Tag Archives: genealogy

Family Farms Then, Farm Food Now

I found this photograph with some old family things and wondered who the white-bearded gentleman might be. He showed up wearing overalls in another photo taken with my great-grandparents, Noah and Mabel Short, and three of their six sons. From the North Dakota license plate and the house front pose, it looked like an out-of-state family visit by car, making me suspect the distinguished looking man was my great-great-grandfather, George Washington Short, and his second wife, Flora, who lived outside Stillwell, Indiana. When I sent my great-aunt the photos, she agreed the man with the trim white beard must be her grandfather, GW.

Next I spotted George Washington in a group photo with Mabel and Noah holding their two oldest boys before they left Indiana for North Dakota in 1907. The building looks like the church near the cemetery where my great-great-grandfather is buried, a photo I found later on find-a-grave.com. Noah and Mabel are just left of the photo’s center. Can you find GW on the right next to Flora?

And then GW and Flora appeared again in another photo taken at a house with a fancy porch, probably another church gathering. I recognized the young woman next to Flora as their daughter Pansy, who I had seen in a photo from her 1915 visit to Noah and Mabel in North Dakota. I also figured out that the handsome young man with the mustache in both photos was probably Noah’s brother Frederick Pershing Short, the “Pershing” for their mother Mary McBroom, who was third cousin to the General John J. Pershing.

Recently, I met a first cousin twice-removed through ancestry.com (first cousin twice-removed means she was my grandfather’s cousin). Our DNA tests matched, so we contacted each other to share what we know. I sent this newly found cousin my photos of George Washington and she affirmed I was right in my guess. Her father was GW’s youngest son, Welcome. I was thrilled to think this cousin had known my great-great-grandfather when she was a child, but the timing seemed odd since my own grandfather Russell, her cousin, has been gone a long time. That’s because she is descended from the second, younger part of GW’s family with Flora Dennie and I am from the first, older part with Mary McBroom. After my great-great-grandmother died young, GW remarried, creating two separate families, with my side moving to North Dakota in 1907, which was where my grandfather was born.

With the help of my expert genealogy friend, a little more research uncovered that at 16, George Washington Short left his home in Indiana to serve in the Civil War. In 1864, he was wounded in the battle of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and was discharged after the war ended in 1865. He saw a bit of the world for a young man of his time, but when he came home, he bought some land for himself. A photo from my new cousin put it all in place. Here was George Washington in work shirt and suspenders on his farm. In the background you can see an earlier view of the barn in my first picture.

George Washington Short became a farmer, just like his father, Silas Short, and his grandfather, Curtis Short in Sussex, Delaware, before him. That’s as far back as my records go. But the farming lineage reaches forward to GW’s son Noah, his son Russell, and—although he left the farm to become a surveyor—my father, Robert Short. The census records don’t say “farmer” next to their names, but my paternal grandmothers were farmers, too, from Hannah (last name unknown), Mary Ann Thompson, and Mary McBroom to Mabel Amor and Olga Jacobson, my grandmother. Farmers are also on my maternal side, but that’s another story.

This story about George Washington Short has gotten me thinking about farming today. In GW’s time and before, farms and farming knowledge passed from generation to generation in this country because the majority of the population lived on family farms. They grew and ate their own food and sold crops when they could. Their land was not just where they lived but where they made their living.

I found GW’s land at the northwest intersection of two roads in section 14 of a 1921 plat for Pleasant township, LaPorte county, Indiana. Seeing his name on that plat gave me another thrill. Now I could picture the land that held that big barn and fences around fields on which he grew crops and raised livestock and Flora kept a big garden to feed her family of seven.

Today, food barely comes from a farm, not when you consider all the processing and packaging that happens before we eat it. Farms and farmland are shrinking, both from loss of land to development and from consolidation of farms into bigger, corporate-owned businesses. Food is big business—but it’s not the kind of food my great-great-grandparents or even my parents ate when they were young.

To get a sense of the food industry today, take a look at how much of your food dollars goes to farmers—a mere 8.6%. And from that, farmers pay the costs of production, including farm laborers, seeds, insurance (a big chunk), irrigation, machinery, and structures. The rest of your food dollar goes to stuff you probably rarely think about when you sit down to a meal, like transportation, packaging, advertising and the costs of retail and trade services that get your food from the field to your plate.

