The Senior Citizens Center celebrated its half-century on Sunday afternoon. But with attendance at only 30 and a membership of just 13, one wonders what the future holds. Still, as was stated on Sunday, the organization has played a vital part of community life since it started in 1969, and that’s worth celebrating
Alma Wollman, who turns 94 years old this month, remembers moving into town with her late husband, Reuben, in the fall of 1991 and being invited by her neighbor, Sarah Buller Hofer, to join the group that met regularly at the Senior Citizens Center.
“I didn’t know too many ladies in town and I wanted to get acquainted and figured that was the place to go, so I started coming,” said Wollman, who recalled the story at the Senior Citizens Center’s 50th anniversary gathering Sunday afternoon, Nov. 3. “Oh, it was fun. The potlucks. The programs. The games. I knew this was the right place for me to be.”
The testimony shared by Wollman, who has been a faithful member ever since she first set foot inside that door, can be, and has been, echoed by countless others who have enjoyed all that the Senior Citizens Center has offered the community’s aging population since it first opened in late 1969. That year, a group of men and women and other community leaders spearheaded an effort to gauge interest in establishing a gathering place for those 55 years of age and older, and that October held a talent show that many consider the beginning of the organization.
It was a rousing success that led to what was billed as a three-month experiment and, ultimately, its five-decade run.
The Senior Citizens Center opened in December of 1969 in a small building on the west side of Third Street that was owned by Albert Krueger, who had operated a restaurant there and was famous for serving chislic. The Krueger building no longer stands; it was replaced by a new building that served as home to the Freeman VFW beginning in 1964 and would later become a number of different restaurants and bars, including Rumours, Geo’s, The Broken Spoke, Third Street Grille and Blue’s Family Restaurant.
As for the Senior Citizens Center, it quickly became apparent that the Krueger building could not accommodate its needs and so, in January of 1971, the organization purchased a building that had been owned by Lewis Linscheid and home to Freeman Wood Products. That, coupled with the decision to incorporate, meant that by the time it reached its grand opening date of March 30, 1971 — after a thorough cleaning and paint job — the Freeman Senior Citizens Center was off and running.
The building the organization moved into in 1971 is the same one that has served the Senior Citizens Center ever since, although photos from those early years show an unassuming, flat-roofed, brick exterior structure, the southwest corner room of which had been used as a doctor’s office; in most recent years that corner has been used by Ida Mae Plate for her massage-therapy business.
The Senior Citizens Center added a 40 foot x 20 foot addition to the north in 1987, as well as other improvements that included a new roof, siding, insulation on all sides and a new air conditioning unit. And while much of the initial work and progress that followed was driven by the senior citizens of the community themselves, many other local organizations and clubs contributed to — and supported — its well-being. The ministerial association, extension clubs, the Freeman Chamber of Commerce and Freeman City Council all played important roles in those early years, according to history written by Celia Fliginger, the Senior Citizens Center’s first president, in a booklet published in conjunction with its 25th anniversary in 1994.
“We are thankful for all willing workers who have contributed so much for almost 25 years,” Fliginger wrote. “Without your help our projects would not be possible.”
HEYDAY AND DECLINE
At the heart of the Senior Citizens Center those early years and through its heyday of the 1970s and 1980s was nonstop activity that offered something for everybody. There were bus trips and pool tournaments, flower shows and fundraisers, bake sales and fleisch kuechle luncheons, card games and quilting, discussion groups, choir programs and community fundraisers, and when activity was at its highest in the mid-1980s, membership stood at 150.
“It has been a lot of fun,” said Wyona Hofer, who shared briefly at Sunday’s gathering celebrating 50 years. “I joined sometime in the 80s, and my what a busy place it used to be — the quilters, the men’s pool tournaments. This was a way to get acquainted with new people and everything we did was always a lot of fun.”
But as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, things began to change. By 1994, the year the Senior Citizens Center celebrated 25 years, membership had dropped from 150 to 118, and in 2004, when the organization marked 35 years, it had dropped to just 50.
“We’re in a slump,” Pauline Waltner, a charter member, told the Courier in a story published in August of 2004. “We need to revitalize. It’s always been a little bit of work, but it’s always been fun.”
And in that same year of 2004, in the official celebration of 35 years, Lisa Mueller Howard, the program director for the Center of Active Generations in Sioux Falls who grew up in Freeman and is the daughter of Bruce Mueller, encouraged the organization the think fresh and move forward.
“Aging is changing,” she told the group in a Wednesday afternoon speech at the center. “You have to think about (involving) younger seniors and the types of activities they want to do. They’re the ones that are going to sustain your organization.”
Fitness, wellness, a lunch program and education about technology are among the biggest areas of interest for a new generation of seniors, Mueller Howard told the group.
Her comments only reinforced what Pauline Waltner knew.
“We need to grow,” she told the Courier. “Otherwise we’re going to fold.”
Fifteen years have passed since that 35th anniversary and the Senior Citizens Center is still hanging on. The monthly schedule includes game days, choir practices, business meetings, birthday parties and noon potlucks — not unlike it used to be — but participation is on life support. Last Sunday, when the organization marked its Golden Anniversary, membership stood at just 13, and only 30 attended the 45-minute program. Among those in attendance was Ruth Preheim, who at 103 years old is among the most faithful members of the Senior Citizens Center. On the occasion of the 25th anniversary, when membership was beginning its decline, Prehiem was asked why that was so.
“Everyone works now,” she said. “People don’t even have time for their own families. And technology has taken away from visiting and having fellowship with one another.”
“Where have we failed?” asked Joyce Hofer, who has been active at the Senior Citizens Center in recent years and headed up the Sunday’s 50th anniversary observance that included a brief oral history and slideshow showing pictures from the past, music and cake and ice cream. “I hate to see the Senior Citizens Center close. Many went through a lot to get this place started and going strong. You don’t know what you’re missing by not coming.”
An annual membership for the Senior Citizens Center is $15.