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Recap:  I've spent the past seven weeks in Bismarck, North Dakota researching my mother's family.  On the last page, I described the story of her mother's side.  On this page, I describe her father's side.

My Grandfather's Family

With help from the staff at the Heritage Center, I learned that my grandfather, Edward Rasche, had been a farmer near the small town of Regan, North Dakota, about 30 miles north of Bismarck.  His father, Henry Rasche, emigrated from Hanover, Germany to the U.S. with his family in 1872 when Henry was six years old and they moved to southwestern Minnesota, as I described on News:  August 17, 2001.  Edward's mother, Petrina Blege (known as "Tena"), emigrated from the small Norwegian coastal village of Nesna to the U.S. around 1880 and also moved to Minnesota, and there she met Henry.  Henry and Petrina married in 1890 and had nine children in Minnesota (including Edward).  In 1907, and in search of their own land, the family moved to the small town of Regan, North Dakota, about 30 miles north of Bismarck, where Henry, now age 41, homesteaded on 160 acres.

 

 

Here's Nanci Griffith singing Trouble In The Fields.  It's a tribute to farmers, like my grandparents, who struggled during the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s.

   

My grandfather Edward was the third child in their family of nine kids.  He grew up on the family farm near Regan in the early 1900s and became a farmer himself after finishing grade school.  In 1922, Edward met my grandmother, Helga Swang, who was a 25-year old teacher at the nearby Canfield grade school and they married the following year.  Helga quit teaching, since married women back in those days weren't allowed to teach -- or really, have any kind of career -- and Edward and Helga farmed a quarter-section of land (160 acres) about a mile from where he had grown up.  

 

The 1920s and early 1930s were difficult years for farmers, though, as they faced drought and low grain prices, not to mention bitterly cold winters, hail storms that decimated months of work in a few minutes, and plagues of grasshoppers that did likewise.  During the late 1920s, farming became even more difficult as the prolonged drought ushered in the Dust Bowl era across the Great Plains.  Like many farmers during the Depression, Edward lost his farm and, with his wife and three girls (including my mother), they moved to Bismarck, where Ed got a job in construction.

 

Above:  My mother grew up during the Depression near Regan, North Dakota on a farm in the center of this photo, to the left of the dirt road.  Her uncle Leroy's former farm -- he died in 1925 -- is in the foreground with the house, and her grandfather Henry's former farm is about a mile off to the right.  This is taken from a place called "The Rocks" with North Dakota Highway 36 in the foreground.

In 1937, when my mother was 13, her father Edward died suddenly.  Desperate to support her three girls, Helga learned shorthand and went to work as a secretary for the state Supreme Court in Bismarck.  Raising three girls during the middle of the Great Depression was more than a challenge, I'm sure, but Helga did it -- and she did it well.

 

Six years later and a few weeks after graduating from high school, my mother traveled out to Dickinson, North Dakota, 90 miles west of Bismarck, to visit a friend of hers.  On a Saturday evening, both girls decided to attend a U.S.O. dance at Dickinson State College, where 200 naval officer recruits had just arrived for training for service in World War II.  She met my dad at the dance and they got married the following year.

 

Edward's mother, Anne's grandmother Petrina, had developed serious leg thrombosis in 1927, a few years after Anne was born.  The doctors tried to convince Petrina (or "Tena" as she was known) to have her leg amputated but she refused and died shortly afterwards.  My 87-year old friend, Hester Bailey, who I described on the previous page, told me that she remembered Petrina very well and that she would often bake cookies for young Hester in the 1920s.  Hester also told me that Tena had walked with a limp, which confirmed the story I'd read about the thrombosis.

 

As I mentioned, Edward lost his farm in the early 1930s and a few years later, his father, Henry Rasche, did likewise.  Henry, who had been born in Germany in 1866, then moved to a small cabin on the Missouri River north of Bismarck.  I once asked my father if he had ever met his wife's grandfather, Henry Rasche, and my dad said "Yes, once.  He was very... gruff."  That was probably in the 1950s when Henry was in his 80s.  After a life of hard work, Henry Rasche died in 1955, and like so many struggling farmers, virtually penniless.

 

       

Above left:  My great-grandmother Petrina Blege's wedding photo in Minnesota in 1890.  She died in 1927 after refusing to have her leg amputated.  My 87-year old friend, Hester Bailey, who I met in Wing last week, remembered Petrina as a kind woman who often baked cookies for her when Hester was a little girl.

Above center:  My great-grandfather, Henry Rasche, in his wedding photo from 1890.  After he married Petrina, the Rasches moved to Regan, North Dakota in 1907 where Henry farmed until the 1930s.

Above right:  This is Henry around 1928 with his granddaughter Anne, my mother.  This was a year after Henry's wife Petrina died.  This picture was in my grandmother Helga's photo album and captivated me, and for years I wondered where this farm was.  Its taken me seven weeks of research, but I've pieced together the story.

 

       

Above left:  My mother Anne (right) with her sister Betty around 1928.  My mother had told me that she'd grown up in urban Bismarck in a well-to-do family and her father had been a lawyer.  After she died, I found these photos but wondered why there were so many pictures of farms, and why they were dressed this way.  I was very puzzled.

