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A lifetime in New York Mills for 85-year-old Winnie

Lifelong New York Mills resident Winnie Porkkonen stands in front of a painting of her parents' old house. Winnie's cousin created the painting that now hangs in her living room at Heritage Apartments.

From a minnow trapper to a potato peeler, with a host of jobs in between, 85-year-old Winnie Porkkonen has left her mark throughout the New York Mills community.

She has lived in Otter Tail County her entire life, a life marked by tragedy, but illuminated with her resolute desire to think positive and make the best of what life throws at her.

Winnie (Lepisto) Porkkonen was born and raised on East Leaf Lake. She attended country school at District #134 South in Leaf Lake Township, and was forced to quit school after finishing the eighth grade.

When he was in his 30's, Winnie's father was attacked by a bull, which resulted in him losing his kneecap. He was sent on a train out of Henning to a hospital in Wisconsin, where his leg was eventually amputated.

As a result of the accident, Winnie's dad was unable to do a lot of work on the farm, and couldn't drive a tractor or car. They didn't have bus service, so without their dad to drive them, Winnie and her siblings couldn't go to school. Winnie and her brother Russell, the two eldest of the four Lepisto children, started their own enterprise selling bait to fishermen to generate some income for the family.

Winnie tells of how, after gathering minnows, she would come home at night covered with mud, with leeches stuck all over her body. Russell and Winnie also sold worms and frogs. It was a tough job, but the Finnish family stuck together.

Being 100 percent Finnish, Winnie has found her heritage to come in handy on more than one occasion. When she reflects on the last several decades, it was frequently her ability to read, write, and speak Finnish that landed her jobs--despite only completing an eighth grade education.

Winnie's grandpa came to the area from Finland, and, as a result, Winnie's father only spoke Finnish. Her mother was fluent in both English and Finnish.

Back when the New York Mills Herald also published a Finnish paper, Winnie was hired on because of her ability to proofread both the English and Finnish papers. In addition to her proofreading responsibilities, Winnie wrote some feature stories. She spent 20 years working for the Herald, until she retired in 1962.

Her Finnish once helped her get a job with the Finnish Mutual insurance agency. She also spent time working at the old grocery store and as a driver for Mid-State Auto Auction.

Winnie was married for 42 years to the late Emil Porkkonen. "I met him the morning he came home from the service in 1946," Winnie recalls. "I had been to church and went for coffee like I always did. It was then my cousin introduced me to his buddy."

In the years that followed, Winnie gave birth to a baby boy who died when he was just three days old. Emil and Winnie had another son who passed away at age 49 from cancer.

When asked how she has dealt with the tragedies her family has gone through, Winnie is firm with her answer, "You have to think positive. I've got to where if something happens, I just have to realize it was supposed to happen that way and move on."

Throughout her lifetime, Winnie has seen the city of New York Mills evolve into its current state. She recalls the days when the land she now lives on, in the Heritage Apartments complex, was nothing but a pasture. Even with the new development, there are other ways Winnie has seen the town cut back.

"I hated to see the elevator go, 'cause that was a landmark," she says. Also, New York Mills now has only one grocery store, down from the four or five grocery stores she remembers.

Despite all the changes Winnie has witnessed over the past eight decades, there are some things that stay the same. Winnie has been a lifelong member of Trinity Lutheran Church in New York Mills. She's also known around town as a regular at the ladies afternoon coffee gathering at Eagles Café.

In fact, her last job was at the Eagles, working as a potato peeler well into her 70's. Winnie remembers the job fondly, saying she enjoyed peeling the potatoes, a task which kept her busy four hours a day.

"Sometimes I cleaned tables," she says, "but very seldom, because they used a lot of potatoes."

From her entrance into the workforce as a young bait trapper to her latest stint as a potato peeler, Winnie has always managed to make the best of her situation and has made a fine life for herself in the New York Mills community.

She lets her good nature show through, saying, "I enjoy Mills and I don't see any reason for moving...unless they kick me out."