A strong sense of community – a conversation with Betty Jean Farnham


This article was written by Linda Steck


I had the great pleasure to meet Betty Jean Farnham recently and learn of her life – and it’s been a wonderfully long life. Betty is now 95 years old and has lots of memories of her life living in Camden.

Betty Baier was born at the Women’s Hospital at the corner of Penn and Glenwood in 1924.  She joined her older brother Richard at home, and the family lived at a variety of Northside locations growing up, including 47th and Bryant and 46th and Newton. Betty’s parents both worked when she was growing up. Her father, Ted Baier, owned an ice delivery business and her mother Helen worked at the downtown Donaldson’s Department Store. Ted also owned and operated a gas station in Crystal for many years.

Betty started school at Tuttle grade school in southeast Minneapolis. In 4th grade she was able to attend Jenny Lind grade school closer to home, although it was not the expansive building we know today at 51st and Bryant. In the 1930s, portable classrooms were used in some neighborhoods as the population was growing. These buildings were structured to be moved from site to site as needed. There were no lunchrooms in these buildings – children went home for lunch each day.

As a child, Betty remembers there were a lot of children in the neighborhood and she and her brother were given a fair amount of independence.  She told me, “It was safe to wander all over and we walked to Twin Lake to swim and Robbinsdale to roller skate.” Her fond memories include the Camden Library in the 1930s, when the children’s section was upstairs, and the Camden pool, which was attached to the Library.  Her group of friends visited the Camden pool often during the summer, which was always crowded with children. Much of their entertainment was outdoors throughout the year — skating on the lake next to the library in winter and band concerts in the summer. They would go to the Camden Theatre on Saturdays for 10 cents admission, and there was popcorn — but the popcorn was sold from a horse-drawn wagon!

All of this childhood activity was done with a great sense of community. Parents watched out for all the children in the neighborhood, not just their own. Still, the kids got from once place to another generally on foot. Betty remembers getting her first bike when she was in 7th grade, which coincides with her starting junior high school.

Betty attended Patrick Henry for junior and senior high school, graduating in 1942. Education in the ‘30s and ‘40s provided not just the basics of reading, writing, math and science, but for Betty (and most girls), school included “home ec” (short for home economics, which meant sewing, cooking, etc.), plus typing and shorthand. Betty also participated in plays and the glee club (but would not sing a solo for the interview).

Through her brother, Betty met Jim Farnham. Jim enlisted in the Coast Guard during World War II, and was stationed at Long Island, NY. In August 1943, this 19-year-old young lady boarded a train for Long Island with all of her possessions that could fit in a hat box (18” x 24” x 24”’ box).  Betty held that hat box on her lap for the journey, but had not planned food for the long train ride. She smiles as she remembered the “nice German lady” who shared her seat and fed her all the way to New York.

Betty and Jim were married on August 27, 1943 in New York. They lived there during Jim’s WWII service, and then returned to Minneapolis.  Jim worked for his father at Farnham’s Gas Station. He was very adept at all sorts of repairs and trades, which was of great help when he and Betty undertook their “forever” home.

Jim and Betty’s home was built 65+ years ago on Queen Avenue North. It is a well-preserved home and contains a lifetime of great memories for Betty of raising her family of boys: Jeff, Tim and Bob. Betty remembers other children playing with her three boys in their yard, or in the yard next door, or across the street.

Betty worked outside the home at times during her life: Washburn Crosby Company before her marriage, and Patrick Henry High School in later years. But the job she is most proud of is her role as a parent, grandparent, great grandparent and now great-great grandparent. Her latest career will be launched in October of this year when she will be the “Officiant” at her granddaughter Rachel’s wedding.

Betty is a fun lady to talk to.  She has such great memories, which she shares with an equally great smile. Her optimism is her fountain of youth – and for good reason. Her neighbor, again – a nice German lady, was a piano teacher and lived to the age of 103!  Must be something in the water in their neighborhood.

Betty continues to live independently at the same house on Queen and has a garden every year.

Interesting notes:

*Jim’s family also had strong ties to North Minneapolis, as the Farnhams settled the Camden neighborhood in the 1850s. Shingle Creek is named after Rufus Farnham’s shingle mill.

*The building that was the Women’s Hospital in 1924 is still standing.

*The strip mall at Lyndale and Webber that currently has the clinic, Subway and Joy Luck Restaurant was built after the Camden theatre was torn down. According to cinematreasures.org, “The theatre marquee letters were saved and used on the mall as a beacon for the neighborhood.”