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The Wonderful Heritage Center

Above:  The North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck.  Note the "rebar buffalo" sculpture on the left.

One of the best discoveries I made during the past seven weeks here in Bismarck is the North Dakota Heritage Center.  Located near the capitol building, the Heritage Center contains an amazing collection of old documents, maps, newspapers, books, photos, and census records of North Dakota.  It's a great resource for anyone interested in researching their North Dakota ancestors.  Anyone like me!

 

Iíve spent nearly every day during the past four weeks at the Heritage Center poring over old plat maps, reading through countless microfilmed newspapers and going through census records searching for my ancestors, all with the help of the Center's director, a wonderful woman named Susan Dingle.  In doing so, I was slowly able to  reconstruct my motherís childhood, the stories of her parents, Helga and Edward, and the stories of their parents. 

 

It's taken me four weeks but I did it, and I've described their stories on this page and the next.

 

   

Above left:  The archives room of the Heritage Center.  This is terrific resource for anyone interested in North Dakota history.  I spent about a month here researching my mom's family history.  The staff here was very friendly and helpful.   Thanks, Susan and Greg!

Above right:  The Heritage Center also contains a fantastic museum.  I spent five hours here one day and still didn't see it all.

The Swangs:  Anna's Story

Above:  My great-grandmother, Anna Swang (right) with her daughter, Betsy.  This was taken around 1925 when Anna was in her 50s.  I don't have any pictures of Anna with her daughter (and my grandmother), Helga.

My grandmother, Helga Swang (pronounced "Swong"), was born in 1898 on a farm near Webster, South Dakota.  I spent several weeks in the Webster area in August researching Helga's parents, Nels and Anna Swang, who had come from Norway to America as children (see News: August 30, 2001).  Nels and Anna lived on farms near Webster only a few miles apart, married in 1896, and had five children, including Helga.  Nels and Anna, with Helga and her four siblings, all moved to Fessenden, North Dakota in 1902 where Nels got a job as an engineer on the Sault Sainte Marie ("Soo") Railroad.

 

As I learned in the Heritage Center, Nels and Anna divorced around 1905.  Divorce was quite rare in those days, and Nels apparently left the state, leaving Anna to raise their five children alone.  I also learned that after Nels left, Anna worked as a laundress out of her house in Fessenden to support her family.  Anna Swang died in 1933 at age 65 and, according to her obituary, she "worked endlessly, practically giving her life to raise her five children."

 

One afternoon, I drove up to Fessenden, a town of about 600 people located about 60 miles north of Bismarck.  I knew there weren't any Swangs in the area but I wanted to see if Anna's house was still standing and also wanted to visit Anna's grave.  I had a few photos of Anna's house taken in 1916, so I spent a few minutes driving around Fessenden looking for it. 

 

I couldn't find Anna's house, so I stopped by the Wells County Courthouse and, after spending an hour in the Recorder's Office poring through huge Deed books, I learned where Anna's house was and drove over to it.  No one was home, unfortunately, but I enjoyed walking around the yard.  I was, most likely, the first person in my family who had visited the house in over 50 years.   

 

 

Halley Came To Jackson is a wonderful song by Mary Chapin Carpenter.  I wonder what my grandparents thought when they saw Halley's Comet in 1910.

   

I was thrilled to finally visit Anna's house because, for the past several years in Portland, I had wondered where in North Dakota Anna's mysterious house was.  And now here I was standing in her front yard.

 

By visiting Anna's house and piecing together her story, I felt like I had known her, to some extent, even though she died many years before I was born.  Raising five kids on her own and "practically giving her life" for her children, I thought Anna Swang was an amazing person.  Indeed, of all the people that I've researched on this trip, Anna is perhaps the one who I would have enjoyed meeting the most.

 

   

Above left:  These are my great-grandparents (seated):  Anna and Nels Swang, in a photo taken around 1925.  Anna and Nels were born in Norway:  Anna in Nord-Rana and Nels in Hallingdal.  They emigrated with their families to the U.S. as children, married in 1896 in South Dakota, and then moved to Fessenden, North Dakota six years later.  Two of their five children, Betsy (left) and Albert (center), are standing behind them.  My grandmother Helga wasn't in this photo.  Anna and Nels divorced around 1910 and Anna raised her five children alone, so I don't know why Anna and Nels sat together for this portrait fifteen years later, in 1925.

