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My Grandmother's Photo Album: Clues to the Past

(Reprint from News: October 18, 2001)

October 18, 2001


Shortly after my mother passed away in 1999, I discovered an old photo album that she had stored in their basement.  The photo album was in a box that apparently hadn't been opened for several decades.  In fact, no one in my family had ever seen the photo album.  When I flipped through the pages and studied the old black-and-white photos, I realized that it had belonged to her mother, Helga Reinhard, and it included photos from the early 1900ís.  Unfortunately, though, most of the photos werenít captioned.  I was four years old when my grandmother Helga died so I barely remember her, but I do know that my mother was very fond of her. 


The photo album also contained several pictures taken by Helgaís mother, Anna Swang (my great-grandmother, pronounced "Swong"), who had lived in North Dakota and died in 1933 at age 65.  No one in my family knew anything about Anna other than that she had been born in Norway in the 1800ís and had come to America as a young girl.  These were the first photos that I or any of my living relatives had ever seen of Anna and her husband Nels (my great-grandfather).  From some of the captions that Anna had written, she seemed to be a cheerful person with a good sense of humor.  It was interesting to try to get to know Anna only through the things that she left behind, such as her photos.


During the past two years in Portland, I spent countless hours poring over Helga's photo album, trying to figure out where the pictures were taken, who the people were, and what their lives were like.  The photos totally and completely fascinated me, but they also baffled me because very few of the pictures had captions.  The photo album was a treasure trove and I decided that Iíd visit North Dakota some day to figure out who these people were and what they were like. The story of my mother's family was like a giant puzzle... and I've always loved puzzles.  


For those interested, I've described the results of my seven weeks of research on the next two pages:



Above left:  Questions, questions, questions.  This is a picture in Helga's photo album, which I discovered after my Mom passed away.  This woman was my great-grandmother Anna Swang, (Helga's mother), and the caption says, "These are my two sisters, Judith and Montana."  However, the girls appear to be 20 to 30 years younger than Anna.  Were they her step-sisters?  And what happened to them?

Above center:  That's Anna's daughter (my grandmother Helga) on the left, but who were these other women?  And where was this taken?

Above right:  I knew that Helga had taught school in North Dakota before she got married in 1923.  Were these children at her school?  What school was this, what was it like, and where was it?  After looking through Helga's photo album in Portland, I had dozens of questions... and very few answers.



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