Woodbury matriarch Inez Oehlke shares her passion for Woodbury: past, present and future.
You may recognize Inez Oehlke around town. She’s the woman enjoying a meal and family time at the Old Country Buffet, a popular choice for her great-grandchildren. She’s the woman who delivered an inspirational message at last spring’s Woodbury Community Foundation 10th Anniversary Gala. She’s the woman at Woodbury Senior Living who spends time with new residents, making sure they feel welcome.
As a member of one of Woodbury’s early farm families, and a founding member of the Woodbury Heritage Society, Inez carries a unique perspective on our city. Woodbury Magazine sat down with Inez, who will turn 95 next month, for a wonderful conversation about her life and her thoughts about our city.
What are your memories of growing up in Woodbury?
I was born in a little brick house, which was located where Tower Drive comes right to Valley Creek Road; Scheel was my maiden name. My mother convinced my father, who was a carpenter, to go into farming; he bought a 40-acre farm in Woodbury. We were surrounded by other farms: red barns, small silos, farmhouses with smoke billowing out of the chimneys.
The home of Glen Oehlke’s great-grandparents, Charles and Catherine Oehlke, at Radio Drive and Dale Road around 1880.
Where did you go to school?
I attended District 26; teachers came out from the city to teach the country kids—Woodbury was considered “country” back then. We had to pass state board exams to get into the city high schools. I went to Harding High School in St. Paul and took the Greyhound bus. Back in those days, it cost 25 cents to take the Greyhound from Amery, Wis. to St. Paul.
A professor at the University of Minnesota was promoting college for rural kids, so after high school, I went to the U. I was in finance. After college, I got a job at Hennepin County in their financial treasury, where I worked for six years.
How did you meet your husband, Glen Oehlke?
Well, Glen went to a different school, even though he lived down the road, just over the border in Cottage Grove. That made him a foreigner! One evening, I went to a dance in Cottage Grove; it was a tradition that if a boy wanted to take a girl home to her place, he would ask her for the last dance. At the last dance, here comes this young man—Glen—we danced a couple of steps and started talking. Two years later, I married him.
Inez and Glen Oehlke in 1973.
Glen Oehlke was from a farming family. Tell us about your life on the farm.
After our honeymoon, we moved into the big farmhouse on Woodbury Drive; Glen’s parents went to a smaller house. His sister and brother-in-law lived upstairs for a few years until they moved to their own home. We were dairy farmers, 40 dairy cows, and grew a lot of hay. Also some corn and a little oats. When we sold the cattle in our retirement, we went into soybeans too.
Life on the farm was very regimented, with routines you had to follow. That’s part of farming life, but you get used to it. We got up at 5 a.m. I made breakfast and got things going for the day. There was cooking, cooking and cooking . . . lots of cooking. I didn’t milk the cows, but sometimes I’d help a cow with the birth of a calf.
You raised two children, Vernon and Janet, on the farm. Today Woodbury has all the conveniences for family life. What was it like when you were raising your family?
We would go to Newport for things. We took our cattle there to be sold, shopped at Fisher Foods and went to the post office and doctor there. Sometimes I also drove to the Johnson family market in St. Paul for groceries.
The children went to Woodbury Elementary School, and got there by bus. I remember looking out the window, seeing when the bus was about a mile away, and telling the kids to hurry and get out there so they wouldn’t miss it. We attended Woodbury United Methodist Church, where Glen and I were married
What was your social life like in those years?
When the children were growing up, our social life was the family. You hardly heard of eating out or going out. I remember as a child, going to see movies on Saturday night in Lake Elmo. Otherwise, you never saw a movie. But then television came—it was a big thing. There were nice little TV shows. Radio too. Those were the things for entertainment. A farm keeps you so busy, you’re not thinking big entertainment. We did have nice friendships with our neighbors whom we got to know well.
Inez Oehlke at the family farm on Woodbury Drive in 2011.
Describe your thoughts on Woodbury today.
There’s been a huge change in the population! Years back, when someone moved into Woodbury, everyone knew and was there to help. Today it takes a while before they know the neighbors, but that caring spirit is still here. It’s here in the local food shelf and the large number of Habitat for Humanity homes. Now we have lots of shopping and medical clinics and a beautiful hospital. We have the sports arena, the library, which I’m especially proud of, and the parks and bike trails. If I want to quiet my soul, how wonderful to walk around Colby Lake. It seems we have just about everything here in Woodbury.
Your family farmland in Woodbury is now home to St. Ambrose of Woodbury Catholic Church and Resurrection Lutheran Church, which also uses the big white farmhouse and farm buildings. Tell us how that came about.
Glen and I had always had a little thought about what to do about our land as the development came closer and closer. This was land first purchased for agriculture in Woodbury by the McHattie and the Middleton families, who migrated from Scotland and Ireland. To us, this was sort of a holy land. When churches started approaching us, we knew exactly what we wanted to do with our land: sell it so it could be the site of church communities. We were so involved in church ourselves. It’s nice to see the churches and a little open space there.
Describe your life today.
After living in that big farmhouse for over 50 years, and after Glen passed away in 2000, it was kind of lonely there. In 2005, I moved to the Villa at Woodbury Senior Living. I still get up at 5 a.m. every morning because for one thing, my mind is the sharpest in the morning. I do some book work and I work on community projects, such as the Miller Barn preservation project of the Woodbury Heritage Society board which I rejoined. It’s an excellent example of the early barns of Woodbury; we hope to work with the city for an eventual multi-use of the barn, which is part of the Valley Creek Open Space. I do a few speeches around town and enjoy that. I like to do my share.
I’m also an ambassador at the Villa. When a new person moves in, I take them to breakfast or lunch or an activity. I sit down and talk with them a little bit. I enjoy that. I do love people. I’m a people person.
Spending time with my grandchildren is probably one of the more social things I do. They are very good about visiting me, and we go out. They stagger their days; then I can talk with each one and have a nice visit.
Happiness for me is having a project going. I now have a project going, making photo books for the grandchildren and great grandchildren. That’s my fun right now.
In 1975-76, Inez Oehlke chaired the Woodbury Heritage Society committee which published Woodbury: A Past to Remember, a book full of Woodbury history, which was created to celebrate the national bicentennial. The book is available for $10. For more information, go to woodburyheritage.org.