Above right:  The family photo was made into a post card 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 in Norway.  Piecing together the story of the Swangs has been a giant puzzle and there are a lot of questions that I haven't yet answered.

 

Note:  In August 2007, a website reader named Kristin from Norway wrote to me and kindly provided this translation of the 1925 postcard:

 

Dear Mother,
I will send you this card so that you can see how we look like these days.  You probably don't know them.  He who stands is Albert and she who stands to the left is Alma, his wife, and I'm on the right side, father and mother you must know.  And the little girl is Albert's daughter.  How are you doing?  We're all doing well.  I have to finish. Greetings from everyone, but most from your daughter Louise.

 

 

       

Above left:   Anna Swang's five children around 1908.  Front:  Henry, Alvin and Albert.  Back:  Betsy and my grandmother, Helga.

Above center:  Anna lived in Fessenden, North Dakota from 1900 until her death in 1933.  I drove up to Fessenden, North Dakota one afternoon to see what I could learn about Anna.  I spent an hour in the County Courthouse and, from an old plat map, located her house.

Above right:  And sure enough, it's still there.  As I discovered, Anna bought this house in 1907 for $500.  After Anna's husband Nels left her around 1905 and went to California, Anna worked as a laundress to support her five children, including my grandmother, Helga.  Anna saved enough money to buy this house two years later.

 

       

Above left:  Part of the purchase contract Anna signed to buy her house in Fessenden in 1907.  It was hard for me to imagine -- a single woman, 42 years old, with no marketable skills suddenly having to raise five children on her own after her husband left her, and then saving enough to buy a house a few years later.

Above center:  Anna Swang died in 1933 after raising her five children.  The newspaper printed a flattering obituary about her.  One son, Henry, helped build the Golden Gate Bridge (see News: June 14, 2001), her son Albert fought in the trenches in World War I, and her daughter Helga was my grandmother.  I've learned a lot about Anna during the past few weeks and admire her for the many challenges she overcame.

Above right:  Driving back to Bismarck after spending a memorable day in Fessenden.

The Swangs:  Helga's Story

Anna and Nels Swang's second child, Helga, was born in Webster, South Dakota in 1898 and in 1902, she moved with her parents to Fessenden, North Dakota.  A few years later, Nels and Anna divorced and Nels moved to California, leaving Anna alone in Fessenden to raise their five children, including her daughter, Helga.  Helga graduated from Fessenden High School in 1915 and afterwards taught in a one-room "country school" (as opposed to a "town school") in rural North Dakota.  Back in those days, all you needed was a high school degree, if that, to become a school teacher.

 

Above:  My grandmother Helga's wedding portrait in 1923.

After teaching in the one-room school house for a few years, Helga attended a State Teachers College in Minot, North Dakota, graduating with a teaching degree in 1921.  A few months later, she landed a teaching position at the Canfield Consolidated School, four miles east of the small town of Regan, North Dakota (pop. 70).  There were three teachers at the Canfield School:  Helga taught primary grades (kindergarten to fourth grade), a woman named Martha Pfaff taught secondary grades (grades five through eight) and, in the school's small basement, the principal taught high school to a few students.  Interestingly, Martha would later marry my great-uncle Dewey and thus become Helga's sister-in-law.

 

While Helga was teaching at the Canfield School, she met Ed Rasche, a local farmer, and they married in 1923.  The following year, my mother, Anna Mae, was born.  In 1927, a second girl -- my Aunt Betty -- was born, followed in 1931 by their third and final child, my Aunt Corky. 

 

Farming was difficult during the 1920s and 1930s and, like many farmers during the Great Depression, Ed lost his farm.  The family moved to the small town of Wing and then to Wilton before moving to Bismarck around 1934, where Ed worked at odd jobs.  Three years later, Ed died suddenly, leaving Helga alone to raise her three children (just as Helga's mother, Anna, had to raise her five children alone).  Shortly after Ed died, Helga taught herself shorthand and then got a job in Bismarck as a secretary to support herself and her three girls, including my mom.  Helga was a single parent raising three children alone, which must have been difficult considering the limited career opportunities and salaries for women in those days of the Great Depression. 

 

I was confused to learn all of this, however, because years earlier my mother had told me that she had grown up in a well-to-do family in Bismarck during the Great Depression and that her father had been a lawyer.  When I arrived in Bismarck in early September, I figured that I'd spend only a day here confirming what my mother had told me and then head back to Bellingham, Washington.  But I couldn't find any record of my grandfather, and certainly not of him ever being a lawyer.  I couldn't find a single record of my mother's family ever having lived in Bismarck, or even North Dakota.

