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October 18, 2001 -- Part 2  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

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Probably the best discovery I made during the past six weeks here in Bismarck is the North Dakota Heritage Center.  Located near the capital, it's a wonderful resource for anyone interested in researching their North Dakota ancestors.  It contains an amazing collection of old documents, maps, newspapers, books, photos, and census records of North Dakota.  

 

Iíve spent the past four weeks at the Heritage Center poring over old plat maps, reading through countless microfilmed newspapers and going through census records searching for my ancestors, all with the help of the Center's director, a wonderful woman named Susan Dingle.  In doing so, I slowly reconstructed my motherís childhood, the stories of her parents, Helga Swang and Edward Reinhard, and the stories of their parents. 

 

These next two pages describe their stories.

 

       

Above left:  The North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck.  Note the "rebar buffalo" sculpture on the left.

Above center:  The archives room of the Heritage Center.  This is terrific resource for anyone interested in North Dakota history.  I spent about a month here researching my Mom's family history.  The staff here was really friendly and helpful -- thanks, Susan and Greg!

Above right:  The Heritage Center also contains a fantastic museum.  I spent over five hours here one day and still didn't see it all.

 

The Swangs:  Anna's Story

My grandmother, Helga Swang (pronounced "Swong"), was born in 1898 on a farm near Webster, South Dakota.  I spent several weeks in the Webster area in August researching Helga's parents, Nels and Anna Swang, who had come from Norway to America as children (see News: August 30, 2001).  Nels and Anna lived on farms near Webster only a few miles apart, married in 1896, and had five children including Helga.  Nels and Anna, with Helga and her four siblings, all moved to Fessenden, North Dakota in 1902 where Nels got a job as an engineer on the Sault Ste. Marie ("Soo") Railroad.  

 

As I learned in the Heritage Center, Nels and Anna divorced around 1910, which was pretty rare in those days (I don't know why they split up) and Nels apparently left the state, leaving Anna to raise their five children alone.  I also learned that after Nels left, Anna worked as a laundress out of her house in Fessenden to support her family.  From Anna's photos, I learned that she was an avid photographer and enjoyed gardening, and from the captions that she wrote on some of her photos, I got the sense that she was smart, talented, and had a good sense of humor.  Anna Swang died in 1933 at age 65 and, according to her obituary, she "worked endlessly, practically giving her life to raise her five children." 

 

Here's a tune about a small town in 1910 and a famous comet.  Once again, this is Mary Chapin Carpenter, this time singing Halley Came To Jackson.  It makes me wonder what my grandparents thought about Halley's comet.

Requires a RealPlayerIf problems, see Help.

 

One afternoon, I decided to drive up to Fessenden, a town of about 600 people located about 60 miles north of Bismarck.  I knew there weren't any Swangs in the area but I wanted to see if Anna's house was still standing and I also wanted to visit Anna's grave.  I had a few photos of Anna's house taken in 1916 so I spent a few minutes driving around Fessenden looking for it.  I couldn't find Anna's house so I stopped by the Wells County Courthouse and, after spending an hour in the Recorder's office poring through huge Deed books, I learned where Anna's house was and I drove over to it. 

 

At first, I thought I had the wrong address because the house didn't look like the one in Anna's old black-and-white photos, but after a while I realized that it, indeed, was the same house.  Unfortunately, no one was home but I enjoyed walking around the yard.  Most likely, none of my relatives had been here in over 50 years.

 

It was pretty interesting to finally visit Anna's house because, for the past several years in Portland, I had wondered where in North Dakota this mysterious house was... and now here I was in her front yard.  By visiting Anna's house and piecing together her story, I felt like I had somehow known her, even though she died many years before I was born.  As I discovered, Anna Swang was an amazing person.  Indeed, of all the people that I've researched on this trip, Anna is probably the one that I would have enjoyed meeting the most.

   

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Above left:  These are my great-grandparents (seated):  Anna Abrahms and Nels Swang, in a photo taken around 1928.  Anna and Nels were born in Norway (Anna in Helgeland, Nels in Hallingdal), emigrated to the U.S. as children, married in 1896 in South Dakota then moved to Fessenden, North Dakota six years later.  Two of their five children, Betsy (left) and Albert (center) are standing behind them.  For some reason, my grandmother Helga wasn't in this photo.  Anna and Nels divorced around 1910 and Anna raised their five children alone, so I don't know why Anna and Nels sat together for this portrait in 1928.

