Surviving polio in Central City and loving life
By Jaclyn Schrock
Merna (Obersler) Slater was born in May 1945 to a miner in Central City, Colorado, and has experienced many good family times while living in a historic mining town in the mountains of Colorado. She has also seen her share of challenges, although she seems to become stronger with each trial. This is her story of life and times growing up in Central City and Colorado. Merna’s father’s, Joe Obersler, and his family knew poor conditions for Colorado miners, being in southern Colorado at the time of the Colorado Coalfield War, also known as the Ludlow Massacre.
Joe Obersler’s father passed away, so the family moved with his mother’s new husband to Central City. Then World War I broke out, and the 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic and the Great Depression, but everyone found ways to persevere together as a community.
Merna’s mother Birdie, second from the youngest of the Guliksen family, worked hard and kept up the Ely Ranch on Smith Hill in Black Hawk. Surviving with plenty of children to get through the depression, Birdie Gulliksen married Joe Obersler and grew her family in Central City.
Merna and her older brother, Joey, had attended Clark Elementary School in Central City in the early 50’s. She attended 1st grade and half of 2nd grade in Central City. She and her family still remember the teachers as a small community often does.
But polio hit Joe and Birdie’s two oldest children – Merna, age 6, and Joey, age 10. Their polio affected their diaphragm muscles, paralyzing critical respiratory muscles. This effect of polio was commonly treated with an iron lung machine, which mechanically causes a patient’s chest to expand and exhale.
Unable to breath on their own Merna and Joey were taken to a hospital in Denver where they were kept on iron lung machines for about three months.
Birdie, was wrought with anxiety for her children’s health. There had been a polio outbreak in 1916 and now another in 1952. She knew few people survived who need an iron lung machine to help them breath. Her nervous condition took her out of their home, to be cared for in another hospital for many years.
Joe was working all day to support the family, and was assisted by relatives to care for the two youngest boys, Frankie and Lenard, during the three months their siblings were in the hospital.
When Merna and her brother were released from the hospital and ready to go home, they were considered some of the strongest children to have ever survived living on the iron lung machine. Their mother was still hospitalized, so they went home with dad.
“Dad was a good cook,” Merna recalls, “but it was very hard for the young ones to be well cared for in Central City while Dad worked.”
Dad kept his son Joey with him in Central City, and the three youngest stayed with various relatives until the next summer. Merna stayed with her mother’s sister Alice in Canon City, but she remembers crying a lot missing her family.
Their dad eventually found he could place the three youngest of his children in a Denver orphanage. The nuns would tell the children they could always count on their dad’s check at the beginning of the month.
Dad loved his family and consistently gathered them from Denver each weekend. He brought them to Central City to be family at home, attending St. Mary’s of the Assumption Catholic Church. Their dad would play the accordion at the Elks, Knights of Pythias, VFW, Golden Gate Grange, and anywhere possible to help pay for the care of his children at the orphanage.
Merna told a story about her dad not going to church, but sent the kids. One time she and her brothers met up with other kids walking to church, and they went to the St. James Methodist Church instead of St. Mary’s, because they let them color a picture of Jesus. So when dad asked them who they saw in church, they named some people. Dad asked, “What church did you go to?” So they were not allowed to go there anymore since their dad said they had to go to St. Mary’s.
Merna’s older brother Joey continued school in Central City through 11th grade. Then dad Joe and son Joey moved to Glenwood Springs for a couple years where young Joey graduated high school. Joe moved back to Central City, and Joey learned to go to work to support himself.
Merna graduated in 1963 from St. Euphrasia High School. The school was part of the orphanage, which is no longer there.
Merna married her first husband soon after HS graduation. He was a commercial driver and was transferred to Lake Havasu City in Arizona as a bus driver. This was a challenging move to be by the Colorado River in the hottest part of the desert, in a very tiny town. In 1966, Lake Havasu City had no hospital. Merna had to go 50 miles to the hospital in Kingman to deliver her first daughter Tina. Memorably, it even snowed there that day.
Soon after, their small family managed to move back to Colorado, because they missed the state and family. Living in Denver this time, they had two more children – Lisa was born in 1967, and David came along in 1969.
This first marriage ended when Merna moved to Glenwood Springs to be with her mother. With three young children of her own, she became an in-home care giver of other children. With that work experience under her belt, Merna moved her young family back to Denver.
Being a single mother, we can see how rough her road in life was, but it all worked out to shape her into a shining star, helping other families while caring for her own.
In October 1971, Merna and Joe Slater were married, adopting her children. He worked as an over the road truck driver while the family grew. This family was solid and many happy times were shared.
Merna became a licensed in-home childcare provider in their Denver home. She even had occasional foster children.
After being with children all the time, Merna decided it was time to be around other adults. When her youngest, David, was in 2nd grade, she got a job as a waitress during the day at Kings Food Host. She worked there for over seven years, even with ownership changes.
Merna’s care for family and the older generation led her to begin working in elder care. She later gained training to administer medications which she continued for many years. This experience prepared her to care for her dad the last six months of his life.
Merna and brother Joey continued to be part of a polio support group. They have both been able to live long, active lives. Not all polio children can be as active as they have been, as the viral infection effects the nervous system, causing muscles issues in many people.
