June 24, 1996 12:00 PM

ROSIE GRIES ISN’T TAKING ON ANY new customers. For years she has been content to tap the same loyal shoppers on the farms of central North Dakota, relying on a coterie of 25 customers to buy the Avon products she sells. It’s not that she’s burned out. It’s just that, at age 100, Gries can take life a little easier—up to a point. “I think I’d die if I stopped selling,” she says.

The oldest living Avon salesperson (there are 2 million of them worldwide), Gries gets up at 6 a.m. five or six times a month, pays a neighbor $1 an hour “to haul me,” as she puts it, and hits the road to her customers’ far-flung homes. “I think all her customers buy every time because she’s Rosie,” says DeLayne Krein, who, with her husband, raises cattle near Gries’s hometown, Goodrich, 70 miles northeast of Bismarck. Krein has known Gries since 1943, the year Gries taught in the one-room school-house outside Goodrich. “She’s the best student I ever had,” says Gries.

For Gries, the daughter of German-Russian immigrant farmer parents, the Avon job came as a way out of the Depression. In 1938 she was 42, with three children (two still survive, and she has three grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren) and a husband, Gus (who died in 1966), who wasn’t making much of a living as a groceries salesman. Borrowing $5 from her mother, Gries bought a pack of Avon samples and started out, walking from farm to farm or hitching a ride when she could. She made $1,800 that first year. Twenty years later she bought her first car and expanded her territory, singing hymns to herself to pass the time as she traveled the prairie. For more than 50 years she worked 12-hour days and became one of Avon’s top sellers. “I’ve always had a lot of energy,” she says. “I’ve always been a good worker.”

With her hearing and eyesight both failing, Gries—who also has a pacemaker—has cut back but refuses to quit. “My mother always said: ‘Keep moving,’ ” she says. “And this gives me a reason to get up.”

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