At age 99, Alma Christensen, of Pine River and formerly Pequot Lakes, died Dec. 2, leaving a legacy that's guaranteed to persist.
Christensen had many claims to fame, though perhaps none was so well known as her nickname "The Lady of the Woods." She grew up during the Great Depression, when she and her family learned to thrive amidst difficulty in any way they could. In addition to an indomitable will and drive, she learned the skills that would mark her as the foremost local expert on wild foods and their preparations for years to come.
That expertise started young.
"She was always involved in the community to help everybody. Whatever she could do. She was a very generous person that way. She was a very nice person. One of the greatest."
— Eldon Wiese
"I'd known her when her family lived in Pequot Lakes in the 1930s," said Eldon Wiese. "She always liked to eat things in the wild like berries. She had a column in the paper one time of all the things in the wild you could eat."
For many years she could be seen harvesting in the area.
"Someone stopped in the chamber and told us we might want to call the police because there was a lady crawling on the ground at Forbes Park," said John Wetrosky, former Pine River Chamber director. "I went there and it was Alma. I told her I almost called the police and she said, 'I should probably wear some kind of flag.'"
Christensen became a well-known speaker on the subject of wild foods.
"My predecessors, Mike and Arlene Naylon, set up what they called the Deep Portage Chautauqua program," said Deep Portage Executive Director Dale Yerger. "Alma was one of the original Chautauqua presenters and her specialty was living off the land. She did all kinds of wild edible programs."
Not long after, she not only wrote and sold her own wild food cookbook, called "For Soul and Kitchen," but also became a major contributor to Deep Portage Conservation Reserve's "Edible Wild Foods and Wild Game Cookbook." She gladly shared her expertise with anyone who asked.
She was a skilled teacher both in formal classrooms and in the community.
"We had her book at the chamber and people from who knows where would come in and buy that book because it was so local to the area," Wetrosky said.
Not only would she gladly teach people about wild foods, she was also a source of local history. When there were questions about area history, she was one of a small and ever shrinking group of people able to provide detailed information from the past. She even donated a pair of roller skates with wooden wheels for display at the Pine River Information Center.
"She was a walking encyclopedia for things that happened during her lifetime," Wetrosky said. "There were certain people you could call on for history. Maudy Gardiner was one of them, Sis Risnes is one of them. Those people are all walking encyclopedias of who was who, what things were and that type of thing. I think she was a touchstone. She was someone you could go to for information. She was well read. There weren't many things she couldn't talk about."
"We're losing a lot," Jackie Wetrosky said. "She was someone that had a lot of history for our area. She had a lot of natural history that people don't know anymore. She was a fountain of knowledge that we lost."
"She was one of the real elders of the community that had such unique knowledge that is not common in young people anymore," Yerger said.
"We're losing a lot. She was someone that had a lot of history for our area. She had a lot of natural history that people don't know anymore. She was a fountain of knowledge that we lost."
— Jackie Wetrosky
She was a creative soul, and not only did she use the kitchen to demonstrate that creativity, but she was also a founding member of the Pine River Art Club, an active community member and longtime member of the local fair board. Wiese served on the board with her and remembers how important local fairs were to her family growing up.
"She was in the Buschmann family," Wiese said. "They brought a lot of stuff to the fair in the '30s. That was quite a bit of their income in the summer. They canned food and anything they could and brought it to the fair."
At the Cass County Fair, Wiese remembers that Christensen was pretty much in charge of the canned goods, sewing and other exhibits, all of which she likely had some skill in. Jackie Wetrosky, who knew Christensen her entire life, not only uses Christensen's cookbook from time to time, but remembers her from those times on the fair board..
"I was in 4-H," Jackie said. "I swear she was always in the judging rooms. Whatever was happening, it seemed like she was always there."
"She had such a charming, interesting personality. It was just wonderful to be around her and her energy. She had that early Pine River pioneer spirit. She was a woman who could figure out how to live frugally off the land and put her family first."
— Deep Portage Executive Director Dale Yerger
She's remembered for her brilliance, her can-do attitude and her kindness.
"She was just a friendly person," John Wetrosky said. "She could talk to just about anybody. I miss those people because we've lost so many of that generation. They do a lot of oral history but a lot of that doesn't get passed down to the general community."
"She had such a charming, interesting personality," Yerger said. "It was just wonderful to be around her and her energy. She had that early Pine River pioneer spirit. She was a woman who could figure out how to live frugally off the land and put her family first."
Yerger said she had a great smile and twinkle in her eye, one which is visible in some of the pictures of her over the years.
"She was always involved in the community to help everybody," said Wiese. "Whatever she could do. She was a very generous person that way. She was a very nice person. One of the greatest."
Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or email@example.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.