Rena Bagne (left), 107, and her 105-year-old sister, Edna Paasche, live at the Northridge Residence in Ortonville. The two moved with their parents and five siblings from Canada to a farm near Starbuck. Through their struggles and triumphs, they learned the importance of a positive attitude and how to be thrifty. Contributed photo
At 107, Rena Bagne and her 105-year-old sister, Edna Paasche have some sage advice for those younger than them: They encourage others to be thrifty and not waste anything.
The sisters, who live at Northridge Residence in Ortonville, learned those lessons while growing up, first in Saskatchewan, Canada, and later near Starbuck, Minn.
“We didn’t waste,” Edna said. “We didn’t waste time. And we didn’t waste food. When eating, we had to eat what we had or go without. And we had to be thrifty.”
Their parents, Hjalmer and Inga Haldorson, moved to Saskatchewan with many others hoping to get rich in the Canadian mines. The couple prospered with their growing family, but they found no riches in the soil.
“They dug up a lot of land, and they didn’t find anything,” said Edna of those who moved north. “We lived in huts. They all got fooled. There was nothing.”
The family was broke
It was an answer to their problems when Inga’s father offered her and her eight siblings their own farms in Minnesota.
The move from Canada to Minnesota in 1911 was a difficult one for the family, the sisters said. They missed the home they’d known across the border, but they adjusted to farm life. Several outbuildings were constructed for the farm including a barn. Hjalmer stored a beautiful buggy in the hayloft where Edna and her six siblings loved to play and pretend – until Edna burned the barn down.
“My sister Lillian and I were pretending we were going some place,” Edna explained. “I was the man so I got a corn pipe. I stuffed it, and I struck a match to light it. I have no idea where I got the match, but I lit it.”
When their mother came to check up on the children, Edna quickly stuck the match in the straw so mom wouldn’t see it. Soon the barn was in flames. The children got out as their mother rushed to get the horses out of the building. One horse was badly burned, but lived, Edna recalled. It bore the scars from that day throughout its life. Their mother also suffered burns.
“We were scared,” she said. “We knew we had done wrong. We didn’t get spanked, but we did get a good talking to.”
They recovered from the loss and focused on their farming operation. Everyone in the family helped, from picking produce in the large garden to caring for the cows, turkeys, chickens and cropland. They worked hard, but they also enjoyed taking part in their church, school and community functions.
At Christmas, they gathered with neighbors to celebrate, Edna said.
The children often walked to get to church or school. It was a roughly six to eight-mile trek to go to St. John’s Lutheran Church where they “read for the minister” for their confirmation classes, Edna said. The pastor often met them halfway to give them a ride to the church. She recalled how he used his pretty cutter during the winter.
They also walked two miles to attend District 11 school, located in the small station town of New Prairie. Their mother knitted scarves, mittens and caps to keep them warm as they made the trip in the winter. Their lunches, packed in half-gallon molasses pails with holes punched in them for ventilation, often froze during the trip in winter. Everything thawed once they got to school, and the pails were placed near the schoolhouse stove, Edna said.
The school was one of the first buildings erected at the station town, but their father also wanted a grain elevator built. It was. Now farmers had a close location to bring their harvest. Soon a general store was built and a stockyard for livestock, which was shipped on the train.
Their father had a way with animals that became a way of life for the hardworking Norwegian. Although he did not have formal training, he was known by those in the area as a veterinarian and was called upon to help with sick livestock.
Rena showed that same care and compassion with people and was encouraged to become a nurse. After she finished the eighth-grade at District 11, Rena attended Glenwood High School. After her graduation, her superintendent and others made arrangements for Rena to attend nurses training at Bethany Lutheran in Minneapolis.
When she graduated from nurses training, Rena was a licensed practical nurse. She worked in Minneapolis, Glenwood, Starbuck and Chicago.
As she started her career, her Aunt Agnes said it was too bad Rena didn’t work at the Starbuck Hospital. Rena made the change to Starbuck and rekindled a friendship with a fellow Glenwood High grad. Walter Bagne delivered milk in the town including the hospital.
When Rena later moved to Chicago to work, Walter also moved to the Windy City where he took a business course and worked for Standard Oil. The two were married in 1946.
Edna also attended Glenwood High School and worked in Cyrus as a telephone operator.
She moved to Ortonville and lived with an aunt who talked to her about caring for a young doctor’s newborn. She also worked at the Columbian Hotel, Snowy White Laundry and cared for the children of wealthy vacationers who spent the summer on the peninsula of Big Stone Lake.
Edna met her future husband while shopping in Ortonville. She’d been given money and planned to buy a ring. Edna went to Brown’s Jewelry Store to see their selection. Fred Brown handled the transaction. She got the ring, a ruby ring, and began dating Fred. The two married and worked together at the family jewelry store.
When Rena traveled to Ortonville to visit her sister, Edna encouraged her to move back to Minnesota.
“And I convinced her,” Edna smiled. Rena and Walter opened their own store, Bagne’s Gift Shop, next door to Brown’s Jewelry where Fred and Edna worked. Walter and Fred were good friends, and the four loved to fish, Edna said.
When Walter took a job at Big Stone Canning Company, Rena took over the gift shop and also started working at the hospital. It was a very busy time, she said.
Eventually they sold the business, and Rena focused again on her nursing career. She was a nurse, caregiver and companion for Florence O’Donnell for many years.
Walter retired as accountant for the canning company in 1969 and died five years later.
Edna and Fred sold the jewelry business in 1960 and traveled after Fred’s retirement. He died at the Ortonville Hospital in 1970. The couple’s only child, Audree Thomas, lives in Dublin, Calif.
The sisters have been active members of their church, First English Lutheran. Edna recalled how one man would often sit behind her during services. Then, when she was going to Ike’s Chicken Shack with friends, he was in the car also ready for the outing. The man was Mentz Paasche. It was kind of a blind date for the two, she said.
Mentz was from Norway and moved to the United States where his engineering skills were used to build a bridge across the Mississippi River, Edna said. When they met, Mentz was working as Big Stone County’s engineer.
The two were married for 18 years, enjoying their retirement years together, until Mentz’s death.
Edna and Rena moved into separate apartments at the Trojan Apartment Building and eventually came to Northridge.
Their separate rooms speak of their hobbies and collections. Rena has collected angel figurines, and Edna has made numerous quilts.
Every day, Edna checks in with her sister, and the two talk about the latest news and reminisce.
They are quick witted, kind hearted and offer firm handshakes as they head out of the room. With one more fast wave, each moves their wheelchair powering it with their feet.
“I think they’re serving dinner now,” Rena said. “We don’t want to be late.”
No one was standing in the way of these two determined sisters.