Searching for Family
By Rita Maisel
Today there are local harvesting crews as well as workers from other states and even other countries helping to get the crop off the fertile fields in Cavalier County. That situation is not new. From the earliest of pioneer days workers have been drawn to the area with many coming just to work during the harvest and then go back to their normal homes with a little extra money in their pockets. Of course, there were others who came, liked the countryside, discovered their wives among the good cooks on harvest time cook cars and stayed. One of the results is that you can find a large number of those long-ago workers buried in the cemeteries of Cavalier County, some with generations of descendants and others singly and often in unmarked plots.
A surprising number are not forgotten by descendants they may not have met in their lifetimes. An interesting couple from Bad Axe, Michigan arrived in Langdon on Labor Day hoping to find the grave of a great uncle who had been one of those itinerant workers two generations ago. George Fahner had stayed in the area and died here in 1954. His obituary was in the Cavalier County Republican, and the relatives had a copy of that notice with them when they arrived. The cemetery name must have been in that small clipping as by the time I visited with them they had asked questions, contacted the cemetery sexton and met with him the next morning. As it happened, George’s name was not in the plot book, and they did not find a marker in their search at the cemetery.
Possibly the sexton or someone else they questioned suggested they stop at the Cavalier County Library where they found a copy of his obituary in the clipping file. The cemetery books compiled there listed his name as somewhere in the north-east corner of Calvary cemetery where there are known to be some unmarked graves. Using the names listed near his as a guide they were happy to go back to that corner of the cemetery and search again. Before going back, they also ordered a copy of his death certificate which the Bismarck office says will be mailed to them in 5 to 7 days. For any readers who wish they could locate a copy of a North Dakota death certificate, the internet has a website under health and hospitals known as the North Dakota Public Death Index. You fill out a form with the last name of the relative and specific dates within a ten year period and hit search. If nothing comes up you may have the wrong date. If too many names come up, you might have to reduce the search to a specific county. The cost of the document can be paid by credit card, check or money order. The person requesting the information must provide proof of identity. Currently North Dakota death certificates cost $5 for 1 copy and an additional fee of $2 for each additional copy. My experience is that other states have considerably higher rates.
The couple from Michigan may have other relatives in Cavalier County today, but they had to check with family members to be sure. If so, they promised to make another trip back. On the next trip they may want to visit St. John’s Lutheran Cemetery between Dresden and Wales as some of the names mentioned as possible relatives are buried in that location.
Meanwhile a lady in Exeter, Ontario wrote to the Cavalier County Republican. She had read the column from earlier this summer which mentioned Agar families here on-line and wrote that she is related to both the Agars who settled at Calvin and the S.J.A. Boyd family who lived at Hannah and later at Langdon. Mrs. Boyd was a greataunt of hers. We do know that the Boyd children graduated from Langdon High School in the 1920s. She has offered to share their family history with us. It is my understanding that when those branches of that Agar family (originally from Ireland) came to Cavalier County her branch remained in the Exeter, Ontario area. Other immigrants from Exeter to Pembina and Cavalier Counties years ago were from families named Balsdon, Snell, Kelland, Weber and so on. Her name might appear on local family trees as well.
Just the name of her town rang a bell with me as I have been there and remember Kaercher relatives with Snell connections as well as members of the Kelland and Franta families being interested in the town and possibly some have visited there themselves. The reason I was there had to do with research on our family. While some relatives thought it a foolish reason, I wanted to visit the places where my grandparents had been born so set out over the years on several journeys to do just that. As it happened most of the trips to research family began in Denver.