Above right:  The family photo was made into a post card and this is the writing on the back, but it's all in Norwegian!  I think this was written by Betsy to her grandmother who was in Norway.  Piecing together the story of the Swangs has been a giant puzzle and there are a lot of questions that I haven't yet answered.

 

Note:  In August 2007, a website reader named Kristin from Norway wrote to me and kindly provided this translation of the 1928 postcard:

Dear mother, I will send you this card so that you can see how we look like these days. You probably don't know them. He who stands is Albert and she who stands to the left is Alma, his wife, and I'm on the right side, father and mother you must know. And the little girl is Albert's daughter. How are you doing? We're all doing well. I have to finish. Greetings from everyone, but most from your daughter Louise.

 

 

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Above left:  Anna Swang outside her house in 1916.  This picture was in her daughter Helga's photo album that I discovered after my Mom passed away a few years ago.  Before arriving in North Dakota, I wasn't sure where this photo was taken but I discovered that Anna had lived in the town of Fessenden and had died in 1933.  But was her house still there?

Above center:  I spent an hour in the County Courthouse in Fessenden to find out.

Above right:  Sure enough, it's still there.  It's been remodeled a bit (note that the second-floor window was removed and the porch was expanded).  As I discovered, Anna bought this house in 1907 for $500 and worked as a laundress here for many years as a single mother to support her five children, including my grandmother Helga.

 

       

Above left:  From the photos in Helga's album, I got to know her mother Anna pretty well.  Here she is in her garden in 1916.  Fortunately, she wrote captions on some of her photos.  As I learned from reading Anna's captions, she had a pretty good sense of humor.

Above center:  Anna Swang died in 1933, after raising her five children alone.  The newspaper wrote a very flattering obituary about her.  One son, Henry, helped to build the Golden Gate Bridge (see News: June 14, 2001), her son Albert fought in the trenches in World War I, and her daughter Helga was my grandmother... and a wonderful person.  I've learned a lot about Anna during the past few weeks and I greatly admire her.

Above right:  Driving back to Bismarck after spending a day in Fessenden.

 

The Swangs:  Helga's Story

Anna and Nels Swang named their second child Helga.  Helga was born in Webster, South Dakota in 1898 and in 1902, she moved with her parents to Fessenden, North Dakota.  A few years later, Nels left Anna and Helga was raised by her mother Anna, with whom she was very close.  Helga graduated from Fessenden High School in 1915 and afterwards taught in a one-room "country school" (as opposed to a "town school") in rural North Dakota.  Back in those days, all you needed was a high school degree, if that, to become a school teacher.

 

After teaching in the one-room school house for a few years, Helga attended Minot State Teachers College and graduated with a teaching degree in 1921.  A few months later, she landed a teaching position at the Canfield Consolidated School, four miles east of the small town of Regan, North Dakota (pop. 70).  There were three teachers at the Canfield School:  Helga taught primary grades (Kindergarten to Fourth Grade), a woman named Martha Pfaff (who would later marry my great-uncle Dewey) taught secondary grades (Fifth Grade to Eighth Grade), and the Principal taught High School to a few students in the school's basement.

 

While teaching at the Canfield School, Helga met Ed Reinhard, a local farmer, and they married in 1923.  The following year, my mother, Anna Mae, was born and in 1927, a second girl was born, followed in 1931 by their third and final child, also a girl.  Learning all of this was interesting to me because I had always thought that my mother had grown up in a well-to-do family in Bismarck and that her father had been a lawyer.

 

Farming was difficult during the 1920s, though, and like many farmers during the Great Depression, Ed lost his farm.  After losing their farm, the Reinhards moved to the small town of Wing and then to Wilton before moving to Bismarck around 1934.  Three years later, Ed died in a car accident.  Shortly after Ed died, Helga taught herself shorthand and got a job in Bismarck as a secretary to support her three girls including my Mom.  Interestingly, just like her mother Anna, Helga was now a single parent raising several children alone, which must have been pretty difficult considering the limited career opportunities and salaries for women in those days. 

