Mildred “Mitzie” Wisler, who was a founding organizer of the Elk Grove Western Festival, died at the age of 99 on July 3.
Mitzie, who was born in Sacramento as the first of the two children of Theodore and Alice Lages on Feb. 27, 1921, lived the final 72 years of her life in Elk Grove.
She had two children attending Elk Grove Grammar School when she began assisting in the planning of the inaugural edition of this Western Festival, which debuted in 1957.
That school’s Mothers’ Club, in which she was a member, organized the event as a fundraiser for a new overhead projector. The success of the festival led to it becoming an annual springtime event and a tradition exceeding well more than a half-century.
John Penney, who is one of Mitzie’s sons, expressed pride in his mother’s involvement in the organization of the first Western Festival.
“For her to be involved in something like that (was special),” he said. “It turned out to be a really fun time for the whole town. That had to be something that she just naturally gravitated to. I have to believe that she and (her best friend) Olga (Batey) were really good participants in the Mothers Club to do what was necessary to make the festival happen.
“I doubt that any person had any one important role necessarily. They all had to work together to make it happen.”
John recalled the success of the inaugural festival.
“(The first Western Festival) was great,” he said. “It was a magical time for everyone involved in town with everything going on in the Elk Grove Park and the parade and whatnot. It was a grand time for a small town.
“Our music teacher had arranged for a flatbed trailer (for the parade). They towed the grammar school (float) down Main Street (Elk Grove Boulevard) there. The senior orchestra was sitting on top of there playing. We didn’t march. We were not a marching band.”
In addition to her involvement with the Western Festival, Mitzie spent seven years working as a volunteer costume maker for the Strauss Festival of Elk Grove.
Although Mitzie spent the early part of her life in Sacramento, where she graduated from C.K. McClatchy High School in 1939, she adapted to Elk Grove after moving there in 1948. Her friendship with Olga began during the following year.
Mitzie’s first home in Elk Grove was in a house on a ranch that her family began renting in 1948.
Oscar Mix mentioned that in about the 1920s, his family acquired that property, which was located on the north side of Bond Road, about a half-mile east of the old bridge at Waterman and Bond roads. Katherine L. Albiani Middle School is now located at that site.
The Mixes lived on that ranch before leasing the property, Oscar recalled.
“There was a fellow by the name of Sagehorn that had leased the property for sheep, and John Engle, who would be Mitzie’s brother-in-law, worked for Sagehorn,” he said. “So, maybe (Mitzie’s family was) renting (the house) from Sagehorn.”
While living on that ranch, Mitzie began working as a secretary at the old Gibson Winery in Elk Grove. It was also during that time when Mitzie would pick persimmons and make bricks of persimmon pudding for her friends and family.
Mitzie and her family, which then included her husband, Glenn, and their children, Carol, Glenn and John, moved to 9625 Gage St. in 1950, when Elk Grove had a population of 760, according to that year’s census. The couple’s fourth child, Eric, was born during the following year.
John said that his father’s struggle with alcohol and the “irreconcilable differences” between his parents led to the dissolution of their marriage in the early 1950s.
During that decade, Mitzie also spent time working at Elk Grove grammar and high schools.
While later working as a clerk for Oscar’s father, Judge Godfrey Mix, at the courthouse, which is now occupied by Elk Grove Teen Center USA, she met Paul Penney. He was on business with the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, and was in the court to testify against a bootlegger.
They were married in 1958, and their son, James “Alex,” was born on May 8, 1960.
John recalled his mother’s involvement in “Elk Grove matters.”
“(She) and (her) best friend, Olga, joined many groups to help shape Elk Grove’s future, including the League of Women Voters, Patrons Club, the Elk Grove Book Club, and compiled boxes and boxes of books to be donated to the Elk Grove Library as a member of the Friends of the (Elk Grove) Library (of which she once served as president),” he said.
“She and Olga would later light out on the sidewalks of Elk Grove, campaigning for the Honorable John Garamendi. She was an ardent supporter of the congressman.”
John additionally remembered that both his mother and Olga were among the founders of the local Helter Skelter theatrical group, which also included Olga’s husband and Chevrolet dealer, Bob.
Along with Olga, Mitzie’s other good friends included John and “Sunny” Mahoney, Bob and Peg Stetson, Bev Christensen and Mary Lou Stetson.
In the late 1970s, Mitzie and Paul moved into one of the Lou Guttridge-built homes on Parktree Way. That home proved to be Paul’s final residence, as he died in 1991.
At the age of 84, Mitzie was married to a widower, Tom Wisler. John noted that after Wisler’s death in 2009, “she decided to no longer take care of any more old men.”
But Mitzie was certainly not alone at that time, and that point was evident alone through the continuance of her longtime friendship with Olga. Their ongoing activities included furthering their community and political involvement.
Olga died at the age of 93 in 2017.
Stephanie Batey, Olga’s daughter, recognized the strong friendship of Mitzie and her mother.
“They were friends for 68 years,” she said. “When they first met, they hit it off, in 1949, and remained best friends for all those years.”
Stephanie referred to Mitzie as a “ray of sunshine.”
“Whenever she walked in the room, you knew it, because she was cheerful and always had a smile on her face,” she said.
In her late 90s, Mitzie moved to her final residence at the assisted living facility, The Commons at Elk Grove.
At the time of her death, Mitzie had 14 grandchildren, 21 great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren.