“Success stories, to be happy ones, shouldn’t have endings,” Pearl Swiggum wrote in a 1975 column for the Crawford County Independent.
Yet, Swiggum, who died Friday at the age of 101, successfully delighted Midwestern readers with 46 years’ worth of columns on farm life, proving that, as she might have put it, even the most enthusiastic advice-givers don’t always have all the answers.
Swiggum was born March 24, 1914, in Towerville, and lived most of her life within walking distance of the town, except for a few years of school in La Crosse and Vernon County. After marrying Tillmen J. (“Punk”) Swiggum in 1934, she achieved her dream of farming, owning a succession of farms, including Stump Ridge Farm, for which her column was named. In 1958, Swiggum also began working for the Crawford County Independent in Gays Mills, writing a column in addition to what she called “newspaper work.”
“She never sat still,” Marjie Jurgensen, Swiggum’s daughter, said in a Saturday interview with the State Journal. “She loved farming, sewing, gardening, walking, animals of all kinds.”
And she also loved sharing advice, memories, complaints and stories with readers of the Independent, the State Journal and at least four other papers in Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois.
“There’s nothing like a column for advancing one’s education,” Swiggum wrote in a column titled, “Flowers Benefit From Wacky Autumn Weather.”
Readers remember Swiggum’s homespun style and her tendency to ramble, mixing bits of wisdom in with anecdotes about making lefse, visiting the North Woods and taking care of her beloved cows. They also admired her forward-looking attitude in the face of sadness. When Punk Swiggum died in 1985, Pearl Swiggum took up a new hobby and — well into her 80s — would drive to Iowa to square dance.
“For someone who writes so evocatively about the past, Pearl has no desire to return to it,” Susan Lampert Smith observed in a 1995 profile for the State Journal. “This ability to see the future as a gift waiting to be unwrapped makes Pearl seem much, much younger than her years.”
With seemingly unflagging energy, Swiggum responded to nearly all of her readers’ letters either individually or in a column, Jurgensen said. And readers responded to her: when Pearl wrote a column musing about what she should do with the faces of old Christmas cards, nearly 100 readers responded and told her to send them to St. Jude’s Ranch for Children.
“Honestly, if I had deliberately and sneakily tried to see whether anyone reads my column, I couldn’t have thought of a better way,” Swiggum subsequently wrote.
Swiggum wrote the Stump Ridge Farm column until 2004, when she retired at age 90. Her family planned a retirement party that was advertised in the column, and Swiggum — ever suspicious of dresses — wrote that she’d wear jeans to the celebration.
“I can hardly wait,” she wrote. “I’m hoping there will be somebody who can polka, and I can make it around the floor at least once.”
Swiggum’s survivors include daughters Jurgensen and Dorothy Briggson, and son James Swiggum. She also leaves behind numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and one great-great-granddaughter. The “celebration of life” she requested will be held Saturday at 11 a.m. at Kickapoo United Lutheran Church in Soldiers Grove.