Community supported farms like ours are keeping smaller acreages in food production and that’s important not only for farmland preservation, but for helping people eat closer to the plant. Here’s a chart showing the most common veggies consumed in the US today, with the green part of the bar meaning “fresh.” Potatoes, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and carrots are the most popular fresh vegetables on most people’s tables.

But when members join a CSA farm, their plate will include all kinds of other vegetables. Just this week for the third pick-up of our season, our subscribers took home spinach, green garlic, radishes, head lettuce, kale, and beet greens—all fresh, all just-picked, all organic. The first two weeks, they got rhubarb, too, which we’ll pick again this Saturday. And this is just the start of the season, with the bulk of the garden still to come. Once the basil’s in, we joke that people get back the cost of their membership in what they save on the price of supermarket basil (which comes in plastic, how appetizing).

Eating from a CSA farm isn’t exactly like eating from a family farm like my great-great-grandfather’s, but these days, it’s about as close as you can come. Small, local community farms help people eat closer to the land and closer to the health provided by the food. Even in the days before antibiotics and immunizations, George Washington Short lived to be 90 years old. I like to think fresh food and hard work on the land kept him healthy and fit. I hope eating food from Stonebridge Farm helps our members stay healthy too (check out our recipes here). Delicious vegetables, farmland preservation, and local community support for food production–I think my great-great-grandfather would approve.

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Noah Liked Horses

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I don’t know a lot about my Great-grandfather Noah Lawrence Short. He died ten years before my father was born, so Dad never met his grandfather. What I know comes from the few records I’ve found (with help) on ancestry.com and other genealogy sites and from a handful of photographs handed down from my great-grandmother to my grandfather to my father to me.

When I write about my family’s history, I’m always conscious that my ancestors were real people, not just characters in books. Their lives were complicated by factors that are hidden to me by the passage of time. I might study an historical period but that doesn’t mean I know or understand it in the way I know and understand my own. Old documents and photographs only portray what’s on the surface of someone’s life. We can try to read them for clues about our ancestors—indeed, that’s part of the fun of genealogical research—but some things will always remain hidden from our view.

Still, acknowledging the hidden depths of a person’s life that can never be recovered should not stop us of from sharing and honoring what we do know. For my great-great-grandfather Noah, I have dates, records, and photographs, a few pieces that fit together into the pattern of a life.

Noah Lawrence Short was born April 5, 1878, in Donaldson, Indiana, to George Washington and Mary T. (McBroom) Short. I have no photos of Noah as a child but he does appear in the 1880 census with his parents and two sisters, Margaret (older) and Amy (mistakenly recorded as Emma). The 1890 U.S. census was lost in a fire (an accident I routinely curse), so I have no other trace of Noah until 1899 when he enlisted for the Spanish-American War. He was 21 years old, his shining young face both expectant and hesitant in this official photograph taken in Kansas before he shipped out to the Philippines.

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Noah’s military record states September 17, 1899 for his enlistment but the photo is dated 1898 on the back, one of those inconsistencies that drive genealogists crazy. We have no family stories about his service, but this photo may have been taken while he was in the Philippines.

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Noah served until June 30, 1901, when he was discharged for a gunshot wound to his right thigh, a fact that came to light recently with the discovery of Noah’s discharge papers. Interestingly, a later record for Noah’s hospitalization at the U.S. Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in South Dakota lists “mustard gas” as the cause of military discharge. He was diagnosed in 1911 with “tuberculosis pulmonary chronic far advanced Active C,” a condition which plagued him for many years.

Despite those problems, Noah married, raised a large family, and ran a dairy in Missouri Ridge township, Williams County, North Dakota. Noah and Mabel married in LaPorte, Indiana, on February 19, 1902.

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They had two sons in Indiana before moving to Missouri Ridge, perhaps to be near his younger sister Amy, who had come first with her husband. His younger sister Toot also came with her family. Here’s Noah and Mabel’s first home in Missouri Ridge. I don’t know whether my great-grandparents homesteaded or purchased their land outright. Either way, their beginnings were humble, as were most people’s who had come to North Dakota to farm.

