, recalls those years. 
        “Mother worked so hard, and yet she never complained.  She would state facts, but never complain the way some people do.  She still doesn’t.  In the summers, the family would leave their home in Jefferson, Iowa, and travel to various construction sites and gravel pits where Spike would have road construction contracts.  Since there weren’t restaurants or hotels available, Irma would cook all the meals for the crew, traveling each day into the nearest town to buy fresh meat and supplies and then preparing the food in a small trailer, while tending to her young children at the same time.  At night they had a sleeping trailer.  Every couple of weeks she would drive back to their home to do the laundry."
       This went on for years, and Spike’s business grew and prospered.  During WWII he obtained a contract to work on building part of the Alcan Highway in Alaska, taking half the men in town with him to work on the project.  Irma stayed at home and concentrated her efforts on sending as many supplies and clothing as she could to family members in Norway. 
        After the war, Irma and Spike began to travel and enjoy the fruits of an extended trip to Europe to visit relatives in Norway, other countries, a cruise to Hawaii in the mid-60s and then established a winter home, first in Scottsdale and later in Mesa, Arizona, where they purchased a mobile home in an active retirement community.  “It was a nice place to be,” Irma says, “to get out of the cold.”  And so all the hard work of their early years paid off.  The couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1973, hosted by their children and also attended by a large gathering of family and friends – this time almost 150.
        So it’s no surprise to Irma that she will again be feted for her 104th  with a large gathering of her descendents.  “There are so many now, I have to write them down to remember which of the six great-great-grandchildren belongs to whom!”  Over the past 28 years that she has been a widow, Irma has enjoyed playing bridge, but primarily reading, indulging her love for books – sometimes two or three a week, she admits.  She also reads the Des Moines Register and several magazines, subscriptions to which she requests for her birthday gifts.  For her 100th celebration, she requested two parties – one for family and one for friends – “there were too many people to have them all together.” What a delight and tribute to this wonderful inspiration of surviving and thriving, not only polio. Irma had a kidney removed and has lived for the past 40 years with only one. 
        Beginning with her 100th, the family made a story board of her life, which Irma treasures and has made a permanent fixture on her wall.  Her granddaughters keep it updated each year with new additions and activities of them all.  Irma’s favorite photo, though, is that of her and her mother and father and younger brother Raymond, with whom she was especially close.  At 100, she was caring for him during his last year.  Irma takes after her mother in many ways, in addition to their shared longevity.  Rachel remained a hard working, active woman well into her nineties and always had a vegetable garden and canned fresh vegetables for the family.  They also had grape vines and her mother would make grape juice when they were children; once a year she would make a grape pie for her husband.  These and so many more are the memories she treasures and has so many stories she has shared and continues to do so with her family. “It seems there’s always something new to learn of her life,” her granddaughter Sue remarks.
        Now it’s time for Irma to be cared for and her devoted family is seeing to it that she is.  Recently, on a visit to her granddaughter’s home, she was delighted to see one of her most prized possessions being used by the family.  Casting her memory back many, many years, Irma tells the story that her mother had saved a little money while working for the family in Des Moines and wanted to buy something special and lasting for her marriage.  She consulted the lady of the house for whom she worked, who suggested she purchase a set of 6 silver teaspoons. They became keepsakes for her daughters and now in daily use as a jelly spoon in her granddaughter’s busy family.  Irma was very moved seeing this memento of her mother and remembering her care and devotion to her family.
        “We’re looking forward to her 104th celebration,” daughter Carla says.  Each year we take a banquet room at a nice hotel and decorate it and line it with photos of all the family.  We have a grand time.”  Since  Irma’s favorite is angel food cake, this is the platform for the 100 plus candles each birthday.  As a surprise, her daughter and granddaughter have bought her a new outfit for this year’s celebration of Mother’s Day and her birthday – a brightly colored flowered dress and “hot pink” jacket.  
        When asked how she feels about being 104, Irma said, “I feel fine.  I never thought about living to 100, but it’s wonderful!  Who wouldn’t want to live to 100!" 
        Carla adds that her mother is very calm and even tempered and takes everything in stride.  “She’s not demanding – she’s very accepting.”
        Happy Birthday, Irma – and Happy Mother’s Day.

 

Respecting the privacy of this centenarian and all centenarians on our website, we ask all media (or other businesses) to please direct inquiries to Lynn Adler: adler@ncap100s.org.

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