Anoka County History: Woman of the Year—Agnes Cottingham Zierdt

Every year the Anoka Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution honors a Woman in American History. She may be living or dead; a DAR member or not, famous or, as is often the case, a woman who doesn’t make the headlines, but works quietly behind the scenes making a positive difference in the lives of others.

In October of 2012 the Anoka Chapter inducted its newest and oldest member into the DAR in the person of 97 year old Agnes Cottingham Zierdt. In March of this year, 2014, it honored Agnes, who has devoted her long life to advocacy for and service to others, as Woman of the Year.

Agnes was born on August 26, 1916 in Philbrook Township, a place in Minnesota you won’t find on the map because it’s no longer there. The daughter of Earl Cottingham and Maude Frances Oliver, Agnes has an ancestral line that traces back to the Mayflower and beyond; the family joke being that half of her ancestors came over on the Mayflower and the other half were already here to help tie up the boat.

Seven of Agnes’s ancestors were signers of the Mayflower Compact and three of them were among the five founding fathers of the State of Rhode Island.

Agnes is also descended from some well-known women of yester-year who did make the headlines. One of her great-grandmothers was the abolitionist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book that did much to intensify the disagreement between the North and the South leading to the Civil War; another of her great-grandmothers was Susan B. Anthony, also an abolitionist, but better known as crusader for woman’s rights.

Agnes’ forbearers also include those who figuratively met the boat, American Indians.  At the same time as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Susan B. Anthony were campaigning for an end to slavery and recognition of woman’s rights, another of her ancestors was fighting against the oppression of his people as well.  Agnes is very proud to be descended from Oyate Tawa, a Dakotah warrior who was among the 38 hung in Mankato the day after Christmas by the U.S. government in retaliation for his role in the U.S./Dakotah War of 1862.  No. 5 in the trial record, Oyate Tawa died for trying to address a grievous wrong against his people.

Agnes grew up hearing these stories about her ancestors. Maybe it was in her genes, maybe it was her environment, (nature vs nurture) but she knew deep in her bones that her life would also be one of advocacy as well as service.  She started working for the 4-H, a youth empowerment and development organization, in 1939 while she was attending the University of Minnesota where she was enrolled in the Farm Campus School of Agriculture. Earning a degree in Home Economics, Agnes was the first woman of American Indian descent to graduate from the U of M.  Degree in hand she continued with 4-H first as a club agent in Sherburne County, then county agent, then multi-county agent in Sherburne, Wright, and Anoka Counties. She also served as county agent in Wabasha and then multi-county agent in Wabasha, Goodhue, and Olmstead Counties. These were the war years and Agnes found herself playing her own version of Rosie the Riveter, when she was tapped to replace the State 4-H agent who had been drafted. It was a short stint, however, for she was soon replaced by a man. Even though it’s not official she was the first woman to serve as Minnesota State 4-H agent.

While in this position, Agnes did a lot of driving which not only wore the wheels off her car but consumed a lot of gas, both hard-to get commodities during those war years. Fortunately, she became friends with the owner of the local gas station which she frequented – a lot. He also owned a towing service and helped Agnes out by replacing the worn-out tires on her vehicle with those taken from the wrecks he towed. Their friendship deepened and in November, 1943, Agnes married her benefactor, Kenneth Zierdt. They had four children Peter, Jerry, Richard and Jaki.

In addition to raising their four children, Agnes continued her life of service. From 1938-1945 she lived in the State Fair 4-H building during fair time to serve first as chaperone; then to supervise the chaperones. After the birth of her children she stopped working full time for 4-H, but continued working both part-time and as a volunteer. And she was appreciated. When you go to the State Fair next August, look for a bench outside the 4-H Building. It is a special bench dedicated to Agnes Cottingham Zierdt with her name and picture commemorating her forty years of service to youth.

Agnes and Kenneth Zierdt moved into the Blaine area in the late 1970s. Always a mover and shaker she noticed that that community was lacking in senior services. So she and Kenneth got together with two other couples and persuaded the Blaine City Council that this up-and-coming city needed a senior center. The women took to the streets with petitions while Agnes, well-versed in public speaking, did most of the talking at the Council meetings where the council members agreed to provide an old building under the water tower for a senior center. The husbands exercised their carpentry and plumbing skills to renovate the building while the women gathered up dishes, books, games, and other items to supply the place.  It opened as the Blaine Senior Center in the early 1980s and was later renamed the Mary Ann Young Senior Center after its beloved first director, Mary Ann Young, who died while still holding that position. It’s now run and staffed by the Volunteers of America.

In addition to her many years of service with 4-H,  Agnes’s lifetime of service includes that of Den Mother, Girl Scout Leader, and Bethel Guardian for Job’s Daughters.  She has been active in public service through Eastern Star (Masons), Daughters of the Nile (Shriners), and Lions Clubs, as well as through her church, leading food drives, clothing drives, and teaching Sunday School.

She is now in her 97th year, but until recently, Agnes was still volunteering at Lions’ events and Daughters of the Nile, and doing church work involving social justice.  Through her life-long work to serve others, Agnes has continued the legacy of her ancestors, making a positive difference in the lives of people during her own time here on earth.

June Anderson is a member of and volunteer for the Anoka County Historical Society. She is also a member of the Coon Rapids Writers Group.  If you have a story you would like to share with the readers of this newspapers please contact her through the History Center 763-421-0600.

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