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Dakota native wills $140,000 to city fire department

The city of Dakota’s clerk and fire chief were speechless earlier this month after they were handed a check for $140,000 for the city’s fire department and first responders.

The money — by far the biggest donation the department has ever received — was part of the will of Eleanor Sanford, a Dakota native who died in late September.

“We can’t thank her enough,” said fire chief Scott Hoeg, who was once Sanford’s neighbor.

He added that he wished the department could thank her in person.

Shortly after Eleanor died, city clerk Lana Gerlach was told that she had left money to the department.

Lana was under the impression it was $10,000.

“Neither one of us could even talk,” Lana said, describing the moment that she and Scott first saw the check.

The $140,000 is almost equal to eight years of the department’s operating budget, Lana said. The money has been put into a fund that will likely go toward purchasing a new fire truck.

If the department does buy a truck, Scott plans to put Eleanor’s name on the front.

“She’d like that,” Lana said, with a smile.

The donation could be the largest amount received by any area fire department. The most the La Crescent Fire Department has received — that the fire chief or city finance director could remember — is $4,000. Lewiston’s biggest donation in recent memory was $15,000, and for the Winona Fire Department the top amount is around $5,000.

“Oh, that Eleanor,” neighbor and friend Marilyn Hurt said after hearing about the donation. “I’m so happy for our fire department, but I am not surprised.”

“She just thought a lot of those people and the hard work that they did,” said longtime friend Mary Larson.

Eleanor’s drive to give was heightened during her last years of life, said Mary, who for a time served as her caretaker. If there was money left over after she died, Eleanor wanted to make sure it went back to her community.

“She was just so thoughtful of others and caring,” Mary said.

Friends this week remembered Eleanor for her big heart and dry sense of humor.

If she had leftovers, she would bring them to a neighbor’s house.

If travelers needed a place to eat and rest, she would offer her home.

“She would always help whoever and didn’t expect anything in return,” friend Signe Cone said.

For years, Eleanor helped out a bachelor named Harold, who many called the unofficial historian of Dakota. She’d cook for him and even do his laundry.

“She took care of Harold until he went to the nursing home,” Marilyn said.

Eleanor donated a piano to the Methodist church in town and gave $1,000 to the Dakota First Responders Squad when they started.

In Eleanor’s spare time and often after church, she invited friends over for tea. Eleanor, Mary, and anyone else who attended would attempt to solve the world’s problems, Mary said.

“She was a special lady,” Lana said. “She was really a treat.”