Former 'Tower lady' nears 100

By Tom Kelly
Editor and Publisher

 


Mrs. Ola Peterson, anticipating 100th birthday
on November 12, visited Kisatchie National Forest
Ranger Station where she worked as fire spotter on
the 100-foot tower until her retirement in 1978.

I had just stepped out of my car, camera and notepad in hand, in front of the Gum Springs Ranger District office in the Kisatchie National Forest on U.S. Highway 84 west of Winnfield, when another vehicle parked nearby. The occupants--four in all--began dismounting and the gentleman started pulling a folding wheelchair from the rear of the car. About then a spry looking lady with white hair and a bounce in her step, got down from her front seat position, and began walking toward me. As we met, she smiled broadly, extended her hand and announced, not without some obvious pride, "I'm the old woman!"

Well now, that's not the norm, I thought to myself. "Well, I guess I'm the old man," I replied, accepting her warm handshake. But I couldn't match her claim. "I'll be 100 on November 12!" she said proudly. So, at a mere 82, I conceded the game, and joined the group waiting to hear Mrs. Ola Peterson relate her experiences from fifty years past as a fire watcher on the 100-foot Gum Springs fire tower, which still stands, unused, behind the new Ranger District office.

Joined by her son, Otis Peterson, Jr., and his wife, the former Ginger Grigg of Winnfield, and daughter, Lola Peterson, Mrs. Peterson confronted Kisatchie District Ranger, relating that she had worked voluntarily spelling her husband, the late Otis Peterson, in the watch tower when he had to join crews on the fire fights, or other duties.

"I've come to collect my back pay!" with a twinkle in her eye. Well, Ranger Greg Cohrs responded, I've done some volunteer work myself. We'll have to review that. The two Forest Service hands, and her family spent upwards of an hour chatting with Ranger Cohrs in his office, remembering old times, while media reporters from North Louisiana awaited their turn to talk with Mrs. Peterson.

Mrs. Peterson later became a paid employee of the U.S. Forest Service, climbing the tower and "crossing out" fires on the Kisatchie with the aledade and telephone contact with other towers in the area. She retired at age 65 in 1978, with 17 years active service.

Mrs. Peterson was born November 12, 1913, to W.F. (Bill) and Emma Gibbs of rural Winn Parish near Calvin. At age 20, in 1933, she married Otis Peterson, a World War I veteran 17 years her senior. They lived the early years of their marriage on a property owed by his parents near Readhimer, then moved to the Yankee Springs community.\par }{\plain Before their marriage, Mr. Peterson had served in the U.S. Army--and now she is one of the oldest surviving widows of veterans of that war--and followed oil field work in Louisiana and Texas, dipped cows for the State at the Eagle Mountain community in northern Winn Parish, and served also in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the federal program which saw the beginnings of reforestation in the Southern Pine Belt and elsewhere in the country.

Their daughter, Lola Peterson, recalls that she was in the first grade at Gum Springs when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor--the beginning of World War II for America. By this time, Otis Peterson was working for the Kisatchie, doing road maintenance with the motor patrol when fire danger was low, and manning the tower during other times. When fires were spotted, he joined the crews going to fight them, and called his wife to climb the tower, to keep watch and maintain telephone contact with the other towers to guide the crews via radio. This experience led eventually to Mrs. Peterson's employment as a paid staffer.

Otis Peterson, Jr., their son, is a civil engineering graduate of LSU with a master's degree from University of Missouri. He retired from the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. His wife, the former Ginger Grigg of Winnfield, is a retired teacher, first at Winnfield High School, at the Huey P. Long Trade School, and 11 years at Monroe High School.

Their daughter, Lola Peterson, is retired after a 30-year career teaching high school English and speech in Caddo Parish schools.
The family plans a super 100th birthday party for Mrs. Peterson come November.

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