Above center:  This is one of only two pictures I have of my grandfather, Edward.  His daughters Anne and Betty are on the horse.  As I learned in my research, Anne had actually grown up on a farm during the Depression and her family had been very poor.  I think my mom had been too embarrassed to admit it, but in my mind, there was nothing to be embarrassed about.

Above right:  My mother on her grandfather Henry's farm in 1928.

 

       

Above left:  Henry Rasche's farm near Regan.  Did his farmhouse still exist, I wondered?

Above center:  After spending weeks doing research in the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck, last week I found the site of Henry's former farm.  As I learned, Henry had lost his farm during the Great Depression, just as his son Edward has lost his.  Unfortunately, Henry's farmhouse (previous photo) was demolished in the 1950s and today there's nothing left of it, but this is the site.  I call this photo "A man out standing in his field" (har, har). 

Above right:  All that's left of their dreams and hard work is the soil.

North Dakota Hospitality

I've met a lot of terrific people during my seven weeks here in Bismarck, which isn't surprising since most folks in North Dakota are pretty nice.  Most people became even friendlier when I mentioned that I was doing family research.  I wanted to describe a few of these folks here.

 

For the past several months before I reached North Dakota, I had been been corresponding through e-mail with a lively and wonderful woman in Bismarck named Bernie Swang whom, as I recently discovered, I may or may not be related to.  I finally met Bernie (short for Bernice) when I got to Bismarck in September and spent a couple of afternoons with her, showing her old photos and documents of my Swang ancestors.  She was even kind enough to invite me to her house one evening for a chili dinner so that I could meet her children and grandchildren.  We haven't figured out yet if we're related, but I've really enjoyed getting to know her.

 

The staff at the North Dakota Heritage Center has been terrific in helping me learn about my mother and her family.  Not only did they graciously provide me with the microfilm and books that I requested, but they became genuinely interested in my findings as the weeks passed by.  It was a real pleasure to work with them for the several weeks that I was there.

 

The folks at the Recorder's Office in the County Courthouse in Fessenden dropped everything and helped me find my great-grandmother Anna Swang's house.  Anna died in 1933 but, by digging through a lot of huge old Deed books, the staff showed me where her house was (and still is).

 

Soon after arriving in Bismarck, I spent nearly every day for three weeks at the wonderful Bismarck Public Library, updating my website and returning e-mails.  The library is one of the finest of its size that I've ever visited and the staff was extremely helpful.

 

I met dozens of other helpful people during my visit to North Dakota -- too many to mention here.  So instead, I'll just send along a big "Thanks" to everyone who helped me.

 

   

Above left:  Bernie Swang (left), her family, and the chili dinner she fixed for us.  I'm still trying to figure out if I'm related to them.  Thanks for the great dinner, Bernie! 

Above right:  Ted Stroh, an 84-year old retired farmer, spent four hours with me one day showing me around the Regan-Wing area.  Ted's wife, Dorothea, passed away a few ago and he proudly showed me her pictures and keepsakes.  As we discovered, Dorothea was the cousin of my mom's best friend, who I knew well when I was growing up.  What a small world.

What It All Means

After learning about my mom's childhood, I understand now why she never talked about her childhood.   Her family faced extremely difficult conditions during the Great Depression that most of us today, including myself, can hardly imagine.  Interestingly, my mother never mentioned that she had grown up on a farm.  Perhaps she was ashamed to admit that her father had been a farmer and had lost his farm during the Great Depression. 

 

Admittedly, the family research that I did in North Dakota was bittersweet.  On one hand, I learned a tremendous amount about my mother's childhood.  On the other hand, not all of the stories that I learned were happy ones.  Iíve always heard that living through the Great Depression was difficult, especially on a farm.  However, and without going into all the details, seeing where they lived and learning how the Great Depression affected my mother and her parents was a sobering experience for me and Iíve gained a new appreciation for what they endured.

 

The research that Iíve done into my motherís history has been, by far, the most emotional experience of my trip so far.  Neither I nor anyone else in my family realized how many obstacles my mother and her family dealt with.  By researching my mother's family history and visiting the places where she lived as a child, I understand my mother much better now and appreciate what she must have faced while growing up.  And, for better or worse, that's the reason I came to North Dakota.

 

I believe that each of us rests on the shoulders of those who came before us, and I think that each generation owes a debt of gratitude to their ancestors.  Too often, courageous people live their lives and slip through the pages of history without their stories being recorded or remembered.  I don't want that to happen to the people whom I've described here, including my great-grandmother Anna Swang, her daughter Helga and others whom I've gotten to know through my research in North Dakota.  Preserving their legacy is the only way that I can express my appreciation for the hardships they endured.   

 

From research that I've done on this trip so far, I've started recording my family's history and hope to pass this on to future generations.  I'm determined to preserve the stories of Anna, Helga, and others, and to not let their stories ever be forgotten.  For more photos and a summary of my mother's family history, see My Mom's Ancestors:  Map and Photo Essay.  I've included more on my great-grandmother Anna Swang and her daughter Helga Swang on separate pages.

 

Here's one of the main things I learned from doing my family research:  If you want to preserve the stories in your family, do it now while your relatives are still alive -- not next month or next year.   Sit down with your relatives now and record their stories.  I waited until many of my relatives were gone and, consequently, I had to spend literally hundreds of hours trying to piece together their stories, traveling all over America to do it.  Don't make the same mistake I did. 

 

And now, with my family research finished, it's time to go home.

 


 

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