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The original barn on the Short property burned down in the early years; the big red barn that replaced it became a landmark and was known as the Short farm even after the family had left.

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My grandfather Russell was the third son and first child born in North Dakota, in 1906. Living on a dairy farm was hard work but left some time for play, as seen in this photo of the two older boys, Lawrence and Howard, and a friend.

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On the back of the photograph, someone has written, “Noah Liked Horses.” Even though he’s not in the photo, his love of horses is evident in the number and beauty of horses he raised. Noah worked with horses in the dairy, delivering milk early each morning with a horse and wagon to nearby Williston.

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Noah and Mabel were active in the school, built their home, and raised their children. This photo taken after a school Christmas program in 1911 shows Noah in the back middle holding his son Clifford who died the summer after the photo was taken. Mabel is at the very right of the photo with her hand on my grandfather Russell’s shoulders. Howard and Lawrence are the two boys in white shirts at the left of the photograph.

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Here’s a 1915 photograph of Noah with a woman I first believed was his older sister Margaret visiting from Indiana (the photo was developed there). Recently I figured out that she’s not Margaret (who seems to have died young) but Pansy, Noah’s younger stepsister from his father’s second marriage. Judging by Noah’s clothes, he must have enjoyed some success as a dairy farmer.

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The next photo was a puzzle to me until my great-aunt recognized the older gentleman as my great-great-grandfather George Washington Short with his second wife, Flora. This photo may have been taken on a family trip to Indiana. Although someone has written, “I don’t know what year this was— about 1923 or 4” on the back of the photograph, the number and dark lettering of the license plate dates the trip to 1922, given that in those days, plates were renewed each year. A little bit of genealogical sleuthing helped figure that out. The two younger boys between Mabel and Noah are Wilbur and Lloyd, both of whom died young.

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In May 1925, after the birth of six sons, Noah and Mabel finally had a daughter; they named her after her mother. But in June, Noah was admitted to a military hospital in Hot Springs, South Dakota, and remained until he was discharged in January 1926, “against medical advice.” By then, Noah’s health must have suffered enough to send him to a military hospital in Denver, where he died November 1, 1926, at age 48. I’m still working with state officials to find his death certificate.

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Sometimes I look at these old photographs of my Great-grandpa Noah and wonder if he was surprised at the way his life was shaped by the small and large circumstances he couldn’t control. He died much too young, leaving Mabel to raise the son and daughter still living at home. I wish he’d been alive for my father to know so we’d have a few stories to pass down. Instead, we have only records and photographs to piece together a man’s passions—horses, farming, and family.

 

 

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Tenders of Heart

To my readers: Be sure you read all the way down to the end of this blog post where you’ll find a wonderful gift.

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“Farming is risky business, but so is love.”

A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography

If farming’s risky business and love’s the same, what happens when two people chance both?

My grandparents and great-grandparents were farmers. Some of my great-great grandparents worked the land in Norway, England, and Ireland, as well. My father’s grandparents on his mother’s side—Josephine and Martin Jacobson—homesteaded and farmed together for almost 50 years. They grew up near each other in a Norwegian community in Swift County, Minnesota, married in 1904, and raised wheat, barley, turkeys, 11 children, and their own food in Hebron township, Williams County, North Dakota, starting with a quarter section of 160 acres that grew to a full section eventually—a lot of land to farm in those days.

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Their lives were hard: they lost two children to tragedy; had to sell their horses during the Dust Bowl; and lived in a homestead shack from 1907 until their sons built them a “real” house in 1946. They worked side by side on the farm until Martin’s death in 1952. Here they are on their 35th wedding anniversary and at a less formal moment around the same time. See that twinkle in their eyes? I think that comes from joining their lives on the land.

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Last week I walked out to the fields with some new friends and, once again, felt the weight of the memories this farm holds for me. My mind returned to the first planting of garlic, the harvesting of herbs for a first dinner, and the turning of a flower garden for a solstice ceremony so many years ago. Everywhere I look, I see the work John and I have accomplished together, often with friends who share our vision of community supported agriculture and farmland preservation. Still, at the end of the long day, it’s John and I who plan the next day’s work, and the next’s, and the next’s, as far as our dreams will take us.

