One hundred years ago, suffragists were fighting for the right to vote, the World War 1 draft began, and Phyllis Roney Ernst was born in the tiny city of Verndale, Minnesota.
A lot has changed since then, but as Ernst celebrated her birthday Nov. 26 at the Valley View Estates nursing home, she said being 100 years old “Is just the same as being 3.”
“You’re just not able to do things as quickly as you used to do,” she said with sly smile.
She grew up with a younger sister and an older brother, who used to love to scare her when she would walk from her grandfather’s house carrying the daily bucket of milk. Luckily, the bucket had a cover on it so she didn’t spill the milk.
“Finally, we had a milkman come around; the milk would freeze and the cream of top was this thick” – she holds her hand up with 3 inches between her finger and thumb – “because it was frozen,” Ernst recalls. “My mother had a kerosene stove; it had a wick and you lit the wick and could turn it up. My brother and I had to heat the water and do the dishes. That was our job.”
She recalls the first phone — black, with just a receiver that you picked up — and how she learned to operate what Ernst calls the “number please” board, or the switchboard. The operators would ask a caller what number they wanted, then plug a cord into the corresponding number on the switchboard.
Ernst doesn’t have a cellphone today.
She married her first husband, Dallas Roney, when she was 20 and he was 24. It was toward the end of the Great Depression, and they worked at a cocktail lounge, where he was a bartender and she served food to patrons upstairs. Ernst said she doesn’t dwell on the difficult times; she said they just worked a little harder.
“It was hard work because I had to carry the trays of food up the stairs,” Ernst recalled. “They finally put in a dumbwaiter.”
They moved to south Minneapolis, where Roney eventually got a job helping airplanes communicate from the skies to the ground, and flew all over the country. Meanwhile, Ernst raised their two children and worked in the high school lunchroom. They had visited Montana and decided to move to the Bitterroot after he retired.
Roney died in Corvallis in 1983, and seven years later Ernst married Courtney “Doc” Ernst.
“I met him at the Eagles in town. He was a nice man,” she recalled. “We worked at the Forest Service and we would drive to every campground and do cleanups. We did that for about seven years and got paid $5 per day and 33 cents per mile for driving our own car. We should’ve had a truck so we could put the garbage in the back.”
They both enjoyed his playing with the Five Valley Accordion Association, and Jean Roberts and her accordion band serenaded Ernst on her birthday Sunday. Her husband had passed away in 2014.
Ernst said she still exercises at the nursing home every day, and enjoys going on shopping trips or on drives to look at the scenery. She doesn’t have any advice for longevity, other than to “be wary and look out for yourself.”
“Because here I am, all alone again after two marriages,” Ernst said. “You have to depend on yourself.”