Legendary Crawford County Independent Columnist Pearl Swiggum passed away Friday at the age of 101.
Swiggum is fondly remembered by the many readers of her column, which came to be known as Stump Ridge Farm. In her folksy homespun style, Pearl engaged readers on a personal level by sharing the goings-on in her rural Crawford County world.
Pearl Swiggum was a dairy farmer and a whole lot more. She started working for the Crawford County Independent part-time after she got her kids raised, recalled her daughter Marjie Jurgensen, who later became the newspaper’s office manager.
Pearl didn’t start at the newspaper by writing a column. Initially, she worked on compiling the exhaustive social news of the farm families and residents of the rural villages. Social news was the bread and butter of the small town weekly newspapers and writers like Pearl with deep roots in the community were quite adept at gathering a heaping helping of it every week.
Then, one day in 1958, the Independent’s owner and publisher, Glenn Hagar, asked Pearl if she wanted to write a column.
“What's a column?” Pearl innocently replied and the rest is history. After 46 years and more than 2,000 columns that eventually came to be syndicated in a half dozen newspapers, the writer learned what made a column good and what interested readers.
While everyone came to know her column by its final name ‘Stump Ridge Farm,’ that’s not what her first column was called. The very first column, which appeared in 1958, was called ‘Kaffee Slaberase.’
Pearl explained the Norwegian name in that very first column.
“When we considered a title for this column, we wanted a Norwegian term meaning ‘talk over the coffee cups,’ ‘Kaffee Slaberase’ means just that — ‘coffee gossip’,” she wrote.
No one, including Pearl, knew what was to come.
In their story about Pearl and her column that ran in the Wisconsin State Journal last Sunday, the headline read ‘Columnist gave advice for 46 years.’
Marjie, her daughter, chuckled at the thought of Pearl giving advice, which she might have on occasion. However, it was much more likely Pearl would be the recipient of advice than the purveyor of it, Marjie remembered.
“She’d tell about her problems and someone would write in with advice for her,” Marjie recalled. “Like when she wrote about getting her pants leg stuck in the bike chain and received pants leg clips from the readers.”
And, it wasn’t just one or two readers who sent those pants clips to her, it was upwards of 20. There’s no doubt about it, Pearl Swiggum engaged readers. The farm lady brought the same work ethic she learned in the barn and on the land to her work at the newspaper. In addition to her weekly column, Pearl wrote news stories and social news and took photographs.
Pearl Swiggum wrote her last column, published in the Crawford County Independent on March 25, 2004—the day after her 90th birthday. It is reprinted in this edition. During the entire 46 years Pearl wrote the column, her daughter Marjie could remember her missing only one week and that was the week following the death of her husband ‘Punk’ Swiggum.
Many people have their own recollections of Pearl Swiggum and even this author has a few. The first time I ever met Pearl was during one of her visits to John Zehrer’s Star Valley Flowers Farm, which was located not far from her Stump Ridge Farm. I distinctly recall the mutual excitement from Pearl and John as they looked over some flower plantings and bedding plants. It seemed they both shared that same twinkle in their eye, as well as the smiles and ready laughter. Pearl enjoyed visiting John’s flower farm and he certainly seemed to enjoy having her. After all, they were neighbors.
I also remember the time that John’s brother Paul arrived from New York to create a full-scale motion picture. His crew revived the closed Star Valley Store that had been owned by members of the Swiggum family.
Pearl got wind of activity down at the store and hustled down from Stump Ridge to Star Valley to see what was going on and perhaps put a stop to it. She started off saying the now-dilapidated, closed store couldn’t be used, but as she looked around at the crew and actors her mood began to change. Then, Paul described the project to her and a smile came to her face and she began to chuckle at the idea of reviving the abandoned store one last time for an appearance in a movie.
My final recollection of Pearl came in the last 10 years or so. She had moved into Gays Mills to live with Marjie in the large house on Orin Street. The mother and daughter were awfully fond of walking and could be seen often on the streets of the village getting their exercise.
One day, I was walking down the street and a woman I took to be in my age group, 45-55 at that point, was walking ahead of me. I wondered who it was. She had such good posture and seemed so healthy. Then, the woman turned and walked into the Red Apple Inn and guess what? The woman was none other than a 90-something, very young, Pearl Swiggum.
Pearl may be gone now, but through her hard work and many columns she left something for everyone to enjoy. Thank you Pearl Swiggum.