My Grandmother, Helga Swang


Anna Swang's youngest daughter, Helga, was my grandmother.  Helga Swang (pronounced "Swong") was born in Webster, South Dakota on November 18, 1897 and, at the age of four, she moved to Fessenden, North Dakota with her parents.  Her father, Nels, was an engineer on the Sault Ste. Marie ("Soo") Railroad and her mother, Anna, raised their five children.  A few years after moving to Fessenden, Nels and Anna divorced and Anna  worked out of their house as a laundress to support her family.  Each of the five children, including Helga, took odd jobs and did what they could to pitch in.


Helga graduated from Fessenden High School in 1915.  Career opportunities for single women at that time were mostly limited to teaching, nursing, or being a secretary, so Helga took a job teaching in a one-room house on the bleak plains of North Dakota.  After a few years, she attended Teacherís College at Minot, North Dakota, graduating in May of 1921.  That fall, Helga got a better-paying teaching position at the newly-built Canfield Consolidated School near the small town of Regan, North Dakota.


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Above:  My grandmother Helga in 1922 at the Canfield School near Regan, North Dakota. This is shortly before she married.


While teaching at the Canfield School, Helga met my grandfather, Edward R., a local farmer, and they married in 1923.  My mother was born the next year, the first of three girls, and Helga gave up her teaching career to become a housewife while Edward farmed a 160-acre quarter-section a few miles east of Regan.  The family endured a lot of hardships that for most of us today, including myself, are quite unimaginable:  bitterly cold winters, drought, dust storms, hail storms, grasshopper plagues -- and all of this during the late 1920s when grain prices were plummeting.  After farming for several years, the family gave up during the depths of the Depression and moved to Bismarck, where Edward worked in carpentry and construction.


Edward died unexpectedly in 1937, and as a result, the family suddenly had no income.  It was a bleak situation:  Helga, with no marketable skills, now had to raise three daughters during the depths of the Depression.  But she taught herself stenography and went to work as a court reporter in the North Dakota capitol building, to support her three daughters.


 Though she didn't earn much money, she was able to provide a stable and loving household for my mother and her two younger sisters.  The three girls each married shortly after graduating from Bismarck High School and moved out of North Dakota.  Helga, now an empty-nester, did likewise.  In the early 1950s, she moved to Sturgis, South Dakota where, for many years, she worked for the V.A. hospital at nearby Fort Meade, barely scratching out a subsistence and living in a tiny house.


In 1963, Helga, who was now 65, moved to Capistrano Beach, California to be with her middle daughter, Betty.  She lived temporarily with Betty while looking for a room to rent nearby.  The following spring, and shortly before moving out of Betty's house, Helga died of a heart attack.  I have what is probably the last letter she ever wrote, which she sent to my mother two days before she passed away.


I was only three years old the last time that I saw my grandmother Helga, and I have only the dimmest memories of her.  Everyone, though, including my dad has told me what a wonderful and thoughtful person she was.  She worked hard her entire life to provide for her children -- as did Helga's mother, Anna Swang.