Local woman recalls 100 years in the valley

Retired school teacher Iris Vann, 99, of Strasburg, stands outside Keller's Mill in Fishers Hill where her father worked and where she grew up a as child. The mill, which is now owned by Bill Erbach, will be the venue of her 100 years celebration on Saturday. Rich Cooley/Daily

STRASBURG – In her 100 years, Iris Vann has seen 16 presidents, two world wars, and the introduction of electricity, school buses and television. She’s seen her hometown of Fisher’s Hill, and, later in life,  Strasburg, grow from small farming communities to busy towns offering museums, charming eateries, various antique stores and shops, all while continuing to maintain their friendly small town charm.

“For one thing, I never dreamt I’d get to be this old,” Vann said laughing. “But here I am.”

On Saturday Vann will celebrate her 100th birthday.

Vann is a native to the valley. She’s lived here all her life, with the exception of less than a year living in Texas, where her husband served in the military during World War II. Born in Fisher’s Hill to George and Sally Keller, Vann was one of four siblings: an older brother and sister, and a younger sister. They have all passed. She is the remaining member of her family. Vann has two children, a daughter Susan and a son Michael, who passed away at age 31. She also has four grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren.

At an early age, Vann learned an important life lesson from her mom: “Parents should stress the good things to you and tell you to look forward to those good things while letting the bad things pass you over.” Vann still practices this concept today.

Vann speaks very highly of her parents. Her father George Keller was the miller at the local mill. Vann’s grandfather purchased the mill and home at the end of the 19th century. The sons of the family inherited the mill, which was typical of the time,  Susan Hill, Vann’s daughter explained.

“My grandfather being one of them,” she added. As time passed, the mill was eventually bought out by Keller.

The first shot Vann remembers the first shot she received was for tetanus after stepping on a rake. She also recalls having scarlet fever. “It was a disease back then, you know.” Her entire family comforted her until she made a full recovery.

“And then it was back to work,” she added. We always had what we needed, she recalled. “I’m so proud to call them my parents.”

Vann attended elementary school in Fisher’s Hill where she remembers walking to and from school with her siblings.

“School buses weren’t introduced until Roosevelt’s time,” she added. Vann and her fellow classmates sat in a one-room schoolhouse.

Hill remembers her mother telling stories about the early days of her education. It was a big deal to leave Fisher’s Hill, she explained.

“The idea of leaving the country for Strasburg was like an entirely new world for them,” she added.

Upon completion of high school, the Kellers sent each of their children to college for two years.

“Catherine, my oldest sister, was the first to go,” Vann said.

She attended Harrisonburg State Teachers College where she earned a two-year degree in teaching. Vann returned to the valley where she taught in Shenandoah County public schools for 37 years.

“Back then teachers could teach with a two-year degree,” Hill explained. In the early 70s, Shenandoah County told its teachers they would be demoted to a teacher’s assistant unless they had the proper degree for teaching. Her determination lead Vann back to college where she would earn her teaching degree in 1977, the same year Harrisonburg State Teachers College became James Madison University.

As a teacher, Vann loved doing art with her students. She enjoyed shaping minds, her daughter said.

Vann still recalls her first year of teaching in Fort Valley like it was yesterday. The first year she taught, there were two older boys who would play with fire, Hill explained. They would run around the building with gasoline, setting small fires. Vann and her fellow teachers were successful in getting all of the students out of the building.

“Mom caught one of them, and eventually caught the other,” Hill said. Unfortunately the second one would end up dying from his burns. Vann remembers visiting him in the hospital. “It was a tragic scene,” she said. “Fire is the absolute worst.”

“One day I’m going to sit down and see how many students’ names I can remember,” Vann said.

Upon retiring, Vann became active in the community. She volunteered at Belle Grove for close to 20 years, quilted and traveled. “She’s had a full life, a good life,” Hill said. Occasionally, Hill will take her mom to Fox’s in Strasburg, where former students will stop by and speak to her, Hill said. “It makes her feel good.”

When asked what the most important aspect of her life has been, Vann said her love of country and family, but most importantly her faith. “My parents made sure that we understood everything came from God.”

Vann has been a lifelong member of Emmanuel Church in Fisher’s Hill. It has been the center of her life, Hill explained and up until two years ago, Vann went to church every Sunday.

“What gave you a long life?” Hill asked her mom.

“Well, for one thing, I would said God gave me good genes,” Vann said, smiling.

Join Vann and her family from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday  at Keller’s Mill in Fisher’s Hill to celebrate Vann’s turning 100.

“Anyone who knew mom as a teacher, a friend or a church member is welcome,” Hill said.