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Our Neighbors...Shirley Blackburn

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Shirley Blackburn has outlasted a lot of the places she used to frequent during her lifetime — Rudy’s Restaurant, where she and her lady friends went every morning for coffee before work…Southgate Bowl, where she played on a league for many years…Hardees Restaurant, where she worked for a decade baking biscuits….

“When that bowling alley went down, I wondered, ‘Boy, where are we headed?’” she declared.

But at the age of 90, Shirley herself shows few signs of getting older. She still drives a car (she gave up her Moped a few years back); she still picks berries and she still holds down a five-day-a-week job. Though she has a history of longevity on both sides of her family, she attributes the key to a long life and robust health to two things: “Don’t ever start smoking,” and “Don’t stop moving!”

Shirley (whose maiden name was Melin) was born in Duluth, where her dad owned and operated Melin Furniture Store and the Viking Tavern.

She was the youngest in a family of 13 kids — “And we never really fought,” she attests. “We always got along.”

She and her sister Audrey, who turned 91 in December, are now the last two surviving siblings.

When Shirley was just a little girl, her family moved to a 280-acre dairy farm in Munger, raising 30 cows (they had names for most of them), as well as Dick and Dan the work horses, and an assortment of pigs and chickens.

“I milked my first cow when I was 7!” she proclaimed.

She and her siblings worked hard every day, helping their father and mother run the farm. Though most of the time they took their chores seriously, she did admit that there were times when they simply couldn’t resist being kids.

“Once my niece and I stole the eggs out of the chicken coop and were making mud pies with them behind the garage,” she confessed. “My dad caught us so we got kicked out of there. We did little things like that. They weren’t all that mischievous, but they were crazy.”

The lane that led out to the field where they went to bring in the cows was long and boring, so while she and her brothers and sisters rode the hay wagon out there, they would dance and play music on the harmonica as they went.

“We would just have a ball,” she reminisced. “I can still see my brother Harold. He and Audrey would get up there and dance like crazy, and we couldn’t help but laugh at them. They were so funny!”   

Shirley’s older sisters helped their mother do all of the baking, but Shirley was out in the barn most of the time helping her dad. She’d get up and do chores at 5 a.m., come inside and get cleaned up, and then go to school. When she came home, she did it all over again.

“I was always out in the barn, doing chores,” she said. “They called me Pete the Barn Boss!”

By the time she was 10, she was driving the tractor, and when she turned 15, she got her first car — a 1930 Model A.

“I took that out in a snowstorm one day and my niece was with me,” she related. “We got to the corner of the road, and doggone if we didn’t get hung up in a great big snowbank! We ended up having to walk home from there.”

At one point, her mother suffered a brain tumor and Shirley and some of the other kids had to stay home and take care of her. After that, her mother couldn’t drink regular milk, so Shirley’s dad bought a goat to milk.

“One time my sister left a fresh loaf of bread on the back of the stove to cool,” recalled Shirley. “That goat ran right through the screen door and grabbed it!”

Everyone in the family learned to be good cooks, and they never went out to buy butter or bread — they made it instead. All of the cooking was done on a wood stove.

They had two bunkhouses for sleeping.

“The hired guys slept in the one outside and we had one attached to the end of our house that slept about six of us,” said Shirley. “Then we had the upstairs, too, and if we had to sleep on the floor, we did. We never fought over it either, we just did it.”

She went to the Munger School through the elementary grades.

“It was a country school that went through the eighth grade,” she explained. “We walked about a mile to school and back every day, in bad weather and everything.”

Shirley went to high school in Proctor, where she loved all her classes but didn’t have a lot of time for extra-curriculars.

“We lived out in the country, so we didn’t get involved like the other kids did, in band and that sort of stuff,” she said. “But I did play some basketball and softball, which I continued to play when I was older.”

She got her first job working at the Munger Store when she was just 15.

“I didn’t earn much but it made me feel good to be working,” she said.

She graduated from high school in 1942 and went to work in the steel mill for a time, joining the ranks of women who took over for the men who had gone overseas to fight in World War II. At that point, women were needed to fill many traditionally male jobs and roles during the war, and she stayed on there until the war was over and the men returned.

