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Pioneer Dinner Celebrates Old Friends, Local History

Verna Ann Gilbertz Photo

Verna Ann Gilbertz locates her husband's brand, Spear Slash, on the commemorative napkin at the Pioneer Dinner Saturday.

Verna Ann Gilbertz made her way through the crowd at the Cam-Plex Frontier Hall Saturday morning to a table where her long-time friend Marge Ruby and others waited. Around them, tables filled as volunteers bustled to make last-minute preparations before lunch was served.

There’s a lot of history in this room. Generations of individuals and families who helped shape this community and form the economic backbone in agricultural and other industries, who today will be celebrated at the Pioneer Dinner in conjunction with the Campbell County Fair.

To be inducted into the elite group, members must be 80 and above. Today, there will be 13 members honored among the almost 160 here.

The annual celebration is a group effort supported by the fair board, county commissioners, and a number of community groups including the cattlewomen, Rockpile Museum, Senior Center and woolgrowers’ auxiliary with Pioneer Dinner Committee members ­– including Senior Center staff, Fair Manager Liz Edwards, Wyoming Speaker of the House Eric Barlow and wife Kelly, Marilyn Christensen, Marilyn Mackey, Bobbi Geis, and Myrna Sharp – serving along with FFA and 4-H volunteers.

Both Verna Ann and Marge have been members for the last five years and enjoy the annual event and all the memories it stirs from their years being involved with fair through their children as well as their deep roots in the agricultural community.

Verna Ann represents the fourth generation of homesteaders in Campbell County. Both her grandparents and parents homesteaded on a ranch five miles north of Savageton where she was raised. As a child, her job was to tend to the bum lambs and chickens, she said, where she was looked after by her dog Tony, who never left her side. Her family mainly raised sheep but later delved into cattle.

She has many fond memories from those days, not the least of which was meeting her future husband Larry at a country dance at the community hall in Rozet. They went to a lot of dances back then, she recalled, and Larry definitely caught her eye.

Larry was a rancher, too, and when they got married they moved onto his family’s cattle ranch. The two were married for 56 years prior to his death and together raised four kids, starting in a tiny house on the ranch with one little bedroom. She’s proud of her kids, she said. Kathy, Susan, LD and Jay. They were all involved in 4-H, she said, and always raised calves or steers. The money they earned from the Youth Livestock Sale was saved for college, not to spend frivolously, Verna Ann said.

They had no phone during those early years and things could get a little lonely out there sometimes, but she endured.

She has very fond memories of her mother-in-law, Verna Ann said, recalling those years on her husband’s family’s homestead. Her mother-in-law had grandchildren her age, but Verna Ann was an instant hit with her because she could drive and her mother-in-law couldn’t, so she would regularly taxi her around.

There’s a picture of LD, Marge told her friend, pointing to a sepia toned photograph on an overhead screen that was playing a slideshow of early photos.

“Oh, yeah, there he is on the end,” Verna Ann said pointing at the photo of a group of boys standing shoulder to shoulder in a line, mugging for the camera.

Their kids grew up on a ranch, where Verna Ann helped with everything from branding to rounding up cattle to take to pasture.

Another photo of a woman canning tomatoes caught her attention. That woman was also a member of the Savageton Homebuilders association that her grandmother had helped found. That group had been pivotal to Verna Ann as a young wife, she said, teaching her how to bake, sew and do a host of other useful activities in the kitchen and on the ranch.

Back then when it first started, she said, extension agents would come from the University of Wyoming to teach these various activities.

Their original group still meets for luncheons and meetings, Verna Ann noted, at Marge’s house.

Marge, too, grew up on her family’s McBeth cattle ranch. She stayed busy working in the garden with her mom where they raised and canned enough vegetables and meat to survive for the year. She’s seen her share of drought years like the one currently plaguing the county but shrugged it off with the resolve of someone who has made their living off the land.

“We’re used to dry land farming,” she said, noting that their family grew everything they could from beans, peas, tomatoes, corn and many other crops. “Anything we could can or preserve.”

Like others, Marge had no idea that life might have been hard or they were doing without.

“My folks never complained, so we didn’t either,” she said.

She met her husband Jesse “Dale” Ruby on a blind date. Dale was a cousin of one of her friend’s and suggested the two meet at a dance. Her friend ended up making a fortuitous match, and the two were soon married. He’d grown up on a sheep farm, so the couple helped out there during their early years until Dale started validating uranium claims around the Pumpkin Buttes.

The federal government had just opened the area for mining and it was a big deal, Marge remembered. Along with drilling, Dale also worked on a seismograph crew, then his own rig, and finally, went into business for himself in 1964 with Ruby Drilling.

The couple began their life in a little apartment where Marge raised four girls. Eventually, the couple would move a couple miles into the “country” where they built a home on 20 acres of land along 4-J.

The biggest change that Marge can recall is the way in which Gillette boomed. When they moved to town, there was only about a couple hundred people while the population boomed in the ensuing decades. Her kids, too, were involved in 4-H, and she remembers them riding their horses into town for fair.

Lloyd Darnell, who shared the table that day with his two friends, recalled delivering packages to both of them during his years as a delivery man.

Like the other two, he looks forward to this annual event where he can get together with his long-time friends and share laughs and memories.

“If you’re an old Campbell County person,” he said with a big grin, “then you know everybody.”