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GENERATIONS: Chance meetings with visitors to the museum leave lasting memories

Searching for your roots can take you to interesting places, shed light on family histories, and answer questions about when, how, and maybe even why things have happened as they did. Exploring history can give you a glimpse of what has made you who you are.

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Searching for your roots can take you to interesting places, shed light on family histories, and answer questions about when, how, and maybe even why things have happened as they did. Exploring history can give you a glimpse of what has made you who you are.

For the past 12 years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time at the Beltrami County History Center, learning more about this part of Minnesota than I know about the small Minnesota River Valley town where I grew up. My history teachers would not believe you if you told them this. History wasn’t my forte in high school, but now that I’ve lived so much more of it, I find it pretty compelling.

What I like most are the personal stories that unravel as visitors peel back the onion skins of their family history. I haven’t learned much about my own family history these 12 years, other than what one ambitious cousin has shared, but I’ve been fascinated to learn about the family histories of others.

Four years ago, I met Newell Carson and his wife Barb from Kalispell, Montana. They were in town and stopped by the museum to see what information they might find about his great uncles, the Carson brothers — George and Marion — who, in the mid-1890s, established the first trading post/business in what later became the village of Bemidji.

I happened to be at the History Center, met Newell and Barb, and asked if they could come back the next day for an interview. The next day, we visited for over an hour. Newell told me about his paternal and maternal ancestors — early settlers to Bemidji.

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But his wife Barb said, “You should ask him about his work.” His work was the stuff of spy thrillers and underwater adventures.

Newell had been involved in top-secret missions during the Cold War, things he couldn’t talk about, but he recommended a few books that have been written about these missions, including "Blind Man’s Bluff" by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew (which I highly recommend). Local history had led me into more modern times, broader history and fascinating true stories.

A few days ago, I received a call from Newell. I’d been thinking about contacting him for a story I want to write, and the timing of his call seemed more than a coincidence. We’ve emailed back and forth since then to stay connected.

Newell is good at making connections, and when he visited Bemidji four years ago, he connected with Carl Wiesehan of Texas, a great-great-grandson of Shaynowishkung (Chief Bemidji) and a few other relatives of the Carsons and Shaynowishkung, whose daughter Baygahmauchequay (called Mary by the white settlers of Bemidji) had married Marion Carson of the trading post.

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Chief Bemidji - Shaynowishkung
Contributed
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From left: Laura, Mary and Eva Carson.
Contributed

Not long before Newell’s visit, I had been studying all I could find in our archives about Shaynowishkung, but to meet this man from Kalispell with a connection to him was truly remarkable.

The next summer, the Jason Hunter family of Texas visited the museum. Jason’s great-great-grandmother was Baygahmauchequay.

After touring the exhibits at the museum, Jason said he hoped to return the next year and bring his mother. I told Jason about Newell, whose great uncle Marion was the Carson who had married his great-great-grandmother.

Later I contacted Newell to let him know about the Hunters and we talked about a possible meeting of the Carson descendants. But Covid happened and the meeting didn’t. After Newell’s recent call, however, I have hopes that this might still happen someday.

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Other chance meetings at the History Center have led to equally interesting encounters with descendants of early settlers to the area who stop by to learn whatever they can about their family history. Like Tom Richards from Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho, who stopped by to see what he could find about his grandfather who had worked at the Bemidji Lumber Company (which became Crookston Mill No, 2) before moving to the West Coast in 1918 to work for Weyerhauser.

Or Liz Funk of Bloomington, granddaughter of Morris Kaplan, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania. He established a discount grocery business in Bemidji in the early 1900s.

I had read the biography Kaplan’s daughter had written about him; so had Liz. She searched through old newspaper stories and other documents about her grandfather and discovered, in our archives, a poem he had written about her — something she didn’t recall ever having seen before.

Then there was RaeAnn Krause Goin from Prosser, Washington, with her two daughters, Kari and Susan. RaeAnn was born in Bemidji in 1936.

Her family moved to Washington when she was just 5 years old, and she returned just once when she was 11. Her father had died and his body was shipped back to Bemidji by train to be buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

Although she’d been very young when she lived here, her memory of details was incredibly vivid. She visited the sites of her old neighborhood and other places she remembered.

These and other stories have fallen into my lap by coincidence. I keep no regular hours at the History Center, and I could easily have missed meeting Newell or Tom or RaeAnn or any number of other people whose chance crossing of paths with mine have left memorable notches, and sometimes lasting connections, on the timeline of my life and have made their family history part of mine.

Related Topics: GENERATIONS
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