Category Archives: Family

Unpacking Grandpa

Today’s post comes from Bill in Mpls

Here are pictures of my father’s father in one of his first performances as an American. He’s the one on the right. He was newly arrived from Sweden, having sailed in July, 1916 on a Norwegian-American ship, embarking from Kristiania, Norway. He was 20 years old and emigrated alone.

I say this was a performance because I see in these pictures an expression and reenactment of the mythology of America that new arrivals so frequently bring with them. My grandfather landed at Ellis Island and made his way westward from there. In America, Rickard Nilsson became Richard Nelson. I believe he had acquaintances or distant relatives in Grygla, Minnesota in the far northwest corner of the state. Sometime in the first year or so of his arrival, he traveled further west to Everett, Washington. There, or along the way to there, with a friend, he had these photos made. They were printed on postcard stock. Perhaps he sent one home to Sweden.

Almost everything I know, or think I know about this grandfather comes from physical artifacts or from peripheral research and speculation. He died when I was four years old. My father didn’t talk about him and I didn’t ask. To know him at all, I have to unpack the clues.

Even allowing for the invincibility of youth, it must have been frightening traveling across the Atlantic in 1916. German U-boat activity was heavy and being on a neutral country’s vessel was small reassurance. Over the course of the war, Germany sunk over 1300 Norwegian ships. That suggests that, despite the peril, my grandfather had strong motivations for leaving. My uncle once intimated that my grandfather had emigrated to avoid conscription into the Swedish army. Since Sweden was also neutral at that time (though it was being pressured by Germany for support), understanding the sense, if any, to that claim will require more study.

Grandfather stayed and worked for a time in Everett. I have an envelope dated December 1918 addressed to him in Everett and a business card from Everett Transfer and Feed Yard, where I assume he found work. A letter he wrote at that time (in Swedish) to the Swedish American newspaper seeks other Swedes with whom he might meet and socialize. Everett must not have been a Scandinavian hotbed. He sounds lonely and isolated.

At some point, Richard Nelson left Everett, Washington and returned to Minnesota. It was there, in Barrett, Minnesota that he met my grandmother. Like many parts of Minnesota, Barrett was heavily Scandinavian. My grandmother’s father was also a Swedish immigrant and her mother the child of Norwegians. It’s reasonable to conjecture that my grandfather was drawn to the area by the familiar, comfortable culture, the opportunity to use his native language, a chance to be his authentic self. That’s something all transplants crave.

When my grandparents married, it was in Minneapolis. My grandfather built a house for the family in Robbinsdale. He found work as a painter and in various kinds of maintenance. Most of his friends had Scandinavian last names. He had two sons, both of whom served in WWII. He finally became a naturalized citizen in 1943.

I think of him and of all my immigrant ancestors when the immigration talk gets ugly. We are all related to immigrants, some more immediately than others. At least one of us (I’m looking at you, P.J.) is an actual immigrant. We owe everything to those brave or desperate souls who picked up their lives and families and transplanted them here. We can honor them by regarding new arrivals, ones with unfamiliar customs and language and costume as kindred to our ancestors and cutting them some slack.

America at its best, at its most vital and dynamic, is always in the process of becoming something different.

What do you know about your immigrant predecessors? Any good stories?

Party Insiders

Today’s post comes from Renee in North Dakota.

We have one television, and it is in our family room in the basement. We rarely go downstairs to watch TV.  I haven’t seen any live coverage of either of the recent political conventions. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the first, and, although I identify as a Democrat, I haven’t made time to watch the second, either. My father adored Hillary Clinton, and I know he would be watching the convention were he here.

My father’s family has a long history of being Democrats. I recently discovered that my paternal grandfather’s uncles were ultra-dedicated Democrats and had pretty interesting lives.

George (b. 1869) and Martin (b. 1871) Freerks, my Grandfather Boomgaarden’s uncles, were born in Pekin, Illinois and grew up in Parkersburg, IA. They were the children of German/Friesland immigrants. English was their second language.  Neither boy attended much school as children or teens, as they had to help on the farm. Martin estimated he attended 90 days of school his whole life. Despite their lack of education, both managed to independently study for the bar exam and became lawyers in Kansas and North Dakota.

George (Gerhard) was a North Dakota delegate to the Democratic National Conventions in 1896 and 1900. I imagine him listening to William Jennings Bryan’s famous “Cross of Gold” speech in Chicago in 1896 (“You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold”). He named one of his sons Horace Jennings Freerks, after the philosopher and the orator. George was the assistant city attorney in Wichita and ran unsuccessfully for Attorney General of Kansas around 1908. I guess Kansas was a really Republican state at the time, and George’s campaign was doomed from the start. I admire him for trying. He practiced law in Wahpeton, North Dakota with his brother, and eventually moved to Crosby, MN to be close to some iron mine investment property. He died in 1924.

