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From left, Paul Goehring, John Reich, Chris Maier and Jim Carlsen network at the Dakota Family Restaurant. Garhard Kempf is partly obscured.
North Dakota Town's Payoff for Hard Lives is Long Life

Kilborn, Peter T. "North Dakota Town's Payoff for Hard Lives is Long Life." New York Times, n.d.


ASHLEY, N.D., July 27, 2003. In this tidy old faraway place, small lawns without fences mimic 1940's haircuts, shaved just an inch high. Chris Maier mows around his newly painted and shingled two-bedroom ranch house and grows tomatoes, peppers and onions in back.

Mr. Maier is quick-witted, quick-footed, a little deaf and 91. Yet reaching 91 in Ashley, 100 miles south of Bismarck along two-lane roads, hardly merits a toast.

"My dad was 89," said Mr. Maier, who like most other people here is descended from Germans who fled Russia more than a century ago. "My mother was 87. I got a sister who died last year, a little over 100. I have a brother who is 98 and a brother 87. Another brother died last year. He was 92."

In January, Mr. Maier lost his wife of 67 years after she turned 90. He takes just two over-the-counter painkillers a day, for his sore knees.

Whatever the travails of old farming communities of the Great Plains, with population decline and temperatures that swing 120 degrees from January to July, something about these places produces triple-digitarians even as people plug their arteries with sausage, strudel and dumplings soaked in gravy.

Survivors of scarlet fever and smallpox epidemics, the Dust Bowl and the Depression, they have been cracking 100 at least since 1950. The 2000 census found that McIntosh County, where Ashley is located, had the highest proportion of people 85 and older among the nation's 3,142 counties. North Dakota had the highest proportion among the states.

The census found that Florida, Pennsylvania and West Virginia had higher proportions of people 65 and older. But many of their elderly die in their 60's and 70's; North Dakotans tend to keep aging. The census found 162 North Dakotans 100 or older, also near the top among states in relation to the total population.

These North Dakotans may be biological artifacts, the recipes for their health beyond bottling or replication by baby-boom office dwellers in big cities and suburbs. Clean air; going slow; patience; a low-cost, low-stress economy for all but active younger farmers; decades of heavy lifting outdoors; keeping an eye out for one another; long stable marriages; an absence of sharp differences in income and wealth all may contribute, people here speculate.

Except for houseflies and the volunteer ambulance, nothing much hustles in McIntosh County, population 3,390, and Ashley, its seat. Driving up to intersections awash in prairie dust, cavernous General Motors sedans of the 1970's and 80's linger because no one worries about pulling out first.

Retired wheat farmers and ranchers, now settled in town, can walk the three or four blocks to Ashley Drug, the Super Valu grocery store, the bank, the churches, the Ashley Medical Center (a combined hospital, nursing home and assisted living home), Link's True Value hardware, Kirk's Detour â?" a bar with ashtrays that no one uses â?" and the Dakota Family Restaurant.

Every morning at 8, the older men of Ashley gather for 75-cent coffee at a table in the Dakota's front room. Older women gather in a room in back. Until 10 or 11 a.m., they come and go. The women discuss grandchildren, food, health and farming, the men politics, sports, health and farming. They kid a lot.

"These guys came over on the Mayflower," said Jim Carlsen, 72, retired director of emergency services in Sturgis, S.D., and an outcast, he said, as a Swede. "This one came on the Pinta. Schlep, tell him about your relationship with Moses."

But the real business of the tables is watching out for one another. "The cafe is where the networking takes place," Klaes Welch, the county director of social services, said. "If somebody doesn't show up for coffee, it would cause a lot of chatter, and someone will check on him."

One reason for the high numbers of elderly here is that a lot of young people have left. McIntosh County's population slid nearly 16 percent in the 1990's, while North Dakota's hardly grew. But the old who grew up and stayed here also live longer than most other Americans.

A decade ago, the National Center for Health Statistics found that North Dakotans lived to an average of 78, two to three years longer than the national average then. Lately, a look at the McIntosh County courthouse's death certificates shows, lifetimes here frequently stretch past 80.

Last year, 51 people died in the county. A woman reached 100, and a man, 99. Excluding a baby who died at two weeks, 27 women died at an average age of 85, and 23 men died at an average age of 80 â?" exclude a 41-year-old rancher who froze in a blizzard, and the average was 82. The ancestries of most were recorded, and all but one were German or German-Russian. The exception was a Swede.

"They live longer in the Great Plains States," said Richard M. Suzman, associate director of the Behavioral and Social Research Program at the National Institute on Aging in Washington. "Community and neighborhood are important. So is the level of positive integration, neighborliness, looking out for others. Close-knit communities can be oppressive at one level. But they're also associated with higher life expectancy and better health."

