Who is the oldest living person in Minnesota?
Erna Zahn was 26 years old in 1934 when she glanced up at the historical landmark in the making. There before her was George Washington's face – then the only completed presidential bust at Mount Rushmore.
The singular stone face illustrates the vast span of Zahn's life, which stretches back to days of pulling water from a well and relying on a horse and buggy to get around. On Wednesday, the supercentenarian who is Minnesota's oldest resident and one of the oldest living people in the United States, will celebrate her 113th birthday.
"Birthdays come and go," Zahn said in a recent interview from the Oak Hills Living Center in New Ulm, where she lives. "I'm too old to celebrate."
Nonetheless, the Oak Hills staff will take her to nearby Sleepy Eye for a birthday treat — apple pie and coffee.
"I just love it," said Jacki Lewis, 45, of Wayzata, when she learned about the birthday festivities. "I just think that someone who lives to 112 has a story to tell, especially with her generation going through so much — the Depression, wars and all the things that were different than it is now. I think there's so much to learn from someone like her."
Lewis had asked Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune's community-driven reporting project fueled by questions from readers, to find Minnesota's oldest living resident.
Based on census data, Minnesota has 1,200 to 1,300 residents who are at least 100 years old, said Susan Brower, the state's demographer. But there is no data identifying who these people are or who might be the oldest.
Zahn not only is the oldest known living Minnesotan, she is among the 10 oldest living people in the United States, said Robert Young, director of the Supercentenarian Research and Database division at the Gerontology Research Group.
On her coming birthday, she will join a select group of no more than 35 people alive in the world who are verified to be at least 113 years old, he said.
Unlike the United States, some countries know who their oldest residents are and celebrate them. In Japan, the prime minister sends a silver cup to those who reach their 100th birthday. In Great Britain, centenarians received a birthday card from the Queen.
In the United States, Young said researchers rely on families and media reports to help identify the oldest people. Researchers then comb through records to verify the claims.
'I always eat my breakfast'
Zahn was born Erna Miller on April 14, 1908, in Winnebago County, Wis. to Henry and Olga Miller. She grew up at a time when young girls wore long stockings and petticoats, her father delivered the mail in a horse and buggy, and children went to school in a one-room schoolhouse.
"A deep thinker we know her to be. Her favorite study is 'Stenography,' " was how the 1926 Ripon High School yearbook described the young Erna.
For most of her childhood, Zahn lived with her family above the general store they owned in Pickett, Wis. It was a perch that gave her spectacular sunset views and a not-so-fond memory of hauling water up a hill and then 19 steps to the family's apartment.
"Oh, I hated that job," she recounted to family later in life.
But time and progress changed life's daily rhythms, such as electricity that replaced kerosene lamps and a car that replaced the horse and buggy. Over her lifetime, wars were fought, men went to the moon, rockets landed on Mars, and computer technology — something she cares little to know about — dominated daily lives.
"I wish I had kept a diary," the supercentenarian said when asked about some of the most notable changes she has witnessed.
Instead, the details of her past unfold in conversations with family and in the old black-and-white photographs such as the snapshot of her and a friend in front of Mount Rushmore.
In 1935, the 27-year-old secretary married a Lutheran schoolteacher, Meilahn Zahn, and became a stay-at-home mom who raised six children. In 1962, they moved to New Ulm, where Zahn's husband took a job teaching music at what's now known as Martin Luther College. He died in 1982.
Zahn is a practical woman by nature. She baked bread, sewed her children's clothes, refinished the woodwork in the New Ulm family home and reveled in staying active for much of her life — from walking a couple miles every day to shoveling snow-covered sidewalks along her two-story home on a corner lot.
She moved into an apartment when she was 96 and then an assisted living facility when she was 109.
With short, white hair framing her face and a pearl necklace draped over her sweatshirt, Zahn strained a bit to hear the questions that were posed to her during a recent video interview. She patiently answered and shrugged when reminded she's the state's oldest living resident.
"I'm just thankful for good health, and I think I have good health because I always eat my breakfast," said the woman who has been unscathed by two pandemics — the 1918 flu that killed at least 50 million around the world and the recent coronavirus pandemic that has already killed more than 2.8 million people.
Every morning, Zahn lingers over a bowl of oatmeal and several cups of coffee.
She is a woman of few indulgences and always in moderation, which seems to be her key to a long life. For her, it's a glass of red wine every now and then, one piece of dark chocolate each day and an afternoon nap.
And when she turns 113, she'll enjoy a piece of apple pie.
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