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Wrightstown's oldest citizen, former Ariens employee, passes

Posted at 11 a.m. on September 24, 2021

Ervin Zittlow, a lifelong member of St. John Ev. Lutheran Church in Wrightstown, passed away at age 101 on Thursday, September 23. He was resident at an assisted living facility in Wrightstown. He farmed near Wrightstown, and then later in life, worked for the Ariens Company in Brillion.

The BRILLION NEWS profiled Ervin Zittlow in a front page story on September 3, 2020. We are offering that story again, here, because of the many lessons Mr. Zittlow offered about life.

Ervin Zittlow is ready for his 100th birthday

Wrightstown’s oldest resident watched Ariens grow

By Ed Byrne

The Brillion News

WRIGHTSTOWN – Married guys who live to be 100 years old say the secret to longevity is being married. But Ervin Zittlow, who turns 100 on Sunday, September 6, has proven that theory wrong.

He is Wrightstown’s most senior citizen.

The lifelong bachelor has led a good and holy life, as a lifelong member of St. John Ev. Lutheran Church in Wrightstown. His life has been marked by hard work, first as a farmer, and then as an employee of the Ariens Company.

Ervin Zittlow was the third and youngest son of Albert and Bertha Zittlow. His older brothers were Melvin and Harvey. With three boys, there were a lot of hand-me-down clothes.

“I was the youngest,” he said. “We wore hand-me-downs in the 1930s, I can tell you that.”

[Zittlow just before his 100th birthday/BN]

Ervin was born on a farm out along what is today I-41. Back then it was State Road 14.

Albert and Bertha married in 1910 in the old Kasson church. They met in Appleton where Albert worked in a paper mill and Bertha at Lawrence College.

They decided to farm, and bought the farm in Sniderville, west of Wrightstown in the Town of Kaukauna – not far from where the St. Patrick’s Cemetery and the Royal St. Patrick Golf Links course now stand.

“I only went to grade school, and that was out in the country at the Apple CreekSchool, a mile and a half from where I lived,” Zittlow said. He graduated from the one-room school in 1934, at the end of Grade 8.

The Zittlow family owned and worked two farms, and that kept Ervin busy.

“I could have furthered my education ... but this way, I could always take a day off,” he said. “In those days, a small farm or a job in a paper mill was about as good as you could do [financially]. The day of the small farm is past, though. A farm is almost a factory today.”

In 1945, Ervin bought the farm from his father, and farmed it until 1968. He had sold the dairy herd three years earlier.

After selling the farm, he built a home in Wrightstown, on High Street just a few doors down from St. John Church and lived there exactly 50 years, to the day.

Before selling the farm, Zittlow worked seasonally for a masonry contractor in Kaukauna. Zittlow had a battle with appendicitis and couldn’t do the heavy work the masonry job required.

“Then I heard that Ariens was hiring,” he said. Zittlow said he though he would work at Ariens temporarily, and then return to the masonry job.

“But I like it so well, I never went back,” he said.

He ended up working at Ariens for 14 years, and when he retired from there, he retired for good.

When he was hired, Mando “Steve” Ariens headed the company.

“His theory was the best worker you could hire was a farmer,” Zittlow said. “I put my application in and they wanted me to start the next day. This was on a Friday, and I said ‘No, I’ll start on Monday.’ and then I stayed there 14 years.”

“I retired at age 63, on November 9, 1983,” Zittlow said.

At Ariens. Zittlow worked in a sub-assembly shop. He built gearboxes and other parts that went to the assembly line.

When Ervin retired, Michael Ariens was president of the company.

“Dan was going to college and he used to work in the summer there. I worked with Dan one summer,” Ervin said. “He was a very nice young man. All of the Ariens were good – they were all good fair-minded people.”

Zittlow said Mando was proud about the bankruptcy of the Brillion Iron Works, which the Ariens family owned. The company went under in the Great Depression.

“The way Mando explained it, they went bankrupt in the 1930s, the depression years, but he said ‘We paid off every creditor 100 cents on the dollar,’” Zittlow said.

He said the three Ariens boys were all mechanically-minded and built rototillers in the basement of the family home.

“They had 30 of them built ... and they took them up to a hardware in Marinette, and they sold so good they built come more,” Zittlow said. “They had a small factory downtown, and when that got too small, they build a factory out on Highway 10.”

In the old days, whenever the company set a new production record, everyone got a celebratory beer mug; Ervin had 10 of them.

He thinks the fact that the business is still family-owned is critical.

“It’s still a family-held corporation ... it’s closely held, and I think that’s the secret to their success,” he said. “They didn’t have a bunch of stockholders after them for a big profit.”

Zittlow said unions tried to organize the Ariens workforce three times during the 14 years he worked at Ariens, but the organizing effort was never successful. He said Ariens always took care of its employees and was fair with them, so nothing would be gained by having a union.

“You could not ask for better treatment,” Zittlow said.

For much of his life, Zittlow had a cabin up near Blackwell in ForestCounty, near Laona and Wabeno, which he owned for 81 years.

Zittlow was a life-long hunter.

“I hunted my first deer season when I was 19, and I hunted my last one when I was 90,” Ervin said. “At 90, I had to quit because arthritis was giving me trouble walking, and I couldn’t take the cold like I used to.”

His cabin up north fit in with his love of hunting, and he also went to eastern Montana several times to hunt antelope, and to visit the national monument to Custer’s Land Stand.

“There was a sign there what said ‘Keep off the grass. Rattlesnakes,’” he said. The sign worked and people did stay off the grass.

The Montana hunting trips usually included one of Ervin’s nephews, the pastor of a Lutheran church in Mandan, North Dakota.

“It made a nice little vacation, to go out there in the fall of the year,” Zittlow said. “The weather was always nice, and we had the time to do it.”

Two years ago, Ervin made his last change of address, moving to Matthew’s Senior Living. A couple of falls convinced him.

Zittlow said he started out using one cane, then two, then an aluminum walker.

“I gave up my driver’s license when I was 97,” he said. “Then I couldn’t walk to church any more – well, I could but it was pretty hard going.”

An electric cart worked for a while.

“I took several spills around the house, and then I fell twice in 10 days,” he said. “Once, I came damn close to killing myself.”

He hit his head on furniture on the way down and there was a lot of blood spilled.

Ten days later his legs gave out: “My legs just turned to jelly and I went right down on my knees,” he said.

He called his nephew and a neighbor. Matthew’s Senior Living had two vacancies, and four days later Ervin moved in.

“I moved here the day before Halloween. It will be two years this coming Halloween,” he said. “It is a wonderful place here. I don’t think you could find a nicer home ... No matter what you want assistance for, they’re right there to help you.”

He also loves the food there.

Over the years, Zittlow has watched Wrightstown grow, including occasions when the growth amounted to 50 to 60 homes per year.

Zittlow said people asked him about the secret to reaching 100 years of age.

“I don’t know. I just lived one day to another,” he said. “I did pretty much what I wanted, ate and drank what I wanted. That’s pretty much it. I took life the way it comes.”

Although some folks might say the secret to longevity is being a bachelor, Zittlow said that statistics don’t agree.

“Married men live longer than single men,” he said. “God determines how long you’re going to live.”

The joys of reaching a ripe old age?

“I can look back and see how everything turned out,” he said. “You wonder what’s going to happen, and then you live to see it.”

Amen to that.


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