Most Viewed Stories
At 107, Wheatland woman is fiercely independent
She's flown a plane, driven motorcycles, fixed cars and picked cotton.
Estelle Bills helped care for nine younger siblings, raised three kids of her own and worked a litany of jobs that started when she was just a child.
Now, at 107, Maude "Estelle" Bills still cooks several meals a week in the kitchen of her apartment at Donner Trail Manor in Wheatland.
She could use some help most days, but would rather do things for herself, thank-you-very-much.
"I don't like just lookin' out the window," she said on Monday. Balloons from her birthday party a week earlier still floated above her recliner.
Making the transition to a less active lifestyle has been a slow and difficult one for the fiercely independent Bills, who has survived her children and all but one of her brothers and sisters — the second to the youngest.
"I worked since I was a little kid," she said. "I taught myself all I know."
Bills' life started in San Antonio, Texas, in 1905. When she was just 7, she was brought to the cotton fields to help out.
"I picked that cotton till I got a sack full, and dad would put it on a wagon," she said. "And when that was full, he'd take it to the gin."
Bills lifts an arm and flexes, to show the long lean muscle beneath what is now paper-thin skin.
Her work at home was even more demanding.
"My mother was sick a lot, so I had to learn to do a lot of cookin' and sewin'," she said.
"We raised our own chickens and cows. We killed our own pigs and made our own sausage. ... I milked as many as 24 cows one night," she said. "And I churned butter."
She turned to Barbara Walker, a woman who comes now to help her around the apartment most days.
"You wouldn't know how to churn butter," Bills teased her.
School was a tent on the ranch.
"I think it was about 12-foot by 14-foot," she said. "My teacher lived in a tent on the ranch too. Miss Wals was her name."
It's a long way back to remember. But on Monday, Bills spelled out her schoolteacher's name without being asked.
When asked who prepares her meals these days, she cuts her visitors a look.
"I do," she said. "Don't you fix all your meals?"
Bills has been a widow now for about 40 years, and was the second resident to move into the senior independent living complex in Wheatland 32 years ago when it opened.
"She uses a walker now," said facility manager Ryan Broumas. "But she still gets around better than most around here, to be honest."
Bills' first California days were spent in Bakersfield in the 1920s and '30s, when she was a young mother and housewife.
When the family moved farther north and bought a garage in Sacramento, Bills followed her husband into the grease-soaked world of auto and diesel truck mechanics.
There, she said, she learned, "everything on a car that had to be done."
Bills still remembers the last car she repaired after her husband, Ralph, died.
"It was a red Buick. I put a transmission in it," she said.
By then, Bills had developed a love of motorcycles, and had owned several, she said. And more than once, while riding as a passenger in her brother's recreational plane, she had been allowed to fly the aircraft.
The experience was thrilling, she said, if not altogether safe or legal.
Without work and loud engines, life now seems awful slow, Bills admits.
She watches the Food Network on television.
"And when she gets bored, she calls 911 to see the pretty firemen,'" Broumas said.
His charge is only partially true.
Wheatland Fire Chief Art Paquette said his most regular client does press the alert button in her home with more and more frequency.
"She jokes and tells us she just wanted to see us again," he said, grinning. "But most of the time, she's really not feeling good."
Until three years ago, all Bills ever took for her pains was aspirin, according to Paquette. But age finally is starting to catch up.
"The doctor said I could live to at least 110," Bills said Monday. "So I'll just hang around I guess."
CONTACT Nancy Pasternack at firstname.lastname@example.org or 749-4781. Find her on Facebook at /ADnpasternack or on Twitter at @ADnpasternack.