The theory of the "healthy immigrant" might apply here, Dr. Suzman added. Many forebears of McIntosh's elderly were themselves émigrés from Germany to southern Russia. Then, facing conscription into the Russian army in the 1880's, the boldest and hardiest fled to the Plains.

"My great-grandfather walked miles across pasture to stake a claim here," Tony Bender, 44, editor and publisher of the Weekly Ashley Tribune, said.

High school diplomas and college educations are often correlated with longevity. But of the 51 people who died last year, 33 stopped school before the ninth grade and one â?" the woman who died at 100 â?" stopped after the third. Most completed rural elementary school, but were then needed to work on the farms.

Gerontologists say high-fat diets shorten lives, but there is little evidence here that fat, salt, sweets or cholesterol struck down many of these people before 80. Heart disease accounted for three times as many deaths last year as cancer, the second leading cause; diabetes was a factor
in 14 of the heart disease deaths. But diabetics died at an average of 83 years; one made it to 98.

Esther Eszlinger, 78, said concerns about calories and fat never intruded upon her meal planning. "You ate what you had," she said. Even today, Mrs. Eszlinger said that like many women, she has two kitchens, the extra one for canning. "You can can sausage. I have peaches and pears, chicken and canned hamburger. I canned wild goose last year. When you come to my house, I can have dinner done in a hurry."

Dr. Udom Tinsa, who grew up in Thailand and has been Ashley's principal doctor for 26 years, said, "The diet surprises me. "They have a high meat diet, but they live long."

A reason, he thinks, is decades of heavy exercise. "They're strong," he said. "They don't sit in an office. They live with nature." After passing farms on to children and moving to town, he said, "they go out to help their children work."

Swatting the air over her coffee, Esther Hildebrand, 78, said, "These kids these days will never amount to much because they don't want to work." She and her husband Clifford, 77, have always kept busy. "Big gardens," she said. "Big yards. We milked 18 cows. Canning. We make our own sauerkraut. I can everything. Pumpkins. We've got stuff in our own food cellar going back to '96."

Wednesday night is German night at the Dakota. Last Wednesday, the menu was two pieces of chicken deep fried to the texture of asphalt shingles, sliced and boiled carrots and potatoes, two fat round dumplings, and strudel, pie or ice cream.

Having finished his dumplings and gnawed his chicken down to dry bone, the Rev. George Rueb was working on a bowl of chocolate and vanilla ice cream.

At 86, retired and twice widowed, he was a little down. "This past January," he said, "I had pneumonia. I was supposed to have a hip replaced, but I had a heart attack. After the heart attack, I was in the hospital again with another pneumonia."

Pastor Rueb was one of 11 children of poor farmers. As a baby, his older sister, fed only mother's and cow's milk, died of starvation. He would have died too, he said, if not for the milk of a horse.

"I was in the seventh grade," he said, "when my dad said, `I need you home.' I did not go to theology school but I took courses at home by mail." As a teenager, he became an assistant to an Assemblies of God pastor. At 20 he began his own congregation. His first marriage lasted 60 years.

McIntosh County makes aging easy. At the Sinclair gas station, the attendant washes windshields. Attendants at the Super Valu carry groceries to cars. Buses from the senior center provide rides to doctors in Bismarck.

With little crime, doors stay unlocked, car keys stay in ignitions. "For my job, there's not a lot of action," said Chief Brooke D. Bundrock, at 26 Ashley's only police officer. "We do a lot of community policing, public service, helping the older people. I had a call where an elderly lady wanted me to shut her neighbors' gate because they were away."

Ashley's elderly live on fixed incomes, and many are poor, but the Social Security check goes a long way. The nightly special at the Dakota is $5.99. Greens fees for a round on the city's nine-hole golf course are $8, or $15 for all day. Rents are low. The county sheriff, Paul J. Peters, who is 26, pays $200 a month for a four-bedroom house with a garage and a large lot for
his family of five.

Homes sell for an average of $30,000. "The property tax on that home would be $544.35 a year," Delbert Heil, the county tax director said. Outside the towns â?" Ashley, Wishek, Lehr and Zeeland â?" farmers are exempt from property taxes.

In the towns, owners of 197 of the 1,900 homes receive a state homestead credit on property taxes. Those with incomes of less than $8,000 pay nothing, and those with incomes up to $14,000 pay reduced rates.

Because of homeowners' fixed incomes, Mr. Bender, the publisher, said, "it's hard to ask them for more tax dollars." But he said they have gone along with a special tax assessment to fix city streets. After all, they may be still driving on them when they have to be fixed again.

Reprinted with permission of the New York Times.

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