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Cemetery research reveals interesting histories

For parishioner Arliss Hennix, it all started with a cemetery map that fellow parishioner Arnold Mickelsen drew and placed on a church wall in 2010.

4/11/17 (Tue)

Researchers at work . . .
Arliss Hennix and John Mogren pore over research they’ve done the past four years in the Elmdale Lutheran Church in Niobe, Thursday afternoon about the Elmdale Lutheran Cemetery. They’ve positively identified, written biographies and collected photographs for 171 of 175 people of Swedish descent, including the first person who was buried there in 1906.​

By Marvin Baker

For parishioner Arliss Hennix, it all started with a cemetery map that fellow parishioner Arnold Mickelsen drew and placed on a church wall in 2010.

For John Mogren, who is a local historian and former member of the congregation, the intrigue was in learning about Swedish immigrants who lived and thrived on the North Dakota prairie in the Niobe area.

They both wanted to make sure that none of the 175 people buried in Elmdale Lutheran Cemetery are ever forgotten.

Relatives of those departed will be pleased to know that this duo has been working on a three-year research project not only to positively identify everyone, but to personalize their legacies with biographies, photographs and obituaries.

“I don’t think people realize how much work this has been,” Hennix said. “When we started this thing, I thought we would use one folder. We learned otherwise quickly.”

It’s clear that Hennix and Mogren have both poured a lot of passion into this project. Their work is neat and organized, it’s very descriptive and both are confident they have compiled enough information about the people in the cemetery to tell a story that relates to the history of that individual and in the community they lived.

That one folder Hennix talked about, has morphed into something much larger, several three-ring binders, church records, books and other items.

“It was Arliss’ idea to put it together,” Mogren said. “She is such a historian with everything in this church and the Niobe community. We started four years ago. We started recording gravestones, then went to the church books.”

Once they were comfortable at that stage, they started gathering obits and memorial bulletins.

Hennix believes the project will be ongoing as more recent parishioners are added to the several books that now exist. However, the difficult part is completed.

Both went through their own collections and when they exhausted that option, they started contacting relatives and friends, as far away as Sweden, with a connection to Niobe in hopes of finding photographs, personal information, family trees, obituaries; anything that would help connect the dots to this puzzle.

Because, as Mogren pointed out, many of these early histories at least, were by word of mouth and as the families faded away, so did the histories of the individuals buried in Elmdale.

Thus, Hennix and Mogren went through the painstaking task of gathering as much information as they could including translating of early 1900s letters written in Swedish.

While the obituaries go back to the early 1900s, the funeral memorial cards begin in the 1940s.

When they compiled a list of obits, they went about verifying data. Then, they started collecting pictures.

In some rare cases, actual photographs were never located so Mogren, in building the biography books, used generic photos to represent what those people might have looked like at that time. He makes disclosures on those, telling the reader it isn’t the actual person.

“Somebody’s got to have a photo,” Mogren said. “We’ve known these people so long, did anyone think to take a picture.”

Mogren, who can read Swedish, went online and searched the Swedish church records for births, baptisms, marriages and immigration dates.

He said the church life of those early pioneers was very important and often disclosed a lot of information.

“What a treasure this is,” Hennix said. “It’s absolutely a treasure.”

Unfortunately, there are four babies and one adult whose identities may be known to them, however, neither Mogren nor Hennix have any information to build an individual history.

“When many of these people came here, they had no money and didn’t speak the language and many of them were 17 and 18 years old,” Hennix said. “It was culture shock.”

Niobe became a large Swedish enclave by 1920 after settlers began arriving there in 1897.

Worship services were conducted in Swedish and then the congregation began to alternate with Swedish one Sunday and the next using English. This continued until about 1936.

According to Mogren, the largest portion of the group came from Dalarna Province, which is rich in folklore and customs. It’s where the famous Dala Horse originated.

And most of those who left Sweden, first went to Hull, England, then Liverpool, then New York, Boston or Montreal. The majority traveled to the plains via rail.

At the time, people were trying to get away from Sweden to build their own life of freedom, while more than 100 years later, Swedish descendents continue seeking out information from their ancestors.

“There’s a Swedish proverb that says, ‘what the father takes pains to forget, the grandson takes pains to remember.’”

Hennix added that most of the immigrants came through Ellis Island in New York City, but some passed through Boston or Montreal.

Mogren added that immigrants began coming to the United States before Ellis Island was built in 1892, so some of them used alternative routes.

He said many of them first settled in Kandiyohi, Minn., and later came to Niobe.

“These young men had to marry a Swedish girl,” Hennix said. “God forbid if they married a Norwegian.”

According to Mogren, Elmdale Lutheran Congregation was organized in 1903 and information was also found on the plans to establish a cemetery.

Shortly thereafter, parishioners wanted to find a spot to build a church.

“There were very detailed negotiations,” Mogren said. “It didn’t work out so Lewis Olson gave land for a church and a cemetery. Then the railroad came through so they built the church in Niobe in 1907.”

In the interim, Brita Hansdotter (Norberg) was the first person buried at the Norberg site and after the church and cemetery were established, her body was exhumed and brought to the present cemetery, about a year after her burial.

Thus, on her gravestone, the date of death states 1906, however, she was actually buried in Elmdale, sometime in 1907.

According to Mogren, another interesting fact about some of the earliest burials were the processions to the cemetery from the church, about a mile apart.

He said he ran across some information telling him an early pastor’s child had died and all the pallbearers were children.

Hennix added that it wasn’t Swedish tradition to have a church and its cemetery located apart such as Elmdale Lutheran, in Niobe, and the cemetery, which is just northeast of town.

There is no doubt both Hennix and Mogren are proud of their accomplishment. Hennix said the congregation says it’s really a neat project, “but who else would do it,” she said?

According to Mogren, part of the rationale to develop these biographies comes from requests of relatives who come to Niobe seeking information about their relatives who are buried in Elmdale Cemetery.

“When people come back here and ask if we have information on them, we can say, here’s the book,” Mogren said. “The other part, for Elmdale Cemetery, we can print it up, hopefully to help others.”

He said there is another piece to this puzzle and that is with families that passed through the area and may not have been in the Niobe area long enough to build up a history.

Still others are very easily traced back to their roots.

But there are two things that Mogren would like to see come out of this project.

No. 1, he said many times people are reluctant to part with photographs. However, with today’s technology, a photograph can be scanned and sent in a digital format so the person never gives up ownership of that physical photograph.

No. 2, his biggest concern right now is with temporary markers at grave sites.

“Temporary markers are just that, temporary,” he said. “They could get hit by a lawn mower, covered up with dirt or be overrun by trees. One thing I would hope comes out of this is for descendents to put stones on these graves.”

The project has been so successful that Mogren has already been asked by other cemetery associations to do similar projects – and they’ll pay him.

He said the work has been extensive, but well worth it for generations to come.

“After doing all this research, I feel I know something about these persons,” Mogren said. “Even though I didn’t know these people, I know of them and their stories are so important.” ... Read EVERY WORD on EVERY PAGE of The Kenmare News by subscribing--online or in print!