100 years of memories remain vivid for local centenarian

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Juanita Martin turns 100 years old Thursday. (Photo by Correne Martin)

By Correne Martin

A lifetime spanning 100 years is a milestone most of us can only imagine. But Juanita Martin is living it. She will turn 100 years old on Thursday, Oct. 5.

Juanita received a certificate commemorating her century of life, signed by Gov. Scott Walker. Before deciding exactly where to hang it in her room at Prairie Maison nursing home the other day, she sat down to reflect on the highlights of her life.

Juanita was born into the Vogel family in 1917. She spent her childhood in Mt. Sterling, where her parents Charles and Edith Vogel had a small business. She had two brothers and one sister. They went to Mt. Sterling grade school.

She remembers riding in a mail truck to Lynxville to stay with her grandma at the Vogel Hotel. “I always stayed in room number 4 upstairs. I used to play with the girls who lived [in Lynxville].”

She also loved to walk “to the end of the street and smell the gas from the station,” she shared. And, as a child, she felt quite distinguished when she was nobly honored with the Palmer Penmanship diploma for her handwriting.

“I wrote pretty elegantly,” she said. Although, at 100 years old, she admitted, smirking, her penmanship has diminished ever so slightly.

In the 1930s, the Vogels lived across the street from the Martins and all the children played together, including Juanita and her future husband, Clyde, who “was his mother’s pet,” she said.

Living through the Great Depression, Juanita said she didn’t know she was living through such a time. “We always had something to eat. My mother sewed our clothes. We had everything we needed,” she stated.

Juanita attended Seneca High School and graduated in 1935.

“We rode to high school in a pickup truck with a tarp over the top,” she recollected. “My girlfriend and I loved to dance in high school. We went to public dances too.” She mentioned having a few dates, cracking a smile, but she preferred not to go into detail.

As the oldest child in her family, Juanita stayed home from college when her father fell ill to help care for her siblings.

On April 16, 1936, the tall, thin young lady married Clyde Martin. They had connections with someone in the radio business and, as newlyweds, were interviewed on the radio in La Crosse, which was quite a media event in those days.

Early in their married life, the Martins ran a gas station in Lynxville. There, two children were born, Richard in 1937 and Linda in 1941. Over the years, the couple owned and operated several small businesses and, as they moved from place to place, Juanita was self-taught. In 1946, they purchased the Bridgeport truckstop, aka a general store, restaurant and gas station, at the intersections of Highways 18 and 60. Together, they made memories there for 10 years.

According to her daughter, Linda, this time saw their children through most of their country school years, including 4-H clubs, Boy Scouts, hunting, music and dancing. The whole family worked in the business, seven days a week, with no vacations and no holidays, except Christmas, when they loaded up grocery bags to take to church for distribution to families in need. Six days a week, Juanita cooked a lunch of meat, potatoes, vegetable, salad and desserts for salesmen, truckers and locals. She also pumped gas, sold groceries and was a correspondent for the Courier Press.

The Martins lived across the street from Horsfall Lumberyard, and history would repeat itself when, years later, Dick followed his father’s footsteps by eventually marrying the thin little girl who lived across the street, Sharon, the oldest Horsfall daughter.

During their time in Bridgeport, the Martins started a tour boat business in the area. They gave tours of the Mississippi River every weekend for people who arrived by train from Chicago. Juanita narrated a history of the area and the river, making notes for herself, which were later turned into a book (that she unfortunately lost).

“We took the elite around Prairie du Chien,” she recalled, poignantly. “One time, we took them out and a terrible storm came. Heading back, we could hardly see but there were all these lights along the river, guiding us back in safely.”
In 1955, the Martins moved to Prairie du Chien and Juanita went to work at Ritchie’s jewelry store, her first salaried job, and Clyde drove school bus. Both of Juanita and Clyde’s children graduated from Prairie du Chien High School, Linda being valedictorian.

“That was one of the proudest moments of my life,” Juanita said.

Events of 1959 changed everything, as her mother, Edith, who lived in Madison, suffered a stroke. So with Dick in the Air Force and Linda attending UW-Madison, the family pulled up stakes and moved to the state capitol. Juanita then worked at J.C. Penney on the Square and Clyde bought a gas station on the south beltline, later a station on Lake Waubesa and, finally, the Nibble Nook, near the capitol.

“I went into J.C. Penney and told the man I thought I’d like to sell clothes, dresses,” she said. “But when he found out I could cook, I never had a chance to sell even one dress.” Juanita ended up cooking for all the employees there.
After four years there, the couple moved to Wyocena to run a bar. Then, in the 1970s, they returned to southwest Wisconsin, where they bought the Hidden View trailer court in Wyalusing. After selling that business, they stayed in Wyalusing and later bought the Speedway station in Prairie du Chien.

In 1989, the couple retired to Homesteader Court. She raved about their “most beautiful trailer you could ever imagine” there. “When our Texas company came—and they do things big in Texas—they said staying with us was just like living in a motel,” she said.

Juanita went back to Ritchie’s part-time for a few more years. “I sat by Don Ritchie’s elbow for 20 years,” she quipped, noting that Don also resides at Prairie Maison and she speaks to him often. “He was a nice and honest man to work for. We hardly exchanged words. We just worked and worked so well together.”

Juanita also worked at Ben Franklin in Prairie du Chien for a short time. She said she “enjoyed working for Mr. Dyer” as well.

In retirement, Juanita was known in the family for her Sunday afternoon letter writing. In addition to family and friends, she wrote to people on the radio or TV, to her doctors, insurance agents, even congressmen and presidents—“to anybody who would listen.” She continued to be very proud of her penmanship in those letters. When computers became a more prevalent part of the world around her, Juanita said she never had much interest, swatting her hand at the technology.

After Clyde passed away in 1999, Juanita became a regular visitor at local nursing homes and the hospital, sharing encouragement with longtime friends. Though she always joked that she’d never live  at LaBatisse Apartments, since she couldn’t spell the name, she moved there in 2007 at the age of 90. At 95, she had a hip replacement, and then moved to Bluff Haven. Three years later, she went to Prairie Maison.

Juanita and Clyde lived their lives serving the public. She was the consummate “people person” and always loved a good laugh, as was still clear in her 100th birthday interview.

“I’ve had a wonderful life,” she concluded.

Then, in knowing a picture was needed to accompany this article, Juanita fussed over her hair, her scarf and her surroundings, while putting on her best smile and capping the moment with her own style of genuine sass and humor.

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