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Century birthday: Bemidji woman recalls decades of changes

Tillie Orear will celebrate her 100th birthday on Sunday. Pioneer Photo/Molly Miron

Tillie Orear is a little surprised by the attention she has received since her family announced her 100th birthday.

"I was just a nondescript old person until I turned 100," Orear said.

The celebration will be held from 2-4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 25, at the Hungry Bear Banquet & Conference Center, 2300 24th St. N.W.

Tillie Kolkin's family came to the Bemidji area in 1917 from Adams in southeastern Minnesota. Tillie was 8 years old at the time.

She said her father, Anton Kolkin, and older brother, Jack, rode on an immigrant train, and the other six siblings and their mother, Sophie Kolkin, followed in a regular train.

Tillie said the immigrant train car carried the family's cows, horses, chickens, machinery, buggies and furniture. Her father had bought a farm in Frohn Township because land was cheap and he wanted a bigger farm.

"He always had the feeling he wanted to get back in the woods," Tillie said.

Both her parents were immigrants from Norway. She said they spoke Norwegian when they didn't want the children to understand them, but they insisted the children speak English.

"We were supposed to be Americans," she said.

Tillie said she helped on the farm, but didn't have difficult chores.

"We helped some because I liked to drive horses," she said.

She said during haying, she would drive the wagon with the hay loader behind it.

In about 1920, her father sold out again to buy an even bigger farm, also in Frohn Township. Tillie went to Sunnyside School near their home through the eighth grade. The teacher also gave her a year of high school English, history and algebra, but that was all the formal schooling Tillie received.

"The rest I learned at the school of hard knocks," she said.

The Sunnyside School was moved to the Beltrami County Fairgrounds and is open during fair week each summer.

In 1933, she married David Orear. He worked for the Works Progress Administration and then for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as bookkeeper and then manager of the Red Lake Fisheries in Redby from 1939-1958, with time off for service during World War II.

Later, they moved to Fargo where they worked for a caramel corn franchise and then traveling around the country as supervisors and trainers for the franchise. Tillie said she still likes caramel corn.

"I love it," she said. "Cheese corn is my favorite."

The Orears returned to Bemidji as retirees in 1975, and David died in 2000.

Tillie said she remembers the days when the city was a rough logging town served during Prohibition by Canadian bootleggers. They would drive south with their booze stopping in Bemidji on the way to St. Paul.

Tillie lives alone and drives her own car. She said she has had some health issues, but has always recovered. A notable repair was an artificial hip she acquired in 1988.

"It was Super Tuesday - I'll never forget," she said.

The party Sunday will be hosted by Tillie's son, T.J. Orear and his wife, Cindy, both Methodist ministers serving churches in Tennessee. Also on hand will be her grandchildren, Lily, 8, and Cassian, 5, as well as many other friends and relatives.