Baxter woman turns 103, goes fishing

BAXTER--Helen Woods recently turned 103 years old. And to celebrate her birthday, the Baxter resident did what anyone in the Brainerd lakes area would probably do: She went fishing.

Helen Woods of Baxter holds up a fish she caught while riding in a pontoon on Ruth Lake in Crow Wing County on her 103rd birthday Tuesday, July 17. Submitted photo
Helen Woods of Baxter holds up a fish she caught while riding in a pontoon on Ruth Lake in Crow Wing County on her 103rd birthday Tuesday, July 17. Submitted photo

BAXTER-Helen Woods recently turned 103 years old. And to celebrate her birthday, the Baxter resident did what anyone in the Brainerd lakes area would probably do: She went fishing.

"Yes, I did! I outfished everybody!" she said with a gleam in her eye and an ear-to-ear grin.

The twice-married centenarian-someone older than 100-caught sunfish while out on Ruth Lake in a pontoon with her home health aide on her birthday on Tuesday, July 17.

Any Minnesota resident over the age of 90 does not need a fishing license to catch any fish in Minnesota, according to Justin Badini of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

"That's what we were fishing for-sunfish. I still know how," said Woods, who loves to fish.


Woods was born in 1915 and raised in southern Illinois in a small town called Christopher in Franklin County. She married her first husband, Jim Midgett, in 1937.

She said her first job after marrying the 6-foot-6-inch man was as a printing press operator in a paint factory producing labels for the cans-and she was then 5 feet 10 inches tall.

"I have since shrunk. The doctor tells me I'm only 5 (feet) 6 (inches) now; I can't hardly believe it," Woods said with a chuckle. "I was always a hardworker. I was never afraid of tackling a job."

Woods' first marriage was a short-lived one, but she did not sound regretful of the romance.

"Oh, we were young-in love! But it didn't last," said Woods, who later married Everett Woods and together they had one child, Sharon Smith.

Parents' Day

Smith was beside her mother at Woods' modest Baxter home on the Friday before Parents' Day, a national observance celebrated the fourth Sunday of July each year.

"My father's sister had a beauty shop with my mom in southern Illinois and (he) met her because she worked with his sister," Smith said. "And then he came up here to get a job on the Iron Range, and he called her up (in 1955) and said, 'Come up here. Let's get married.'"


Smith, who is 62 years old, is a board member of the Cuyuna Gem, Rock and Mineral Society, which meets monthly at the Franklin Arts Center on Kingwood Street in Brainerd.

"In '58, they moved to Brainerd because he got a job at the paper mill," Smith said. "That was the biggest industry in Brainerd for many, many years."

The mill, once operated under Potlatch Corp. and Wausau Paper, became the Brainerd Industrial Center after Wausau closed the mill's doors in 2013.

"My mom was always grateful for everything. ... She always looks on the bright side, I'd say," said Smith, a Master Gardener.

"And we didn't eat processed food, for one thing. We always had a garden, and we always had fresh food. She'd always cooked all the meals, and I think that makes a big difference in your diet and everything-what you eat-we didn't eat a lot of junk food."

The year Woods was born, the U.S. House of Representatives rejected a proposal to give women the right to vote, Babe Ruth had his first career home run off Jack Warhop, and the RMS Lusitania sank on passage from New York to Britain by a German U-boat.

"She is still sharp and as healthy as a 103-year-old body can be. She has donated her body to science, too," Smith said enthusiastically of her mother, who has arthritis and uses a walker but otherwise has no major medical problems.

Woods said with a laugh, "In fact my doctor says my blood pressure is better than his."


Woods said a lifelong regret she has is not traveling to Croatia, an eastern European country with a long coastline on the Adriatic Sea and the region where her parents originated.

"I have always wished that I could've went to that country and saw where they came from, but, of course, I either didn't have the money or I didn't have the time," Woods said. "Now, I got the time and the money, but I can't make it because I'm not able to travel."

Woods said among her happiest times was when she part of the the Cinosam Club, a lakeside neighborhood of cabins and homes established in the 1920s between Gull and Round lakes.

"When we started working at the paper mill, we decided to get out and buy us a piece of ground, so we could kind of anchor. Lots were for sale then in Cinosam, but the area surrounding the lakes was known as Masonic, and you had to be a Mason to buy in there in those days," Woods said.

Smith explained, "'Cinosam' is actually 'Masonic' spelled backwards."

Many residents have lived in the community for generations, according to Cinosam Club officials.

"We bought the land, and it was virgin. We took down the trees, and if you can believe this, the husbands would take down the trees during the evening when they came home, and we, women, would pull the stumps with a come-a-long ... and they cleared the land."

(A come-a-long is a hand-operated winch with a ratchet used to pull objects.)


Paper mill

After the Brainerd mill closed, Woods said the family moved to California, Washington, Colorado and Oklahoma.

"The job played out here, so we had to go away. ... The union sent you in those days," Woods said of the frequent relocations. "And then we finally got this job with this one corporation, and they had a job in Puerto Rico, and they wanted to know if we wanted to go to Puerto Rico."

Woods and her family lived in Puerto Rico for almost four years before her second husband died from a heart attack and she moved back to the Brainerd lakes area when Smith was 12 years old.

"She finished her schooling here, and I just started living. And that lake was what kept me here. I went fishing-every day! I bought myself a boat, and I went fishing. Oh, boy! I loved that. Those were the happiest days of my life," Woods said.

The Brainerd lakes area boasts more than 500 lakes and rivers, according to the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, making the region a popular vacation destination.

"When I was a baby, she loved to fish so much she used to take me in the boat, put me up in the pointy part and stick a bottle in my mouth, so I kind of grew up in the boat. ... But I got so sick of being in that boat, so when I was old enough, I begged to stay, play on shore," Smith said.

"They could watch me-her and her fishing buddy-and her fishing buddy was the lady who taught me to pick agates because I was on shore with nothing to do ... but I just don't care about fishing because I got so sick of it as a kid."


Smith will have a long life ahead of her, however, if Woods is any indication of longevity.

"She drinks a glass of wine every day-red wine-and I think that's really good for her. It really is good for your blood, and that makes a difference," Smith said.

Woods explained, "I don't have a lot of wine-just a little bit-enough to satisfy me."

Local historic dates in the past 100 years

1920 - Current Crow Wing County Historic Courthouse building erected.

1920 - Brainerd's iconic water tower at Washington and Sixth streets completed.

1924 - Most of the miners working in the Milford Mine died in the Feb. 5 mine flooding.

1928 - Fire destroys Brainerd High School.


1942 - Bataan Death March involves Brainerd soldiers.

1948 - Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport opens.

1951 - Brainerd native C. Elmer Anderson becomes governor of Minnesota.

1968 - Northern Pacific Depot at Sixth and Washington streets demolished.

2011 - Brainerd State Hospital demolished.

2013 - Wausau Paper in Brainerd closes.

SOURCE: Crow Wing Historical Society Museum and Library, Brainerd

I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write mostly features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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