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.
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.
→ 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.