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Stonebridge was one of the farms selected by the Firehouse Gallery in Longmont this summer for pairing with artists who bring their talents to our land by creating a new view of what our farm means. One of the artists with whom we worked is Jenny Ward Hodgson, a singer/songwriter from Lyons who tends her own beautiful garden on her family’s small homestead in the middle of town (see more of Jenny’s work on her blog, The Song-Knitter). We were honored to have Jenny write a song, Dance the Seasons, for Stonebridge. When John and I listen to Dance the Seasons, it brings tears to our eyes. Thank you, Jenny, for putting into song the joy that happens when two people risk both farming and love together.

 

 

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Back to Harlan

Harlan. Who’s Harlan?

I’m looking at a small, black and white photograph of children on the steps of a white house, circa mid-1920s, judging by the age of my grandfather, Russell Short, who’s one of the older children in the picture. Someone—probably my grandmother–has written “Daddy” on the front of the photo, but I’d recognize him anywhere. He’s 12 or 14, maybe 16, in this picture, wearing overalls and a beanie on top of his head. He’s smiling a little, squinting a bit in the sun, looking like he’s willing to indulge the photo session for a while.

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The other two children marked on the photograph are “Bea” and “Harlan.” Little Bea’s got a big bow in her hair; Harlan’s in overalls looking like someone told him to smile. They’re younger than Grandpa and I don’t recognize their names as relatives, but since Grandma clearly meant to mark them on this photograph, I pay more attention to two other small photos, taken at the same time, judging by the children’s outfits. (Photos from those days are often found in groups since they were taken when someone had a camera available, which was a rarer occurrence than it is now.)

One photograph includes the same group of kids, except for two differences. Grandpa is missing and a young woman–possibly a teacher or parent—joins the photo instead. Grandpa must have taken this one and the woman taken the first. I find Bea and Harlan squeezed between the other children, Harlan now wearing a newsboy cap perched on top of the long bangs covering his forehead.

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The third photo is marked “Harlan + Daddy” at the bottom, leaving off the name of a third boy from the other photos who must not have been a relative. Harlan and Grandpa are on their horses in this one, Harlan barely big enough to ride.

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Grandpa looks steady on his horse; I know he grew up with horses because his parents, Noah and Mable Short, ran a dairy farm and delivered milk with a horse-drawn wagon. I have another photo of Grandpa’s older brothers on horses at their dairy farm. On the back, it says, “Noah liked horses”–and beautiful horses they were.

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Back to Harlan. He’s cute, the way he smiles dubiously at the photographer, his hands in his overall pockets. He looks five or six years younger than Grandpa but the fact they’re riding together makes me think they were close. I file Harlan’s name away in my memory in case I come across something else in the box of old letters and photographs my dad inherited from his parents and recently let me take home to organize.

Several days later, I come across a list of addresses in my Grandma Short’s handwriting. Marked 1978 at the top, it must have been a Christmas card list. My parents are at the top, then my aunt and uncle, followed by my grandmother’s many sisters and brother. Then comes my name, with my first husband’s, a sudden reminder of a previous life. I keep reading and recognize more relatives from their last names, if not their first.

Near the bottom of the page, I find Harlan again, this time with his last name: Amor. He’s living in Montana in 1978. I’ve now got two big clues that might help me find out more about him. “Amor” was my great-grandma Mabel’s maiden name, so I know on which side of Grandpa’s family to look for him. “Montana” will help with census records for 1978, at least. I already know Harlan’s in North Dakota as a child because that’s where Grandpa was born and raised. With this information in hand, it’s time to turn to ancestry.com.

I joined ancestry.com at the beginning of the year when I was searching for my Grandma Short’s Norwegian roots. From my genealogical mentor, I’ve learned a few tips about using ancestry’s databases. I know to be as specific as possible but to also remain open to other possibilities because the names and dates found in early records or family trees are often incorrect.