Martin spent most of his professional life in Jamestown, ND. He changed his last name to Fredericks since people kept mispronouncing it as “Freaks”.  He was deeply involved in the Non-Partisan League (NPL), a socialist party that was the precursor of North Dakota’s current Democratic Party and the subject of a wonderful film documentary called Northern Lights. The NPL is the reason why we have the Bank of North Dakota and the State Flour Mill. (Our current Republican governor is pretty glad for the State Bank, even though such an institution goes against his principles, as he intends to hit up the bank for a $100,000,000 loan to address revenue shortfalls). Martin’s son was the last person in North Dakota to successfully read for the Bar and was elected a district judge. His son married Lawrence Welk’s daughter.

I have, on occasion, considered running for our local school board or maybe even the city council. I don’t know if I have the patience or the thick skin necessary to do so.  Our entire school board was voted out of office in a recall election about 15 years ago when they dared propose changing the team mascot name from the Midgets to something more politically correct. Image what might happen if I tried to initiate real and meaningful change. I might get run out of town!

 What political office would you like to run for?

We are not Lunatics

Today’s post comes from Renee in North Dakota

My German relatives are coming to visit the US in August. Wilhelm and Petra will arrive at the end of the month to spend some time in Luverne with my mother’s cousin Elmer and his wife, Eunice. The Germans have been here before. Petra speaks English fluently, and Wilhelm not at all. Wilhelm is very interested in US farming techniques, and farms the small farm he inherited from his father. He is a retired auto worker and farms as a hobby.

These relatives were very gracious to us on our trip, meeting us in the Bremen train station and taking us to dinner. Their 25 year old daughter drove us all over Verden and Nedden, showing us sights important in the history of my family. We have a standing invitation to stay with them if we are ever in Bremen again, and we intend to take them up on their offer. We sent them a Pendleton Wool blanket  with Badlands motifs as a thank you gift.

Recent events in the US make me wonder what on earth they are thinking as they prepare for their trip. They plan to fly into New York, where they will be met by Elmer’s daughter, and she will fly back to Minneapolis with them. They will go to Luverne, and plan a trip to the Black Hills. I wish they had time to visit us, just three hours to the north of Rapid City. I  would take them to the ND Badlands and the reservation husband works on to meet our native friends. I think Yellowstone would be a nice destination, as well as Glacier. I want them to see the vastness, the enormity of the sky here, the ocean of grass, maybe even a rodeo. I know some ranchers Wilhelm would find fascinating.  They may even like Lawrence Welk’s home in Strasburg.

Our pastor spoke on Sunday about turning down the volume and finding some quiet sanity within ourselves, loving one another, and caring for the stranger. I hope that Petra and Wilhelm can see the good in us, and not think we are lunatics.

 Where would you take foreign visitors to show them that we are not lunatics?”  

My New Roommate: A Grandson

Today’s post comes from Crystalbay

A few days ago, my 21-year old grandson, Conner, approached me about living here for a while.  My first reaction was, “Oh no!!  What if it doesn’t work and I’ll be in the position to tell him to leave??!!”.  It was a beautiful summer afternoon and, as we sat together on the lake swing, I decided to take the risk.

