LOWELL, Ind. — Usually, those who reach age 97 are the oldest in their families.
Not so for 97-year-old Mabel Phebus, of Lowell, Ind. She is younger than her two living sisters.
Mildred Katz, of Grant Park, is 103 and Minnie Pfingsten, who lives near Bloomington, is 99.
The daughters of Lillian and Meine Cirks grew up in Grant Park and still belong to St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Grant Park. Their mother lived to 95 and father to 68. The sisters had a brother and another sister, who have died.
On Saturday night, Katz will serve as the grand marshal of Grant Park’s annual Oktoberfest parade.
The sisters see each other regularly and enjoy playing pinochle. They are lifelong, die-hard Chicago Cubs fans, with Minnie carrying a small Cubs purse. This week, they gathered for an interview at Mabel’s home on the Indiana side of the Stateline Road, just across from Kankakee County.
They remember their childhood on the farm, which they described as quite different from today.
They woke up daily to help milk cows before breakfast and performed many of the other jobs on the farm that boys normally would do. (Their brother was too young for the chores.) They learned to store food for the winter. To this day, all three still make jars of fruit jams and can peaches and pickled beets, among other things.
“They have canned tons and tons of food. Each of them has several freezers,” Mildred’s daughter, Connie Katz-Schrage, said.
The sisters grew up in a time before fast food. Grant Park has just one restaurant back then. They never went to it.
“We all had to learn to cook,” Mildred said.
“And we had no ketchup,” Minnie added.
Oh, and the snow. Yes, lots of it. The sisters had to walk every day to school, no matter the weather. And it was three miles to school.
“If it was raining or snowing, we still walked, even if the snow was three feet high,” Minnie said. “Our boots were full of snow.”
They remember situations where they now believe that child protective services may be called today.
“Our dad used to play ball every Sunday, and we would go with him. There was no air conditioning in cars, and my mom would never let us out of the car because she thought we’d get hit by a ball. It was very hot. If we were good, dad would get us an ice cream,” Minnie said. “Can you imagine anyone doing that today?”
They made sure to behave in front of their father. But they found ways to evade his authority. They would go rollerskating at night. When a car approached, they said, they would lay in a ditch so the driver would not see them.
Their parents also imposed a ban on dating until age 18 — a rule Minnie admitted violating when she was 16.
“My girlfriend set me up. I told her I couldn’t go,” she said. “But she said no one would know.”
It was an invitation for mischief. And you can guess what she and her date did — they went rollerskating.
“When we got home, he wanted to walk me to the door. I said, ‘Oh, no.’ I knew my dad would be at the top of the stairs,” she said, laughing. “But when I got in, they were sound asleep. They didn’t hear anything.”
Technology has advanced greatly during their lives. Minnie has kept up with it. She has a Facebook account and an iPad.
“The first time I texted my daughter,’’ she said, ‘You made my day.’”
So what is the secret to the sisters’ longevity?
Hard work. Growing their own food. Rarely having a drink.
“And we had a mother who was a good cook,” Mildred said.