If there is a fountain of youth, Eileen Gardner would tell you it’s in her hometown of Colfax.
“Do you think that drinking all that mineral water is what gave me all these years? I never dreamed I’d make it to 25, let alone where I am today,” Gardner said.
The 101-year-old grew up in Colfax in the 1920s and 1930s — a time when the city had nine hotels, many pumping rich mineral water from the area’s natural springs into tubs and spas. Visitors believed in the water’s rejuvenating properties. Gardner is a living well of anecdotes from Colfax’s gone-by boom time.
She remembers vividly the passenger trains carrying people coming to Colfax from Des Moines, Newton and Iowa City, for mineral spas and entertainment.
In her life, Gardner served as Jasper County Recorder, belonged to PEO and various women’s clubs, traveled the United States with her husband Daryl Gardner and has become the oldest member of the Howard Street Christian Church in Colfax.
Eileen sat down with the Jasper County Tribune in October as her 101st birthday was “just around the corner.” She sat inside her Park Centre apartment with a newspaper in hand and an award from the Iowa House of Representatives honoring her 101st year.
Although she’s lived in Newton since 2005, Eileen was born and raised in Colfax and said she will always consider the small town her home.
Gardner was born Eileen Plummer in 1916. When she was a child, her parents Earl and Myrtle Plummer owned a livery stable where horses were let out for hire. After a devastating tornado in 1922 leveled multiple buildings in Colfax, her father transitioned from livery to a Chevrolet car dealership.
In her closet at Park Centre, Eileen still has the photograph of the building the tornado destroyed right next to their stable.
“I was never at home, they were always out looking for me. My parents got me home and got me down to the garage. We watched this storm. Stuff was blowing through the town,” Eileen said. “After the storm, (Earl) did away with the buggies and had autos. They were like a coupe.”
One of Eileen’s first memories of a car was in 1920. Her grandfather, Charles Plumber, got his first “motorized car.” She went with her grandfather, her father and her two aunts on a little joy ride.
“We had my dad’s two sisters in the back, and he always had me with him. We got to Standpipe Hill, and we started down. He kept saying ‘Woah, Woah! It was funny, but yet it wasn’t because they were going right along,” she said.
Myrtle, Eileen’s mother, was born and raised in Prairie City and known around Jasper County for her exceptional singing voice. Eileen said her mother sang for all the funeral services in Colfax, and her voice could always be spotted at church.
“You knew when Myrtle was in your congregation. She was good,” said Colfax Historical Society member and Eileen’s friend, Karen Russell.
Eileen’s mother passed on that musical talent and encouraged her daughter to perform at a very young age. Eileen sang in a trio and sextet in high school, but at 4-years-old, Eileen sang for members of Colfax Sovereign Grand Lodge Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) in a downtown Colfax ballroom above what is now NAPA Auto Parts. The IOOF would have square dances and parties, and Eileen sang in the hall on special occasions.
“They would have me entertaining, and at 4 years old she taught me a song. It was (called) ‘Me Too.’ I’d give anything to know if anyone had ever heard of that song ‘Me Too,’” Eileen said.
The first thing that always comes to mind when Eileen thinks about Colfax is mineral wells. Her family lived right in the busy Colfax downtown district. She remembers the Mason House, which also employed mineral water.
Segregation was an unspoken rule in Colfax during her childhood, and Eileen remembers a rooming house for African Americans next to the town’s funeral home — a place that she said was not discrete about its work in the early 1920s.
“My folks could never keep up with me, I was always on the go,” Eileen said. “At 5-years-old I remember coming back down the street. There was a flat bed sitting right in front of the funeral home. There were two shoes with ankles sticking out and sitting on the truck. These men had gone down in an airplane. Bodies had been picked up and put there. To this day, I can see those two shoes with those ankles.”
Eileen did not grow up alone. Her sister Beverly (Plumber) Bauer was born in 1922. Beverly was premature, weighing just 2 and three-eights pounds at birth. Eileen made frequent visits to the doctor’s office herself for a condition and use the time in the waiting room to ask about an addition to the family.
“I made daily visits,” Eileen said. “They’d see me sitting in the waiting room, and they’d say, ‘what do you want Eileen?’ And I’d say ‘When are you going to bring me a baby brother or baby sister?’”
Although it was the Great Depression, Eileen’s parents wanted to ensure she had a quality education. Eileen could not attend university right after high school but within a couple of years, her parents were able to afford to send Eileen to AIB College. Her higher education quickly translated into a full-time job.
“My folks were good Republicans. They’d worked for the Republican party. The girl that was running for recorder had told them, if she ran for the election she’d have me for her deputy. I took that job,” Eileen said.
After she served as deputy recorder for four years, Eileen also ran and served a full term as Jasper County Recorder.
While in Newton, Eileen met her future husband Daryl Gardner. They dated for nearly 12 years before they finally tied the knot. Daryl was an engineer and was offered a job for an ammunition company in Burlington.
“He said to me, ‘if I go to Burlington and you go to Newton there’s a long distance between. We have to get married,’” Eileen said.
They eloped to Nebraska, avoiding Iowa’s red tape requiring birth certificates to get a marriage license. They waited nearly a year to tell their families.
During World War II, Daryl was deployed for 37 months. He went through General George S. Patton’s army, then through the Panama Canal to the Philippines. Meanwhile, Eileen went into civil service, working at a federal rent control office in Newton.
When Daryl returned he was offered an engineering job that required travel. Eileen said this allowed the couple to see the United States. They eventually settled in Des Moines and Daryl died in 1970. Eileen never remarried.
“At that age, if I’d found a man, he’d be his mama’s boy and if he wasn’t his mama’s boy he’d have kids that could dislike you,” she said.
But before he passed, Eileen said Daryl told a story indicative or who he was and that she’s never forgotten.
“He said ‘I want you to open up your memory box, and I’m going to tell you something I don’t want you to forget.’ He was quite the person,” Eileen said.
Daryl had a history of telling tall tales about “bathtub gin,” so Eileen was skeptical about the coming story.
“He said, ‘Oh no, this is going to be the truth and I want you to remember it. The day will come when a car will leave California and arrive in New York without a driver.’ I thought, I am so angry that I didn’t say where did you get that information?”
Colfax has always been home, but that doesn’t mean Eileen hasn’t experienced the world. Adding to her travels with Daryl, the Colfax native began to snowbird with her parents as they aged, eventually buying a condo in the 1980s.
In 2018 at Park Centre, Eileen looks forward to visitors from Colfax and treats her nurse Marsha like family.
“I couldn’t do it without her. I couldn’t live here,” Eileen said. “She knows it. So when I tell her she’s fired, she comes right back.”
In their later years, both Eileen and her sister Beverly have been generous with the Colfax institutions which meant so much to them during their lifetimes. Before her death, Beverly gave nearly $340,000 to Howard Street Christian Church to help complete the addition of a Chalice Room. Eileen paid for the remaining balance. Although she could no longer attend weekly service, Eileen said she still feels the church is much a part of her.
“I told my lawyer, I hate to die knowing that the members of my church are obligated to take care of all this debt. He said, ‘you don’t have to,’” Eileen said. “The next day he knew exactly how much the debt was, principal and interest, so I did pay off that mortgage.”
Eileen has also donated to the Colfax-Mingo Alumni Association and plans to have a scholarship in her name after she dies, just like her sister.
Contact Mike Mendenhall at firstname.lastname@example.org