Conner, a formerly heavy pot smoker and a somewhat aimless kid, had gone to the U of M for two years, then dropped out, saying he hated it there and wanted to be a personal trainer.  The whole family worried that this young man was lost.  He took a pricey personal training course.  Still, we wondered how this slender kid could possibly make a career out of a profession in which so few can succeed.
That was then; this is now.  Conner just won a national natural body building competition one month ago out of 70 men older than himself.  He’d worked out for a year and sculpted his body into near perfection.  When I saw him on that stage, I couldn’t believe the transformation.  His career “stock” shot through the roof, and he now has enough clients to make a solid living.
When he moved in a few days ago, he made the upstairs his own, putting my furniture in the closet, rearranging everything, vacuuming, washing floors, putting his own posters on the walls, etc.  Since then, he’s mowed the lawn, gone on errands, put every single dish in the washer, taken the garbage out, and introduced me to new Netflix series.
Every morning, he makes his bed even though no one goes upstairs but him.  We respect each other’s space and, thank God, he has no interest in watching TV.  Each day, we find time to sit on the lake swing and share everything from our day to childhoods to politics.  I must admit that I’m doing my best to shape him into an ardent progressive. I did worry about feeling invaded after so many years of quiet solitude, but now find myself looking forward to him returning from his day.
I sense that this is a very important summer; more than previous summers.  The new but growing bond is forever.  Without this opportunity, I may never have known my grandson.  I’m even thinking about how much I’ll miss his daily company when he moves on, but I’ll enjoy the moments we have for now.
Yesterday, he asked if I’d teach him how to play the piano.  Today, I asked him to come to a nearby fitness club and create a free weight lifting routine for me. He and my daughter are competing in the same contest in August. He’s now proposing that he, his mom, and I could compete together one day.  Imagine that; three generations! I’d win because I’d be the only one in the over-70 class. Our daily routines blend together seamlessly and our gratitudes for the smallest exchanges, a hug, a peanut butter sandwich, music he’s introducing me to, and, most of all, our appreciation for sharing this most beautiful piece of earth.
Yes, this will be a summer to remember.

Remembering Someone

Today’s post is by Steve Grooms

One morning around 1955, George Grooms—my father—woke up with a smile. He had been dreaming. In this dream my dad was walking the sidewalks of our town when he noticed a distinctive dog sitting on the curb. The dog was some kind of hound, a bloodhound or basset. It had a long, pendulous nose and droopy ears. The most memorable thing was the dog’s expression. The dog seemed utterly grief-struck.

In the dream this melancholy dog looked at my father and spoke one short sentence.

“Cheer up,” said the dog.

Cheer up?   What a bizarre comment! The saddest dog in the universe had just told my dad to cheer up!

Dad rushed to his office without talking to anyone. He began sketching the melancholy dog before his memory of the dream faded.

My father was a genius at imagining unique toy animals and then figuring out how certain shapes of fabric could be sewn together to form a three-dimensional stuffed toy.


Designing stuffed toy animals is one of the most obscure jobs in the world. My dad was once considered one of the two or three best designers in the world.

This dog resisted the design process. The body was easy, but all the prototypes Dad created looked jolly or cute. None had the tragic look of the dream dog’s face. Dad knew that the problem lay with the eyes. No matter what eyes he put on this dog, it looked idiotically cheerful.

Then Dad did something totally original. He fashioned eyelids that could be sewn in place to give his stuffed dog a sad expression. This was a radical innovation in the 1950s.

At that time stuffed toys were generic objects meant to be given to undiscerning infants. Stuffed toys were designed to be inexpensive. But my dad was an artist, and the artist in him knew this dog had to have a distinctive face for it to connect with people.

Those eyelids were the first of many innovations he would develop to create stuffed toys with vivid expressions. My dad’s company sold these stuffed toys under the name “personality pets” to highlight the way they differed from cheap, generic stuffed toys.

There was never an issue of what this dog would be called. Cheer Up appealed to children and adults, becoming the first of my dad’s designs to be famous. Cheer Up came in several forms (sitting, lying prone, lounging on his back) and several sizes.

Several years ago I was invited to attend a special meeting of the Ames Historical Society. The society was premiering a film that celebrated my father’s company.

Collegiate Manufacturing had been a significant employer in Ames for over 40 years.

The day before the film was shown I was invited to the home of a man who had a wonderful collection of stuffed toys from Collegiate Manufacturing. It was emotional for me to wander his basement gazing at hundreds of stuffed toys designed by my dad.

Monkeys, dogs, tigers, giraffes, horses, skunks, turtles and other critters stared at me from Don’s display shelves. I grew up knowing these toys but had not seen any of them for nearly 60 years. While I recognized many, I was most moved by Don’s collection of Cheer-up dogs. He had about three dozen Cheer Ups.

Don repeatedly urged me to take some toys as a gift. I was touched by his generosity, but I turned him down. I had no right to anything he had collected.

A day later we had the historical society meeting. When the meeting was over, I rushed to my car to start the long drive to my Saint Paul home. Don ran to catch up with me, shoving a box in my hands. “Don’t refuse me again,” he said. “I could tell by your eyes which ones meant the most to you.” The box held three Cheer Up dogs in the three poses that had been most popular.

My father died in 1999, and I heard that Don died a few years ago. Yet both live on in memory and in the friendly form of the little Cheer Up that sits on my bedroom dresser.

Most mementos honor the memory of a special person. My Cheer Up celebrates the memory of two men with good hearts.

Do you have a memento that helps you remember someone special?

