It’s hard to tell when you see her now, but Vera Brown was once a strong woman.
Age has withered her limbs, muted her hearing and limited her mobility, but Vera’s determination and Cowboy State grit are recorded in the lines on her face and the white in her hair.
From her wheelchair at Primrose Assisted Living Center in Gillette, Vera sits quietly as her son, Rex, and daughter, Joyce, recall the moments that defined her life from the stories they’ve heard over the decades.
When asked what she thinks is the secret is to her long life, Vera laughs.
“I’m mean!” she said.
Her children chuckle.
“Well, she wasn’t mean, but when she told us kids to do something, we did it,” said Joyce, the oldest of Vera’s three children. “That’s how she survived, I think.”
Oregon to Wyoming
Vera Stephenson was born 108 years ago last week on April 6, 1915, in Medford, Oregon. Her parents moved the family first to California before settling in Gillette when she was 9.
“She celebrated her 10th birthday in Wyoming,” said Joyce.
Vera’s father, a paper hanger and painter, found work in northeast Wyoming. Shortly after moving to Gillette, the family – which included Vera’s two brothers and one sister – took over a homestead on Elk Creek near the South Dakota border.
Life on the Wyoming prairie was difficult.
The family didn’t have a well, so Vera would take a team of horses and a wagon with five 50-gallon barrels down to a neighbor's place to get water to haul back to their homestead.
Then tragedy struck the family in 1930 when Vera was just 15 and a fire at the family home took the life of her mother.
But there were happy times as well, and Vera’s talent with horses made her a local celebrity of sorts.
“When she was a girl, before her mother died, mom broke horses for people,” said Joyce. “She got so good at it that people would bring their horses to her to fix them.”
Vera met her husband, Don Brown, when he worked at a nearby ranch. They married Nov. 3, 1938, when Vera was 23.
The couple had three children: Joyce, Donnie and Rex.
The Weston Store
Although her formal education ended after grade school, Vera and her husband soon became successful business owners.
In 1957, the couple bought the Weston Store at the junction of Highway 59 and a rural road that crossed the empty plains west of Devils Tower.
“The store sold gas and food, groceries – you name it,” said Rex, adding that the store was locally famous for its baloney sandwiches.
“They’d just slice you off a piece of baloney or salami, and then a slice of longhorn cheese, and make a sandwich with mayonnaise and lettuce,” he said. “People would stop. The oil field was starting to pick up then, but you’d ask people from out of state even if they’d had a baloney sandwich from the Weston store. They made a good name from that.”
The store at Weston, located about 33 miles north of Gillette, was the communication hub for the handful of families that homesteaded that remote section of northeast Wyoming.
In fact, Vera became the postmaster for Weston, a position she proudly held for 30 years, retiring at age 72.
“I’m guessing there were 30 patrons off that post office,” said Rex. “But if someone forgot to put a stamp on that letter, she’d just stamp it and send it on. If there was postage due, she would pay the postage and send the letter to the people. It was a service back then.”
While Vera kept the letters moving, her husband Don helped usher in more modern communication.
“My dad was instrumental in building all the phone lines out there from Gillette to Weston,” said Joyce.
“He was a repairman for the telephone system,” said Rex. “I rolled the wire up on it – like, 45 miles of telephone wire.”
Rex said there were only a few houses that had a telephone line back in the 1950s, but the Weston Store’s phone stayed busy.
“The oil people would come in to call their daily reports in, and they’d drive to Weston to use the telephone,” he said.
The isolation of rural life for Vera, Don and the children meant they were prepared for most anything, from spring floods that stranded families until the water receded to winter storms that could trap them in their homes.
“They went to town maybe once every two months,” said Joyce. “Mom would buy 100 pounds of sugar, 100 pounds of flour and whatever they didn't grow, because she canned everything. I think she even canned chicken.”
“A little,” Vera agreed.
A Witness To The Modern Age
In Vera’s long life, she’s seen major advancements in technology. From refrigeration to television to indoor plumbing, she’s witnessed the modernization of daily life.
When asked what she thinks has been the most amazing advancement, her children speak up.
“Probably airplanes,” Rex said, looking at his mother for confirmation. “Although I don’t think she’s ever been off the ground.”
“Except on a horse,” Joyce spoke up.
“She loved horses,” Rex agreed.
Vera has definite opinions on some of the marvels of the modern age. If you ask what she thinks about man landing on the moon, for example, she’ll tell you directly.
“He was stupid,” Vera said. “That’s kind of a rough place.”
Vera retired from the post office in 1987, but that didn’t slow her down. She continued to bowl in the Friday night leagues, an activity she and her husband started in the early 1960s – and which she continued until she was in her late 70s – even after her husband’s death in the mid-1990s.
“She went in every week for her bowling,” said Joyce. “Twice a week, I think. She drove her own car.”
Rex said she continued to drive for quite a few years after her husband died. And even after she quit driving, she still wanted to keep her license current.
“After she turned 100, she went in and renewed her driver’s license,” Rex. “She wasn’t driving, but she renewed her license. And we figured we’d better not press our luck, so she didn’t renew it at 104.”
But her joy in her later years, according to Joyce, has been her nine grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.
“When she started getting grandkids, she had grandkids at her house almost every day,” said Joyce.
Honesty and Hard Work
When she looks back at her long life, Vera said she’s realized that honesty is the most important virtue a person could value.
“Don’t ever tell a lie,” Joyce said about recurring advice she heard from her mother. “And work hard. That was drilled into all three of us.”
Last year for her 107th birthday, Vera received a flag that was flown over the White House on her birthday. But when asked if she has more experiences left to do and see, she just shrugs.
“I guess so,” Vera said.