Washburn woman who was born before women had the right to vote turns 100

3 years ago

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A Washburn woman with a reputation for kindness and hard work is celebrating a century alive, and letters of congratulations are coming from all over. 

The Presque Isle Rehab and Nursing Center held a 100th birthday party for Dorothy “Dot” Sperrey on July 24. Wearing a tiara and a sash that read “100 and fabulous,” she received well-wishes from dozens of residents as well as some high-ranking officials — among her 75 birthday cards included one from Sen. Susan Collins. President Donald Trump also sent a letter of congratulations.

A litany of nursing home staff attended as family members watched from outside — unable to enter because of restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a sign of the times for a woman who has lived a lifetime of history. 

On July 25, 1920, Sperrey was born into a vastly different Aroostook County and United States. The president was Woodrow Wilson, alcohol was illegal nationwide and women were only given the right to vote 24 days after Sperrey’s birth. 

Dorothy Sperrey, right, appears in a photo from around 1941. Sperrey was around 21 at the time. (Reproduction by David Marino Jr.)

She is one of very few Americans who can vividly recall scenes of the 1920s. Her earliest memory is watching her mother nurse her newly born sister, Naida, around 1922. She remembers when her family got their first car in 1928 for $800 (about $12,000 adjusted for inflation). It was great to have — their only previous mode of transportation was by horse. 

In her teens, Sperrey worked on the historic Benjamin C. Wilder House on Main Street in Washburn, now a museum. Sperrey would clean, do laundry, cook and watch children in the home, at the time owned by the Jardine Family. Her work at the house introduced her to her eventual husband, Atwood Sperrey.

Sperrey, whose maiden name is Valley, married Atwood on April 20, 1939. They would remain married for more than 73 years, raising six children before his death in 2012. It is likely one of the longest lasting marriages in The County’s recent history. 

Announcement of a bridal shower held for Dorothy Valley (later Sperrey) from a Star-Herald article published on April 6, 1939. She would get married exactly two weeks later. (Digital Archives, Mark and Emily Turner Memorial Library)

The Sperreys were an agricultural family that raised potatoes, peas and oats. Dorothy took an active role on the family farm, waking up at the crack of dawn to cut seed in the spring and harvest in the fall while doing all the cooking and cleaning required around the house as she raised half a dozen children.

Sperrey loved to cook — her homemade chocolate doughnuts were well-known amongst family members — make crafts and crochet. Religion was also an important aspect of her and her family’s life. A longtime member of the Washburn Pentecostal Church, she often hosted traveling missionaries from South Asia and Africa. Now unable to read the Bible, her daughter Connie reads passages to her every night. 

Her generosity is well-known in the Washburn community. One day, a school bus broke down near her home during one of Aroostook County’s notorious winter storms. As Sperrey recalls, she let the dozens of children inside, keeping them warm and even baking Rice Krispie squares for all of them. Her kindness wasn’t forgotten — one of those students sent Sperrey a birthday card celebrating her achievement. 

Sperrey’s daughter, Anita McLellan, said that her mother has no life-threatening health issues and takes very little medication. There are other examples of longevity in their family: a few of her mother’s siblings had lived into their 90s, including Naida Valley Parks, 97, who lives in Caribou. 

People aged 100 or older, known as centenarians, make up an exclusive and miniscule subsection of the American population — in 2014, there were only about 72,197, according to federal data. Sperrey attributed her longevity to living a clean life inspired by her upbringing. 

“My mother and father never smoked or drank or anything like that, and they never said you should do this or that,” Sperrey said. “But, we just knew by their example what they stood for, and we stood for that.”