I don’t have a lot of time for my first search, so I plug in what I know. I’ve already made a guess about who Harlan’s parents are: my great-grandma Mabel’s brother Walter and his wife Florence, whose last name I don’t know yet. I do know that Mabel and her brother lived with their father in Indiana after he was divorced from their mother. I also know that Mabel’s father and brother followed her and Noah to North Dakota after she was married. I also know that Walter was married to Florence in 1915. (My mentor and I are working to fill out the Amor family tree and to figure out where Mabel and Walter’s missing mother went after their parents’ divorce, a separate mystery that might take some time to solve.)

One important lesson I’ve learned from my mentor is that you often have to come around to the information you want from another angle. That means you might find someone by first finding a family member. As I type in Harlan’s name and locations, I wonder what finding Harlan might help me learn about the Amor side of the family, but I also know that I might have to reach out in the family tree in the hope of getting back to Harlan.

The first entry I find is the 1940 census for Harlan, his wife Esther, and two children in the same North Dakota county where he’d grown up. I learn his estimated birth year (and curse the 1940 census for not including birth month like earlier censuses had) and his occupation. Not a bad start. I take a screen shot and label it with his name, census date, and location.

Then I use one of the tips I’ve learned from my mentor. Rather than go back to the first list that may contain irrelevant information, I check the sidebar on the same page. Here I find other records listed for my Harlan specifically, including a social security death index. This includes both his birth and death dates, which might be helpful in a further search. You can think about the original search as casting a wide net to find the right catch and the sidebar as using a hook and line to reel in more just like it. I decide it’s time to start documenting the facts I’m learning by copying and pasting them into a blank document.

Still working on the links to the side of the 1940 federal census, I click on a North Dakota territorial census. I want to get the earliest chronological information about Harlan first for two reasons: I want to trace this little boy growing up and I want to find out for sure who his parents are.

The first North Dakota census I find is for 1925. Here’s my first surprise: Harlan and Beatrice are 9 and 8, but they’re not living with Amors. Instead, they’re living in a nearby township with a family named Page, a name I don’t recognize. Are Beatrice and Harlan orphans? Where are their parents? And who are the Pages?

My next find is a helpful one: Harlan and Esther’s 1936 marriage certificate. Now I find out for certain that his parents were Walter and Florence Amor, my great-grandma Mabel’s brother and his wife. I say “were” because “is” is crossed out for Walter; Florence would have been a “was” anyway since it asks for her maiden name—one of the many sexist recording conventions of the time. The other important piece of information is Florence’s maiden name: Page. Now the Page family makes sense—they’re related to Florence. Further, if the “was” is correct, Walter may not be living in 1936.

I find a couple more records before I quit for the day: another 1925 North Dakota census and the 1930 federal census. Both contain more mysteries. This second 1925 census shows Harlan and Beatrice living with a person named “Estes Paige,” probably a misspelling of “Page,” in the town that’s the county seat. This means the children are doubly listed for 1925 with two different parts of the Page family. Why both households? Did they move back and forth between them for school or for some other reason? The 1930 census presents even more of a mystery. Here they’re listed as the wards of Oscar and Esther Booke back in the same township where the children lived when they were little.

An hour’s work on ancestry has yielded some information and more questions. Thinking about what might have happened to Harlan and Beatrice’s parents, I realize that the children were orphaned or abandoned sometime between 1917, when Beatrice is born, and 1925, when they live with the Pages. Could Walter and Florence have both died of the Spanish influenza that swept the country in 1918, especially taking the lives of young adults Walter and Florence’s age?

It’s a couple days before I can get back on ancestry.com with some new ideas. Remembering my mentor’s advice about looking for someone from the side, I start with the Pages, George and Nora, because I’m certain they’re Florence’s parents—and I’m right. There they are in the 1920 census, one I hadn’t had time to search before—and guess who’s living with them? Harlan, age 4 and a half; Beatrice, almost three; three Page children; AND Walter, their widowed son-in-law, age 35. There goes my double-influenza theory. Next I realize that Harlan hadn’t shown up in the 1920 census because he, his sister, and his father are recorded as “Asnor.” If I hadn’t looked for the Pages, I wouldn’t have found Harlan in 1920. I’ve run across this mistranscribed name problem before with “Amor” showing up as “Amos,” and my mentor has found them as “Heymour,” but “Asnor” is a new one.

