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A Week in Webster

All of the stories that I had discovered about my ancestors on my trip so far had been positive and uplifting, including

  • The Bradstreets in Massachusetts, who were among the first white settlers of North America.

  • Ransom Myers from Michigan, who fought in the Civil War, lost an arm, and then re-enlisted.  After the war he became a prominent local official and farmer.

  • Henry Rasche, who was a successful farmer in southern Minnesota (not to mention his brother, Gustav, who was better known as "Mr. Alfalfa.")

Not all immigrant stories, though, have happy endings.  I learned this after I reached South Dakota. 

 

Many years ago, my mother told me that her mother's parents came from Webster, South Dakota.  And so Webster, a town that I'd never been to, became a prime destination for my trip around America.   From research that I've done since my mom passed away a few years ago, I discovered that her grandparent's were Nels and Anna Swang (pronounced "swong"), who had emigrated to America from Norway in the 1860s.

 

Above:  Webster, South Dakota was a thriving town in the late 1800s when my great-great-grandparents, Ole and Birgit Svang, moved here from Norway and homesteaded on 200 acres nearby.  Today, it's a less-than-thriving but very pleasant small town.  This was my first trip to Webster.  It was interesting to walk through this town and to imagine my ancestors here a hundred years ago.

Before I left Portland in April, I did some Internet research on the name "Swang" but found very little.  But then I stumbled across an old family document and learned that their name originally was Svang, not Swang, and I did an Internet search on that name.  The first hit I found involved a man named Ole Svang (pronounced "svong"), who was a founding member of something called the Bergen Church near Webster, South Dakota in the late 1800s.  I had never heard of Ole Svang but figured that since he had lived in Webster, he must be a relative.  To find out, I drove up to Webster after visiting the Ingalls museum in De Smet. 

 

Webster sits on the plains of eastern South Dakota completely surrounded by wheat fields.  It's a quiet, pleasant community of about 2,000 residents, though it's much smaller today than in the early 1900s when it was a bustling farming town.  Oddly enough, Webster reminded me of Frank Sinatra's song, "New York, New York."  Remember when Frank wanted to "wake up in a city that never sleeps"?  As I discovered, Webster always sleeps.  I'm just kidding.  Actually, Webster is a pretty nice place. 

 

Webster's biggest claim to fame, as I learned, is that it's the hometown of NBC announcer Tom Brokaw.  Well, Tom was actually born in the even smaller town of Bristol, South Dakota, which is a few miles down Highway 12, but he moved to Webster when he was young.  Locals here are proud of Tom and, as I learned, some of the old-timers in Webster still refer to Tom's dad by his nickname of "Snooks."

 

I spent the next week in Webster, mostly doing research in the Day County Courthouse.  There, with the help of two pleasant women named Janet and Amber, the county recorders, I was able to find Deed Record books from the 1800s which contained all sorts of interesting stories and clues about the Svangs.  The Deed Record books were huge, each weighing about 20 pounds, and I spent the week poring through them and many others, while learning about my pioneer ancestors and piecing together Ole's story.

 

   

Above left:  The Day County Courthouse in Webster.  I spent a week here in the Recorder's Office, piecing together Ole Svang's story and that of his wife, Birgit.  As I discovered, they homesteaded near here in the late 1800s for about 20 years.  But, and like so many others, they lost their farm to drought, pestilence and, ultimately, to a debt they couldn't repay.

Above right:  The Webster Welcoming Committee. 

 

   

Above left:  A place to clean my fish -- that's what I look for in a motel.

Above right:  What exactly are they doing in their cars here?

My Norwegian Ancestors, Ole and Birgit

As I discovered during my week in Webster, this man Ole Svang, whom I had read about on the Internet while I was back in Portland, was my great-great-grandfather.  Ole was born in 1822 in the tiny farming village of Gol, Norway and in 1850 he married a woman there named Birgit.  I loved that name -- not Bridget, but Birgit. 

 

Above:  Three years after I visited Webster, in June 2004, I received an e-mail from a woman who had found my website.  She was also descended from Ole and Birgit Svang and sent me their photos, which she had recently found.  These drawings were made probably around the time they came to America in 1866.  This is my great-great grandfather, Ole Svang.

