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Norman Gilberts: chicken pox, a tractor, and costumes for Christmas

Rememberances of Christmases Past

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX — There’s one Christmas Norman (Snort) Gilberts will never forget.

Well, actually, there are a couple of them.

 Gilberts grew up in Colfax and graduated from Colfax High School in 1945. He and his wife, Norma, lived in Sand Creek for many years in a house on the Red Cedar River.

Norman now lives in the assisted living apartments at Colfax Health and Rehabilitation Center.

“I remember one particular Christmas when I was almost ten years old. The chicken pox came around, and I, of course, I got it for Christmas, or a little before Christmas,” Gilberts said.

“I got over it by Christmas, but then the rest of the family got it. I was the only one who was well at Christmas time,” he said.

“People were bringing in food for us. I was the only one who was hungry. The rest of them couldn’t even look at it,” Gilberts said.

Norman Gilberts had five brothers and one sister.


And then there was the toy tractor he got for Christmas one year.

“One gift I remember is a little tractor that I got that I just loved. I played with it all the time. I took it out to the outhouse too. We lived on the farm then. I took it out and I was playing with it around the seats,” Gilberts recalled.

Unfortunately, the tractor fell down the hole in the outhouse.

“I thought, ‘oh my gosh, I’ve got to get my tractor out of that mess.’ So I started a small fire, and I burned the can down. We had our winter wood supply there, and it burned that up and burned down the outhouse completely,” he said.

“I got my tractor out. It was a little bit scarred from the heat, though. But it still worked. I caught heck for that. Dad said I should have never started a fire. And I believed him too,” Gilberts said.

Sand Creek 

Gilberts and his wife, Norma, were married on June 21, 1947, in Colfax.

Norma was the daughter of Conrad and Alvina (Grambo) Frogner.

They moved to Sand Creek and purchased the Sand Creek Grocery Store and Locker Plant.

Norma Gilberts passed away in January of 2012.

They were married for 64 years.

“It was a good marriage. She was a dandy for a wife. She let me get away with a lot of things,” Gilberts said.

“I was a photographer for 40 years. It was just a hobby though. I used to take a lot of weddings and kids pictures and (high school) seniors. It was fun,” he said.

Besides the grocery store and his photography business, Gilberts was postmaster of Sand Creek for 33 years.

“I miss Norma terribly. It is no good with her gone. She’s been gone over a year and a half,” he said.

Norman Gilberts’ children have always meant the world to him, but with his wife gone, they have become even more important.

“I’ve got a couple of darned good kids who take awfully good care of me. Mark is a retired Navy dentist. Cindy was admissions director at Stout. She’s retired now, too,” Gilberts said.

“I don’t know what I would do without Mark and Cindy. They are just so good to me, and I appreciate them so much,” he said.

Mark and Cindy helped him move into the apartment at CHRC.

“I was away from Colfax for a long time, but now I’m back,” Gilberts said.


Norman Gilberts had an interest in photography for a long time.

“I liked taking pictures. I started out with a little Brownie camera. I liked to try to get something unusual. Then this guy that owned the camera equipment I bought — I bought the whole works from him, a studio and lights,” he said.

“At first, when it was black and white, I developed my own film. When I started with color, I sent it to a lab in Eau Claire. They would proof out my weddings and send them back to me, and I’d give them to the people,” Gilberts said.

“I picked it up along the way, but I did have one session in Oshkosh given by an old professor who was a photography man from way back. He gave us a week’s workout. It was kind of valuable. I got to know how to arrange people for a group shot. You don’t line them up in a row, you line them up kind of staggered. I incorporated quite a few things I learned from him,” he said.

“When I got into it, I had big cameras. I had one that took a four-by-five negative, so it was a big negative to start with. I used to go in the darkroom after supper and print pictures. There’s a limit to how long they stay in the fixer and the water. Then you wash them and dry them. Started at 7 o’clock after supper, and I’d get done about 11,” Gilberts recalled.

“One thing about photography like that, especially families, you usually hit people at their jolliest. When they get Dad to get his overalls off and put on a tie and a shirt, that’s an accomplishment. You see people at their best,” he said.

“I had a grocery store along with all of it too — 20 years. It was hooked up with the Clover Farm Stores out of Rice Lake. When I bought the store, it wasn’t hooked up with anything. It was known as Gilberts Grocery for many years. There were three stores in Sand Creek at that time. A Farmers Store, too. The Farmer’s Stores were big then. And another small store like mine. Selmer’s was small too. We couldn’t get any bigger, but we couldn’t get any smaller,” Gilberts said.

“I was busy in those days. One Saturday I had a Catholic wedding in the morning, and a Lutheran one at two o’clock, and another Lutheran one at eight o’clock. All on the same day. That kind of tuckered me out that day. Three weddings on the same day was a bit too much. I never did that again,” he said.

Santa Claus 

As has probably been the experience of many men, Gilberts was drafted to wear a big red suit, black boots and a white beard and play Santa Claus for his children.

“Poor Dad always had to play Santa Claus when the kids were real small. I’d come in the house from outside, ‘ho-ho-ho’ like you have to. But Mark had that figured out long ahead of Cindy. He told Mom, ‘That’s Dad,’” Gilberts said.

“We had big Christmases. I didn’t have big Christmases when I was growing up. We were never too flush with money, but we had enough to keep going. We always thought we should give the kids better than what we had. So we spent money like crazy,” Gilberts said.

“I’ve got pictures I took of the kids one time after they were dressed in their Christmas presents. Mark got a cowboy outfit with boots, hat, guns, the whole works. Cindy was a cheerleader. They were putting on a show for us, and I was taking pictures of them. It was cute. Mark was a pretty cute little cowboy, and Cindy sure was a cute little cheerleader,” he said.

“Other than that, our Christmases were always big, but they were nothing exceptional. We put lots of lights outside. Mark is that way today, with lots of lights he puts up at the house. I am tickled, too, because Mark has bought the house from me. He loves Sand Creek. Cynthia does too,” Gilberts said.

Tree house 

And then there was the tree house that Gilberts built.

A reporter from the Associated Press interviewed Gilberts in 1991 about a luxury tree house he had built at his house in Sand Creek for his grandchildren that had carpeted steps, spanned seven maple trees and had telephone and electricity.

Gilberts told the Associated Press reporter that it had taken about 25 hours a week for three months to build the tree house.

If you do a Google search for “Norman Gilberts” and “Sand Creek” you can find a link to the AP article.