Another quick search proves that Esther Booke was Florence’s sister, Esther Page, with “Estes Paige” a misspelling of her name in the 1930 census. I’m relieved to find that Harlan and Beatrice were still living with family. Looking back at the photographs, I’m not sure whether they had lost their mother and possibly father by the time the pictures were taken, but if they had, the pair certainly look cared for, with people around them. It’s even possible the other children might be Pages, cousins on their mother’s side.

Since that search, I’ve found more records for Walter and Florence, including his WWI draft card in 1918. Florence was still alive then because her name is also on the document. But I haven’t yet found Walter past 1920 when he and the children were living with his in-laws. Various “Walter Amos-es” show up in census records in different states. I’ll keep looking. I might even find a death record for Florence, who may have died of the flu or of any number of problems that plagued young mothers back then.

I do know that Harlan married, had two children, and lived to age 80. I like to think he had a happy life, that small boy in cap and overalls on a big horse next to his cousin, my grandfather, seven years between them. Knowing my grandpa, I’m sure he looked out for Harlan, a little boy who lost his parents along the way but still had family to ride along beside him.

Grandpa Short with a younger brother

Grandpa Short with a younger brother

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Norwegian for the Holidays

My sister says I get “Norwegian-y” around the holidays. She means I go a little overboard with my Norwegian sweaters and “prairie tree” made by my father from dowels to imitate the twig Christmas trees of early Norwegian immigrants. I unwrap the Norwegian Nisse doll knitted and felted by a newfound Nordic cousin. John and I fire up the Norwegian woodstove in the milkhouse sauna for chilly winter nights. We even make lefse—a thin Norwegian potato pancake–for Christmas eve dinner using my Grandma and Grandpa Short’s lefse griddle and fancy rolling pins. My holidays wouldn’t feel complete without these Nordic customs.

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This year I’m feeling even more Norwegian-y because I’ve been researching my father’s Nordic heritage on my grandmother’s side. Her father—my great-grandfather Martin Jacobson—came from Oslo as a young child in 1883. Her mother—my great-grandmother Jossie Dokken Jacobson—was a first-generation American daughter born to Norwegian immigrant parents. It’s these great-great-grandparents for whom I’ve been searching recently, aided by Jean, an expert genealogist who keeps me pointed in the right direction with her generous guidance and lightning-fast retrieval of archival information; Janet, my dad’s cousin-in-law who shares her own valuable discoveries; and a handful of Minnesota historical librarians and genealogists. With their help, I’ve reconstructed a good bit of information about these ancestors.

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Genealogical research is one part methodical fact-finding (pouring through census and other records; checking and rechecking names, dates, and places), two parts sleuthing (following up leads, pursuing hunches) and three parts serendipity. Jean reminds me that some of the best clues are found in places where we aren’t even intentionally looking for them. I enjoy this meticulous kind of work, and the connection to my own family makes it even more satisfying.

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Searching for Norwegian ancestors in the winter makes a certain kind of sense because Norwegian immigrants settled first in the colder mid-Northern areas of the United States. Norwegian immigration is really two movements: emigration from Norway, where economic opportunity was limited by lack of land for the growing population, and immigration to the United States, where land was becoming available as states like Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa “opened” (a euphemism for claimed and taken by settlement and force from Native people) for white, European homesteaders.

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Norwegians immigrated to the rural northern climate to continue the agricultural work they’d known back home. Garrison Keillor jokes that Norwegians came to the US to try horizontal farming, meaning they were leaving the mountains of Norway behind. These immigrants weren’t daunted by the cold winters of the mid-Northern states. In his 1909 study Norwegian Immigration to the United States, scholar George T. Flom remarked on the affinity of Norwegian immigrants to colder climates: “Even Kansas is too far south for the Norwegian.”

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My great-great-grandfather Ole Olson Dokken came to the United States in the late 1860s or early 1870s with his older brother Arne. Census records show two different entry years for Ole—1868 and 1872. Census records are notorious for imprecision and error, but at least we have a range of dates from which to work.