Then she went on to Cloquet to work in the “toothpick factory” (Diamond Match) for the next 30-some years, starting out on the production line and eventually moving into the time office, where she pulled the timecards every week, did all the payroll and kept track of the employees.

“It was really fun after I got going with it,” she said. “I was a little scared at first, but it didn’t take me long to catch on. I have never really been scared of anything. I just go into something and stick with it.”

She met her husband, Jack, in the late 1940s, when the two of them were both working at Diamond Match. They started dating steadily and were married in 1950. They lived with his mother in Carlton for a year or two and then moved to an apartment in Cloquet.

Shirley and Jack bowled in leagues (she once won a tournament in Duluth with a top score of 650), and she played first base on the Cloquet Merchants softball team for many years, which her husband coached.

The Blackburns later bought a house on 22nd Street with a large fenced yard and a screen house gazebo in the backyard. It took a lot of work to maintain it, but Shirley was all too willing to pitch in.

“Her husband would sit and enjoy himself in the screen house while Shirley mowed the grass or painted the house,” recalled niece Bonnie Newton. “Every once in a while he’d shout out, ‘How ya doing, Shirley?’ It was a riot to watch!”

“Anything anyone ever threw at me, I’d just take it on,” said Shirley matter-of-factly.

The Blackburns had one son, Gregory Alan, who was tragically killed by a hit-and-run driver on June 18, 2013, at the Mahtowa rest stop where he worked.

After Jack retired from a long career at Potlatch, he and Shirley took annual trips to Wisconsin and Michigan to visit family, camping in a motorhome along the way.

“We had a good time,” she said. “In fact, I can’t say we ever had a bad time. My husband was so crazy — you didn’t have time to cry when you were around him, I’ll tell ya!”

Her husband passed away in the early 1990s, and after Shirley retired from Diamond Match, she worked as an inserter every Friday at the Pine Knot. When she was in her 70s, she went to Hardees Restaurant in Cloquet to apply for a job, not thinking they’d actually hire her.

“I don’t know just why I did it,” she admitted, “but I’m not one of those who quits. I just keep going.”

Not only was she hired, but she ended up working there for 10 years, until the restaurant closed.

“I did all the biscuit making,” she said. “I still run into guys on the street who say, ‘Nobody makes biscuits like you!’”

In fact, at one point she was asked to work there seven days a week, but when she told them her niece Bonnie also baked, they hired her as well.

“Our boss said, ‘If I had you and Bonnie here all the time, I wouldn’t have to hire anybody else!’” recalled Blackburn. “That was quite a compliment.”

Seven years ago a friend told Shirley (then 83) about the Foster Grandparent Program .

“She told me what she did there and said, ‘Shirley, I think it’s something you would really like,’” she related. “So I went and applied and got hired right away.”

She was assigned to work at All We Can Be Child Development Center on Doddridge Avenue in Cloquet.

“It’s a nice place to work,” she said. “The teachers there are really great and they’re so good to me.”

“Grandma Shirley” was assigned to the toddler group to start with and now works with the preschoolers. She walks with them to Athletic Park to play, pushes the smaller ones in the carriage, and works on art projects, puzzles and games with them. She sets the tables for breakfast and lunch and cleans up all the tables afterward. She works four hours a day — 8 a.m. to noon — five days a week, and when she suggested on her 90th birthday in April that maybe it was time for her to retire, the staff there talked her into staying on.

Shirley continues to maintain her busy lifestyle, getting up at 4:30 a.m. each morning to read her daily newspaper, going to work and heading for bed around 5 p.m.

“I don’t really go to sleep right away,” she admitted. “I just like to lie there for a while and ease into it!”

In their free time, Shirley and Bonnie — with whom she now lives — enjoy going on car trips and visiting the mall, eating out, and getting together with family for birthdays and other special occasions.

Shirley watches the Twins at home every day they’re on TV and enjoys “Dr. Phil” as well. She and Bonnie are also looking forward to picking strawberries at Finke’s Berry Farm later this summer.

“She and I will be making pickles and jam before you know it,” said Bonnie. “I’m trying to get her and my mom to teach me some of these things while they’re still around.”

They’re both looking forward to their big annual family reunion coming up on Aug. 2, which will start out, as always, with their famous baseball game. And again this year, as every year, Shirley will be out there with them, playing first base.