We spent New Year’s Eve back in time

In a place out of the way.

They don’t make places like this any more. Gilbertson’s general store, established in 1894, located in the kind of crossroads town so vital to Wisconsin’s countryside in the days before the horseless carriage. An unincorporated place called Keyeser (pronounced like “Kaiser”), located 11 miles due north of Sun Prairie, just across the county line in Columbia County. At one time a rival general store operated directly across the street, County Hwy C.

The Head Groundskeeper and his Lovely Lisa celebrated Friday, New Year’s Eve at this venerable establishment, which has seen many such come and go. Among maybe 30 others — all regulars, including brother Bill and school day friends Bernie Weisensel and Phil Long of Sun Prairie. The ladies brought sausage, cheese, cake and cookies to share. We’re all old enough that we were fine with the get-together ending at 5 p.m., the normal store closing time, so that we could travel back home in the waning daylight as the snow-covered horizon merged imperceptibly into the soft gray sky.

The proprietor, Kenny Gilbertson and his wife, took over from his father, C.B. Gilbertson. Patrons describe them as “super sweet people,” as they proved to be with us.

Kenny Gilbertson

Kenny Gilbertson is ‘Old Style’

And don’t throw the past away
You might need it some other rainy day
Dreams can come true again
When everything old is new again

— Peter Woolnough Allen / Carole Sager

You can have anything you want at Gilbertson’s, if they have it. Soda pop, nails and screws, engine fan belts, shoes, watch bands, loaf of bread, can o’ beans, Harvester cigars, white socks, greeting cards, and sweatshirts emblazoned “Keyeser Indians.” And, of course, those classic Wisconsin tavern specialities that Tommy Thompson commemorated in a mock-up of the neighborhood tavern on the Smithsonian mall on the occasion of our 150th anniversary as a state: smoked chub, pickled eggs, pigs knuckles, even lutefisk. Keyeser is a Norwegian stronghold (a thriving Lutheran Church is kitty corner) — “Uff-Da! Beaten Path,” a sign proclaims — as was nearby DeForest before it grew.

Most, it seems, come for a bottle of beer — there are five stools at the bar — and some catching up. Plus a card table for euchre and sheepshead.

A hand-written sign reminds patrons that utterance of the F-bomb require a donation to the swear jar. The place is also packed with folk art contributed by patrons over the years: a set of wooden “Norwegian skis,” impossible claims of monster fish hauls, and lots of outhouse comedic art. Speaking of which, the biffies — albeit a fair cut above those of our one-room schoolhouse — are out in back.

Gilbertson's store

Map of Keyeser (and Leeds) back in 1894 appears to show Gilbertson’s store.

Gilbertson’s reminded the Lovely Lisa of her father’s tavern and store in rural Waukesha County north of Oconomowoc. Back in Blaska’s newspaper days 30 years ago, he wrote up the store when operated by Kenny’s father, C.B. Gilbertson. Tobacco for loose-leaf chew was grown hereabouts in a region that extended through Sun Prairie, southeast to Cambridge, and down to Stoughton and Edgerton. The Keyeser Indians were eager tobacco workers but (suffice to say) liked to celebrate their paychecks.

Upon leaving, Lisa slipped behind the bar to give Mr. Gilbertson a warm embrace.

Blaska’s Bottom Line: There’s history and character in this place and in these people.

Where do you go?

About David Blaska

Madison WI
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8 Responses to We spent New Year’s Eve back in time

  1. Marc Eisen says:

    David, you’re doing the best writing of your life. Great perspective. Great tone. Even when your politics raise hackles and invite dispute, you are not easily dismissed. Happy New Year. Marc

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dwight says:

    Spent new years watching the Big 10 get humiliated.


  3. Good Dog, Happy Man says:

    Brings back so many smells and memories, I hadta shoo them away like flies.

    Lee and Virginia Steward had a general store on E. Wash. and Portage Ave.
    They’d get a nickle back from the brewery, if you ordered a Fauerbach.

    Salt of the earth Norveejuns, Jens and Ellen Haug, kept a store in Token Creek.
    Jens vas a skee-yumper who came from Norvay ven he vas yust tirteen.
    He’s at Burke Lootrun Cemetery with the Fellands, Reindahls and Liens.

    Norveejuns are notoriously frugal. Ellen was shocked by the undertaker’s bill.
    She asked, “Vy does it cost so much to bury Jens?”

    The undertaker said, “Extra digging. We had to bury him 12 feet deep.”

    She replied, “I taught joo usually yust bury dem 6 feet under.”

    Undertaker said, “Yabbut, evervun knows Norveejuns are good down deep.”


    Only other general store I know nort of Oconomowoc is Kuhtz’s in Stone Bank.
    It had one of everything you needed and a beer bar in a side room of the store.
    Ladies could go in, but usually didn’t. They’d settle for ice cream and candy.

    Life was much simpler. The store was the source for all local community news.
    People interacted and traded freely. You were measured by the content of your character.
    Everyone was welcome and there were no social taboos.

    There were loyalties, however. If the Ford dealer was Catlick, and you were, too,
    you’d buy a Ford. If the Chevy dealer was a Lootrun, and you were Lootrun, too,
    naturally, you’d buy a Chevy.


  4. georgessson says:

    Well writ, Sir! Evoked many an enjoyable memory of years past, and NOT necessarily my own experiences. That’s what good writers can accomplish, and what good readers are thankful for…

    Somehow we DID get to Smoky’s for NYE. A recent ER/hospital stay & an MRI @ 2 PM yesterday tried their best but -The stars and the moon aligned correctly and we had such fun reacquainting ourselves with the staff. Food was a dream, service was thoughtful and unhurried. A very pleasant event to usher out the old year and bring in the new !


  5. Scott F says:

    Happy New Year David. Thanks for leading the fight.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Bill Cleary says:

    Thank you David for a trip down memory lane. Life was very much simpler then. What I loved at the time, coming from the Chicago area to the Madison area, is how much simpler things were here than there.

    At the time, fit my personality to a T.

    As a teenager from the Chicago area, chopping and spearing tobacco, hanging it in the drying shed, picking rocks, bailing hay, putting it up in a barn, milking cows, planting and harvesting corn, hard work but all good memories.

    Coming from the outside, this is why this area of the country had a personality all of it’s own.

    That’s why I came to love this place.

    Liked by 1 person

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