Laying a Foundation, Brick by Brick

Wilbur Gabel with his siblings and parents.
Wilbur Gabel, top right with his Siblings and Parents.

This story is about a man and his life’s journey. A life of traditional ethics, hard work, and family values. Not only did Wilbur Gabel build a foundation for his family; he contributed to building a foundation for his community and dozens of towns around.

This interview was held in the home and welcoming living room of Wilbur Gabel with two of his sons’ Rodney and Rory Gabel. This house he built with his own hands, sweat, and labor. The house like his family and his entire life was built with love and a strong foundation.

Gabel was born in 1934 in Max ND, moved to Hankinson around 1944, and graduated from St. Francis Academy in Hankinson ND in 1952. As a senior in high school, Gabel joined the Naval reserve and became active in 1954. 

Wilbur Gabel and his wife Georgiana

Gabel’s son Rory stated, “Between graduating high school and Active he worked as mason labor which included unloading boxcars of brick, cement, tile etc.” In 1954 Gabel married Georgiana Birchem and the couple had their first child, Rocky, in the Boston area in 1955.

After returning from the Navy, Gabel attended bricklaying school at Wahpeton Science for a few months. When asked why he chose masonry as his trade he said, “Wages were bad. Bricklayers made more money than plumbers, electricians, and carpenters.” Besides that fact, Gabel stated, “I worked as a laborer out of high school and liked working with brick. “

Getting a feel for bricklaying, Gabel continued in the trade and apprenticed for four years under Rohl Construction in Fargo ND beginning in 1956. “I went to see contractors and asked if I could be an apprentice. Because I came in person, I got the job with Rohl construction.”

Gabel was done with his apprenticeship in 1960. “Then I worked for a few different companies before Wick in Valley.” Gabel worked with Wick for five years starting in 1960 and again from 1969-1970.

He moved to Valley City in 1961 while still employed with Wick Construction. “It was more centralized with my work. I wanted to be home more.” Gabel stated. Seeing the comradery he had with his son’s, it was understandable and obvious, Gabel was a family man.

After Wick, Gabel worked for Dick Wells for two years starting in 1966 building houses and apartment buildings. He then started working for Edlund Construction in 1971 specializing in field stone and building commercial buildings. Gabel continued his employment for 10 years earning the title of brick layer foreman. In between this time he worked on side jobs including some work with other contractors like: Moline, Krieg, Meinecke-Johnson, and Powers.

In 1970 Gabel headed to Phoenix AZ where he built track houses. He returned again to AZ in 1972 to build a school in Cotton Wood. At this time he had a job offer to be a foreman’s, foreman. However, he declined the offer. The pay was good but, “The kids were in steady relationships,” so he stayed. Gabel had no regrets and said, “Glad I didn’t take it. There were a lot of drugs and a bad place to go for the kids.”

In 1980 Edlund Construction went out of business in part to Jimmy Carter’s recession. Gabel, however, was not finished laying brick and Gabel Masonry was started. Gabel’s children grew to appreciate the art of bricklaying and stone masonry. Rocky started working with his dad fulltime in 1973, Rory in 1977, and Rodney in 1983. Before that, they worked with their dad in the Summers.

Gabel Masonry
Gabel Masonry

Gabel along with his sons worked in towns and cities across ND, SD, and MN, building and creating the structures of what has helped shape our communities. Nearly every building of any kind of significance from the 50’s, through the 90’s in Valley City Gabel had a hand in. Here is a list but it is not complete of the towns and jobs Gabel worked.

  • Valley City– The Bubble, VCSU Student Center, three different dormitories, the Science Building, the Library, Banks, the old Pizza Hut, Taco Johns, Burger King which was the old Hardees. Three apartment buildings with Edlund Construction, The Care Center, Highline Villa, Hub Mac Shopping Center, (where Leavers South is) renovation on the Rudolf, Countless houses, The Firehall, The Armory by the Winter Show.
  • Lisbon– Fire station and the Veterans Home.
  • Fargo– Fargo Forum, the Convent, office buildings, NDSU, apt buildings, malls, schools, and other buildings.
  • Detroit Lakes– Jail, high rise elderly housing, and other various buildings.
  • Gwinner– School. Rory, Rodney, and Wilbur commented how dry it was. “There were eight Gabel’s on the job.”
  • New Rockford– The Water Treatment Plant.
  • Mayville– Water treatment plant
  • Bismarck– The Bismarck Water Treatment Plant, the first Walmart store in ND, 1990, “The year of Rodney’s apprenticeship.”
  • Bertha, MN– School
  • Hankinson– Bank
  • Park River– School
  • Crookston– Library at the College
  • Oaks– Banks
  • Devil’s Lake– Different schools, Camp Grafton, and the hospital.
  • Page – Houses, Fireplaces.
  • Wahpeton/Breckenridge– NDSSS buildings, Church, theater, and various other buildings.

