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Swedes visit Kenmare in search of lost relatives...

Just two months after discovering her American family through an Internet search, Maria Toll Gustafsson was in the United States tracing her relatives who emigrated here from Sweden in the 1890s.

9/13/16 (Tue)

Per Ekstrom’s grave at Kenmare . . . Maria Toll Gustafsson places a small stone from Sweden with a ribbon showing the colors of the Swedish flag on the grave marker of Per August Ekstrom, her great-grandmother's brother, A Swedish immigrant to Iowa, who later moved to Kenmare and made his life here.

By Marvin Baker

Just two months after discovering her American family through an Internet search, Maria Toll Gustafsson was in the United States tracing her relatives who emigrated here from Sweden in the 1890s.

It all started with one man, Per August Ekstrom, who is buried in Lakeview Cemetery just west of Kenmare. He arrived in Sioux City, Iowa in 1895, but later moved to Kenmare and lived in this area until his death in 1943.

“My grandfather’s mother’s brother is Per August, Maria Gustafsson said. “I didn’t know he emigrated but I found out in Swedish church records.”

She said in Sweden his name was Johanesson, but was changed to Ekstrom when he came to the United States.

At the time, she didn’t know of the name change and thought she was looking for a needle in a haystack.

“I went on the Internet and couldn’t find him,” she said. “One day, I sat in front of my computer, Googled and got a hit on ( I then found the Ekstrom tab, read the text and realized I would never have otherwise found him. It was just luck.”

She said her family always knew there were relatives in the United States, but the contacts were lost in the 1940s and ‘50s.

“I discovered a new branch to the family tree,” she said. “I like to trace my roots to find members of the family.”

And that she did. Along with husband Bertil, the couple drove from their home in Savsjo, Sweden to Denmark, flew from Copenhagen to Reykjavik to Minneapolis and North Dakota. They spent several days finding new family members and tracing the steps of deceased family members.

Since discovering Per’s life in Kenmare, Maria set up a Facebook group called “My U.S. Ekstrom family.” As of Thursday, she said there were 75 people in the closed group.

They also realized through Per that she is a distant relative to Deanne Ankenbauer and Merrill Rodin. Harlan Nelson, who was the Gustafssons’ tour guide, is the second cousin of Maria’s father.

“And we didn’t know,” she said. “We knew that Per’s brother moved to Sioux City in the 1880s, but that’s all we knew.”

According to Nelson, it was just an accident that Per came to North Dakota.

Apparently, he worked as a tailor and some of the dyes and chemicals, as well as being allergic to leather, caused poor health and he had to get away from it. Per was named in a will connected to the Kenmare area and that is how he wound up in Kenmare.

He married in 1899 and the couple arrived in Kenmare in 1903, using the homestead act to acquire 160 acres of farm land.

Maria’s plans are to continue to investigate Per and his brother as well as two sisters she currently knows very little about.

“One sister had four children, but right now, we’re stuck,” Maria said. “We did find one branch that goes to the U.S. Virgin Islands.”

With that in mind, Maria designed and built her own digital family tree and has been adding her “new” relatives.

“I build the family tree with who I find,” she said. “It’s better to have it myself. It’s easier to update.”

She said her Swedish relatives see her trip to the United States as very important and when they get back to Sweden, they will have a sort of family reunion to tell them of what they found in the United States and show them pictures they took while here.

They also had an American reunion at M&K’s Pizza Hub on Thursday night in which about 40 people attended, including 18 blood relatives, according to Nelson.

“In a way, we could say the circle is closed,” Bertil said. “That is Maria’s family. We’re also traveling and visiting my family in Minneapolis and Billings.”

Another key in that family circle centers around a small stone that Maria brought with her from Sweden to Kenmare. She placed it on Per’s grave stone with a ribbon wrapped around it indicating the colors of the Swedish flag.

The stone came from the church in Sweden where Per was born and baptized before he left his homeland.

Bertil indicated that too has closed another circle in Maria’s  family tree.

The Gustafssons said they were very surprised by what they found in North Dakota aside from meeting their relatives.

“There are a lot of positive surprises,” Bertil said. “There was a huge field of sunflowers that we could see for miles. It’s quite different, but such a beautiful landscape.”

He added they have certainly enjoyed the friendship and hospitality afforded them while in the area.

“We came inside this community and saw it from their eyes,” Bertil said. “I could grab a man on the street and get along with him. But with family, their homes and hearts are open. That’s a very positive thing with family relations. Even if it’s far away, there is some kind of a connection. We have told people here that we have a guest room at home in Sweden.” ... Read EVERY WORD on EVERY PAGE of The Kenmare News by subscribing--online or in print!