 

Above:  This photo of my grandmother Helga and my mother (center) captivates me.  More than any other, it's the picture that compelled me to visit North Dakota and to find out what I could about my mother and her relatives.  This was taken in 1926 during the fall wheat harvest (note the horse-drawn thresher on the right). 

After two weeks of fruitless search, I was getting frustrated, so I decided to start from scratch.  I wanted to find some record, any record, of my mother's family having lived in North Dakota, so I began poring through the 1930 census data for the entire state.  I went through the microfilmed data county-by-county, line-by-line, hoping to find her family living somewhere in North Dakota during that year. 

 

After several days and reading thousands of hand-written entries, I struck gold:  I discovered my mother's parents listed in the 1930 census living on a farm near the small town of Regan, about 30 miles north of Bismarck.  A farm?  I was stunned.  But starting with that one nugget of information, I spent the next several weeks slowly piecing together her family's story. 

 

The real story, as I slowly learned, was much more bleak and depressing than my mom had told me.  I think she was ashamed or embarrassed to admit that her family had been dirt-poor and had lived on a farm when she was young.  Even my dad didn't know much about my mom's early days.  Now I understood why all of the photos that I had of my mother when she was young were on farmlands out in the countryside.  It saddened me to think that my mother had lived with that self-inflicted shame her entire life.  I've always been fascinated with farming for some reason, as I've mentioned before, and after making these discoveries during my research in North Dakota, I realized why.  Farming apparently is in my blood.

 

In 1943, a few weeks after graduating from high school, my mother left Bismarck at age 19 and married my dad, who was going to Naval Officer Training School in Dickinson, North Dakota during World War II.  Her mother Helga left Bismarck a few years later and moved to Sturgis, South Dakota where she eked out a living as a secretary at the Veteran's Administration Hospital there.  My dad told me that he remembers our family stopping by to visit Helga in Sturgis during their cross-country vacation trips in the 1950s.  Helga lived in a tiny cabin, and although she obviously didnít have much money, she would always load up our familyís station wagon with sandwiches for them to eat while on the road.

 

In 1962, Helga, now age 64, moved to Capistrano Beach, California to be with her middle daughter, Betty, but died suddenly of a heart attack two years later.  I have what is the last letter Helga ever wrote, which she sent to my mom two days before she passed away, looking forward to our family's visit, which ironically was planned for just a week later.

 

       

Above left:  A drawing of Helga when she was about 14.  This was around 1912.

Above center:  There were several pictures of this mysterious building in Helga's photo album, but I had no idea what (or where) it was.  One day in the Bismarck library I was looking through a book and happened to see an old picture of this same school.  According to the caption, it was called the Canfield School and was located a few miles from Regan.  As I learned, the Canfield School was built in 1916 and burned down in 1928.  It was an amazing coincidence, stumbling across a picture of this school in a library book, and it proved to be a crucial piece of the puzzle.

Above right:  Helga taught at the Canfield School from 1921 to 1923, then married Ed Rasche.  According to North Dakota state law at the time, a woman teacher who got married had to quit her job, a policy that was common in the U.S. in those days.

 

   

Above left:  Another photo from Helga's photo album.  This was a Canfield schoolteacher, Martha Pfaff (who later became Helga's sister-in-law),  leading her students in calisthenics.

Above right:  After learning that Helga had taught at the Canfield School, I drove out to see it.  The school burned down in 1928 so there's nothing left of it, but this is the lot where it sat.  This small building was a schoolhouse that was moved here in the 1960s, well after Helga had taught here.  Even though there's nothing left of the Canfield School, it was interesting to walk around the grounds and to think about what life for my grandmother had been like here in the 1920s.

 

       

Above left:  My grandmother Helga with my mother around 1926.

Above center:  Helga (on the left) with my parents in Florida in 1945, shortly after my folks got married.  My dad was going through Navy SEAL training in Fort Pierce at this time.  Helga died in the mid-1960s and I only vaguely remember her.  People tell me that she was a wonderful person and that my mom was very fond of her.

Above right:  Helga with two of her three children:  my mother and Helga's youngest daughter, Corrine.  This was in 1949 in Bismarck.  Helga is holding my brother Don and my sister Doti is in front.  Helga had raised three girls alone during the Great Depression, similar to how her mother, Anna Swang, had raised her five children alone in the early 1900s.