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We have yet to find the entry year for my great-great-grandmother Anna Engebretson Dokken and we may never find it. Women in those days weren’t usually asked for such details on the census since the husband was considered the head of household whose information was most important. I’m still searching for Anna’s death record. My great-grandmother Jossie—Anna’s daughter–noted on the back of her own wedding license that Anna died at age 50 in Swift Falls, but research there has yet to turn up anything with Anna’s name. The last official document we have for Anna is the 1895 Minnesota state census in which her name appears with her husband and children. By 1900, she was gone and Ole was remarried to Karen Thompson, another Norwegian immigrant.

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I may never know much about my great-great-grandmother Anna but I’m willing to keep looking until the all leads are spent. Finding connections between the women in my family helps me understand my own life better. In A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, I wrote of how my Great-Grandma Flora Hunsley Smith’s teaching and farming life was passed down to me. I hope to find a similar resonance with Great-Great-Grandmother Anna. After all, she came to a new country as a young, unmarried woman and raised her seven children on a farm. She must have valued education since her daughter Jossie went to school through eighth grade, which was equivalent to high school in those days. I imagine she made the most with what she had without complaining because that’s the ethic I observed in the Norwegian family and community of my youth.

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I’m further south than my Norwegian ancestors, but it still gets cold here on Colorado’s Front Range. If I feel like whining about the frigid, snowy weather that occasionally descends on these dark winter days, I remind myself that I come from hardy Norwegian stock. When the snow’s falling and the days are short, I can put on a Norwegian sweater and stoke up the Norwegian woodstove.  I can get “Norwegian-y” for a while and warm myself with the customs passed down to me from ancestors who took a long ship’s ride across an ocean to reach new land where they could make a home.

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Sepia Prairie

When I was in high school, I found an old sepia postcard in my grandfather’s envelope of special photographs that he kept separate from family albums and treasured for his own reasons. In this photograph from the 1910s, his older sisters Myrah and Lerah pose with a woman identified only as “the friend from town” whom my grandfather believed worked at a North Dakota telephone company. The three young women are wading near the grassy bank in the wide creek, which is pronounced “crick” in that part of the country.

Myrah and Lerah, farm girls who probably didn’t have many afternoons free to go wading, look a little surprised to find themselves standing barefoot next to each other in the water, holding up the skirts of their long dresses with both hands and giggling for the camera. Lerah, the youngest, beams playfully in her pretty white dress and hair bow, while Myrah, the older sister who already worked hard on the farm, grins sheepishly in her wide-collared calico dress.

But turning away from the sisters, the young woman from town is splashing through the water in a fancy white blouse, sleeves rolled to mid-arm, her long, full skirt held above the water. Her eyes are closed, her smile wide, and her head thrown back in laughter. She was a town girl who probably didn’t spend many days wading in a cool summer creek. Town girls’ lives were undoubtedly easier than those of farm girls but a chance for an afternoon outdoors with friends was probably a treat all the same.

I was so taken with this photograph as a teenager that I made my grandmother write “Give this to Kayann Short” on the back. After my grandparents’ deaths, my mother brought it back from North Dakota for me and it’s been an iconic image for me all these years.

In this photograph, women’s friendships form the meeting place of country and city. Against the backdrop of sky, creek, and prairie, the young women delight in each other’s company and in the chance to move without restriction, breathe fresh air, touch the earth with bare feet, and be surrounded by the vast prairie stretching beyond them. The photograph even captures the fine detail of long grass as it bends in the breeze, a sepia whisper behind the women’s laughter.

I yearned for this place myself growing up, yet with which of the women I felt a kinship was unclear, despite my bloodlines. I was the town girl delighting in the country, her fancy clothes no longer a hindrance as she wades in the creek but an embellishment to the prairie behind her. She had come from the city to visit my great-aunts on their farm outside of town and found herself on the edge of cultivated space. When she returned to sidewalks and streets, she would remember the coolness of the creek bottom. There’s just more outside to life on a farm than “in town,” as my grandparents would say. But looking at that picture, I always hoped my life could include both.

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Marking Her Days with Grace

Recently I took out the few diaries I have from my Grandma Smith and re-read her sparse entries. A true farmer, she always noted the weather, both the high and low temperatures and noteworthy conditions like sheer wind or a blinding snowstorm. Some days in July she would just write “Hot.” My favorite weather entry reads:  Sat, Jan 29, 1966: This morning it’s 40 below so won’t be very warm today. Even in a North Dakota winter, that could be considered an understatement.

