Pearl Probasco rarely slept.
Neighbors could see her lights well into the night. No wonder. Her work continued long after her duties in the dairy barn were done.
Probasco was born Aug. 18, 1912, seven miles south of Hillman, about 40 miles from Brainerd. Her family reports she was the first white child born in Mt. Morris Township. Her parents, Peter and Emily Markusen, were second generation Norwegians from Wisconsin.
As a girl, Probasco worked on the farm, did household chores, cooked, chopped wood, hunted, trapped and, when she could fit it in, went to school. Born with a well-developed work ethic, as a young woman she was already working a cross-cut saw better than any man, according to her father. She married Joy Probasco on June 15, 1932, and they raised four children — Peter, Cleo, Jay and Wayne. Her husband was a school teacher while she had the major role at the farm. It was work she relished.
At 99, with just hours to go to reach the 100th birthday, Probasco rested in a chair in her Bethany Good Samaritan apartment. As a reporter thanked her for donating time for an interview, she smiled and shrugged away the interruption to her day. “I look like I’m real busy,” she said.
But busy is what she’s always been. If birthday wishes were granted, Probasco’s would be for life back on the farm. She milked 25 cows morning and night, rising by 5 a.m.
When she did sleep, her family said she kept one eye open in case her son Jay started bleeding. Diagnosed with an incurable bleeding disease, if Jay was overactive in the day, he often suffered for it at night. The doctors in St. Cloud said they’d only had one other case and that girl died at 16. They didn’t want to raise him as a hot-house flower but were vigilant. Their son, doctors said, should outgrow the worst of it. He went on to school and spent a career as a ranger in the forest service.
It’s easy to see why sleeping more than a few hours was rarely an option. Besides caring for her children, she cooked and baked. She worked the farm for milking and haying with a team of Montana-bred horses and planted and harvested a big garden, canning 400 jars of fruits and vegetables each season along with fish and venison. She made costumes for school plays and taught Sunday school. She sewed all her children’s clothing — shirts from flour sacks, and dresses, coats, everything except for the blue jeans and slacks. And, for good measure, she made quilts. Even with her full workload, she made time to donate blood.
“I never needed much sleep,” she said. “I’d be canning all night, especially at harvest time.”
In a birthday tribute, her family noted her duties started long before the family woke for the day and continued long after they went to bed. They quoted a neighbor once saying “when it comes to getting farm work done, Pearl is as good as two men and a boy.”
Her first 15 years on her parent’s farm were without an automobile. Her first 30 years of life without electricity. She didn’t have a telephone or a refrigerator until she was 40 and didn’t have a TV or a flush toilet in the house until she was 50.
Best invention? Electricity. “It was all good,” Probasco said. “Electricity was definitely the No. 1 thing.”
Her husband enjoyed traveling and they went to Alaska several times and toured the Hawaiian Islands. But Probasco was more of a homebody. The family noted she rarely went grocery shopping as the farm and wild game provided nearly everything they needed beyond staples like a 100 pound sack of flour or sugar and a ring of bologna.
“I’d rather stay home and take care of the cows,” she said. “I enjoyed working on the farm.”
The only thing she didn’t like was their bull, who snorted and pawed the ground.
“I didn’t like him and he didn’t like me either,” she said. “He’d grumble when I’d go near the barn.”
Farm work wasn’t easy. Probasco broke both arms. She didn’t let that slow her down much and just hooked the milk pail over her cast. Her right arm remains disfigured from being caught in a round hay baler. She broke her hip when she was 93 and had it replaced three years later.
About the only thing she regrets now is having broken bones.
Her daughter Cleo said her mother always told her she could do anything but anything worth doing was worth doing well. She also advised her daughter to see the world first and then come home if she wanted.
After her husband was killed in an auto crash, Probasco stayed on the farm until she was almost 87. Then she went to live with her daughter in Phoenix for what she described as eight hilarious years before coming back to Minnesota. Through her life, she stayed active, both through physical work and by being active in her church, farm bureau and the Republican party.
Probasco said she credits her longevity to a lifetime of hard work.
Her family, with 12 grandchildren and more great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren, gathered for a birthday dinner Friday. In their written tribute, the family said:
“Few have contributed more to their family, to friends and community, to the state and to the nation.”