My Grandmother, Helga Swang

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

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 Reinhard, 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. 


Above:  My grandmother Helga and my mother (center) in 1926 during the fall wheat harvest (note the horse-drawn thresher on the right).  Helga's sisters-in-law are on either side.  This photo captivates me.  It's the picture that compelled me, more than any other, to visit North Dakota, to find out what I could about my mother and her relatives.

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.


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. 


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

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 didn’t have much money, she would always load up our family’s station wagon with sandwiches for them to eat while on the road.


In 1963, Helga, who was now 65, moved to Capistrano Beach, California to be with her middle daughter, Betty.  She lived temporarily with Betty while looking for a room to rent nearby.  The following spring, and shortly before moving out of Betty's house, Helga died of a heart attack.  I have what is probably the last letter she ever wrote, which she sent to my mother two days before she passed away.  At that time my family was living in northern California and, ironically, we were all planning to drive down to see Helga the following week.  In her final letter to us, Helga told us how much she was looking forward to seeing all of us.


I was only three years old when I last saw my grandmother Helga and have only the dimmest memories of her.  Everyone in my family has told me what a wonderful and thoughtful person she was.  She worked hard her entire life to provide for her children – as did Helga's mother, Anna Swang.  Apparently it runs in the family.



Above left:  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 center:  Helga taught at the Canfield School from 1921 to 1923, then married Ed Reinhard.  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 right:  The Canfield School, built in 1916.  It had two large school rooms on the top floor and two smaller rooms below.  The school was located on the southern edge of Section 16 of the Canfield Township.  This photo was given to me by Hester Bailey (see story below).



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:  Map of the Regan area, about 30 miles north of Bismarck, showing the location of Henry's farm, which he homesteaded in 1907 after moving here with his family from Minnesota.  Also shown are the locations of the farms that his sons, George and Leroy, bought in the early 1920s.  Helga and Edward lived on George's farm, where my mother, Anne, grew up.  Leroy died of appendicitis in 1925 and all of the farms had been lost by the 1930s during the Great Depression.  Also shown is the site of the Canfield School, built in 1916, where Helga taught in the early 1920s.  The school burned down in 1928 and today little is left of it.



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.



More pages about my mother's ancestry:


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