Pick up a local phone book.
Thumb to the page with the Gabeleins. The list of names is long compared to other South Whidbey families. Ever wonder why that is?
The short answer is that they’ve been around since 1908, when Gustav and Emilie Gabelein’s family traveled from Germany to the United States, later settling on a 25-acre farm overlooking Useless Bay.
Their reach extended in the following years as their children continued farming and buying more land.
They weren’t just farmers. Later generations became school teachers, loggers, 4-H leaders, construction business owners, firefighters and more on South Whidbey.
But that’s just a small piece of the family’s history. A more extensive recollection is happening tonight.
The South Whidbey Historical Society is hosting “Facts and Stories of the Raymond Gabelein Family” at 7 p.m. on Wednesday Feb. 21 at the Langley United Methodist Church Fellowship Hall.
The presentation will span the past 100 years, from the early Gabelein’s hardships in Wisconsin to the role Raymond Gabelein’s branch of the family played in South Whidbey history, including constructing a dike at Useless Bay and developing the Island County Fairgrounds.
Raymond Gabelein, who died in 2003, was the grandchild of Gustav Gabelein and son of Arthur Gabelein.
“The Gabelein family is a well known family,” said Bob Waterman, vice president of the society. “There’s a lot of the family members on the island. They have a rich history with the South Whidbey community.”
“We thought that highlighting the contributions of the Gabelein family on South Whidbey would be a good idea,” he added.
The presentation is part of the historical society’s “Then and Now” series. Previous topics have included a study of British naval officer Joseph Whidbey.
Gary Gabelein, Ray Gabelein, Bonnie Gabelein Altenburg and Sandy Gabelein Marshall, four of the late Raymond Gabelein’s five children, have been in charge of researching their family’s history.
Marshall and Altenburg will steer the history lesson with a slideshow presentation, while their brothers will chip in to provide their personal insights.
There will also be photographs, genealogy charts, memorabilia on display.
Marshall said she’s learned a lot from her ancestors.
“We are proud of our heritage because it demonstrates hard work and persistence,” Marshall said. “Our parents made a great impact on many local organizations. We are thankful the historical society is recognizing our family and is preserving our local history.”
It’s also been an intriguing research process for her brother Gary.
“It’s interesting to see why I’m here and how my family got here and knowing where they originated,” said Gary Gabelein, who spent 43 years as a South Whidbey Fire/EMS volunteer.
He has a great deal of respect for his ancestors from the early 1900s. They endured failed crops and long trips across the country to an uncertain future in Washington. Their travels took them from Kansas to Wisconsin and finally Whidbey Island.
They had everything they needed on the island to run a successful farm, which made things easier for every generation that followed, according to Ray Gabelein.
“It seems like they flourished when they got to Whidbey Island,” said Ray Gabelein, who owns a bulldozing company based in Langley.
Gustav Gabelein’s son Arthur and his wife Minnie had seven children, one of whom was Raymond Gabelein. Arthur, however, died in an accident in 1925, a month before Raymond was born.
Minnie was left to raise the children alone during The Great Depression.
The Gabeleins persevered through the hardship and continued developing and purchasing land on South Whidbey as it became available over the years. But, the family doesn’t own as much land as some may think.
“I think it’s been an assumption by a lot of other people that the Gabeleins have a big homestead of 660 acres,” Ray Gabelein said. “That’s not true at all.”
Education and volunteerism are also stables of the family. Ray’s great grandfather, grandfather and father were on the local school board. Naturally, Ray also joined the South Whidbey School Board. Even when they were working hard on the farm, schooling remained a core value.
“They still believed in how important education was,” Ray Gabelein said.
Several Gabeleins also served on Island County District 1 Diking and Drainage board.
Raymond Gabelein and his wife, Eva Mae, led the South Whidbey Centaurs 4-H Club and also helped build barns at the Island County Fairgrounds.
In return, the antique barn was named after Raymond, while the stage was named after his wife, who organized the entertainment at the fair for many years.
The list of their contributions goes on.
Jon Gabelein, Gary Gabelein’s son, is a school teacher in Coupeville. He’s picked up tidbits about his family’s history over the years, but he’s looking forward to a more thorough presentation to learn more.
He too is inspired by his ancestors’ hard work.
“It helps me appreciate all that we have right now, compared to what they working with,” Jon Gabelein said, who is also a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician with WhidbeyHealth Medical Center. “At the same time, it makes it more important to me to protect a lot of the rural character.”
It’s hard to say whether the Gabelein family is the largest on Whidbey Island, but it’s up there, Jon said. It extends into several different branches and limbs.
“Everybody asks me: whose so and so related to?” Gary Gabelein said. “I tell them there’s a lot of limbs on that tree.”
Marshall is optimistic the presentation will inspire others to ensure the longevity of priceless gems in the community.
“We hope that sharing our family history will peak interest in the historical society, the Whidbey Island Fair and other local treasures such as the Bayview Hall,” We hope others are inspired to give back to their community and leave a lasting impact on South Whidbey.
The family has made an effort to preserve artifacts for historical purposes. They donated many items from the time to the historical society — tractors, buggies and household items — which are on display at the Ray Gabelein Sr. Antique Barn at the Whidbey Island Fairgrounds.