In 1866, a year after the end of the American Civil War, the Svangs and their now five children emigrated to America.  They made their way to Chicago, farmed a bit of land in Minnesota that they had rented, and in the early 1880s moved farther west seeking their own land.  Whether in the 1700s, 1800s or later, this same story was emerging through my research as a common theme among many of my ancestors:  people moving farther and farther west across America in search of their own land.  It's the American story, really. 

 

Ole and Birgit found empty land, and lots of it, about 10 miles northwest of Webster and applied for a homestead in 1882.  According to the Homestead Act of 1862, after spending five years "proving up" their land by settling on it and building at least one structure, it would become theirs free and clear.  Ole was 60 years old and Birgit was 50 when they started their homestead.  That was amazing, I thought, finally owning your own land at age 60 -- and then, at that age, having to farm it!  There was no Social Security back then, I'm afraid.  Nope.  You worked or you starved.

 

I learned in the courthouse records that Ole and Birgit were among the first settlers of Day County (for a map of their journey, see My Mom's Ancestors:  Map and Photo Essay).  I also discovered that the railroad to Webster wasn't built until 1883, a year after they arrived, and so, just as my mother had told me many years ago, they had most likely traveled here in a covered wagon.  I thought that was fascinating and it made me proud.

 

I also discovered, through my research in the Day County Courthouse, that Ole and Birgit built a house (most likely a sod house) on their land, which was near a large lake in the Lynn Township.  The township had been named by a woman homesteader a year earlier in honor of a famous singer in the 1800s named Jenny Lynn, who was known as the "Swedish Nightingale."  Actually her name was Jenny Lind, not Lynn, but the name stuck.

 

Ole and Birgit had several children, including a daughter Carrie who homesteaded alone on 160 acres nearby.  I had always thought of homesteaders as being men but, as I discovered, many were single women.  Unfortunately though, Carrie's homestead was repossessed a few years later, a fate suffered by numerous homesteaders in the late 1800s as the ravages of drought, flood, insect infestations, and prairie fires took their toll.  Prairie fires, by the way, were both common and feared because back in those days, of course, there weren't any fire departments.  As I learned, a large fire swept by Ole and Birgit's homestead in 1886 killing a nearby homesteader, the first recorded death by a prairie fire in South Dakota.

 

Above:  And here's my great-great-grandmother, Birgit Svang, wife of Ole.  Now you know where I got my good looks from!

I also discovered in the courthouse that Birgit died in 1897 at age 65.  In 1906, Ole, who was 84 years old, was kicked off his farm by the sheriff because he couldn't pay a debt to the Minnesota Threshing Company, most likely for farm equipment he had bought on credit.  I tried to imagine how hard it must've been, trying to work a farm when you're 84 years old.  Ole died the next year and was buried next to his wife Birgit in the Bergen Church cemetery, their graves today marked by a simple headstone. 

 

It saddened me to think that after farming his land for over 20 years, Ole lost it at age 84.  Apparently he died impoverished and with, what he may have thought, nothing to show for his life.  Upon reflection, though, I realized that's not true because they had, in fact, given their children a start in America.  Indeed, Ole's son Nels married a woman named Anna Abrahamson and, in 1899, Nels and Anna moved to Fessenden, North Dakota with their 1-year-old daughter Helga, who would become my grandmother.  Heck, if Ole had decided to stay in Norway, I might be making lutefisk in Oslo now instead of traveling around America while researching my ancestors.

 

I learned another sad story through my research in the courthouse.  Birgit died in 1897 just two days after a court decision in which a judge had decided to repossess their farm for failure of payment.  That was quite a coincidence, I thought, Birgit dying just two days after losing their family farm.  It made me wonder about the circumstances of her death.  Perhaps it was due to heartbreak or stress.  Or maybe she had taken her own life, being saddened about losing the farm they had worked for so many years.  The cause of her death wasn't listed in the records but I couldn't help but wonder.  Suicide, as I learned, was quite common among homesteaders because farming was such a stressful life.  Whether it was suicide, heartbreak or just a coincidence, Birgit's death made me appreciate even more all of the gifts that I've been blessed with.

