Some of the best stories in the Lost Sierra can be found in the hearts and minds of Plumas County residents, with Eastern Plumas Health Care Skilled Nursing Facility resident Ellen Housen the first resident to open the treasure trove of memory to the community.
Ellen Housen was born in Lovington, Ill. on Aug. 28, 1918 to parents Eunice and Dave Coslow. Shortly after her birth, at four months of age, Housens’ father died of the flu, which, according to Housen, was a fairly common thing at that time.
Shortly after that time, Housen and her older brother moved onto a farm in Webster City, Iowa, working with her aunts and uncles. “The main crops were corn and oats,” Housen recalled.
“It was hard work, with no electricity — the farmers these days have it easy!” Housen laughed and went on to explain how life was indeed a bit more simple in those bygone days, with most families still utilizing kerosene lamps and pumping water.
The hard work was usually shared amongst members of large families, and in Housen’s case, the family grew exponentially after her mother remarried to what she described as “one of the best stepfathers in the world,” Albert Philbrook.
Five more children were added to the hardworking family, creating a jolly group of seven children altogether. “I was the babysitter, and the biggest tomboy!” Housen exclaimed. “I could climb trees better than the boys.”
Housen reminisced about the “boiling hot” summer days spent in the fields, where she and her stepfather worked together to shuck oats, leading up to the threshing season.
“All of the farmers would get together and hire the threshing equipment,” Housen explained. “They would take the hay wagons out to the fields, bring bales in to the equipment, and the machinery would then sift and separate the straw from the grain. These days, the process goes so much more quickly with one machine to do all of that!”
Housen went on to recall one of the best parts of threshing in summer — the food. “All of the women would gather, and try to outdo themselves and one another with home-cooked meals for all to share,” she smiled, closing her eyes as if to envision the laden tables of summer childhood. “Us kids, we sure thought that they were all such good cooks! I definitely miss that lifestyle.”
Housen was the only girl in the family until 1929, when her baby sister Kathleen was born, and also when the Great Depression struck. “My baby sister was 11 years younger than me,” Housen noted, laughing. “She was spoiled then, and she’s still my spoiled baby sister at 89!”
The family worked hard to make it through those years, but overall, Housen said that she and her siblings didn’t really notice a major change resulting from the Depression. “We didn’t have money, but then again, neither did anyone else at the time,” Housen explained.
During the years spanning her childhood, through the Depression years, Housen attended two schools to complete her basic education. “I went to school at two different places, but both were one-room country schoolhouses. There wasn’t any electricity at the school, and there was one teacher handling all eight grades,” Housen said.
Housen walked the 2 miles to school with her siblings, rain or shine or snow. “We had a horse drawn sled, or sleigh, that we used, especially for the annual school program, where all of the students would sing, put on plays and the like once a year — the teachers were pretty clever,” Housen continued. “Mother would light the gas lamp, put it in the sled with all of us kids, and off we would go to the school program. It was pretty special.”
Housen also commented that her family owned a Model T Ford, saying, “If you had a car in the 20s, it was a Model T!” The kids would get creative and make their own toys, Housen added, and Housen especially recalled a time when her brother whittled wooden pinwheels from a shingle, and all of the kids fought and jostled when riding in that Model T to have the window seat. “We’d be hanging out the windows, watching those little propeller wheels spin while we drove down the dirt road,” Housen said.
Housen ultimately ended up graduating from high school in Bancroft, Iowa, in 1936, about which she said, “At that time, there weren’t many options for women outside of being homemakers or teaching.
“The first thing that I did after high school was making the decision to travel to Chicago.” Housen’s older brother had married and moved to Chicago, and his wife was expecting at the time, so Housen went to stay and assist her family from 1941 to the fall of 1942. “My dad didn’t think that I would really go through with traveling,” Housen smiled. “He said he would give me three months before I would be calling for money to come back home — but I didn’t! My parents were really very supportive.”
Housen lived through yet another historical event at that time, recalling that during her stay in Chicago, Pearl Harbor was bombed. After the tragedy, Housen’s cousin in Stockton invited her to come and stay. “I left Chicago in late 1942 and rode on a steam train from Chicago to Sacramento — a pretty long trip,” Housen said. “Then I had to transfer from the train to a bus, which went from Sacramento to Stockton.”
After reaching California, Housen began work at the Port of Stockton, and went to visit her family back in Iowa each year. “It was easy to travel by train at the time,” Housen said. “All of the trains were in service, with soldiers riding the rails — there were some neat trips.”
Housen recalled yet another historical event that rocked the world, an event that she won’t forget. “I had gotten up early to make breakfast, and needed to go down to the corner store to get some groceries,” Housen explained. “While I was there, I heard something on the radio, and I asked the grocer to turn the radio up because something was going on. That is when I heard President Franklin Roosevelt declare war.”
Housen said that four of her brothers enlisted and all ultimately came home safely, despite one brother spending time as a prisoner of war in Germany, and another brother wounded during his time with the Navy.
Housen went on to meet and marry her first husband, who passed away rather suddenly, and then met Dan Housen, whom she married and raised three children with.
“We moved to Portola in 1958, as Dan worked as an engineer for the Western Pacific Railroad,” Housen went on. “I’ve been here ever since!”
Housen recalled the many times that she would ride the train from Portola to Oroville, where Dan would be working the switch engine, and how they would drive home together. “I really enjoyed riding on the train,” Housen smiled softly.
Housen put her children through school in Portola, and spent her free time in the great outdoors. “I was a fisherwoman,” Housen said. “I loved to stream fish — why, I fished from Lake Davis before it was ever a lake; just a little stream flowing through a meadow.”
Housen also enjoyed roaming the wilderness with her children, saying, “I used to take my kids hiking quite a bit — we hiked all over Beckwourth Peak, and even found what used to be a sheep camp on one expedition! It was so exciting.”
Housen then explained that she had been at the Portola EPHC SNF for nearly a year, and that she still loved living in Plumas County. Housen spends much of her time reading, doing crosswords and becoming a puzzle expert. When asked what the secret to her longevity was, Housen laughed. “It’s pretty much what I told a doctor not long ago — I just keep on breathing!”
In parting, Housen said, “My cup runneth over now. I’m lucky to live here, and people truly don’t realize how lucky they are to live in a place like this.”