Another series of weather entries in 1966 reads like a poem:

Wed, March 9: 45 degrees above

snow melting

just like spring

Thurs, March 10: No need for a weather report.

Fri, March 11: Weather is fine.

Re-reading her diaries this time, I looked for clues about how she spent her days. She sewed a lot and she baked a lot of bread—six or seven loaves at a time. She kept her flour in a deep pull-out bin in the kitchen cabinet that held a 50-lb bag. She would bake once a week, making enough for morning toast, noon sandwiches, and evening bread and butter. Covered by thin cotton dishtowels embroidered with vegetable people or sunbonnet girls, her loaves rose high in their pans.

Sometimes she would make cinnamon rolls along with the bread, letting my siblings and cousins and me roll out the rectangle of dough and spread it with real butter from our uncle’s creamery. Then we would spoon on brown sugar and sprinkle the dough with cinnamon, roll it up tight, pinch the seam, slice into a dozen thick rounds, and pack them carefully in the cake pan to rise. Fresh and hot from the oven, the sugar and butter-filled rolls melted on our fingers and tongues. No “store-boughten” cinnamon rolls could ever taste as good.

Grandma Smith worked hard on the farm, even after she and my grandfather weren’t raising animals and crops anymore. A typical entry of her busy life reads:

Tues, Feb 11, 1966: I baked 2 apple pies/ put in freezer/scrubbed the kitchen floor/fed the cats at the barn/burned the papers/this pm I’m going out visiting.

I remember my grandmother down on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor in case someone stopped by. I marveled that she wore dresses around the house with her old pantyhose, not wanting to waste a brand new pair. When I would ask her why she didn’t just go bare-legged, she would exclaim in disapproval, “No, I can’t do THAT!” She was fashionable her entire life, even when scrubbing the floor.

Because the Smith farm was on the highway into Williston, the county seat, many of my grandparents’ farming friends and relatives would stop by unannounced for coffee on their way to or from town. In her diaries, Grandma Smith noted who had visited that day and what she had baked, like lemon meringue pie, angel food cake, or a kind of cookie she called “Matrimonial Chews.” Visitors were so common at the farm that one entry comments on not receiving guests:  Sat, March 9, 1985: I was home all day. Baked a pie but no company.

My grandmother rarely noted her feelings or reflections about her life, but one of the few reflective passages she wrote makes me laugh: Tues, Jan 25, 1966: I’m cleaning the basement—and it sure looks better. That “sure” sounds just like her, a mix of practicality and positive thinking. If you’re going to do something, it seems to say, do it right—and be happy you’ve done it.

Why weren’t her diaries more personal, more revealing of her thoughts and feelings? I don’t think she worried about someone discovering them. After her death, we found these few diaries stuck in an old cabinet in the basement, more tucked away for safe keeping than hidden.  I think instead that she didn’t feel a need to express personal feelings in diary form. What was important was recording the everyday events of her life, keeping track of the weather and the visitors, the comings and goings of a farm on the edge of town.

In a few entries, though, I catch a glimpse of a more private side of my grandmother, moments of the solace she found in the natural world. In her diaries, she would note signs of the seasons changing, especially when a long, cold winter was turning away for spring:

Wed, April 6, 1983: We walked to the creek and found mayflowers and heard a meadowlark sing.

Tues, April 12, 1983: No snow yet. Cleaned house. Saw a meadowlark today. Gophers are running around and also saw a pheasant and two rabbits.

In entries like these, I can imagine her looking out the window over the prairie, although “prairie” is my word, not hers. She would say “pasture,” since the long grass is where my grandparents grazed their cattle. I can imagine her walking to the creek to look for mayflowers, grateful for a sign that spring had finally made its way to the north. She paid attention to the creatures around her because they inhabited the same piece of land. She marked her days by the weather and the seasons because they formed the backdrop of her life on the farm, determining each day’s possibilities. These diary entries reveal an intimacy with nature that seems a private part of my grandmother’s life, quiet moments of grace in the midst of her busy days.

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