Wrenshall family matriarch is one busy ladyRamona Laveau is a prime example of Newton’s scientific principle, “A body in motion stays in motion.”
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Ramona Laveau is a prime example of Newton’s scientific principle, “A body in motion stays in motion.”
At the age of 80, Laveau is still busily engaged in the art of life – hosting large gatherings at her rural Wrenshall home, baking and cooking meals for friends and family, teaching community education classes, and providing both a sounding board and a “shoulder to cry on” for her extended family of some 108 children, grandchildren and their spouses.
Laveau is modest, however, when it comes to laying claim to any sort of extraordinary accomplishments (in fact, she’d much rather talk about her late husband, Alex, who was well known in both farming and political circles throughout the state and country). If anything, she said she can attribute the person she’s become to the way that she was raised and grew up.
She was one of six children born to Rose and Stephen Laubach of Cromwell. A few years following her birth, the family moved to Wrenshall and built the Military Inn on Highway 23.
“The road wasn’t even there yet, but my father knew they were going to build it so he went ahead and started the business,” explained Laveau. “My mother used to feed up to 50 room-and-boarders while the road was being built.”
The young Ramona helped her mother serve the road crews and all of the others who ate there, and she learned how to cook and work hard at an early age.
When she was in high school, she began writing to a young Navy man named Alex Laveau, whose parents were close friends with her parents.
“He wrote home to his mother and asked her if she knew any girls who could write to him,” she explained. “My mother gave his mother my address, and when he came home from the Navy, he came to the basketball game in Wrenshall where I was a cheerleader.”
After that, Alex and his parents came out to her mom and dad’s house on Sunday and they had a meal together. Not long afterward, the two started dating. They were married a year later, in June 1949.
The couple rented for a little while in Cloquet, and a month and a half later Alex contracted polio.
“He and a little 12-year-old boy were the first ones in Cloquet to be diagnosed with polio,” said Ramona. “They didn’t know what it was at first, but they took a spinal tap and found it was polio. It only left him with his throat partially paralyzed. Otherwise, there was no other paralysis. The little boy didn’t make it. He passed away.”
Alex worked for Northwest Paper and he and Ramona eventually moved to Wrenshall.
“By that time, my dad had the Military Inn going along well, which had gas and groceries, a bar and dances,” said Ramona. “For nine months we learned the business with one of my brothers while my mom and dad kind of took it easy for a while.”
Alex decided he had other plans, however – he wanted to be a farmer.
“His mom and dad had a few cows,” related Ramona, “so we bought them, moved to Moose Lake and farmed there while Alex drove back and forth to the paper mill.”
Then they sold that farm and moved to land on North Road until their barn burned.
They eventually bought a 120-acre farm in Wrenshall in 1959.
“When we got there, there was only one little tiny house, 18 x 36,” said Ramona, “and the first thing we did was add a pole barn.”
In early 1961, Alex quit work at the mill and went into farming full time. They bought another 62 acres and then another 56 and they raised milking Holsteins, with a capacity of up to 120 milk cows and enough young stock to bring the total count up to 300 head.
With an eye toward expanding the farm, the Laveaus continued to live in the little house, even after they started having “bunches of kids.” They had 10 children in all – eight of them while they were still living in the little house.
“In the summer,” related son Duane, “we slept in the attic, and in the winter, we all moved down into the living room. I remember when the snow started blowing in around the chimney, it was time to move downstairs!”
In 1968, Alex and Ramona had their ninth child, and when Ramona came home from the hospital with the baby, they moved into a new house that Alex had built, with three bedrooms and a bathroom both upstairs and down.
The Laveaus continued to expand the farm as well, adding four harvesters and a slurry store for manure during the 1970s. They also bought another 200 acres and ended up with some 478 acres in all.
With the hard work of running a farm and raising a large family, Ramona admitted balancing the two sometimes became something of a challenge.
“The kids hardly ever went anywhere,” she said. “One of my daughters-in-law told me recently that when she and my son first went out to eat at a restaurant, he didn’t even know how to order off the menu!”
Pretty much the only place they did go was to church, and since all they had was a pickup truck, they would all pile up three deep in the cab!
The kids used to have to go out to the barn before they went to school in the morning and Ramona would always have a hot breakfast for them when they came in.
“We never had cereal,” said daughter Caroline. “It was eggs and bacon and things like that.”
