Neighbors: sisters for over a century
Florence Timmerman and Jessie Johnson have known the Northside for more than a hundred years each. The sisters, who are 100 and 104 years old, grew up at 37th and Bryant Ave. N before the neighborhood had paved roads. They spent their lives educating generations of students in the community, and now they live together in Timmerman’s home in the Folwell neighborhood.
By Kenzie O'Keefe | Editor
How did your family originally end up in North Minneapolis? Florence: My mother and father, Mr. and Mrs. Fred Puerner, moved in on Bryant and 37th Ave. N before there were any streets in North Minneapolis. At the time, the city light post was in their front yard. [They chose this community because my father’s] aunt and uncle owned a house here and had it for sale.
Then the two of you came along? Florence: Jessie was born on September 3, 1913. I was born in 1918 in January. We’ve always been just the two of us. Dad was a railroad man, and I think he was one of the most wonderful men in the world. He was a loving father and a loving husband too. Mother was the one who kept order. We loved our parents.
What life lessons did you learn from your parents? Florence: I knew I had to be fussy about the boys I dated. One time a boy came to our house and honked the horn, and my mother went right out up to the car and said “If you want a date with my daughter, you come to the door and introduce yourself to me.” Then she turned around and came inside. He drove off, and I never had that date.
What was your childhood like? Florence: Railroad men and their families had free transportation. As a family we traveled way to the west coast and the east coast. We got out to Treasure Island in the Pacific for the World’s Fair. We did a lot of traveling. We were lucky. Jessie: We went to Philadelphia and saw the Liberty Bell and that wonderful big organ. It was a thrill to be in that big city. It makes an impression! Florence: We had canaries when we were young. Jessie: Oh yes! Mickey and Dickey. Mickey was the pride of our hearts. Florence: Mickey learned how to get out of the cage on his own. He would fly around the kitchen and take a bath in a saucer on the kitchen table. The milkman came to the door once when Mickey was out, and Mickey took advantage. He flew out the back porch into the wide spaces.
Where did you go to high school? Florence: Both of us were students at North High School. At the time there were 4000 students. I can’t believe it’s so small now. Dad took the streetcar on Washington to work. Jessie and I took the one on Fremont to school or we walked.
Have you spent your whole lives in North Minneapolis? Florence: No, I became a teacher at the University, and I went out to Madison, MN for four years. I loved it because I loved teaching and the children. Jessie was a teacher too, she taught piano and organ. For over 60 years she was the organist at a Presbyterian Church.
Do you still play the piano, Jessie? Jessie: Once in a while. My grand piano was sold to a man in Menomonie, WI. He called and talked with Florence’s daughter in law and said how much he was enjoying my piano. That made me feel good. Florence was there when the piano movers came to get the piano out of my house. Florence: I almost cried. Jessie: When your things go, it makes a big difference. My poor sister has her house full of things from my place.
Tell us more about your teaching career, Florence. Florence: I taught 11th and 12th grade English for close to 30 years. I taught in Madison and at Central High School and Patrick Henry High School. When I was at Central, WW2 ended. My husband and I had been engaged all during the Second World War. He was involved in four terrible battles. How he ever lived, I don’t know. He received a Bronze Star. I taught school even after my husband came home from the war. I loved it. I just loved the kids. Quite a few of my students became English teachers. I’ve heard from them through the years. I had a letter last week from a man I had 70 years ago. By the way, one of my students was Robert Bly, who has been quiet famous as a poet. He remembers the first poem he ever wrote for me. I don’t, but he does! He learned to love to write.
How did your experiences during WW2 shape your life together? Florence: Those men never talked about the war. We thought they were the same way they were when they left as 18 year olds. He started having problems with his nerves. He would faint away and we had no idea why. We went to Rochester, and they said it was his nerves. Most of the men who I knew, you’d look at them and they were fine, but their nerves were really shot. It’s understandable because they didn’t have any help when they came home. We just thought they were the way they had always been. Since then we realized people can’t go through what they go through, shooting to kill and being shot at. Seeing death all around you.
Did you and your husband have children? Florence: I had three children of my own. I lost one as a little baby, and my daughter Linda died three years ago in her 50s. We were together all the time. I’ve missed her a lot. I have a wonderful son and a wonderful daughter in law in South Minneapolis, so I feel very fortunate. We have the nicest kids in the community too. The Boys to Men Club started shoveling for me. They came over for my birthday and brought a cake.
Has North changed in your lifetime? Florence: I can’t judge it now because I’ve been inside for years. The people I know are wonderful. I think it’s because most of them are not wealthy. There is a sense of sharing and closeness; we look out for one another.
What has made you stay in this community? Florence: I’ve always felt that it’s a good community. I know people look down on the Northsiders, but I’ve always liked this community. There are such good people I’ve known. …The police have been really concerned. I’ve been told that every house in the neighborhood has been broken into. We haven’t had anyone try to break in. It’s kind of strange. I’ve never been scared of North Minneapolis. I don’t think my father and mother were ever afraid.
What do you like about living together? Florence: We get along. Jessie: She takes care of me. Florence: It’s because we love each other.
Does she take care of you too, Florence? Florence: Yes. We don’t get lonesome. We have somebody to talk to or at every day. She’s also protective of me. Jessie: In the morning I can see the sun and in the evening I have enough of a crack through the bedroom door that I can look in the other direction and see the moon. What more can you want? If I have to move from here I’ll be very unhappy. We have to face that because you never know. Florence: I think we’re fine now. We get along very well even though we don’t always agree. Jessie: I thank her every night when she tucks me in – I say “thank you a million!” But that’s not enough because nowadays they’re talking billions and trillions.