Farm Progress

When two 10-year-old farm girls from Illinois and Wisconsin started exchanging letters in 1948, neither dreamed how close their families would be seven decades later.

Jill Loehr, Associate Editor, Prairie Farmer

January 23, 2018

3 Min Read
MEMORIES: Donna (Long) Vermeire smiles as memories return. Her kitchen table is flooded with 70 years’ worth of Christmas cards, photos, graduation announcements and letters, some written on the back of sauerkraut labels from the factory where her pen pal, Dorothy (Nitzske) Curtis, worked.

It started as a simple way for a 10-year-old farm girl to make a new friend. Donna (Long) Vermeire, Geneseo, Ill., signed up for a pen pal through Prairie Farmer in 1948, and more than 150 letters arrived in her rural Mineral mailbox. She corresponded with three or four children, but Dorothy (Nitzske) Curtis stood out. Why? Vermeire and Curtis share a birthday. That connection turned into a lifelong friendship that’s now 70 years strong. 

Vermeire grew up surrounded by corn, soybeans and oats in Henry County. Curtis lives nearly 300 miles away in Schiocton, Wis., the heart of sauerkraut country. They swapped letters throughout elementary, middle school and high school, and met for the first time about a year after graduation. Curtis was visiting family in Moline and made the 45-minute drive to Kewanee, where Vermeire worked as a telephone operator.

That was the first of many gatherings, not just for the two pen pals, but also for their families.

‘Family’ gatherings
Vermeire and her family, including her late husband, Francis, and their four children, Marcia (Ahlgren), Duane, Darrell and Darwin, would road-trip north to Wisconsin and visit Door County, Green Bay, the Milwaukee Zoo or the Curtises’ farm. Curtis and her late husband, Don, have six children: Sonya, Shelley, Sharla, Sandra, Jay and Stacy.  The kids would play on the farm and occasionally cause some trouble. Vermeire remembers scolding her boys for cornering the chickens in the henhouse and during another visit, rushing Curtis’ daughter to the emergency room after a biking accident. 

The Curtis crew also took road trips south to Illinois. The activities were nothing special, Vermeire says. But being together was special.  “We always had a good time when we got together.”

The letters continued over the years, as Vermeire and Curtis shared updates on their kids’ school activities and birthdays — the kind of family updates most people find on Facebook in today’s world. As their children grew older, the families gathered and celebrated at weddings. “We had great times,” she says. Their children, and now grandchildren, remain close and visit one another when possible.  “The kids all get along, and they’re still the best of friends,” Curtis adds.

Stronger together
Curtis’ husband died this past November. Vermeire and her family attended his funeral, where they were welcomed like family, not friends. They shared a meal and reflected on decades of memories. Vermeire says this particular goodbye was hard on the family-like crew. “We had a lot of hugs when we left that day,” she says.

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FRIENDS THAT LAST: Donna (Long) Vermeire (left), Geneseo, Ill., and Dorothy (Nitzske) Curtis, Schiocton, Wis., began exchanging letters in 1948 after signing up for pen pals through Prairie Farmer.

Surrounded today by a table full of Christmas cards, photos, graduation announcements and old letters, some written on the back of sauerkraut labels, Vermeire smiles as she reflects on the unique connection. Her friendship with Curtis shows that despite not growing up next-door, “it can develop into a great relationship,” she says.

On Sept. 15, Vermeire and Curtis hope to celebrate their 80th birthdays together. And it all started with a letter between two 10-year-old farm girls living 300 miles apart.

“The distance didn’t make any difference,” Curtis says. “We have a whole other family. They’re not close to us in distance, but they’re just as close in heart and everything else.”

About the Author(s)

Jill Loehr

Associate Editor, Prairie Farmer, Loehr

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