Back in the days when I drove a small Volkswagen, I set out from Denver to drive to Minnesota where at least one grandmother had been born. It was the 1960s when you plan trips on a route where you may know people. The first cousin lived in Sterling, and part of the road was not paved and full of rocks which we would later learn had damaged the oil pan. The next cousin lived in Omaha, and by that time the relatively new Volkswagen was having oil problems—cause unknown. There I learned that only people who sold foreign cars were willing to work on them. Once repair was assured, it was on to Iowa where I had other relatives and then Minnesota. Severe car problems surfaced at Mankato and would take two weeks to fix. The garage found a loaner car and the next week was spent in Waseca where my father’s grandparents had been married and his mother born. Four generations of her relatives and were buried there. There was even a beautiful Catholic Church with the family name on some of the windows! However, I had been raised protestant as had my parents, and the Catholic relatives in Waseca let me know they did not trust protestants. Over the years additional relatives decided I was trustworthy, and for many years we corresponded on family history.
With another week before the car would be repaired I set off for Winona where the great-grandfather discovered in Waseca had later lived and I knew there were additional relatives. But what cemetery would he be buried in? Not locating a grave, it seemed like maybe church records would help. His name was Martin Gatz and just down the street was St. Martin’s Lutheran Church. We had no known Lutheran relatives but the Gatz family was duly recorded in their church records.
The Maisel side was next. My father had been adopted by the Andrew Maisel family at the age of three and my birth grandmother’s sister was married to George Maisel, so we had grown up with the heritage of both sides of the family. Stories told by uncles and cousins mentioned the Maisel family going across the river to Winona from a farm in Buffalo County, Wisconsin. Being Winona was across the river from Wisconsin, the next day I went east and found the farm where Andrew Maisel and his family had lived, the church they had attended and a nearby cemetery. Again there were no tombstones but church records were available. Knowing the time had come to pick up the repaired car any further research was put on hold for another year – the further trip would be to Canada.
The Wenzel-Kaercher-Geiger side of the family came from Huron County, Ontario and had come to North Dakota by train so why not make the research trip by train. By planning ahead, I left my car in Langdon, rode to Sioux Falls with relatives who lived there and flew to Denver for a short visit with my brother and family. The train trip began in Denver, included many delays, changes in Chicago and ended at Detroit at midnight. It was not the best time of day to get a taxi over to Windsor where I was to transfer to a Canadian line as my grandparents had done when they returned to Canada to visit in 1911. The summer I reached Windsor the Canadian railroad was on strike. No, I could not get a refund on the ticket pre-purchased to take me to various places in Ontario and back to North Dakota via Winnipeg.
However, there was a bus from Windsor to London where I had arranged to rent a car to drive to the villages and farms in Huron County. The road from London to Zurich passed by Exeter, Ontario, and knowing we had relatives buried there the roadside Exeter Cemetery was one of my very first stops. The second was a Zion Evangelical Cemetery on the same road where most of the tombstones sounded like relatives or cousins of relatives. Some of the Wenzel family were buried a few miles south in Crediton. From annual Christmas cards I knew the names of people who not only fed me but also they offered free rooms and wrote to me as long as they lived. It was a great visit with people who had previously been known only by their letters and pictures.
The next stop had to be Kitchener which was where the Kaerchers and Geigers had originally lived and again there were relatives who became life-long friends. We explored that area north where Grandpa Wenzel had been born and his parents are buried. However, I also knew school would be starting soon, and since teachers were not paid in the summer I was running out of cash money. Getting a check cashed in another country is difficult. I had a credit card (pictured in the window of a bank!) so went in and was told the card would not be valid in Canada until later that fall. If I paid for the call would they call North Dakota to verify there was money in my account? That brought a higher level bank employee into the picture to examine my driver’s license and make the decision. Fortunately, he had hiked across North Dakota the year before and been helped by friendly Americans. Yes, there was enough money in my account for a bus ticket to Winnipeg via Toronto. At Winnipeg I used the last few coins left to call a relative to please meet me where the bus would drop me off at Hamilton. No one met me at Hamilton, but by that time I was a seasoned traveler and sat on my suit case in the middle of the road. The bus headed to Langdon eventually arrived, and the driver believed my story.
The people from Michigan told us they would have lots of stories to tell about their visit to North Dakota. We hope many years down the line they can still laugh over the adventures encountered in tracing family history. It really is an adventure with dozens of on the road changes in your basic plans.