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Time to Say Goodbye

After spending seven weeks (yes, seven weeks) in Bismarck, North Dakota, I'm leaving tomorrow, just like the geese that I see each day flying in their V-formations down the Missouri River valley heading south (hey, those birds aren't dumb).  If anyone had told me in August that I'd spend seven weeks in North Dakota, I would've 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 lot more complicated and obscure than I ever imagined.

 

Above:  Reading about the Oregon Trail in my toasty truck at night (thanks to my portable heater) at Fort Lincoln State Park.  25 degrees outside, 70 inside.

When I arrived in Bismarck in early September, the temperature was over 100 degrees.  The weather has steadily deteriorated since then and nighttime low temperatures are now dipping into the teens, which makes camping at Fort Lincoln State Park, my home since September, a little uncomfortable.  I haven't seen any snow yet but expect some anyday. 

 

Back in July I complained about the hot and sticky weather in the Southeast, but I would have loved some of that these last few weeks in Bismarck!  I was just getting used to the sweat on the back of my neck down south, 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.  Yep, I like the idea of avoiding winter!

 

Despite the deteriorating weather, though, I've really enjoyed my stay in Bismarck.  To make my camping experience more pleasant, I bought a portable 1500-watt heater a few weeks ago that keeps 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 every night.  This is just before digging into yet another scrumptious dinner of Dan's fried chicken (the red box on the right), a staple during my stay.

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

 

    

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

Above right:  No, this isn't an office building.  It's actually the North Dakota capitol building, known as the "Skyscraper on the Prairie."

Unlocking my Mother's Story

As I say, the whole reason I've spent so much time here in Bismarck is to learn the story of my mother, Anne Leu.  She passed away in 1999 and 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 didn't talk much about her childhood.  About all I knew was that she was born in 1924, grew up in Bismarck, and in 1943 met my dad, who was in North Dakota training for the U.S. Navy during 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 return to North Dakota.

 

Above:  Bismarck and the Missouri River at night.

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.  I wanted 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 guess, for me, it was part of the grieving process.

 

I also wanted to document my research for future generations in my family so that the stories of my mother's family won't ever be forgotten.  Documenting family history is something that a lot of us plan to "get around to" sometime, but being my family's unofficial historian, I figured that I better make the time to do it now or else I never will.

 

Since none of my relatives still live in North Dakota, the research proved to be a real challenge, which is one reason I spent seven full weeks in Bismarck.  Some of the stories that I uncovered during my research were happy but some, unfortunately, were also quite 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 much better during my time here.  Without getting into too many details, I'll just say that my experience here in Bismarck has been both wonderful and, at times, overwhelming. 

 

   

Above left:  More shots of the Bismarck area:  Here's a mound of pumpkins in neighboring Mandan waiting for Halloween.

Above right:  I also watched a couple of University of Mary football games during the seven weeks I spent here.  Go Marauders! 

 

       

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

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

Above right:  Looking south with a goose-eye view of the Missouri River valley.

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 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 Rasche, and it included photos from the early 1900s.  Unfortunately though, most of the photos weren’t 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.

 

Above:  A photo from about 1915 from my grandmother Helga's photo album.  That's Helga on the left but who are these other people?  Cousins?  And where is it?  Questions, questions, questions...

The photo album also contained several pictures of Helga’s mother, Anna Swang (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 she was born in Norway in the 1800s, had come to America as a young girl and that my mother, Anne, her granddaughter, had been named after her.  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).  It was interesting to try to get to know Anna only through her pictures.

 

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 fascinated me, but also baffled me because very few of them had captions.  The photo album was a treasure trove and I decided that I’d visit North Dakota someday to try to learn 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 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 the puzzle.  I've described the results of my research on the next two pages:

 

     

Above left:  That's my grandmother, standing third in line.  But what is this?  I know she graduated from Minot Teacher's College in 1920, so is this her graduating class, and is this Minot?

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

 


 

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