Sarah Breen McGowan was born and grew up in Fort Winnebago, Wisconsin, near Portage. Her father died when she was 10 years old, and when she was about 13, her family moved to Minneapolis. After two years in the city, her family established a claim in Stevens County, Minnesota.Sarah had attended parochial schools at Portage and Minneapolis, and at the age of 16 became the first teacher in school district No. 31, in Stevens County, when that district was organized June 15, 1880. (The 50th anniversary of the event was celebrated in 1930 and she and three of her students, including Nellie McGowan Conroy, were honored guests.)
When Sarah was 17, she married Patrick McGowan in Morris, Minnesota. Patrick and Sarah made their home on Patrick's homestead in Tara township, Swift County, where their oldest child, daughter Gertrude, was born. They moved to Benson after Gertrude was born, and in 1883, the family moved to Pillsbury Township near Kerkhoven where Patrick was going into the dairy business with some of his brothers. They built a home in Kerkhoven in 1884 about the time that their second daughter was born. Three more children were born in Kerkhoven, before they moved back to Benson in 1891, where Patrick started in the dairy business before buying a butcher shop. Patrick died in Benson on December 7, 1899, leaving Sarah at age 35 with eight children and one more due within a month. Sarah operated a millinery store in Benson for a time, and the older children helped their mother support the family. Gertrude followed her mother into the millinery trade, and the oldest son Martin, worked in a newspaper office.
The family moved to Appleton in 1914 when Sarah's three oldest sons bought the newspaper there. During the First World War, Sarah was recognized in the Saint Paul daily newspaper for having five sons serving in the armed forces. In 1920, she had moved to Crookston, Minnesota, where her son John was working as a traveling salesman.
She returned in Appleton to help her son Martin raise his son Martin Jr. after Martin's wife died. Sarah died of arteriosclerosis at age 70 after an illness of nine weeks. Her daughter and five of her six sons were at her bedside.
Sarah was the senior member of the Degree of Honor lodge of Benson; a member and for a number of years historian of the Appleton unit of the American Legion Auxiliary; president of the Appleton League of Women Voters, and active in local Red Cross work during the World War period. 
Sarah is buried with her husband and two daughters in St. Francis Cemetery, Benson, Minnesota.
Sarah McGowan took care of her grandson, Martin McGowan, Jr., after his mother died when he was less than two years old. He recalled his grandmother, writing when he was 80 years old:
"My grandmother was a strong-willed person. She had to be to survive the hand of cards she was dealt in life. . .
"The death of my grandfather left my grandmother at age 35 a single mother with nine living children and no visible means of support. A daughter, Sarah, died at birth in 1886. . . .
"Then Laura, the second child born, died in 1901 at age 16. . . My father, Martin, was the third child born, and to support the family he left school in the ninth grade to go to work. He worked one month as an apprentice printer to learn the trade. He also worked as a night man at a local hotel. Gertrude became a milliner making beautiful large hats, examples of which abound in early family photos.
"My grandmother was a joiner and an activist. She belonged to the American Legion Auxiliary, the Degree of Honor and the League of Women Voters. She played Bridge, quite often the version called Contract Bridge. In this variation something like a dozen boards were used with pockets in each corner. In those pockets hands had already been dealt and inserted. As the players sat at the table they removed the hands from the pockets and played them as they were dealt. The object seemed to be to compare how different people played the same hands. My grandmother seemed to be the custodian of the boards.
"Another interesting thing my grandmother had was the Mah Jong game. The only way to describe them is dominoes with ivory faces having Chinese characters carved into them. I never understood the game but it was fun to play with the pieces.
"As a youngster my grandmother taught me how to knit. This came in handy when I was ill. In the days before television she would give me yarn and knitting needles in bed to pass the time knitting and purling.
"The earliest cultural event I can recall my grandmother taking me to attend was a performance by Negro singer and actress Ethel Waters. This occurred at either the Lyceum or Schubert theater in Minneapolis when I was about six or seven years old. We had front row seats but actually these were not good seats. They were lower than the stage. Unless I stood up I could not see the back of the stage, but being there made quite an impression on me. I don’t recall how we got to Minneapolis since it was quite a trip in the days before there was a real state highway system of surfaced roads and my grandmother did not drive a car. We must have taken a train, which would have been quite an experience for me at that age."
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