Campy Summer Camp, Part I

Today’s post comes from Clyde of Mankato

I am surprised by how often summer camp appears in movies. As a result I wonder if summer camp is a more common experience than I realize. Of course, here in the Midwest it is tied to church camps. How common is it on the coasts, in the South, on the prairie? I don’t know.

My favorite movie summer camp is very campy indeed, Addams Family Values. What a delight Christina Ricci is as Wednesday. “You sent us to camp. They made us sing.” In one of Ron Howard’s first movies, The Courtship of Eddy’s Father, he plays a boy who is sent to camp, falls in love, and runs away, which covers a few cliches. I suppose we could include Dirty Dancing in that list of movies. I had a few friends at the University of Chicago who had Borscht Belt experiences.

One summer camp is tied into my life, Camp House, near Brimson. In my childhood it was owned by the D.M. & I.R. Railway Employees Association. I was sent there in about fourth or fifth grade. I remember it cost only $12 a week as a result of funding by the railroad. I did not like it. There is a picture of me with my mother on the Sunday visit. I am not going to share that photo. I do not look happy. You see, my mother told me that I was staying for a second week. Somehow half of the $12 was being paid by the railroad or Employees Association. I do not think my mother could turn down a bargain. My sister attended as a camper once or twice.

Oddly, I returned the summer before my senior year to work as an assistant to the maintenance man, my first job. About him and that experience I could tell a few tales. My sister was a counselor during the four weeks of girls camping that summer. It was special to have her there. We were very close back then. We had many late night talks. I was surprised then and am surprised now that my father released me from helping with the haying. I made up for it the next summer when he went to Michigan for work and I did the farm alone.

The winter after I worked there, the Employees Association was disbanded and the camp was sold. It became a Lutheran camp and still is. My children attended it two or three summers and loved it. My daughter has gone family camping there twice with her children. Three generations are thus tied to Camp House. For three years my daughter served on the board that oversees Camp House and other Lutheran camps.

A common sub-genre of movies is about camp counselors, often as gathering a few years later. I have only seen part of one of those movies. It struck no chord with me.

In the header photo, taken about 1955 by my mother, the building farthest the right on the lake is where I slept for ten weeks. Campy Summer Camp, Part II will reference that building.

Did you attend a summer camp, wish you had or wish you had not?

A Parade of Names

Today’s post comes from Renee in North Dakota 

I have been doing ancestor research on an on-line genealogical service preparatory to our May trip to Europe. We are travelling to Bremen, where my maternal grandparents were born, and then to Scotland, where husband’s mother’s family originated. I realize that the details of much of this research are purely conjectural , as following one thread may take you to Robert the Bruce, while another, equally possible thread just peters out into oblivion. You can never be sure if you have the right ancestor.

What has been most interesting is finding out where they generally were and  when they immigrated to the US, since that can fuel the imagination as to what their lives may have been like if you have some knowledge of the history of their times. Husband’s  family were solidly Scots-Irish Presbyterians, some of whom immigrated from Scotland to Northern Ireland in County Tryone and County Antrim very early, and then left there for the Colonies in 1690.  Others stayed in Northern Ireland as coal miners until 1870, when they went back to Scotland to work in the coal mines around Glasgow.  Husband’s great great grandfather Carson died in a mine cave-in in 1878. The Scottish Mine Disaster website was quite helpful identifying the very pit in which he died. We hope to visit the are on our trip. We don’t know if his body was ever recovered. His children immigrated to Ohio and West Virginia and worked in coal mines and steel mills. Some things don’t change that easily.

Family names have been fun to find. My father’s Friesland family has first names like Weert, Okke, and Freerk. The  Scots have names like Alexander, Robert, James, Margaret, Andrew, and Jennie. My mother’s Bremen family, all solidly Saxon, has common German names like Wilhelm, Herman, Christian, Metta, Greta, Johan, Anna, Sophie, and Otto.  My favorite family last name is Hellwinkel.

We aren’t travelling to Stuttgart to see where husband’s German family comes from (they raised sheep, so I guess you could call them German shepherds), but it was in that family tree I found another favorite name-that of poor Walburga Merkle. Oh, how fun it wold be to see her, to know if her name was considered beautiful or odd, to know what her life was like.

Husband said that, perhaps, in five hundred years people will be excited to find they are related to us. I don’t know about that, but doing this research really impressed me with the randomness of our very existence and how strange nature or chance or divine influence has led each of us to be who we are.

Your future relatives are listening, 500 years hence.  Why should they be excited to learn that they are linked to you?