In the early 70’s Gabel worked on two additions at the high school in Valley City. During the time of the first addition there was a bar joist that came loose and Gabel, remembered it well. Gabel had to jump on the wall when the bar joist came around hitting him in the leg and hip. There were also other accidents involving his co-workers which made for an exciting, now, story.

Besides working on new construction, Gabel and his sons restored old stone and brick buildings and built stone and brick fireplaces. Gabel was a master and specialized in fieldstone. “I did a lot of fireplaces on my own,” Gabel remarked. He talked fondly of one particular fireplace which was done in Page, ND.

There is a definite art to building stone fireplaces. Every stone has to be split and placed like a puzzle piece. Gabel’s own living room wall is covered in split fieldstone and is a beautiful piece of workmanship highlighting his skill.

Talking with the Gabel men was like attending a homecoming. Gabel and his boys shared in laughter as they told stories about different jobs. “Traveling was bad at times. Blizzards, hail storms and four of us in a single cab pickup.” The men spoke about a time when they couldn’t see the road. They ended up opening the door while driving to find the fog line. Besides the driving conditions, there were the elements to contend with and the biting flies and gnats. 

“I laid brick until 1996 when I had a heart attack. It took me a couple of years to recover.” After that, Gabel drove a school bus, for five years. His son’s however, continued in the trade. Rodney retired from masonry, in 2000 and went to work for the school, Rocky retired in 2018 and now works in Real estate, Rory went off on his own to do residential work in 1992 and is still currently working in masonry, and Gabel’s daughter, Roxanne, works for the Open-Door Center in Valley City ND.

The Gabel men worked together for the last time when they volunteered to do the masonry on the Youth Sports Complex in 2001 and expressed how they missed the camaraderie they felt when they were all together. The family has stayed close in terms of physical distance and their relationship, so although they no longer work together, the bond that was created is still present.

Wilbur Gabel holding the Championship Trophy
Wilbur Gabel Holding the Championship Trophy

After Gabel retired he took his horseshoe playing to a new level. “I started going to horseshoe tournaments. The kids got into it and I won the World Championship as did Noah (grandson) in 2010, in Cedar Rapids Iowa.” Gabel, his family, including his great-grandson, still attend and participate in the World Championships. To win is a big deal. The Championship brings competitors from all over the world including Japan, Canada, Switzerland, and Africa. 

When asked what Gabel’s favorite job was, he stated. “Building this house.” After listening to a list of jobs that could fill four pages long I was curious as to why he would answer the way he did. When I asked the simple question he responded, “It was my own.” There it was. With countless jobs and multiple towns traveled, Wilbur brought his fondest memories back home to where he and his wife had raised their family. 

His loving wife, Georgiana, passed in 2005 after 50 years of marriage. The legacy of their marriage was love, companionship, and family. Gabel is blessed to have all four of his children living in the Valley City area. Rocky, Rory, and Roxanne live in Rural Valley City and Rodney resides in the town of Valley City. With 11 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, the Gabel legacy and family continues to grow.

Wilbur Gabel will turn 85 on February 3, 2019, and plans to have a celebration at the Eagles in Valley City, Saturday the 2nd from 2-5 pm. If you know Mr. Gabel and would like to extend your birthday wishes, then please come and join the celebration.

The Gabel family
From left to right: Rodney, Rory, Wilbur, Roxanne, and Rocky Gabel

During the short time I spent with the Gabel’s for the interview, I can tell you we owe them a lot. This family team has contributed in helping our town become what it is today. This proves that a lifetime of hard work along with a good strong character builds and creates a community and family structure that will last. Wilbur Gabel has been successful in many areas of his life and continues to thrive in his lovely home in Valley City.

-Heather Earles


  1. Heather Burchill said:

    What a legacy! Thank you for this beautifully written, inspiring biography Heather!

    February 1, 2019
    • Thank you, Heather. It was a privilege to write it. Wilbur is an incredible man!!

      February 3, 2019

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