Iris House can’t help but look around Rhinelander today with a bit of nostalgia. The truth is, she played a big part in making the city what it is today.
House, 93, is a true Northwoods pioneer. In a time when it was extremely difficult for women to hold positions of power in the business world, House not only was a manager, she ran the show, directing as many as 450 employees at one time as the administrator of Friendly Village, Taylor Park, the Jolly Fisherman and the Restmore facility. To House, though, it was all in a day’s work.
“I never thought of myself as a pioneer or anything like that,” said House. “I just did what I felt needed to be done. The facilities I had a part in help fill a huge need in the community.”
House certainly wasn’t shy on experience when she began her work at Friendly Village. She had previously ran the old Oneida County Senior Home on Cty. C for many years previous, before deciding to get out of the field.
“I left for five years and took care of two of my grandkids,” said House. “I was tired of it all and needed a break. It was a good decision at the time.”
However, Iris had a particular set of skills that made her a commodity in town-namely a stubborn, never-say-die attitude. It wasn’t long before people began calling to bring her out of retirement.
“Dr. Schiek called me out of the blue one day in 1964, and asked me to go back into business running a nursing facility,” recalled House. “He pledged to build a facility from the ground up.”
House was inspired, and immediately went to work on the plans. However, just as they were getting close to breaking ground, Schiek died suddenly, leaving House several hundred thousand dollars short of her goal. After striking out looking for loans with several banks, Iris marched into First National Bank in downtown Rhinelander.
“I told the manager, ‘You know, this project is for the people, and people are God’s doing,'” said House. “Later on he told me I was the first woman he knew who wouldn’t hear the word ‘no’.”
House eventually secured the funding she needed, and the first structure to go up was Friendly Village in 1966, which at 150 beds was the largest elderly nursing and rehabilitation facility in northern Wisconsin. The name was inspired by a painting named “Friendly Village” that House had seen in Denmark that depicted an older couple dancing happily. “I just loved the image it portrayed,” said House.
She later added Taylor Park (named after House’s maiden name, Taylor), and the “Jolly Fisherman” (inspired by her first husband, Floyd Ford, who returned home exuberant after a day of fishing on a Northwoods lake).
“I guess I chose names that all meant something to me personally,” said House.
House ran all the facilities for 17 years, selling them in 1983. However, while she had intended to retire, her business acumen again got in the way.
“I didn’t want to just go home and sit, so I decided to open my own gift shop,” said House. “It sort of grew from there I suppose.”
House’s one shop eventually became five holiday-themed gift stores operating under the name “House of Gifts” and the “Golden Reindeer.” After running those businesses for several years, House finally decided it was time to slow down once and for all. She sold her shops and entered into retirement. Of course, she still found ways to stay busy.
“I joined the original board for the food pantry, and did a lot of other volunteer work,” said House. “It keeps me busy and keeps my mind sharp.”
The irony of living in a facility that she began and ran for many years is not lost on Iris, but it’s also something that doesn’t bother her in the least.
“I’ve taken care of people my whole life, so it’s very nice being here and having people take care of me,” said House. “This is a great community, and I’ve gotten to know so many wonderful people. I still try to help when I can. There is always something you can do for others.”
Editor’s note: Oneida County Board Supervisor Paul Dean has started a fund to purchase a memorial at Friendly Village to recognize House’s work and career in Rhinelander. To learn more about Dean’s plan, call him at (715) 369-3621.