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Almost-centenarian tells tale of life filled with hard work and laughter

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Georgia Gullickson’s secret to living a century comes in two parts:

1)         Don’t sweat the small stuff, and

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2)         Laugh!

Georgia doesn’t pretend life is perfect — she has outlived her husband by 40 years and their only son by nine — but she looks at life through an optimistic lens.

“Don’t be too serious,” she said after considering what advice she would give to younger generations. “And don’t worry about every little thing that comes along because things turn out OK.”

Born and raised six miles east of Lawton, N.D., to Rose and Frank Peach — her dad changed the Czechoslovakian spelling “Pic” to “Peach” so his new countrymen would pronounce the surname correctly — Georgia was one of seven children. One sister died as an infant, but the rest of her four brothers and remaining sister survived all the North Dakota prairie could throw at them.

“We used to get snowstorms for days at a time,” said Georgia, looking out the window of her Larson Commons apartment at the massive pile of snow that dominates her view these days. “And big banks. There’s no trees in North Dakota so the wind would just blow that snow around and pile it up in big banks.”

Her dad bought his first car the year she was born, in 1914. But once winter rolled in, the only way the Peach family could get to town from the farm was by horse. So they stocked up on everything they didn’t raise or grow on the farm — flour, sugar, coffee — in the fall because trips to town only came about once a month in the winter.

She and her siblings went to a country school a mile away, where one teacher taught all eight grades.

“I think there were about eight to 12 youngsters at the time,” Georgia said.

After eighth grade, school ended for Georgia and her siblings. The nearest high school was in town, six miles away and there were no buses to take the farm kids into town. If a kid wanted to go to high school, his or her parents would have to find them a place to stay in town.

“You couldn’t afford [high school],” Georgia said, “finding them room and board so they could go to school.”

For a time, she worked for different families, helping with the chores and minding the children.

“I worked in one place where they had five girls,” she said. “A nice place, but all those girls wore dresses all the time. All the ironing I did. Baskets of ironing. I took care of the kids too, all for $1 a day.”

She married a neighbor, Gunter Gullickson, in 1933 and the newlyweds came to Cloquet for their honeymoon because her sister, Caroline, lived here with her husband, Lester Martin.

They never left.

It was the Great Depression then, “Hoover Days” Georgia called it. Gunter got work at Diamond Match for awhile, then Roosevelt came into office and he worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) for a time. Georgia said the WPA made a sidewalk all the way from Scanlon to Cloquet out of rocks.

“You were lucky to get work six months of the year,” she said. “It was bad until 1941.”

Life for Gunter and Georgia got easier when Gunter landed a job with Gamble Lumber Company, which was one of the West End anchor merchants for many years.

“From there on, it was good for us,” she said. “But before that, it was really hard.”

By that time they were a family of three. Their only son, Darold, had been born in 1939. Once he started first grade, Georgia decided to go back to work. Her husband was working days and Diamond Match needed workers.

“I said ‘Why not go and work?’” she said. “I started at Diamond Match in 1945 and worked there 30 years. I liked it. I miss it.

“I even dream about it,” she said with a chuckle.

Secret No. 3 to living a century? Hard work.

“A person did work hard,” she said. “Now I think back … how did I do all that? I’d work eight hours at the mill, come home and can and paint and do everything that needed to be done. It never bothered.”

Gunter died and Georgia retired in the same year: 1974.

“Imagine a person being retired for 40 years,” she said, leaning forward in her chair and laughing. “It is something.”

But retirement was anything but sitting on the couch for Georgia.

“That’s when I started all my projects at church,” she said, adding that she’s been a member of Zion Lutheran Church in Cloquet for 55 years. “I worked on all their meatball suppers, whatever came along.”

She also took up quilting, turning Darold’s room into a sewing room so she could make piles of quilts every year to sell in a garage sale every September. (Darold ended up working as a mechanical engineer for Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for 35 years after graduating from the University of Minnesota. He died shortly after retiring, but left behind his wife, Marilyn, and their only daughter, Catherine Elizabeth Gullickson.)

