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Will the Last Person to Leave North Dakota Please Turn Off the Lights?

Picking up where I left off in my last update (see News: September 15, 2001), I arrived in Bismarck on the sunny, hot Saturday of Labor Day weekend.  My mother, who passed away a few years ago, was born here in the 1920s and left Bismarck after marrying my dad in 1943.  I came to Bismarck to find out what I could about my mom and her ancestors and have been here for about a month, mostly updating my website and doing family research in the Bismarck Public Library while staying at nearby Fort Lincoln State Park.  As I mentioned, I also spent a week getting my truck's transmission fixed.


Above:  This is, believe it or not, the North Dakota Capitol.  You might think it was an office building except for that sign in front that says "North Dakota Capitol."  At 19 stories, I believe this is the tallest building in North Dakota.

North Dakota, with a population of only 640,000 (one-third the size of Portland) is one of the least populated states in the U.S. and is the only state that has consistently lost population during the past several decades.  The net out-migration is partly due to the brutal winters here.  Though the summers in North Dakota are generally pleasant, winters here are pretty nasty with an average high temperature of 20 degrees in Bismarck during January and an average low of 2 below zero.


Yep, kids here learn pretty fast not to stick their tongue on the flagpole in the wintertime.  But according to a local paper I read recently from 1917, winters here really aren't that bad because it's "a humid cold and not a dry cold."  Yeah, right as if that makes a difference!  As everyone says, "It's not the cold, it's the humidity."


The other reason people are leaving North Dakota is that, as farming becomes more mechanized, fewer people are needed to grow the crops here.  After graduating from high school, most rural North Dakotans either move to the cities here, like Bismarck, or they leave the state altogether.  The large cities in this state ("large" being a relative term with the largest city, Fargo, having just 80,000 people) are growing slowly, but the population of rural areas and small towns here are, for the most part, dropping fast.  In fact, many rural towns in North Dakota over the past 30 years have disappeared and blown away with the wind.


In just about every other part of the U.S., the concept of "growth" is a given:  most cities are getting bigger, most roads are getting more congested, etc.  It's a very strange feeling to know that a lot of people in North Dakota are looking to move OUT, and not many people outside of the state want to move in.  Judging from the large number of older folks here and the small number of younger folks, the declining population trend will probably continue for many more years.  On the positive side, though, housing here is really cheap.



Above left:  My mom lived in this house in Bismarck when she was a teenager.  She met my dad during the summer of 1943 a few weeks after she graduated from high school.  He was going to Naval Officer's Training School in Dickinson, 90 miles west of here and they met at a dance.

Above right:  Here's Bismarck High School.  It looks pretty much the same now as when my mom went here in the early 1940s.



Above left:  Getting Jiffy Lubed in Bismarck, North Dakota.

Above right:  Gee, I wish I lived here.



Left:  Being perhaps the biggest volleyball fan in Oregon, I drove out to Bismarck State College one evening and watched my first volleyball match in four months. 

It wasn't great volleyball, frankly.  But at least it was volleyball.


Bismarck: My Mom's Hometown

Bismarck is a pleasant and friendly city with streets lined with leafy trees that are now somewhere between green and gold.  For the past month I've been staying at nearby at Fort Lincoln State Park, camping right on the Missouri River in a campground that's virtually deserted every night.  Each afternoon as I eat my fried chicken dinner, I watch the geese fly south down the Missouri River valley and later I fall asleep to sound of crickets.  At only $7 a night with a hot shower included I think it's the best deal in North Dakota.



We often associate events in our lives with the music that's popular at the time.  Here's the #1 country song during the fall of 2001.  For years to come, whenever I hear it, I'm sure I'll think about the time I spent in Bismarck.

This is Carolyn Dawn Johnson singing Complicated.


The weather so far has been pretty nice here.  Of course, this is September when the weather is still fairly pleasant, but I guess it starts deteriorating rapidly in October.  And, as I've been learning, the weather here can change on a dime (see Weather in the Midwest), more so than probably any other place I've ever visited.


For instance, I was wearing shorts one sunny morning about a week ago and the temperature was hovering around 75 degrees, and I walked into the Bismarck Public Library and spent a few hours there updating my website.  When I walked out a few hours later, though, the temperature had plunged to 49 degrees and I shivered in the cold, cloudy, windy weather while scurrying to my truck.  If this had happened in California, folks would talk about it for months, but here in the Midwest, rapid weather changes are standard fare.  You know the old saying, "If you don't like the weather, just wait a few minutes."  Well, here in North Dakota, they really mean it.  


There are two things here in Bismarck that seem to be big problems:  hail damage and head lice.  Back in the pioneer days, hail used to decimate wheat fields; today, it decimates car roofs and hoods.  I've seen about a dozen places around town that advertise something called "paintless dent repair," which I hope I never have to learn about.   Then a few days ago while driving around Bismarck, I heard my very first radio ad for getting rid of head lice.  Head lice isn't a problem out in Oregon or at least no one discusses it.  The policy that Oregonian's have about lice is, "Don't scratch, don't tell."


I don't know how much longer I'll be here in Bismarck, though, since the leaves are changing color and fall is definitely in the air.  Now that I've updated my website, it depends on how long it takes to finish my family research.  I plan to visit the Colorado Rockies next and, from my experience of working there as a ranger many years ago, I know that heavy snow can start falling down there anytime now.  At least I won't have to worry about hailstorms there... or, hopefully, head lice.



