Belisle gets ready to celebrate 100th birthday
If you ask Anna Belisle what her most vivid memory in her 100 years of life is, her answer may be surprising.
"When we were held up -- they had guns," she said.
Not the answer one might expect from the white-haired great-grandmother holding a wooden rosary and sitting in a wheelchair surrounded by three generations of family.
However, given the circumstances, it would certainly qualify as a vivid memory.
The year was 1929. The Great Depression had just begun, but the effects had not reached the tiny haven of Somerset, with its three stores, three gas stations and four cafes.
Belisle had grown up in the small town, having attended Apple River School until the eighth grade as was the custom back then. She then worked in an overall factory to help support her seven brothers and sisters before meeting and marrying farmer Theodore Belisle -- 20 years her senior -- in 1927.
Theo was also a bootlegger, so money was frequently stored in the house safe. One night when Anna was a young mother, they were visited by two gangsters.
"They tied her and dad up," said Shirley Belisle, daughter-in-law. "They used her clothesline, but they were not hurt."
"They had handkerchiefs over their faces," Anna added.
The men got away with $500 from the safe. When Theo went to complain to the police, he was told "if anyone walked past the front door, shoot 'em."
So Theo bought a handgun. Six months later, there was another attempted robbery. This time, Theo shot one of the thieves as he tried to break into the back door. The other two hauled him away and they sped off in a truck.
"Pe-pe (Theo) chased him down the road with a deer rifle," Val King, granddaughter of Anna's brother, Frederick, described.
But meeting gangsters such as Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger and Al Capone at The Terrace Restaurant were not the only famous people she had met.
In 1978 she was named Wisconsin's No. 1 senior citizen for her outstanding community, church and civil service. Shirley nominated her and she was honored on Bob Hope's TV show.
"He gave her a kiss," Shirley said.
As a devout Catholic, Anna also cherishes another meeting with a famous individual.
"When she came back from Italy, she loved meeting the Pope," said Teddy Belisle, grandson.
Belisle, whose first language is French, is known to her nine children, 15 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren as "Me-Me" -- a diminutive of the French word for "mother," "mere."
"We used to speak French before Dad died," said Roland Belisle, son. "When my oldest brother and sister went to school, they couldn't speak English."
Anna and Theo raised their children together on their 50-acre dairy farm until Theo died after battling cancer in 1958.
She sold the farm and worked at various odd jobs until she bought 260 Main in downtown Somerset and opened Anne's Cafe in 1964. After experiencing pains in her legs, she sold the business in 1968.
According to her family, it was a logical choice for her to work in a restaurant business, because she was considered an excellent cook.
"I remember coming up to her back door and there would always be a pie cooling in the window," Teddy recalled. "That oven was always going -- no one ever starved."
"She'd cook bread three times a week," Roland said. "She'd hide the sweet rolls she made for Sunday, and if we snuck one before then, we'd get holy hell."
Although Anna's hearing necessitates people speaking loudly into her left ear and she requires a wheelchair to get around, her family recalls her as the personification of multi-tasking.
"She could juggle more jobs than anyone," Teddy said. "They'd milk cows, she'd make breakfast, pasteurize the milk, deliver it, clean up, can produce from the garden and bake every day."
"That impressed me when I came here in 1957," Shirley said. "I couldn't believe all that she did."
Aside from her cooking, Anna is a devoted Green Bay Packers fan, loves playing Bingo and cards, traveled to all 50 states and enjoys watching Oprah.
Although her actual birthday is Aug. 18, she will celebrate her 100th birthday on Aug. 30 with a party at Valley House.
The discrepancy will not be a big deal to her, as she has been used to celebrating her birthday unconventionally for several years.
When she applied for social security at 62 years old, she discovered that she was a month older than she thought.
"She'd celebrated her birthday on Sept. 18 all her life," Deloris Foster, daughter, said. "So when she found out it was actually Aug. 18, she went out to dinner with family and friends every night for one month."
When asked the secret of her longevity, Anna simply shrugged.
However, she did have some advice for living a happy life.
"Be good to everyone and everyone will be good to you," she said.