“I think I charged $20 for a twin, and $30 for a double,” she said. “Then there was a lady once who said she’d buy everything I could make. I found out later that she was selling them for double the price in the Twin Cities. I stopped making them after that.”

She grew flowers. Her photo albums are filled family pictures and photos of flowers outside and in her longtime home at 2418 Carlton Ave.

“I lived in my house from ’73 until 2002,” Georgia said. “I did all my own snowblowing — I had a big snowblower — and I cut my own grass. I even blew snow for Florence, my neighbor lady for many years.

“The last year I lived there my nephew was my neighbor, and he took over the snowblowing.”

Georgia moved into her apartment at Larson Commons in 2002, when she was 87. She continued to drive until age 94, then the car quit and Georgia figured she should too. (She was making up for lost time, since she hadn’t learned how to drive until Darold taught her when he was in high school, in the late ’50s.)

“I didn’t feel like I should go buy another car,” she said.

Cloquet’s Moose Lodge 1274, Chapter 256 (for the women) also played an important role over the years since Gunter died.

Georgia joined the Moose Lodge in 1977. That was fun and she loved playing bingo there on Friday nights. A member now for 37 years, she got her Academy of Friendship degree in 1981, and her College of Regents degree in 1983.

“She was one of our best volunteers for many years — I remember you making lots of pasties,” said Donna Shaw, who knows Georgia from the Moose Lodge and from Larson Commons.

Georgia nods. It was fun. Eventually a photo surfaced in one of her photo albums of a dress-up night at the Moose. Georgia was decked out in beads and a short flowered skirt with her hair spiked up, impishly showing more leg than the other three costumed ladies in the photo.

At 99, soon to be 100 years old, Georgia still lives in her own apartment. She does all her own cooking.

“I’ll make a big batch of sloppy Joes, or goulash, or spaghetti and freeze it so I don’t have to cook every day,” she said, admitting that she tried Meals on Wheels for awhile but she preferred the taste of her own cooking. She enjoys baking, too.

Secret No. 4 to living a century? Good simple food.

She reads two newspapers every day, the Pine Journal and the Duluth News Tribune.

She sleeps more than she used to — since she had a “heart spell” two years ago — but Dr. Anderson says that’s a good thing, Georgia said.

She doesn’t qualify for any assisted living.

“I interviewed with the lady and she said ‘You’re not ready for that,’” Georgia said. “The only thing I hope is I don’t have to go to a rest home and just lie there.”

Georgia is quick to note that she gets a lot of assistance from her great-niece Lynn Martin and JoAnn Anderson, her great-nephew’s wife.

“If I need something, they take care of me,” she said.

For now, she’s gearing up for what surely will be the longest birthday season of her life. Georgia’s friends are having a birthday party and open house for her at Larson Commons on her birthday, Mar. 4. Then her nieces and nephews are having a big family party for her on Apr. 26, when they get back from Arizona.

“I have nieces coming from California, Montana, North Dakota,” she said, adding that her daughter-in-law and granddaughter will likely come up from Iowa. “That will be kind of a big affair.”

Then the church is planning cake and coffee in May, when the weather gets better (and she can see more than a 25-foot pile of snow out her window).

“You think back all the years,” Georgia mused. “The way things were back when I was a girl. You’d never realize or think what things would be like nowadays. Everything is so different. Mediacom [cable television] calls and wants me to upgrade. I’m just glad I can turn the TV on. I can still balance my checkbook — I think that’s pretty good.”

Sometime soon, she’d like to go back to the Moose and play some bingo again.

“When the snow goes, I want to go again,” she said. “I used to be pretty darn lucky a lot of times.”

Donna Shaw — who happens to be in charge of bingo at the Moose — smiles.

No problem.