Brother Joey lived to be 69 years old, a long full life. Merna’s husband Joe passed away 20 years ago. She has continued to lead an active life.
Merna is not a sitter! Even though she’s now in her mid-70’s, she recently tried to mow her lawn. Fortunately, a kind neighbor offered to help her finish the job. She has enjoyed her neighborhood for over 50 years.
She did lose her home to fire in the early 90’s, so since then she’s living comfortably in a new home on the original property with a lovely entry room porch and lush gardens and yard in back.
Merna enjoys being a mom, grandmother, and great grandmother. Tina has moved back to Arizona, where she was born, and she has two boys of her own. Lisa lives in Westminster, and has one daughter, with three girls. David is now an Adams County Sheriff’s Deputy with a stepson.
Merna has three children, four grandchildren, and six great grandchildren.
This girl is still hot to trot! She likes to go to the VFW near her home to dance. Friday and Saturday nights they have a live country western band with entry of $10 for Friday, and if she comes back on Saturday, it’s only $5! She also likes to go dancing at the American Legion in Morrison, Arvada, and Lakewood, and if feeling frisky, even shakes a leg at the Elks club at 68th and Lowell. The men are lined up for a turn on the floor with her, but her dance card gets filled up fast! Sundays she likes to do ball room dancing and waltz. But country dancing is stil her passion, and she lets her boots do the walkin’ and talkin’ for her.
When needing a break from dancing, Merna often plays cards on Wednesdays. She also likes to go to the gym, because she needs to stay active when not dancing.
Even when working, Merna has diligently researched and documented her family history. She has not used a computer or Ancestry.com to get the details. She has done it the old fashioned way by going to town halls, churches, county libraries, and talked to people to document her family history from Gilpin County, Trinidad, Glenwood Springs, and Denver to obtain family records.
She has had help from her family who share photos and stories. Her Aunt Alice, who cared for her after she recovered from polio, has published a booklet of memoirs about her mother’s side of the family. Other family members still remember the grandparents lives.
She is not the only one who depends on getting the Weekly Register-Call in the mail each week. She has other relatives and friends who also continue to depend on the WRC for documenting their lives.
She gets more information about her genealogy from the Turning Back the Pages section. She found out about relatives who were caught during the prohibition, about an uncle who died as an infant, and stories about her dad. She clips them out and adds them to her ancestry records.
Though she has to take care of her dog that needs a couple shots per week, she has still traveled all over Colorado visiting family. This week found her in Ermel’s Thrift Store, on a visit with her granddaughter after visiting cousins. She also attended a funeral last weekend for another Gilpin School graduate, who lived near their home on High Street.
Merna’s Dad, Joe Obersler
Merna’s paternal grandfather and grandmother Obersler came to Colorado about 1880 from Austria, which is now part of Italy. He worked as a coal miner in the tent colonies of Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I), north of Trinidad. They had five children who survived to adulthood; Emma, Mary, Julian, Joe (born 1903) and Olive. There were other still-born and children who did not live long.
Merna’s father, Joe Obersler was a boy living near Trinidad through some of the coal miner strike which prompted the Ludlow Massacre. After his father passed away, the family came to Central City to work in the mines about 1910.
Joe Obersler met “Birdie” Bergetta Gulliksen, and they married on April 15, 1940. Joe worked many different jobs around Central City, most related to mining. They raised the family in a green and white house on 2nd High Street. Their neighbor was Ray Laird, publisher of the Weekly Register-Call. Now the house is yellow and brown.
Merna’s Mom, Birdie Gulliksen
Merna’s mother’s father, John Gulliksen came to Colorado from Norway in 1876, the year of statehood. John married his first wife who came from England to Colorado. His first wife passed away at age 28 after having three children. Merna’s Grandpa Gulliksen then remarried to 15 year old Metta Peterson who came with her parents to Colorado from Denmark when she was three, about 1882.
Weekly Register-Call, Dec. 31, 1894 Married: In Black Hawk, December 24, Mr. John Gulliksen, of Jefferson County, to Miss Metta Peterson of Smith Hill. Reposted as 120 years ago on Dec 25, 2014 in Turning Back the Pages.
John and Metta Gulliksen can be found in the Dory Hill Cemetery. From the listing of graves in Dory Hill:GULLIKSEN, John: 1855-1941
GULLIKSEN, Metta: 1879-1950
The Gulliksen family grew to have 10 more children through Grandma Metta and some losses at childbirth. The second from the youngest was Bergetta, called Birdie, who was born in Black Hawk and is the mother of Merna.
The youngest, of this Gulliksen family, Alice, lived to be 94. She has memoirs written as a booklet which the family uses for historical documentation of the Gulliksen family life as lived on Smith Hill. It includes photos and official records.
The Gulliksen ranch on Smith Hill provided the family with plenty of vegetables through the Depression. They raised cattle to sell, and also produced for income – potatoes, milk, cream, butter, and eggs from the chickens. They seldom ate meat, because they sold the cattle, but they did fish often.
Bergetta Gullksen, age 24, married Joe Obersler when he was age 38. Joe worked the mines of Central City. They had four children, three boys and one girl. Merna was named after her mother’s cousin’s wife. Birdie did enjoy time with her grandchildren for a time when Merna lived in Glenwood Springs. She had a good life.
Family is so good to keep track of – enjoy yours!