The apostle Paul says in Ephesians 6 that if children obey their parents—"honor your mother and father, the first commandment with promise”-- you may live long on the earth.
It would be a stretch to say that she recognizes all of the latter. She has more than 140 descendants, including three great-great-great grandchildren. Among her many blessings is that all seven of her children, who range in age from 71 to 85, are alive and well. She also has a younger sister—Mildred Dawkins—who is a mere 92. But she has outlived five other siblings.
Mary was born to Joseph and Josie Masek, the third of their children, in a dugout on Craven Creek a few miles south of White Clay on November 25, 1917. She lived in that same vicinity for nearly 99 years, or until about 5 ½ years ago, when she moved to Chadron to live with her daughter, Mary Ellen New.
She’s not known many luxuries, but has always made the best of things. She’s described by her family members as being a hard worker, taught her children to work and was a disciplinarian who kept a razor strap handy, but didn’t use it often. She could improvise, was mostly even-tempered, nearly always happy and was a strong Christian believer.
She always went with her kids to the nearby Extension Sunday-School, read the Bible faithfully and even now, makes sure it is close by. Like most Americans from her era, Mary was tough and persistent. She rode a horse all eight years to the District 79 school that was about three miles from the Masek home. At times she rode in a horse-drawn cart with some of her siblings.
Alice Denton, one of the daughters, says that after graduating from the eighth grade Mary wanted to go to high school, but her father thought she should find a job. So, at age 14, she packed her suitcase, her dad took her to Pine Ridge and she found a job in a restaurant and a place to live with an elderly lady. The roof leaked, but a bucket was kept handy in case it rained.
Before long, Mary found a better job. She joined the kitchen staff at the Lone Man Day School about 15 miles northwest of Pine Ridge. Her main job was baking bread. She and a few others who were on the staff lived near the school in a small blue house that is still standing.
When Mary had time off, she started walking toward home and nearly always had soon hitched a ride with an Indian family in a horse-drawn wagon.
On October 25, 1935, she married Harry E. Sager, whose family lived about two miles north of the Maseks. He had graduated from Gordon High School in 1933. The new couple lived with his parents briefly, then built a two-room structure on the same farmstead. In 1945, after the first five daughters were born, the Sagers bought the nearby Stewart place, which, thankfully, had a larger house, and moved there. That became the “home place.”
The girls—most of them born about two years apart—are Joyce Wellnitz, Margaret Marshall, Alice Denton, Elaine Graeff, Mary Ellen New and Margie Wrede. Elaine lives in Iowa and Margie in Rapid City. The others live in Sheridan and Dawes counties.
While Harry loved his daughters and treated them well, the story is told that he saw a picture of a handsome boy in the Saturday Evening Post magazine, cut it out and hung it on his wife’s side of the bed. Within a year, Harry Joe came along.
Harry Joe and his wife, Robin, have operated the home place ever since Harry II (His dad also was named Harry) died on January 3, 1995 at age 80.
Alice remembers that her mom raised a huge garden. Harry plowed it each spring, but Mom did most of the rest. Sometimes she was tending to it by 4 a.m. Mary then canned “hundreds” of jars of vegetables in a pressure cooker heated by a stove that burned wood. Dad saw to it that the kids kept the box filled with wood so Mary didn’t have to fetch it.
Mary made good use of the cucumbers, turning them into dill pickles that she kept in a 10-gallon crock. Cousins and neighbor kids usually helped themselves to at least one when they visited.
The wood stove also was used to heat the water for the wringer washing machine and for the baths that the six girls took in a portable round tub. Like the other rural residents in the area, the Sagers didn’t get what was known as REA until 1951.
Harry immediately bought a deep freeze that was one of the family’s first conveniences. Running water was brought to the kitchen in ’53, but the house didn’t have a bathroom until 1965 when an addition was built that also included a living room and a bedroom.
Mary had a pedal sewing machine and was adept at converting flour sacks into dresses for the girls. She also used older garments as the pattern for blouses and other clothing items. In addition, she enjoyed hunting with her husband and was a good shot.
The story was told at Mary’s 100th birthday party – held at the Senior Citizen Center in Chadron and attended by a large number of friends and relatives – that when Mary was about 90 she had stayed at home to prepare the noon meal while everyone else went to another part of the ranch for some sort of a project. When the crew arrived for lunch, Mary was not happy. While they were gone she had spotted a coyote snooping around the farmstead, went to get her rifle and it was gone. Someone had taken it without asking.
While the family was growing up, the Sagers seldom ventured far from home. But in the late 1940s, before Harry Joe had arrived, the six girls loaded into the back of a Jeep, the family’s only vehicle, and went with their parents on a trip to the Black Hills. It remains a memorable event when they reflect on their childhood.
In later years, Harry and Mary traveled more, nearly always taking a trip to Montana to visit relatives. For her 90th birthday, Mary celebrated by going on a Caribbean cruise.
The generational breakdown reveals that besides seven children, she had 23 grandchildren, 65 great-grandchildren, 49 great-great grands and the three great-great-greats. The descendants can be proud that “Grandma Mary” has been a productive, diligent person. They will cherish their memories of her and pass them on to succeeding generations.
Research shows than less than 1 percent of Americans live to be 100, so Mary has done something really special. She didn’t do it by taking life easy or living a life of luxury. When asked if her mother was ever sick, Alice replied, “No, she didn’t have time for that.”
Happy birthday cards may be sent to Mary Sager at 517 Chadron Avenue, Chadron, Nebraska 69337.