Before she made breakfast, however, Ramona had to milk cows.
“She used to run six milkers on 100 cows all by herself,” said
“Besides that, she’d take care of the garden during the day, and we never had store-bought bread because she’d make a batch of bread every day,” added Duane.
“I loved it,” Ramona said. “It kept me in shape!”
The family would get flour in 50- and 100-pound bags from the feed mill, and Ramona would save the colored bags it came it to make things. Trips to the grocery store were few and far between, because of all the gardening, canning, freezing and meat off the farm they had to eat.
The only thing Ramona confesses she couldn’t do was sew.
“In August of every year I’d sit down with the Sears catalog and order two pairs of pants and three shirts for each of them, and that’s what they wore all year.”
“The farm must have been a good place to grow up and we must have all loved it because we all hated school!” said Caroline with a laugh.
“I would much rather be home working on the farm,” agreed Duane.
Ramona would have supper ready the minute the kids got home from school and then they all headed for the barn to do chores again.
“She’d always have potatoes and gravy and roasts or pork chops and homemade bread with homemade jam,” recalled Caroline.
After they got in from the barn, the kids would have to sit down and do their homework, though sometimes they had enough time to play baseball or kick the can.
Despite cooking for her own large brood, Ramona often cooked for visitors and farm workers as well, including the crews who helped build the silos and the barn on their farm.
“They loved working on those buildings because she fed them breakfast, lunch and supper,” said Caroline, “ – and they were big meals!”
The Laveaus used to have family wedding receptions and dances in the pole barn at the farm, as well as county, state and federal political gatherings. Today Ramona still hosts many family events in her garage, which she transforms into something that looks more like a restaurant dining room.
Somehow, Ramona also found time to serve a term on the Wrenshall School Board, act as a leader for her kids’ 4-H club, and remain active in the Catholic Church in Carlton.
In addition to selling milk to the creamery, the family sold unpasteurized milk, cheese, milk products and their own meat right there at the farm.
“We would have a couple of hundred customers at one time,” said Duane.
“They’d line up from the milk house all the way out to the road, waiting to get their milk,” said Caroline. “From around 5 to 7 o’clock at night it would really get busy. They’d come from Duluth, Gary, all over the area.”
Ramona still drinks their own milk right off the farm.
“My doctor says, ‘You’ve got to cut that whole milk out,’” she related, “and I say to him, ‘I’m sorry, doc – if I die, I die!’”
When Alex decided he was ready to quit farming at last, he built a retirement home at the back of their land, wedged between forestland and pastureland.
“He just loved it out here,” said Ramona. “We moved in on Thanksgiving Day 1990, and he died in October 1991 of a massive heart attack.”
As a county board member, Alex had been active on the committee to restore Highway 23 and rededicate it to the veterans. After that, he and then-Senator Florian Chmielewski worked on getting a scenic overlook built along the highway. It was shortly after giving his speech at the dedication ceremony for that overlook that he died.
The bike trail that ran through that area was eventually named in memory of him.
After Alex passed away, Ramona, Caroline and a couple of the grandkids made a trip out to Washington D.C. to testify on the value of family farms, something Alex had also done during his lifetime.
During the 20 years since Alex’s death, Ramona has stayed on in their retirement home and hosted many family occasions there. She also goes hunting for mule deer with the boys in Wyoming every year – “I’m the camp cook!” she said with a grin – and she teaches classes on making homemade Bismarks through community education every fall.
“Everyone just loves her Bismarks,” said Caroline. “In fact, one year a plate of them was auctioned off and it went for over $20!”
All but two of Ramona’s 10 children still live in Carlton or Wrenshall (one died of a heart attack at the age of 37), and she is proud to say three of her grandchildren have served in Iraq and another in Kuwait.
This weekend, Ramona said she’ll be heading to Brickyard Days in Wrenshall to see friends and family and renew old acquaintances.
“At my age, I have to do things to keep me busy and keep my mind sharp,” she attested.
One thing is for certain – that she remains the undisputed matriarch of a family who respects and adores her.
“One of our grandsons was here yesterday,” related Ramona, “and he said to me, ‘You know, your kids maybe didn’t go places and do things, but they learned the value of hard work and became good citizens. What they didn’t get financially, they gained in experience.’”
And that, after all, is a lot to be proud of.