 

Once again, here's Oregon's Trail Band. This is What We Left Behind, a tribute to the American pioneers of the 1800s.

 

During the week that I spent at the Day County Courthouse doing research, I located Ole and Birgit's homestead on an old plat map.  And so, on a sunny Friday afternoon, I decided to drive out to see it.

 

I left the courthouse and drove out of Webster on U.S. Highway 12 heading west.  A few miles out of town, I turned north onto a dirt road, then drove through the empty, rolling hills of northeastern South Dakota, which are dotted here with countless ponds and small lakes.  Navigating by the old plat maps and using my truck's odometer -- the dirt cross-roads are evenly spaced every half-section, equal to every half-mile -- I found Ole and Birgit's former homestead, located a short distance from the shores of beautiful Lynn Lake. 

 

The sun was beginning to set on the windswept prairie as I pulled my truck off the dirt road and onto their former farm.  I knew their land was now owned by the South Dakota Fish & Game Department and, since there was no one within miles, I decided to camp there that night on my great-great-grandparent's former homestead.  I think Ole and Birgit, who had farmed this land a century earlier, would've liked that.

 

If you're interested, I've posted more photos of the Svang homestead on a page titled The Svang Homestead.  I've also posted additional photos of the Webster area here:  More Photos of the Webster Area.

 

   

Above left:  A few miles down the road from Webster sits the tiny town of Bristol, South Dakota (pop. 410) settled in 1882 by a family named Brokaw.  Bristol's most famous native is NBC News announcer Tom Brokaw, who was born in Webster in 1940 and grew up here in Bristol. 

Above right:  My great-great-grandparents, Ole and Birgit Svang, homesteaded in the 1880s by Lynn Lake on the far shore.

 

   

Above left:  An abandoned homestead near Webster.  This building is made of wood but most early homesteaders in the Dakotas, including my great-great-grandparents, lived in sod houses because trees were scarce then.

Above right:  Here's my Little Truck on the Prairie.  Using old plat maps, I found Ole and Birgit's homestead one evening, land which is now owned by the State Department of Fish and Game.  Since there was no one around, I decided to camp here.  I'm probably the first person in my family to visit this area in many decades.

 

   

Above left:  That's me on Ole's land after spending the night here.  Ole and his wife Birgit moved here from Norway (and Minnesota) in 1882, arriving via covered wagon.  As I discovered, they had a beautiful 200-acre parcel here on the shores of Lynn Lake and farmed this land for many years while living in a sod house.  There aren't any structures left on their land.

Above right:  Several months ago, I learned on the Internet that Ole Svang was a founding member of the Bergen Church (named presumably after Bergen, Norway).  When I got to the Webster area, I discovered that the Bergen Church, built in 1892, is still standing and is still used for Sunday services.

 

       

Above left:  The Bergen Church was unlocked so I went in.  As I discovered, Ole's son (my great-grandfather) Nels Svang married my great-grandmother, Anna Abrahamson here on October 2, 1896. 

Above center:  In 1897, Ole's wife Birgit died at age 65 and was buried here in the Bergen Church cemetery.  Ole lost his farm in 1906, died a year later at age 85, and was buried next to Birgit.  Their gravestone says, "At rest."

Above right:  Four years after I posted this website entry, in 2005, a reader named Greg Gilbertson wrote to me saying that his ancestors were also from Day County.  Greg sent me this photo of an old-time thresher near Webster.

 

   

Above left:  These are my great-grandparents, Anna and Nels Swang (front), around 1925.  Nels was a son of Ole and Birgit.  In 1899, a few years after getting married in the Bergen Church, Nels and Anna moved to Fessenden, North Dakota.  Standing (L-to-R) in the back are two of their five children, Betsy and Albert, and Albert's wife, Alma.  Their other three kids aren't in this photo, including my grandmother (Helga) and Henry Swang, who helped build the Golden Gate Bridge in California (see News:  June 14, 2001).  I discovered this photo shortly after my mother passed away in 1999.

Above right:  The 1925 family photo was made into a postcard 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 back in Norway.  Piecing together the story of the Swangs has been a giant puzzle and there are lots of questions that I still haven't answered.  

