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Gilbertsons still support each other after 71 years

PLUM CITY--Ralph and Ione Gilbertson aren't on the farm where they've spent their entire married life, but they're still together.

The Gilbertsons--he's 94 and she's 91--now share a room at the Plum City Care Center, at least temporarily. They were to celebrate their 71st wedding anniversary there Monday of this week.

And while their health dictates they rely on nursing home care as well as support from each other, their hearts remain at the rural Maiden Rock acreage that's been their home.

"We're going to go back," Mrs. Gilbertson said Friday about the farm her husband and his late sister, Mildred, inherited from their father.

This month is the first the Maiden Rock natives have spent at the care center, but they've already made an lasting impression on the residents and staff. She said he had cancer surgery in Rochester, Minn., then arrived at mid-month. Meantime, she'd been anxiously waiting for him since her own arrival a couple weeks earlier.

The pair are a team, as she's unable to walk for extended times, so he brings her what she needs, she said.

In fact, their secret to a long marriage is helping each other, she said. Besides, they never argued; he'd just walk away.

"What do you want to fight for?" he said, citing a marriage philosophy of "being happy and being good to people."

He was the son of Stan and Hilda (he had a stepfather, Gregor) and she was the daughter of Frank and Heddy Freeman, she said. They'd each gone to separate rural schools in the vicinity; at hers, she especially remembered one elderly seventh-and-eighth grade teacher asking the students to help set the clocks because they were as tall as the teacher was.

The couple met outside a former restaurant in Maiden Rock one Halloween night during the 1930s, Mrs. Gilbertson said. Next door to the eatery was a barber shop where her future mate had gotten his hair cut. Afterward, he came over to her and the group of girls she was with, sitting out front. Soon, he asked if she'd like to ride with him in the Model A Ford Coupe that had cost him $350.

"We went for a ride and I've been going with him ever since," she said.

The farm where they settled was originally 20 acres and they kept buying 40s until it grew to 160 acres, she said. They farmed with horses, as was common in the neighborhood (he recalled a neighbor who had six of the animals to pull a gang plow). Without electricity, they used kerosene lanterns. They butchered their own meat, cold-packing it due to a lack of refrigeration. They raised pigs, along with up to 500 chickens; they had a big garden, canning as many as 200 quarts of fruits and vegetables in a season.

They started with a few cows and their milk initially went to Maiden Rock's former creamery, then to Ellsworth's creamery, she said. They kept a separator right inside their house to separate the milk. He also helped on Oscar Nelson's milk route, hauling milk and cleaning cans.

Because the old barn on their property eventually needed replacing, he and a cousin, Lawrence Gilbertson, headed for the woods and cut down logs, Mrs. Gilbertson said. They brought in a saw mill, operated by three or four men, who stayed with the family.

"I fed them breakfast," she said, noting she's always enjoyed cooking for others. Homemade bread was among her favorites and meat loaf was one of her husband's; she made apple pies for the family from apples grown in their orchard.

"I always used to make coffee when people came over," she said.

They lined up carpenters for the barn project (they built a granary and a pole shed, too), Mrs. Gilbertson said. Their two daughters, Shirley and Kathryn, who were in high school by this time, painted all the boards before they went up.

"They worked so hard that one night when they were supposed to have dates, they closed the door in their young men's faces...they were too tired to go," she said, also remembering an incident when they poured paint on each other in frustration.

Today, the girls are Mrs. Dudley Wicklund and Mrs. Arvid Miller, both of Red Wing. The Gilbertsons have five grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

The family has undergone some health hardships. Mrs. Gilbertson said the same week her spouse had his cancer surgery, they learned a granddaughter has bone cancer. Her mate earlier suffered from lip cancer. He also recalled a serious head injury when a mechanical part on a windmill came loose and a near-fatal accident when a car he was in became stuck in a farm field during a rainstorm, and tipped over in rising water as he tried to free it.

His wife remembered being repeatedly butted by an ornery ram during the brief time sheep were raised on the farm, and having to be rescued by her husband.

Through it all, the couple have been together and happy with that arrangement for over seven decades.