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

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After spending seven weeks (yes, seven weeks) in Bismarck, North Dakota, I'm going to be leaving tomorrow, sort of like the geese that I see each day flying in their V-formations down the Missouri River valley heading south (hey, those geese aren't dumb).  If anyone had told me in August that I'd spend seven weeks in North Dakota, I would have said they were crazy.  As it turned out, though, my Mom's family history, which I had come to Bismarck to research, turned out to be a heck of a lot more complicated than I imagined.  


When I got to Bismarck in early September, the temperature was over 100 degrees.  The weather has steadily deteriorated since then and nighttime low temperatures are now starting to dip down into the teens, which makes camping at nearby Fort Lincoln State Park a bit uncomfortable.  I haven't seen any snow yet, but I expect some any day.  I complained about the hot, sticky weather in the Southeast during July, but I would have enjoyed some of that during these last couple of weeks in Bismarck!  I was just getting used to the sweat on the back of my neck and here it is, fall already.  But not for long, because as soon as I get down to the Southern Hemisphere, I'll do the whole spring-summer-fall thing over again before flying back to the Northern Hemisphere in June.  Yeah, I really like the idea of avoiding winter!


Actually, I've really enjoyed my stay in Bismarck.  To make camping a bit more pleasant, I bought a portable 1500-watt heater that makes the back of my truck nice and toasty each night.  Meanwhile, I've been spending my days either at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck poring through census records and microfilmed newspapers or doing field work around North Dakota while learning about my family's history.



Above left:  After working in Bismarck each day, I cross the Missouri River and camp here at Fort Lincoln State Park almost every night.  This is just before digging into yet another scrumptious dinner of Dan's fried chicken, a staple during my stay.  Hey, it beats bratwurst!

Above center:  Sunset from the campground.  The clouds in North Dakota are incredible, as is the changeable weather.

Above right:  Reading about the Oregon Trail in my toasty truck at night (after yet another chicken dinner).  70 degrees inside, 25 degrees outside.


Above left:  This is the wonderful Bismarck Public Library, my home for three weeks in September while I updated my website.

Above center:  Rosser Avenue, a main thoroughfare in Bismarck.

Above right:  No, this isn't an office building.  It's actually the North Dakota capitol. 


Unlocking my Mother's Story

Anne (Reinhard) Leu, who passed away in 1999, was a wonderful mother and a devoted wife.  As a kid, I remember some of my friends telling me what a "neat Mom" I had.  However, for reasons I never understood, my mother never talked much about her childhood.  About all I knew was that she was born in 1924, grew up in Bismarck, and in 1943 she met my Dad, who was in North Dakota training for World War II.  They got married the next year and left North Dakota, and my mother never went back.  No one in my family, including my Dad, knew why she never wanted to go back to North Dakota.


Here's a song about reflection at the end of our journey.  This is Jubilee sung by one of my favorite artists, Mary Chapin Carpenter.

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I was close to my mother (as I am to my father), and one reason I took this trip was to find out about her childhood and to learn about her parents and grandparents, all of whom moved to North Dakota around 1900.  My goal was to learn as much as I could about my mother's childhood and about her relatives, and to get a sense of what living here was like during the early 1900s.  


I also wanted to document this research for future generations in my family so that the stories of my mother's family will never be forgotten.  Documenting family history is something that a lot of us plan to "get around to" sometime.  Being my family's unofficial historian, I figured that I better make the time to do it now or else I never will.


Since I don't have any relatives left in North Dakota, the research proved to be a real challenge, which is one reason I ended up spending seven full weeks in Bismarck.  Some of the stories that I uncovered were happy but some, unfortunately, were also pretty sad (as were many family stories during the Great Depression).  Though not all the stories that I uncovered were upbeat, I've come to understand my mother a lot better through my research here during the past seven weeks.  My experience in Bismarck was amazing and, at times, staggering. 



Above left:  More shots of Bismarck:  Playing volleyball is one of the things I miss most on this trip.  This is Bismarck's University of Mary's team (in blue) taking on Minot State.

Above center:  I also watched a couple of University of Mary football games.  Go Marauders!

Above right:  A pumpkin mound in Mandan.



Above left:  Looking up the Missouri River from my campsite at Fort Lincoln State Park.  That's Bismarck in the distance.

Above center:  Looking south and a goose-eye view of the Missouri River valley.

Above right:  Bismarck and the Missouri River at night.


Grandmother Helga's Photo Album:  Clues to the Past

Shortly after my mother passed away in 1999, I discovered an old photo album that she had stored in her 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, my grandmother 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, including 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 completely fascinated me, but they also baffled me because very few of them had captions.  The photo album was a treasure trove and I decided that Iíd visit North Dakota some day to try to figure out who these people were and what they were like. The story of my mother's family was like a giant puzzle waiting to be solved.  


It was utterly fascinating to reconstruct the lives of my ancestors based on only one photo album, and after spending seven weeks in North Dakota, I think I've solved this captivating puzzle.  I've described the results of my 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.



Next News

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



Previous News

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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