Alyssa Sutton

About the series

Real People stories are about people volunteering, doing good deeds, achieving, performing, enjoying the outdoors ... making the most of life in Union and Wallowa counties. Do you have a story idea or photo for this feature? Email .

Retta Hoxie will turn 100 tomorrow, but you wouldn’t know it.

Sitting in her living room, she said she thinks she’s figured out what’s wrong with her sewing machine, and she’s pretty sure she can fix it herself.

Her granddaughters Becky Lester and Observer employee Lisa Kelly responded together, “She will.”

Retta has been sewing since she was “knee-high to a grasshopper.”

“I started sewing as soon as my feet could reach the treadle,” she said, recalling her mother’s human-powered sewing machine. She added that she owned one of the first Pfaff sewing machines in the United States, and the machine she’s using now is at least 70 years old.

“My first sewing projects were little rag rugs,” she said.

A hard worker and avid sewer, she passed on her skills to her daughters and granddaughters. In her later years she has made hundreds of quilts and donated them to local organizations, such as Shelter From the Storm and Grande Ronde Hospital. As she speaks, there is a sizable stack of baby quilts ready to go in her sewing room.

Retta was born in Cleveland, North Dakota, to Ed and Frona Zachow on Nov. 7, 1917, her sister’s third birthday.

“(My dad) came from farmers, and he tried to farm, but he hated it,” she said, “so he became a logger.”

When Retta was 4, her family moved to Northport, Washington, where she spent the majority of her youth.

“I had a happy childhood. I grew up just miles from the Canadian border,” she said, adding that she has visited Canada as well as the Holy Lands, Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

After she graduated from high school, Retta attended Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington, for a semester on a scholarship. When the scholarship ended, she couldn’t afford to stay enrolled and moved to Newport, Washington, where her sister Martha lived, and worked in a pop factory.

In October 1940, Leslie “Les” Hoxie proposed to Retta by saying, “If it rains tomorrow, let’s go get married.” As luck would have it, it did rain, and Les, who was a logger, couldn’t work, and they were married the next day in Spokane, Washington.

In 1941 Retta and Les moved to Ukiah, where Les and his partner, Leonard Brown, started a sawmill.

When asked if they had running water in their house in Ukiah, Retta answered with a laugh, “The creek was our running water.” She added that they didn’t have electricity for most of the years they lived in Ukiah.

The Brown and Hoxie Lumber Company made a great difference to the economy of Ukiah, but in 1952 it closed its doors due to Brown’s health.

Les retired and they moved with their daughters, Ruth and Beverley, to Union County, building and settling into a house at the foot of Mt. Emily.

Les passed away in 1965, but it didn’t slow Retta down.

“Anything a man could do, she could, and she did,” said her granddaughter Becky, who grew up with her three sisters next door to Retta.

“She gardened and she cut her own wood,” Lisa added.

In 1979, Retta married Vern Hoxie, an old friend and Les’ half brother, and they enjoyed camping and traveling in their RV. In 1999, they downsized and moved into La Grande. Vern passed away in 2003.

Over the years, Retta volunteered for several organizations. She taught 4-H clubs for more than a decade. She volunteered for the Salvation Army, helping with Sunday school and Bible school, and she restored dolls and toys for Toys for Tots, before the organization required new and unwrapped toys.

Retta also collected dolls and either repaired or made new clothes for them.

“I had a doll hospital,” she said with a smile.

Eventually, her personal collection included hundreds of dolls. When she moved to town, she donated most of her collection to museums.

When asked what advice she has for the younger generations, her voice raised a notch: “Don’t drink, don’t smoke, and don’t do drugs!”

Retta has had family nearby her whole life. Her surviving daughter, Ruth, and her husband, Lonnie Lester, raised their four daughters in La Grande. Retta has five grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and several stepgrandchildren and their families, and she is looking forward to meeting her new great-great-grandson at Christmas.