As a young girl, she rode the campaign trains with Eleanor Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan. Later she became the matriarch of one of Brainerd's most well known families.
Helen Mills, the wife of the late Stewart C. Mills Sr., founder of Mills Fleet Farm and its Mills Companies, will celebrate her 100th birthday today, on Christmas Eve at her home on Gull Lake.
She was born in Staples to Joseph and Hannah (Abrahamson) Wolf on or about midnight on Dec. 24, 1900, but no one has ever really known whether she was born Dec. 24 or 25, so they've always celebrated on Christmas Eve.
Her father owned a hotel and a block of the downtown business district, including the post office, in the small railroad town of Staples where Helen grew up. He also had an office in St. Paul where he was deeply involved in politics, serving as national committeeman for the Democratic Party.
Helen Katherine Mills is shown at a Mills Fleet Farm opening in the 1980s.
He and his wife would take their two daughters, Helen and Marguerite, and their son Bill to the National Democratic Party conventions, often staying for a month or longer. Her father once took a young Helen along with him as they rode the campaign train for William Jennings Bryan. She was also allowed to travel with Eleanor Roosevelt when she came to Minnesota one year.
Helen, like her father, was a staunchly conservative Jeffersonian Democrat. She probably would have been a Republican, said her son, Stewart C. Mills Jr., if her father hadn't been so involved with the Democratic Party. She served as a delegate twice during President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration.
She graduated from Staples High School and received her teaching degree from Carleton College in Northfield. Her first teaching job was at Pine River High School.
While living in the teachers' apartments in Pine River, Helen thought it would be funny to play a prank on the young man who was waiting outside the apartment building to court one of her female co-workers. Perhaps as a way to cool the young suitor off a bit, she dumped a pail of water on him from her top floor window. The young man later asked around, wanting to meet the woman who had embarrassed him.
Helen Mills is shown with her father Joseph Wolf. Mills' father, a Staples businessman who was deeply involved in Minnesota politics, took his young daughter to many of the national Democratic Party conventions.
That man was Stewart C. Mills Sr. They were later married on April 28, 1927, at First Congregational Church in Staples.
Helen also taught English at Bemidji High School, where one of her students for two years was football legend Bronko Nagurski. After she and her husband were married, they settled near Gregory Park in Brainerd where Stewart owned the Lively Auto Co., which he had taken over in 1922. In 1928, she gave birth to their twin sons, Stewart C. Mills Jr. and Henry C. Mills Jr.
Her son, Stewart, who co-owns Mills Companies with his twin brother, Henry, remembers his mother loved to speed skate. She would often be found racing around the skating rink that was built all the way around Gregory Park. She was involved in a number of organizations in Brainerd, including the Brainerd Service League, PEO and the Salvation Army, and was an active member of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Brainerd.
Her friends say Helen Mills was also gracious and charitable.
A young Helen Katherine (Wolf) Mills
Cecil McCollough, who was the first World War II war bride to arrive in Brainerd in 1944, was surprised to receive a letter from Helen Mills before she and her husband William, a former publisher of The Brainerd Dispatch, and their 4-month-old son, Terry, arrived in Brainerd from England. In that letter, Helen Mills welcomed her to America and to Brainerd.
"She is so wonderful," said Cecil McCollough, who has remained good friends with Helen Mills. "We always call her 'Aunt Helen.'"
The Mills family often spent their summers at their family cabin, built on Nisswa Lake on the Gull Lake chain of lakes in 1898 by her husband's father, Casper Henry Mills, who ran a steamboat and also worked booming logs on Gull Lake. His father, Henry C. Mills, ran a sawmill in Brainerd in the 1870s.
The twin Mills boys, like their father and his brother Henry, grew up on Nisswa Lake in that cabin. The cabin, which has been a summer retreat for four generations of Mills children, still exists as it has for the past century. It is now the oldest cabin on the Gull Lake chain.
Helen Mills (second from left) volunteered for the American Red Cross in Staples during World War I and met the troop trains in Staples to offer soldiers food and supplies. She posed with other Staples area women who also worked for the American Red Cross.
Elsa Stensrud, 93, Brainerd, has known Helen since the 1930s when they spent their summers in a nearby cabin on Nisswa Lake.
"She's so bright and so intelligent," said Stensrud. "She has such a good sense of humor. Their summer cabin is kind of like a shrine for the boys because they had so many happy times on the lake."
"She's just such a pleasant person and very easy to be with," said family friend Betty Sundberg, Baxter. "She's always thinking of others. I've enjoyed our friendship very much."
Stewart C. Mills Sr. owned the Lively Auto Co., a mutual investment company and later purchased Crow Wing Oil Co. and a Ford dealership in 1930. During World War II he owned a factory where he built adapters for bombs.
In 1955, Stewart C. Mills Sr. and his sons opened the first Mills Fleet Farm in Marshfield, Wis. There are now 28 Mills Fleet Farms in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Fargo, N.D., and a distribution center in Appleton, Wis. The Mills Companies also includes three car dealerships in Willmar; and Mills Motor, Mills GM, Bodyworks, Crow Wing Oil Co. and the Lively Auto Co., all in Brainerd and Baxter. Mills' corporate headquarters are located in the original Lively Building in downtown Brainerd.
Helen's five grandchildren all work for Mills Companies.
Helen has served as president of Mills Companies since her husband died on April 8, 1978. In 1993, at age 93, she practiced her pitch on the front lawn of her Gull Lake home before she threw out the first baseball for the dedication of the Stewart C. Mills Sr. Field in northeast Brainerd.
"Last year I threw out the ball (at a Brainerd Mighty Gulls baseball game) and she did better than I did," said her son, Stewart.
Helen attended a Brainerd City Council meeting in 1996 to accept the city's Tower Award in recognition of her family's contributions to the city.
After her husband's death, she traveled extensively and spent her winters in Florida. Until three years ago, she went dancing with friends and enjoyed playing in bridge tournaments.
"We love her," said friend Fran Holden. "One night years ago she was dancing with a younger man and said, 'What would you say if you knew you were dancing with a 91-year-old grandmother?'"
Friend Betty Snyder said they called Helen the "Queen of Gull Lake."
"She was such a gracious hostess always and very articulate," said friend Marlyss Schaefer. "She was very kind in an unassuming way. She did nice things without people knowing."
Helen was an adventurous woman, said Sundberg, who remembers she was fascinated to learn how to parch wild rice from Indian women who were harvesting rice near the Sundberg's hunting cabin in northern Minnesota many years ago.
Friend Dorothy Nelson said Helen was a beautiful painter. Nelson has two of her paintings hanging in her home.
Helen Mills now has 24-hour nursing care at her Gull Lake home but will be the guest of honor at a small birthday celebration for family and invited guests on Christmas Eve.
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