Centenarian an inspiration

Ready to turn 105 years old: Arbor Lodge residents Edith DeMan, Whitt Vernon and Nancy Pahl exercise along with Lena Johnston, front,  who will celebrate her 105th birthday on Thursday, March 6. - James Murray/Observer
Ready to turn 105 years old: Arbor Lodge residents Edith DeMan, Whitt Vernon and Nancy Pahl exercise along with Lena Johnston, front, who will celebrate her 105th birthday on Thursday, March 6.
— image credit: James Murray/Observer

Every morning when Lena Johnston wakes up, she plants her feet on the floor and says, “I am lucky to be here.”

Living one day at a time and finding something to appreciate no matter what is going on in her life has carried this tiny, spirited woman through the first 104 years of her life.

“I’m still here kicking,” she laughs, noting that her joy may come simply from a nice sunny day. “And nobody likes a grumpy old person.”

The sprightly, articulate woman also credits her longevity to her rarin’-to-go attitude and determination to learn something new every day.

Johnston moved into Arbor Lodge in September after 76 years of living on the family farm in Notch Hill her husband had found on his second trip to the area.

Johnston, her husband, Johnny, and four-year-old son, Roy, came to the Shuswap from Monitor, Alta. in a CPR boxcar loaded with animals, household items and machinery, a cow, her calf, a couple of horses, some chickens and a few turkeys – only one of which survived the trip.

“He turned out to be a gobbler, so we ate him for Christmas,” Johnston laughs of the handy demise of the noisy male bird.

Food for the three-day train trip was stashed in the oven of Johnston’s stove, along with their disassembled Bennett wagon.

It was the Dirty Thirties and most people were unable to afford gas for their cars so they adapted them to real horse power and named them after Prime Minister R.B. Bennett.

“The day we left, it poured rain and I said, ‘My God are we making a mistake?’” Johnston said. “I sure am happy we came to B.C. to live. We may have had to work hard, but it’s compensated itself. There’s been the good and bad, but you get that anywhere.”

The Johnstons arrived at the Notch Hill train station late in the afternoon of Aug. 5, 1937 to a completely different world from the prairie dust bowl of the ‘30s.

“Roy was so happy to get outside and we could smell so many different smells,” says Johnston, recalling that the animals, who were used to wide-open spaces, were fearful of going into the surrounding bush.

It was the same feeling of being hemmed in that later had her husband logging the hill above the house.

With a flashlight borrowed from the train station, the family made their way to their newly purchased house.

“The door was open and Johnny went in, then he came out shouting, ‘My God there’s a red-headed lady sleeping in that bed,’” she laughs. “That still tickles me to this day.”

While they were adept at farming, the couple had to learn how to use a cross-cut saw in order to log.

“It was all darn hard work, no matter what you did,” Johnston says, noting hand tools were the order of the day.

The couple also planted several fruit trees, her husband declaring, “we’re in a fruit country and we’re gonna grow some of the darn stuff.”

Notch Hill Road was the highway in 1937 and Johnston recalls several little grocery stores dotting the area because people didn’t have cars.

“Originally, we shipped cream for a while in order to buy sugar, flour, tea and coffee,” says Johnston recalling her efforts to make coffee from soya beans. “I put them in the house to dry then roasted them until they were black. If I didn’t get it right, we would have had to drink it anyhow.”

The farm, which is now tended by Roy and his son George, still has cattle and produces hay.

While several of her aunts and uncles lived long lives, Johnston’s parents both died in their seventies and she is the last remaining sibling.

She has three grandchildren, six grandchildren, many friends and a keen interest in the world around her and on getting out into it.

A widow for 35 years, Johnston has travelled extensively and would she would still be on the move, if she could get travel insurance.

These days, her outings are family oriented with her grandson George, who often picks her up early Sunday mornings to take her to various favourite breakfast spots. Her granddaughter Donna and husband George also take he r on jaunts.

Other than her early morning exercise classes and walks around the block, Johnston likes to read, watch TV, play cards and do jigsaw puzzles.

Known as Granny to many, Johnston, who celebrates her 105th birthday on March 6, reiterates her advice for a long and healthy life:


“Don’t feel down in the dumps, live one day at a time and be happy because you’re here to enjoy it.



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