Turning 103 is a milestone worth celebrating. Merle Strawder has achieved that milestone, but says an incident when he was a baby could have cut his life very short.
The family lived in a sod house near Benkelman, and Merle recounts the story as it was told to him many times by his parents.
“My parents were asleep one night and heard a really loud thud from my bedroom, and thought I had fallen out of bed. They rushed into my room and found a very large bull snake that had fallen from a ceiling rafter onto the floor, right next to my cradle.”
It is just one of many stories Merle vividly recalls of his life, and willingly shares with anyone with a listening ear.
Merle is one of five children, right smack in the middle of the order. His father homesteaded a place near Eckley when he was 2-years-old, and the family moved in a covered wagon to the site where they built their sod home. Somewhat of a pioneer, his father planted corn in what was primarily cattle country.
“That first year the neighboring cattle got in through the fence and ate all the corn. He didn’t get any corn that year.”
After farming for three or four years, his dad got a job on a ranch where he worked for the next four or five years, before purchasing some land near Yuma, Colo. The family relocated and lived in that area for many years.
When Merle married the love of his life, Lila, they moved into a place about a mile away from his folks. Merle laughs when he recalls his wedding day.
He was working for his dad, who wasn’t thrilled about him getting married. That morning before he left for work, he told Lila he would come and get her at noon and they would go to town and get married. But his father had different plans, and did not let Merle leave work until 5 p.m.
“I got to the house and she was fuming mad! So we went to town that evening and got married.”
Lila did her best to adapt to farm life, and one day approached Merle about doing something of her own on the farm. He told her she could have some chickens if she wanted to, thinking that would keep her busy with gathering eggs and such.
“So she ordered 500 chickens! We lived on eggs and fried chicken for a long time,” he chuckles.
After farming for himself for a couple of years, Merle was able to purchase a diesel caterpillar tractor - a DQ he says - for $1,500. He says that tractor made his life much easier, and he farmed with it from then on.
Then the Great Depression hit. All the neighbors had given up on even trying to plant any crops, as it was so dry. “But I told ‘em, well I have to have a crop!” So he continued working the fields and planted his corn.
“Everyone in town called me crazy. But I ended up getting 25 bushels an acre that year, and nobody else got anything. Then they were calling me the corn king!”
Merle and Lila moved to a place three miles south of Schramm, Colo., where they had lights (by battery and a wind charger) and an indoor toilet.
“We was living downtown then!”
The couple remained on that farm for the next 20 years.
Meanwhile, Merle’s parents had moved to the state of Washington, and his mother eventually managed to convince her son and daughter-in-law to move there too.
“I was only there about eight months, and I was never so sick in my life!”
Washington ended up being a short stay for Merle and Lila, and they decided just to take a little time and do some traveling. And travel they did - from Washington to Florida and spots in between.
Deciding it was time to come in off the road, Merle purchased a 160-acre irrigated farm near Brighton, Colo.
“I bought the irrigated place thinking I could retire there. I never worked so hard in my life!”
This time brought many changes for Merle and Lila. They built a new home on their farm, and adopted their son, Dan. Merle also made a change in his operation, selling the irrigated land and trading the new home for some wheat land near Hudson, Colo.
The corn farmer turned wheat farmer says he made enough money on the wheat that first year to pay for the land. However, the second year wasn’t so kind.
“I put all our wheat in grain storage and they went bankrupt. I lost the entire crop.”
After a few successful years wheat farming, Merle ventured out into a new arena - cattle ranching. The couple bought a ranch near Hemingford, where they ran about 200 head of cattle. The family spent the next decade or so in the cattle ranching business.
By then Dan was grown, so the couple sold the ranch and moved into an apartment in Scottsbluff for a while. They decided they liked it there so they bought a home where they lived for years.
Lila’s health got bad and forced her into a nursing home. All these years later it still makes Merle very emotional to talk about that, saying that was the hardest thing he ever had to do. He stayed in their home only a month or two without Lila, then sold it. His beloved Lila passed away in 1998.
Merle then rented an apartment in Gering, where he spent the next eight years. His grandson lives at Scottsbluff, and a granddaughter lives close by at Torrington, Wyo. Both were frequent visitors and kept him active.
About three months ago, Merle made the decision to move to Off Broadway in Broken Bow, to be closer to his son. “And I’m really glad I did,” he says.
“Everybody here is real nice to me. I really like it here.”
Merle took a moment to reflect back over his life, and all the changes he has gone through.
“I went from being as poor as a church mouse to being able to have a little money laid up - not much, but a little.”
He recalls that during the Depression he sold his corn for 10 cents a bushel, and had to haul it four or five miles by wagon; and selling cattle for $20 or $30 a head.
“We ate a lot of breakfast food, and stuff that was cheap,” he now laughs.
More than 40 years ago, Merle had an accident with a punch which shot a piece of metal from a chisel into his left eye. “I went to the doctor in town, and he said he didn’t have a magnet that could get it out. So I went to the next town, and that doctor said he didn’t have one either.”
Merle finally found a doctor who could remove the metal from his eye, but he has not had any vision in it since.
Merle has a knack for being able to relate a story so vividly you feel like you were there. He has a trunk full of photos, and can tell you every person in them and what was going on that day.
He is a remarkable man, and everyone who knows him considers that an honor. Merle appreciates each day he is given, and willingly takes whatever that day holds.
He had a sister who also lived to 103. “But she died that February, and I have made it to August - so I’ve got her beat!” he says with a smile.