Nov. 28, 2016 – Allenton, WI – The parking lot at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church on Highway D in Allenton was packed Sunday afternoon and it was the friendship of Lillian Moritz Oelhafen that brought everyone together.
Oelhafen was celebrating her 100th birthday; she decided to invite a few friends. “I think there are about 400 people here today,” said daughter Judy Etta yelling over the din in the church hall. “We ordered narrow tables so we could fit everyone in here for lunch.”
Etta, who runs the dessert tent at Germanfest in West Bend, prepped for the day by baking 600 cupcakes.
Lillian Oelhafen was born Dec. 24, 1916 when Woodrow Wilson was President of the United States, Charlie Chaplain dominated films, and the Saturday Evening Post first featured a painting by Norman Rockwell on the cover.
Lillian dressed in purple for the century celebration. She wore a light purple blouse with a rich purple satin jacket and a decorative corsage of yellow and red roses. Her white hair was perfectly coifed and her smile was as big as the room.
Lillian sat at the back of the church hall, her coffee and plate of food grew cold as the line to wish her happy birthday stretched through the doorway, down hall and up the stairs.
To say she was “a little overwhelmed at the turnout” was an understatement.
“She said I want all the people who have touched my life to come to my birthday,” said Etta. “You know she taught Sunday school here.”
Lester Hahn, 60, said Lillian was his first grade Sunday school teacher. “I got gold stars, you can ask her about me – she was 45 when I was in that class,” said Hahn. “The wisdom that’s her whole life. You look at people here and how could all these people possibly come together at this church without her.
“You couldn’t plan a party to get this many people here in fellowship. It’s awesome,” said Hahn.
Lillian grew up in Kohlsville; during the school year she lived with her grandparents on Highway 33, also known as Cedar Street. She graduated West Bend High School in 1935 when D. E. McLane was principal and the top hit on the billboard charts was Fred Astaire and ‘Cheek to Cheek.’
Orv Schulz was a neighbor to the Oelhafen family. “She’s a tough, tough lady,” said Schulz. “Her whole family was hard working.”
Oelhafen’s great grandparents, Ferdinand and Wilhelmina Sell, emigrated from Germany and came to America on their honeymoon in the 1800s.
The couple set up their homestead in the Kohlsville area because it reminded them of their home in Germany.
Ferdinand bought the local saw mill in 1893. There was also a grist mill by the lower pond and during winter they’d harvest ice.
“She’s an inspiration to everyone,” said Suzanne Tennies. “For her positive outlook, her joyfulness, always smiling. She’s just a wonderful, great lady.”
For hours Lillian received hugs, held hands and caught up with old friends.
“Happy, happy, happy, happy, happy – I can’t say it 100 times,” said Herb Tennies.
The two held hands as they spoke. Fast friends drawn together by the love of German music and polka.
“I danced with her one time when she was younger,” reminisced Tennies. “She was at the dessert tent at Germanfest and everybody loves to see her.”
People came from Arizona, Minnesota and Milwaukee to wish Lillian well.
“She’s such an inspiration,” said Ron Schmidt of Milwaukee. Lillian is his great aunt. “She’s kind and warm and always caring. She’s so active and such a good historian.”
Schmidt launches into a story Lillian told about harvesting ice off the lake. How it was dangerous business.
Farmers Frank and Ernest Rusch, they were bachelors, they had a good strong team of draft horses. They came with their bobsled and load it up to haul ice to the shed and one day they broke through the ice and the horses drowned.
“It was just horrible,” said Lillian.
Ruth Jansen’s tie to Lillian dated back 52 years. “She made our wedding cake,” said Jansen. “If you were getting married and needed a wedding cake, Lillian was the go to.”
Lillian’s 100th birthday cake was white with multiple tiers and surrounded by cupcakes and a pew full of presents.
Friends and family sang happy birthday and Lillian sang a quiet reply of thanks.
Her thoughts were passed around on simple white sheets of paper for guests to take home and cherish.
The note read: It is by the grace of God that I am here today. I can’t thank the majority of people who have helped me in life, as they are dead and gone. Remember to thank those in your life before you can’t anymore. Thanks to all of you for coming and being a special part of my 100 years. Enjoy the day! Love Lillian Oelhafen.
On a side note: Lillian Oelhafen has drafted her life story. According to daughter Judy Etta the stories and pictures all scanned and they’re taking it to the printer.