At 96, carnival queen says: 'My pilot light is still on'

  • Updated: January 21, 2012 - 11:16 PM
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Natalie Ayers of St. Paul

The first U.S. troops were sailing to World War I. Stamps cost two cents. Charlie Chaplin pranced on the big screen. And boosters came up with a cute, inclusive idea at the 1917 St. Paul Winter Carnival.

Attorney Charles Lethert, president of the Business & Professional Men's Association, couldn't decide which daughter of all the prominent doctors and lawyers to make the group's carnival princess. So he picked Natalie, his adorable 9-month-old baby daughter, to keep everyone happy.

Then King Boreas, in a fit of indecisiveness, made all 108 princesses nominated across St. Paul his queens that year.

"So I became the only Winter Carnival queen to ever burp up while sitting on the king's knee," Natalie Ayers, now 96, jokes at her St. Paul home.

"They pulled me in a little sled to all the functions. I was 20 years younger than all the other queens, who are all dead now."

Then there's Natalie, who opened her latest Christmas letter with these six words: "My pilot light is still on."

She organized the Winter Carnival queens' luncheons for years and hopes her granddaughter will escort her again this year.

"The carnival is the perfect community event that makes the whole winter sparkle a little more and wakes us up to the notion that we can find fun in the snow, too," she says. "We really need that chance when the North Woods trap us in the house all winter long."

Ayers graduated from St. Paul Central High School in 1934, starring on the diving team. Her three brothers couldn't do the "fancy dives" she did. She and her late electrician husband, Bob, bought his parents' house in 1943 for $20,000. Bob's grandmother had farmed where her white house sits near Lexington Parkway and Jefferson Avenue.

Ayers worked as a secretary, raised a couple kids and developed into a contest-winning photographer, developing prints in her kitchen darkroom. She started the Women for Sobriety chapter in Minnesota after a bout with alcoholism in her "menopause years." She tired of being the only woman in her recovery group.

Ayers still spends every summer up on Pelican Lake near Brainerd in the family cabin made of native logs that she's visited for 93 summers. Her dad paid $300 for 300 feet of lakeshore in 1920 from a guy he met in court who won the property in a poker game.

"He could have had the whole bay for $700 but said he wasn't a wealthy man," she says. "I looked it up and learned the annual average salary in 1920 was $649, so that was a lot of money back then."

She writes lake history for the Pelican Scoop newsletter, including the time the French woman at Mouseau's Roller Rink whispered for the kids to skate over to the far end of the rink because Bugsy Moran's gang had pulled over to ask directions to Breezy Point.

Ayers still swims in the lake every summer day, "although now I just go in the water for my leg exercises so I don't get my hearing aids wet.

"I love the peace and quiet and blue, blue water," she says, confessing that she daydreams about the lake on long winter days. "It's good to remember that it will be warm again."

CURT BROWN

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