Left:  Bismarck's "Folkfest" parade, held only a few days after the September 11 attack in New York City. 

People tried to put on a happy face but I saw a few tears in the crowd.




Above left:  The empty campground at Fort Lincoln State Park, my home in September.  Each night on my way back to the campground, I stop at Dan's Supermarket in Mandan and get some fried chicken and potato salad, which I eat here at Fort Lincoln.  I've been here so long that I'm on a first-name basis with the rangers.

Above right:  The Missouri River at Bismarck.  Lewis and Clark paddled through here in October, 1804 on their way west.

The Swang Mystery

Above:  My great-grandparents Nels and Anna Swang (seated) around 1925 with two of their five children.  Their daughter, my grandmother Helga, was not in this photo.  Anna and Nels married near Webster, South Dakota in 1896 then moved to Fessenden, North Dakota.  Nels worked on the Soo Railroad before leaving Anna and moving to California.  Standing behind them are their children Betsy (left) and Albert (center) Swang. 

Before I leave North Dakota, I hope to solve a mystery that's been nagging at me for over a year.  In 1899, my grandmother Helga moved from Webster, South Dakota to the small town of Fessenden, North Dakota when she was about a year old (see My Mom's Ancestors:  Map and Photo Essay).  In the early 1930s, During the Great Depression and now married, she later moved to Bismarck, where my mother was born.  My grandmother Helga died in 1964, so I didn't think I had any relatives in North Dakota anymore.  


After my mother passed away a few years ago, I learned that Helga's maiden name was Swang (pronounced "Swong") and I learned on the Internet that there were several Swang families living in North Dakota, including in Bismarck and in the small town of Harvey which, as I learned, is just a few miles from Fessenden, where Helga had grown up in the early 1900s.  I was sure that these Swangs were my relatives, since the Swang name is so unusual.  In fact, there are fewer than 40 families in the U.S. with the last name of Swang.


About a year ago, I sent letters of introduction to some of the Swang families in North Dakota explaining my relation to Helga.  However, I was surprised to learn that these Swangs had never heard of Helga Swang or any of her siblings, even though their ancestors had also come from Norway and had moved to central North Dakota at about the same time as Helga, around 1900.  I met recently with some of these Swangs in Bismarck and we're now trying to figure out if we're related.  Hopefully, as I do more research in North Dakota over the next week, I'll figure out if there's any connection between the two Norwegian Swang families. 



Above left:  My grandmother Helga Swang at the rural country school where she taught, about 30 miles north of Bismarck.  This was taken about 1922, a year before she married my grandfather.

Above center:  The first photo of my mother, taken in 1925 when she was a few months old.

Above right:  My parents in Florida in 1944 shortly after getting married, with Helga.  My dad was going through Navy SEALs training in Fort Pierce.  Helga died in 1964 and I only vaguely remember her, but she and my mom were very close.

My Opinion of North Dakota

Although I grew up in Michigan and went to college in Wisconsin, I've been away from the Midwest for a long time and I'd forgotten what makes this place special.  I'll make some comments here about North Dakota, where I've been for the past month, but these comments also apply to the entire upper Midwest, including South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa.


Because of its rural setting, North Dakota has a reputation of being flat and boring.  In my opinion, most people who say this are flat and boring, or they've only driven through North Dakota on the Interstate.  Personally, I think the rolling hills, wheat fields, and prairies of North Dakota are quite beautiful.  Some people also think that North Dakotans are "hicks" or behind-the-times and I've sensed that people here are aware of that reputation and occasionally get defensive about it.  Admittedly, there aren't any professional sports teams in North Dakota or Magic Mountains or glitzy attractions to satisfy those weaned on Nintendo, but people here learn how to entertain themselves.  The recent walleye tournament on the Missouri River was front-page news in Bismarck and the biggest event in a nearby town last Saturday was a lawnmower race.  


Above:  The Missouri River slowly flows by Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park near Bismarck, my home for the past several weeks.

Despite the lack of big attractions here, I think North Dakota is a pretty special place.  Unlike in many parts of the Northeast, people here aren't pushy or abrasive.  People don't intentionally scratch your car door as in Austin (see News: June 29, 2001) and unlike the folks in Hartford, Connecticut, they drive courteously and actually stop at red lights (see News: July 22, 2001).  In the month I've been here, no trucker has tried to run me off the highway, as happened in Roanoke, Virginia (twice, in fact).  I know there are a lot of terrific people in Austin, Hartford, and Roanoke and I'm not making blanket statements about them, but I haven't had a single bad experience in the month that I've been here in North Dakota.


Some would say that North Dakotans don't lead terribly exciting lives, but for the most part, I think they are honest, stable, friendly, practical, and down-to-earth folks.  There's little crime here and, from what I've seen, most folks are hardy, resourceful, and hard-working.  Walking around Bismarck, I don't see many of the "beautiful people" that I saw in Southern California when I lived there, and I certainly don't see many fancy cars or personalized license plates that say "Hotshot" or other such drivel.  Most people here aren't pretentious, materialistic, or obsessed with their looks; they don't really care what you think of them, and they don't base their self-worth on how much money they have, or want to appear to have.  For the most part, they're well-educated, open-minded, unhurried, and well-grounded.


Yep, I really like North Dakota and North Dakotans.  I just wish the winters here weren't so cold, eh?



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