Helga's Pupil

The most amazing event during my seven-week stay in North Dakota, and perhaps during my entire five-month drive around America, occurred only a few days before I headed back to the Northwest.  As I poked around the nearly-deserted town of Regan on a cold and gray afternoon, I met a fellow named Otto Uhde who was a little older than myself.  When I told Otto that I was a descendent of the long-gone Rasche family, he suggested that I talk to a woman named Hester Bailey.  Otto glanced at his watch and said, "You know, it's almost 5 o'clock so I'm sure Hester's eating dinner over in Wing.  Why don't you follow me, because I'm going over there in a few minutes."  I told Otto that I wanted to stop by the cemetery first and said that I'd meet him in Wing. 

 

Twenty minutes later I pulled into the small town of Wing, located about 10 miles east of Regan, and found the town's only restaurant, called the Chat & Chew Cafe.  Otto had arrived a minute earlier and we walked into the small, dimly-lit and smoky cafe.  Otto walked over to an elderly woman who was eating alone in the nearly-empty restaurant and introduced me to her.  "This fellow is related to the Rasches who lived in Regan," said Otto.  Hester extended her hand and I shook it and introduced myself.   I sat down next to her and Hester told me that she'd lived in this area her entire life, so I asked her if she remembered my grandmother, Helga Swang, who had passed away in 1964.

 

Above:   87-year old Hester Bailey (left) in the Chat-and-Chew Cafe in Wing, North Dakota with the cafe owner, Alice.  Hester, as I discovered, was a kindergarten student of my grandmother Helga's in 1921.  Hester still has a small leather coin purse that Helga gave to her that year. 

I spent two hours with Hester, who told me many stories about my grandparents and great-grandparents.  She's a delightful woman and meeting her was an amazing experience, one of the highlights of my trip around the country.

To my utter amazement, Hester said, "Oh yes, I remember Miss Swang.  She was my kindergarten teacher in 1921."  I was totally dumbstruck.  Hester remembered Helga fondly and I eagerly listened to her stories about the Swangs and Rasches.  I couldn't believe that I had met someone who remembered these people who I had been researching for the past several months.  As she sat in the tiny cafe finishing her dinner, Hester proudly told me that she still has the leather purse that Helga (or "Miss Swang," as she called her) gave to her after she had graduated from kindergarten.

 

After a while, I excused myself, went out to my truck, and brought my laptop computer into the cafe.  Then I showed Hester several scanned photos from Helga's old photo album, including Helga's elementary school, which had burned down in 1928.  Hester remembered the Canfield School vividly and told me stories about the school and about several young children in the photographs, all of whom were now in their 80s and 90s, if indeed they were still alive.

 

Hester also remembered my mother when my mom was a little girl and told me stories about my great-grandmother, Petrina Rasche (Edward's mother), who died in 1927.  Before meeting Hester, I had known almost nothing about Petrina, so I was fascinated to hear Hester's stories about her and my other relatives, many who I knew only in old photos.  As we continued to talk, Hester told me that she'd been married for many years but her husband died a while back.  These days, her entire life revolved around the sleepy town of Wing. 

 

After about two hours, I told Hester that I had to go.  It was obvious from her glowing smile that she enjoyed meeting the grandson of her kindergarten teacher and talking about "the old days."  With a smile, I shook Hester's hand, thanked her for her time and promised to write to her when I got back to Washington, which I intend to do.  As I drove back to Bismarck that night, I realized that Hester is probably the only person alive who remembers my great-grandparents, and the only person in North Dakota who remembers my grandmother Helga.  Even more amazing, of course, was that Hester was one of Helga's students.  It was an unbelievable encounter and is something I'll never forget.

 

   

Above left:  Earlier that afternoon, I had stopped in the bleak town of Regan, North Dakota to see what I could learn about my mother's family.  This is virtually the entire town.  Every commercial building is closed, even the Post Office, and my truck is the only vehicle on Main Street.  I met a wonderful fellow here named Otto Uhde who took me to the nearby town of Wing.

Above right:  Wing, North Dakota (pop. 191) is a few miles from Regan and just a bit larger.  As I discovered, my mother lived in Wing during the early 1930s before she moved with her family to Bismarck.   I walked into the Chat & Chew Cafe and there, sitting by herself eating dinner, I met Hester Bailey.

 

The conclusion of this story is posted on October 18, 2001 -- Part 3  (Bismarck, North Dakota).

 


 

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