Mary Berlinger works on her garden in Clinton. Berlinger turns 95 this year but continues to remain very active. Photo by Carol Stender
Mary Berlinger is excited about her 95th birthday. She’ll celebrate with family in July, but before the event, the Clinton woman will be cutting sod, tending her large flower garden and crocheting and sewing crafts for sales.
She is a go-getter, a term she’s coined for others, but one that truly reflects her spirit and activity.
Berlinger admits she has a few aches and pains. She can’t raise her arms as high as she used to, and she has a bum knee. It might slow her down, but not by much.
“I can only go a few hours (cutting sod) and then I have to sit in the house with the heating pad for a bit,” she said. “Then, once I get my strength back, I go out again.”
Then there’s the garden and weeding.
“I don’t like weeds,” she said. “And I have to get out there and get the cans off my tomatoes soon.”
Berlinger garnered her work ethic from her parents, John and Mary Rathenburg. The farm family lived near Foley where they raised crops, milk cows, hogs, chickens and ducks.
They were poor, but Mary wasn’t aware of it, she said. All she knew was she had everything she needed: The family loved one another, they had food and a roof over their heads.
In 1933, they moved to a Brainerd-area lake where the family continued to farm. Some of their neighbors told Berlinger she should work in the Twin Cities. She did. For three winters she worked for Jewish families, taking care of their children and cleaning their homes.
“I made around $5 a week, and I was 18 years old,” she said. “I thought I was a millionaire.”
In the summer she returned to the farm where she helped with the crops and garden.
“We rented boats to people so mom and I were busy cooking meals for the fisherman on the old wood cookstove,” she said. “There was no electricity or conveniences of any kinds. It was hard work.”
When the U.S. became involved in World War II, Berlinger started working at a 3M plant in 1942. At first the men did the stitching at the plant, where Scotch and masking tape were made. She and other women took over those jobs as the men were called for military service.
Berlinger had family looking out for her, and it turns out her love life as well, in the Twin Cities. Near her family lived her future mother-in-law’s cousin. The two families decided Berlinger needed to meet Steve. A meal was prepared, and Steve traveled with his mother to visit. Berlinger was there, too.
“When I saw him for the first time, I thought he was everything they said he was,” she said. “He was a hard worker.”
Steve was also impressed by her. They began corresponding and, as the relationship became serious, traveled to see each other in person. He took the bus to the Twin Cities for a visit, and she traveled by train to see the Chokio farm. They were married in 1945. They returned to the Chokio family farm. They had milk cows, feeder cattle, hogs, chickens and ducks, plus crops.
And don’t forget the large garden. Berlinger canned the bounty using the same recipes and techniques she got from her mother.
They had four children, including a set of twins, and taught them the same work ethic that the couple garnered from their families. Besides the farm chores, each one helped with weeding the garden.
Berlinger began making crafts at this time. Her early work was made with artfoam. She also sewed blender and toaster covers. Her work evolved to baby and full-length quilts, rugs and wind catchers.
Many sought out her goods as she traveled to craft shows in Morris, Chokio, Graceville and Milbank, S.D. She continues to make crafts for sales for a Graceville show, she said.
The couple moved to town, building a house on a former horse pasture, in 1977, as their eldest, John, took over the farm operation.
Steve traveled with his wife to the craft shows and helped with the gardening and work. He died in 1990, leaving a legacy that included love of family and a strong work ethic.
Berlinger pulls out pictures of their brood. Besides their four children, there are 13 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren.
There’s a picture of Berlinger with some of her grandchildren who visited her one day intent on making rosettes. They did quite well with the process, she said.
There are more of weddings and newborns and visits to grandma’s house.
Many of them will gather at a Morris park at the end of July to celebrate Berlinger’s 95th. She’s excited for that day, she said. It’s not so much about her birthday, but a great time for family.
That’s the best part of all.