ESKO, Minn. -- When reflecting back to the beginning of their life together as husband and wife, Mary Arntson, 96, remembers the heat.

"It was so warm that day," Mary said. "It was July 28, 1946, and it was hot."

Her husband, Duane Arntson, 95, remembers he had a baseball game that day.

"I was supposed to be playing baseball, but I missed my game to get married instead," he said. "It was the Head of the Lakes baseball league, and I was playing for the Cloquet city team. But I had somewhere else to be."

The Esko couple are preparing to celebrate their 74th wedding anniversary this month. Long marriages seem to run in Duane's family as his own parents, Dorothy and Alfred Arntson, had been married 72 years when Alfred died in 1995. Dorothy died in 2007 at the age of 101.

“They were together for a long time,” Duane said.

Duane doesn’t recall his parents offering much advice before the wedding. But when they were interviewed for a News Tribune article published Feb. 14, 1993, Dorothy and Alfred recommended “hard work, respect and compromise” to help couples get through tough times. Based on the stories they shared, Duane and Mary agree.

Before they met

Mary was born in Duluth but moved to live on her aunt Julia Sunnaberg's 120-acre farm just outside Esko. Julia was well-known in the town for running a boarding house where she cared for elderly people. Mary grew up speaking fluent Finnish and English and graduated from Esko High School. Shortly after graduation, she started stenography classes at Duluth Business University and went to work in the Walter Butler shipyard office in Riverside Duluth.

"I took the Greyhound bus into Duluth every day," Mary said. "Then I had to take a streetcar out to the office. No one really had cars back then."

Mary worked in the shipbuilder's office through the war and through the loss of her high school boyfriend, who was killed while serving in the military during the Normandy invasion.

Duane was one of five kids born at home to Dorothy and Alfred. He attended Cloquet High School but left when he was 17 to join the Navy.

"My mother had to sign for me," Duane said. "Otherwise they wouldn't let me in at 17."

In the Navy, Duane served as a gunner on ships in the South Pacific. He remembers the first ship he served on was the S.S. Robin Wentley, where he transported Marines. While serving, a bomb blew up on the ship and blew out his ear drums, resulting in the loss of hearing in one ear. Duane received an honorable discharge following the hearing loss.

Duane and Mary Arntson on their wedding day 74 years ago in July 1946. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Duane and Mary Arntson on their wedding day 74 years ago in July 1946. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Meeting once and then again

While on leave from the Navy in 1944, Duane decided to go out to the Pine Lodge, a popular spot for young adults to meet up and listen to a live orchestra and dance. There he ran into Mary.

"We just met," Mary said. "And then he had to go back to the South Pacific."

The two didn't keep in touch while Duane was overseas. But the next time they met up at the Pine Lodge, Duane asked Mary out on a date.

"You just asked me to come with you, and that was all," Mary said.

Esko life

By 1946, the couple were married and looking for a place to live. Both lived and worked in Cloquet, Mary at the employment office, finding jobs for the returning veterans and Duane at the paper mill. But Mary's aunt Julia asked the couple to move into a house on her property and help with the farm, especially the cows.

"I'd get up, milk the cows, go to work at the mill, then come home and milk the cows again," Duane said.

The couple still lives in the two-bedroom house to this day, although they eventually gave up the cows. Mary said she still likes "the country life."

Duane continued to work at the paper mill for 40 years. Mary switched to a lumber company for seven years then found a permanent position with the Cloquet Co-op Credit Union, now Members Cooperative, where she stayed for 25 years. She was popular among older bank patrons who spoke only Finnish.

"If someone like Mrs. Raukola was coming in, the manager would yell for me if I wasn't in the building to come quick," Mary said. "I'd run up, but even I'd have to look up words in the book because I couldn't always remember. Still they liked to come to me."

As both worked in Cloquet and lived in Esko, the couple decided to purchase their first car — a Ford Model A.

“We bought that car in 1947, and buying a Ford was the biggest mistake I ever made,” Duane said.

The couple raised their four children, Diane, Janet, Cheryl and Jeff, in the small house. It was cramped quarters for a few years, but Mary said each child had their own drawer and “we just made do.”

Duane and Mary Arntson have been married 74 years this July and lived in the same house in Esko. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com
Duane and Mary Arntson have been married 74 years this July and lived in the same house in Esko. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com

Living happily together

When looking back over their life together, Mary said the times she felt happiest were when they spent time with family at the cabin on Lake Vermilion. The couple bought the cabin to enjoy in their retirement and kept it for 13 years.

“We’d get everybody together at the cabin and go swimming and boating,” Mary said.

“We’d catch some great fish up there, too,” Duane added.

The couple said that for them, the key to living long, happy lives is not smoking or drinking.

“That’s how you get to be my age,” Duane said.

The Arntsons like to spend time with their 10 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren whenever possible. The couple also enjoys gathering with a small group of friends for breakfast at Perkins twice a week, though that habit has been on hold with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The couple has been fortunate regarding their health. Mary said they didn’t have any health problems until they turned 90. In fact, when Duane’s son took him to the VA clinic a few months back, the nurse asked him who his regular doctor was — he didn’t have one.

“They didn’t know what to think of me,” Duane said. “I didn’t have a regular doctor because I didn’t have many problems other than needing my hearing aid.”

Looking back at the photo of themselves on their wedding day, Mary remembered her sister wore the same wedding dress a few years down the road. Duane picked up the frame and laughed.

“I had hair back then,” he said, removing his Navy baseball cap.

“Oh no, cover it back up, cover it back up!” Mary teased and touched his arm as they both smiled.