 

Note:  In July of 2012, a kind reader named Anne Berg, a Norwegian living in the U.S., wrote to me and provided this translation of the postcard:


Dear Mother
I am sending you this card so you can see what we look like these days.  You probably don't know them, but standing is Albert and standing to the left is Alma, his wife.  To the right is me.  Father and mother you know well.  The little girl is Albert's daughter.  How are you now, we are all fine.  Need to finish.  Everyone sends regards with most from your daughter Louise.

Peaceful Fort Sisseton

One reason I enjoy traveling is to discover terrific, out-of-the-way places that few people know about.  During my three-month trip around America in 1995 (see Previous Roadtrips, 1995-1999), the most outstanding "hidden jewel" that I stumbled across was the Cumberland Island National Seashore on the southern coast of Georgia.  So far during this trip, that honor goes to Fort Sisseton State Park in northeastern South Dakota.

 

Above:  Sunset over the peaceful and empty campground at Fort Sisseton State Park.  The old stable, reputedly the longest stone structure in the U.S., contains the campground's restroom and showers.   This is the only place where I've showered in a stable!

I drove out to Fort Sisseton (pronounced "SIS-a-ton") while I was in Webster doing research at the Day County Courthouse, having spent the previous nights at a motel, on Ole Svang's homestead, and at a bland state park nearby.  I planned to stay at Fort Sisseton for only a night or two before heading up to Bismarck, North Dakota, but I enjoyed it so much that I stayed for a week and a half, mostly getting caught up with my website and e-mail, and just relaxing. 

 

I'm still trying to figure out why more people don't visit this park.  And I left only because the empty campground would be filled the next night for the start of Labor Day weekend.  Compared to all of the crowded and dingy state park campgrounds that I stayed at in the southeastern U.S. that cater to obnoxious beer-chugging, muscle-t-shirt-wearing powerboat owners, this park was a real gem. 

 

Fort Sisseton was built in 1864, a few years after the Dakota Uprising, on what was then the wild frontier of the Dakota Territory (think "Dances With Wolves" and you'll get the picture).  For the next 25 years, the fort was manned by soldiers of the U.S. army and cavalry, most of whom weren't thrilled to be stationed at this remote outpost.

 

Fort Sisseton was abandoned in 1889 and the buildings soon fell into disrepair, but in 1960 the land was acquired by the South Dakota State Parks Department.  They've worked hard ever since to restore the fort and have done a wonderful job.  There are about 15 buildings open to the public, each labeled with an interpretive sign and filled with interesting displays inside, including the North Barracks, which now serves as the spacious and informative Visitor Center.

 

Above:  The lonely South Dakota prairie near Fort Sisseton. 

This park, being a former army base, reminded me of Fort Snelling in Minneapolis or Fort Laramie in Wyoming except there are very few visitors and, unlike those parks, there's a campground. The wonderful 14-site campground overlooks a beautiful prairie that provides magnificent sunset vistas across the prairie each night.

 

Surprisingly, the campground was empty (or nearly empty) every night I was there.  The restrooms and showers are located in a former stable that's reputed to be the longest stone building in the U.S., and the grounds are well-kept.  A gentle wind blew through the campground each day, the weather was perfect, I was well-stocked with delicious carrot cake from Jim's Supermarket in Webster, and I fell asleep each night to the soft chirping of crickets. For nine peaceful days, all was right with the world.

 

Fort Sisseton is one of the best kept secrets in the Dakotas and it made my list of 10 Favorite State Parks in the U.S.  There isn't a lot of glitz here.  But if you appreciate history, enjoy solitude, and like watching beautiful sunsets over the prairie from a quiet campground, you'll love this out-of-the-way gem.

 

   

Above left:  I was planning to stay at Fort Sisseton for only a day or two, but I liked the peaceful campground here so much that I stayed for a week and a half.  Fort Sisseton State Park is one of the most peaceful places I've ever visited.

Above right:  The Officer's Quarters at Fort Sisseton State Park.

 

   

Above left:  The North Barracks building has been converted into the Visitor Center.  It contains a replica of the actual barracks as it looked in the 1860s.

Above right:  An inquisitive horse, of course.

 


 

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