By: Ellen Thompson
Do the names Aageson, Sorenson, Miller or Bakke sound familiar? Do you want to learn more about your family or Hill County? If so, the Havre-Hill County Library has a resource you may not have heard about - a family history section.
When the Havre and Hill County libraries consolidated in 1986, the Fort Assinniboine Genealogy Society gave its collection of family histories to the library, which has been adding to it ever since, said library director Bonnie Williamson. The library has more than 50 family histories and genealogies in its collections, with two recent additions.
New this month is "Friendship Quilt: An illustrated history of the Hi-Line and life stories of the Homesteaders and their children." In the book, Joplin resident Edith Svenson looks back on a quilt her mother, Constance Stowman Ergenbright, won in a Fairchild Lutheran Ladies Aid auction in 1930.
The quilt contains 330 names of people living in the area at the time. When the quilt resurfaced in 1990, when Ergenbright died, Svenson decided to track down a history of the names that appeared on the quilt. In 2004, Svenson finished a book about it. Included are newspaper clippings, histories and testimonials from the people mentioned in the quilt or their descendants. People reflect on their decision or that of their parents to leave Norway, Germany and other countries to struggle for decades in north-central Montana. The Great Depression and World War I and II are frequent topics in the 300-page collection.
Another recent addition to the collection is a history contributed by Harold Paulsen of Chinook. Paulsen recalls a youth full of tough lessons and fast-paced outdoor high jinks, including a few that threatened to cut his story short. He also recalls several-mile-long treks to and from country schools as well as hardships on the part of his parents to help the children make those trips. Paulsen gives a detailed account of how he would go about hauling water from a stream, as well as memories of gathering Russian thistle to use in hay because of its prevalence in the fields in the 1930s.
Longtime USDA Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service employee Ilert Hellebust shares a similar recollection in his memoir from the same library shelf.
Hellebust was born in 1915 and recalls the earliest homesteading days in Hill County both from his own youth and the stories of his parents. His memories, contained in "I Remember," were recounted over a decade starting in 1988. The entries, almost every one beginning, "I remember," alternate from the distant to not-so-distant past, from tough drought years in the 1930s, to rations in the 1940s, and beyond. The family's first washing machine is a prominent memory because of the relief it brought to Hellebust's mother. Dollar amounts are recounted carefully. The cost of his family's first automobile: $500. Hellebust's first steady wage, $100 a month.
"I decided if I didn't write it, it wasn't going to be written," Hellebust said in an interview this week.
Hellebust said he chose a series of one- to two-page reminiscences because he knew that way he would stick with it.
"I couldn't devote myself to a subject continuously and make it coherent," he said.
Now nearly 90, Hellebust said he has no plans to add any more to his collection. "The years have added up to just too many to try and go through them," he said.
He's glad he's already done it. "I feel that everybody should put down something, if you sit down and concentrate on it and leave a literary mark of some kind."
Hellebust's memoirs include a forward - a letter from former Gov. Ted Schwinden - to that effect.
Hellebust said he showed Schwinden the collection when it was complete, and then received the letter, which he decided to include. He got to know the governor when Hellebust was appointed highway commissioner and then chairman.
"Of all the things a country bumpkin could do, that was kind of the top item in your life," he said.
Hellebust recalls a cyclical pattern in population over the years. In the early 1900s, with the Homesteading Act, settlers flooded into the area, he said. Within one or two decades, the weather and some bad winters scared a majority of those people away again.
Some families had made a home of the area, and it grew, he said. In recent years, the population has gone down.
The wildlife has had a similar fate, not surprisingly, growing in numbers when people were few, and shrinking in numbers when they were many. Hellebust said that in the early 1930s he was part of a crew that was measuring plots of land from U.S. Highway 2 south to the Bear Paws. In six weeks, he did not come across any game, he said. He recalled hearing from one family in the area that they had seen two deer in 1923 but no more since.
In the 1940s, the wildlife started coming back to the point that elk could sometimes be hunted, he said.
Hellebust's son now farms land that takes up 22 original homesteads, a testament to the change, he said.