 

In 1943, my mother left Bismarck at age 19 and married my Dad, who was going to Naval Officer Training School in Dickinson, North Dakota.  Helga left Bismarck a few years later and moved to Sturgis, South Dakota where she eked out a living as a secretary at the nearby Veterans Administration Hospital.  My Dad told me that he remembers our family stopping by to visit Helga in Sturgis during their cross-country vacation trips in the 1950ís.  Helga lived in a tiny cabin, and although she obviously didnít have much money, she would always load up our familyís station wagon with sandwiches to eat during the trip.

 

Around 1960, Helga, at age 62, moved to Capistrano Beach, California to be with her middle daughter, Betty, where she lived in a small guesthouse adjacent to Bettyís house.  Helga died of a heart attack four years later.  I have what is probably the last letter Helga ever wrote, which she sent to my Mom two days before she passed away.  

 

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Above left:  Anna's daughter, my grandmother Helga at age 23, in 1921.  The guy may be one of her three brothers and possibly Henry, who helped build the Bixby Creek Bridge near Big Sur, California (see News June 14, 2001) and later worked on the Golden Gate Bridge.  This is in Minot, North Dakota when she graduated from Teacher's College before getting a teaching job near Regan.

Above center:  This was one of many mysterious photos in Helga's photo album.  I assumed this was Helga's school but didn't know where it was or what it was called.  Fortunately, a few weeks ago I saw a picture of this same school in a book in the Bismarck Library.  It was called the Canfield School and was located just a few miles from Regan, where her future husband, Ed Reinhard, lived.  As I learned, the school was built in 1916 and burned down in 1928.  Helga taught here from 1921 to 1923.

Above right:  My grandmother Helga in 1922 at the Canfield School, at about the time she met my grandfather, Ed Reinhard.

 

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Above left:  Another photo from Helga's photo album.  This was a Canfield schoolteacher, Martha Pfaff,  leading her students in calisthenics.

Above center:  After learning that Helga taught at the Canfield School, I drove out to see it... or what remained of it (I knew that the school burned down in 1928).  This is the lot where the school sat.  The small building was a schoolhouse that was moved here in the 1960s, well after Helga had taught here.  Even though there's nothing left of the Canfield School, it was pretty interesting to walk around the school grounds and think about what life for my grandmother must have been like here during the 1920s.

Above right:  There are many abandoned one-room school houses still dotting the North Dakota prairies, including this one near Wing.  To learn more, see my page on North Dakota's One-Room Country Schools.

 

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Above left:  My grandmother Helga with my Mom around 1926, three years after Helga married my grandfather, Ed Reinhard.

Above center:  This photo of my grandmother and mother (center) captivates me.  More than any other, it's the picture that compelled me to visit North Dakota and to find out what I could about my mother and her relatives.   

Above right:  Helga (on the left) with my parents in Florida in 1944, shortly after my folks got married.  My Dad was going through Navy Seal training in Fort Pierce at this time.  Helga died in the mid-1960s and I only vaguely remember her.  People tell me that she was a wonderful person and that my Mom was very fond of her.

 

Helga's Pupil

The most amazing event of my seven-week visit to North Dakota occurred only a few days before I headed back home.  As I poked around the nearly-deserted town of Regan on that cold and gray afternoon, I met a fellow named Otto Uhde who was a little older than myself.  When I told Otto that I was a descendent of the long-gone Reinhard family, he suggested that I talk to a woman named Hester Bailey.  Otto glanced at his watch and said, "You know, it's almost 5 o'clock so I'm sure Hester's eating dinner over in Wing.  Why don't you follow me, because I'm going over there in a few minutes."  I told Otto that I wanted to stop by the cemetery first and said that I'd meet him in Wing. 

 

Twenty minutes later I pulled into the small town of Wing, about 10 miles east of Regan, and found the town's only restaurant, called the Chat & Chew Cafe.  Otto had arrived a minute earlier and we walked into the small, dark and smoky cafe.  Otto walked over to an elderly woman eating alone in the nearly-empty restaurant and introduced me to her.  "This fellow is related to the Reinhards who lived in Regan," said Otto, as I shook Hester's hand.  As I sat down next to her, Hester told me that she'd lived in this area her entire life, so I asked her if she remembered my grandmother, Helga Swang, who had passed away in 1964.

