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Lake Country Faces: Meet Pine River's two Florences who both are 102 years old

Both Riverside Assisted Living residents have historic pasts.

Two women named Florence
Florence Ronnenberg, left, and Florence Carlson not only both live in Riverside Assisted Living in Pine River, but both are 102 years old as well in this photo from Sept. 19, 2022.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal
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PINE RIVER — Pine River is home to many unique and interesting personalities. There are inventors dabbling in cold fusion theory, renowned blacksmiths, authors, painters and more. They all have stories.

Riverside Assisted Living in Pine River is full of storied individuals as well. Among them is not one, but two 102-year-old women named Florence.

Florence Ronnenberg and Florence Carlson may share an age and name and grace the same living facility, but they have their own personal, unique stories and personalities.

Florence Ronnenberg

Ronnenberg has fewer stories, but no less zest for life. She was born in December in Winona, a place where she says there wasn't much to do.

At the Riverside Assisted Living in Pine River, one resident celebrated a rare honor when she turned 100 years old Thursday, Dec. 19.

"It was OK," Ronnenberg said. "I didn't mind living there. It was just different."

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Growing up, she had a younger sister. Living in town in a home without running water, much less television, they entertained themselves as they could.

"We did a lot of drawing and stuff like that," Ronnenberg said. "We used to laugh and joke."

Like now, Minnesota winters were cold, and she and her sister helped their father bring firewood in to keep the place warm. Though she had nothing bad to say about her mother, her father was the kinder of the two.

"I had a good daddy," Ronnenberg said. "Mommy wasn't as nice. She only had two kids, but she was good to us. She held us and kept us well. I had a good life. I can't complain."

Ronnenberg's father worked as a carpenter. She remembers he built houses for neighbors.

"My dad was a prince," Ronnenberg said. "He did everything. He built so-and-so's house and so-and-so's house. They were people we knew. Daddy was wonderful. He could tell you anything and you'd believe it whether he was right or wrong."

Ronnenberg remembers swimming and bathing being a combined activity.

"There was a place with a lot of water," Ronnenberg said. "You could go there and swim or do whatever you did. We had someone follow us and stay with us there. We were never left alone. We were always with somebody, my father or mother."

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Of course, they didn't have flushing toilets either, but that didn't bother her.

"We had an outdoor biffy, and that's where we went," Ronnenberg said.

She remembers the excitement when all that changed and running water was installed at their home.

"We said, 'Whoa! It's coming in.' Then you could take a bath," she said.

Ronnenberg worked as a server starting at a young age while still in school. She recalls working at The Knick Knack.

"I was a waitress all my life," Ronnenberg said. "I loved it. You had nice gentlemen to work with, which made a lot of difference, and the people I worked with were nice. I never was outspoken and they weren't either."

She married young.

"He was a good man," Ronnenberg said. "I think we met at a meal. He was good-natured. You could always tell him a joke and he'd laugh."

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She had four children. While raising them she continued to work as a server at various restaurants, whether it was while living in Winona or Wabasha.

She came to Pine River to be closer to her children.

"Two of them lived. One of them lives up here or around here," Ronnenberg said. "That's how I got here, because they said it was a nice place to live."

Ronnenberg is a beacon of positivity at Riverside Assisted Living.

"I'm still alive," she said. "I feel good. I can't complain and I like it here. It's good here. The women we have around us are very good."

She enjoys the games they play together, especially when she gets the jackpot at bingo, as she has at least once in recent months.

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Florence Carlson

Carlson has more detailed memories that she is absolutely ready to share.

She was born in Concord, Nebraska. The day of her birth was the beginning of a very storied life.

"My parents had just moved to a new farm and mother was pregnant with me," Carlson said. "It wasn't the easiest thing."

When it was time, her mother told her father to call the doctor. It couldn't be that easy, however. Being a muddy March day, the doctor's car would never make it out to the farm. Her father brought over the neighbor, who was a midwife, then hitched a horse to his wagon and drove them six miles to the doctor.

"The doctor didn't get there in time, so the doctor said everything was fine," Carlson said.

Carlson has three older brothers. Seven years after she was born, her mother had another daughter. She remembered that summer she spent a lot of time with an aunt and uncle, unaware her mother was pregnant at all until one day she returned home from her aunt's house and was introduced to her younger sister.

They were always on a farm. For several years after her birth they suffered from drought, so the family picked up and moved to Iowa where the soil was famously fertile.

"It was a large farm with a lot of things in it," Carlson said.

At a young age, Carlson decided to take up a Scandinavian tradition.

"Every home would either have a piano or an organ," she said. "And when my family were on that farm, we bought a piano. I liked music and I guess I could sing a little."

Florence Carlson playing piano
Florence Carlson learned to play piano at a young age. Her fellow residents at Riverside Assisted Living in Pine River enjoy her mini performances like this one on Sept. 19, 2022.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

She often used one finger to play just a key on the piano and match it to her singing voice. Her mother noticed and asked if she would like to learn to play the piano. She said yes and began lessons with a teacher 10 miles away for $1 per lesson.

The farm in Iowa got her one step closer to Minnesota.

"My dad said I could go to Bible school in St. Paul, so I went there to study," Carlson said.

Carlson continued to hone her piano skills at Bible school. She asked her teacher to teach her to play "Evangelistically" and he understood what she meant, so she learned to play with and without sheet music, a skill she employs today to the enjoyment of her fellow residents at Riverside Assisted Living.

She met her husband, Ivan, while studying at Bible school. They married and she became a pastor's wife. They moved around often from church to church. In addition to playing the piano on Sundays, she eventually stayed at home to raise their eight kids. When they grew old enough to all go to school, Carlson took classes and became a nurse.

Her husband served churches Thief River Falls and Watertown. In Watertown, she learned there was a chance for she and her husband, along with a group of parishioners, to go to the Holy Land.

At that time, her oldest son was in college and offered to pay for their trip. There was one hiccup, however, as there was little or no official government record of Carlson's birth and life as an American citizen, which made acquiring a passport difficult.

She had to reconnect with the family of a pastor from Nebraska, as they were some of the only nonfamily members who could sign notarized documents affirming that Carlson was who she claimed to be.

"I had to explain it to them," Carlson said. "I asked if they remembered my parents, and she said, 'I remember them very well.' So I asked if they remembered they had a baby girl and she said, 'Yes, I remember that very, very well.'"

With that fixed, they got to go to the Holy Land.

"I enjoyed my trip, of course," Carlson said. "But I was not a young lady anymore. My eldest son was in college."

They came to the lakes area after retiring. She and her husband moved to Longville where they lived together until he died 20 years ago. After his death, she moved into Riverside Assisted Living in Pine River.

She still plays piano, much to the enjoyment of her fellow residents. She also likes to tell stories to her friends in the facility. Two years ago she wrote a book called "Stories" about her family, especially her father, who grew up in a family of 13 children.

Travis Grimler, staff writer, may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com . Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.

Related Topics: PEOPLELAKE COUNTRY FACESPINE RIVERRIVERSIDE
Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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