 

To my utter amazement, Hester told me that Helga was her very first teacher when Hester was in kindergarten eighty years earlier in 1921 when Hester was 6 years old.  Hester remembered Helga fondly and I eagerly listened to her stories about the Swangs and Reinhards.  I couldn't believe that I'd met someone who remembered these people who I'd been researching for the past few months.  As she sat in the tiny cafe finishing her dinner, Hester proudly told me that she still has the leather purse that Helga (or "Miss Swang," as she called her) gave her after she graduated from kindergarten.

 

After a while, I brought my laptop computer into the cafe and showed Hester several digital photos from Helga's old photo album including Helga's elementary school, which had burned down in 1925.  Hester remembered the school vividly and told me stories about the school and about several young children in the photographs, all of whom were now in their 80's and 90's, if they were still alive. 

 

Hester also remembered my mother when my mom was a little girl and told me stories about my great-grandmother Petrina Reinhard (Edward's mother), who died in 1927.  Before meeting Hester, I had known almost nothing about Petrina, so I was delighted to hear Hester's stories about her and my other relatives, many who I knew only in old photos.  As we continued to talk, Hester told me that she'd been married for many years but her husband died a while back.  These days, her entire life revolved around the sleepy town of Wing. 

 

After about two hours, I told Hester that I had to go.  It was obvious from her glowing smile that she enjoyed meeting her kindergarten teacher's grandson and talking about "the old days."  With a smile, I shook Hester's frail hand, thanked her for her time and promised to write to her when I got back to Washington, which I definitely intend to do. 

 

As I drove back to Bismarck that night, I realized that Hester Bailey is probably the only person alive in North Dakota who remembers my grandmother Helga.  Even more amazing, of course, was that Hester was one of Helga's students.  It was an unbelievable encounter and something I'll never forget.

 

   

Above left:  Wing, North Dakota (pop. 191) is near Regan.  As I discovered, my mother lived in Wing during the early 1930s before she moved with her family to Bismarck.   A local resident directed me to the Chat & Chew Cafe...

Above right:  ... where I met an 87-year old woman name Hester Bailey (left).  Hester, as I discovered, was a kindergarten student of my grandmother Helga's in 1921.  Hester still has a small leather coin purse that Helga gave her that year.  I spent two hours with Hester, who told me many stories about my grandparents and great-grandparents.  She's a really delightful woman.  That's her friend and cafe owner Alice on the right.

 

The conclusion of this story is posted on October 18, 2001 -- Part 3  (Bismarck, North Dakota).

 

 

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October 18, 2001 -- Part 3  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

 

 

Previous News

October 18, 2001 -- Part 1  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

October 6, 2001  (Fort Lincoln State Park, North Dakota)

September 30, 2001 -- Part 2  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

September 30, 2001 -- Part 1  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

September 15, 2001  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

August 30, 2001  (Webster, South Dakota)

August 18, 2001  (Watertown South Dakota)

August 17, 2001  (Walnut Grove, Minnesota)

August 14, 2001  (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

August 10, 2001 (Battle Creek, Michigan)

August 8, 2001  (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 2)

August 8, 2001  (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 1)

August 6, 2001  (Manlius, New York)

July 23, 2001  (Middleton, Massachusetts)

July 22, 2001  (Boston, Massachusetts)

July 20, 2001  (Pomfret, Connecticut)

July 18, 2001  (Denton, Maryland)

July 16, 2001  (Cumberland, Virginia)

July 14, 2001  (Roanoke, Virginia)

July 9, 2001  (Sevierville, Tennessee)

July 8, 2001  (Fontana Lake, North Carolina)

July 5, 2001  (Manchester, Tennessee)

June 30, 2001  (Hohenwald, Tennessee)

June 29, 2001  (Corinth, Mississippi)

June 27, 2001  (Natchez, Mississippi)

June 24, 2001  (Austin, Texas)

June 20, 2001  (Canyon de Chelly, Arizona)

June 18, 2001  (Clay Canyon, Utah)

June 15, 2001 -- Part 2  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)

June 15, 2001 -- Part 1  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)

June 14, 2001  (San Diego, California)

June 11, 2001  (San Jose, California)

June 2, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

May 19, 2001  (Hillsboro, Oregon)

April 30, 2001  (Hillsboro, Oregon)

April 19, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

April 5, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington) 

 

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