In the Footsteps of my Ancestors

This was going to be my “Drive around North Dakota” day.  My goals today were two-fold:  1). To visit several places around the state important to my family’s history, and 2). To see the geographic center of North America.  Lofty goals, perhaps, but then again, I'm the Extreme Geographer!

Above:  This was my "Drive around North Dakota" day. I left Bismarck at mid-day and drove counter-clockwise around the state, visiting places important in my family's history.  I also visited the geographic center of North America, which is west of the small town of Balta.

I got up around 6 a.m. and watched the gorgeous sunrise over the Missouri River, just as I had for many mornings here several years ago.  Back in 2001, I took a five-month trip around North America, which I described on my captivating (?) travel website,  My mother had died a few years earlier, so I decided to take some time off to travel around America and research my family’s history, because I wanted to learn more about where I came from.  Traveling around America, I learned a lot about my family's history that spring and summer, and the last stop would be Bismarck, because my Mom had grown up here in the 1930s during the Great Depression.  I reached Bismarck on September 1, 2001 (10 days before 9/11) and figured I’d be here for only a day to two, to do some research in the library and confirm what she’d told me a few years before. 

But nothing my mother had told me checked out, so I ended up staying in Bismarck for six weeks, trying to figure out her family story (I'm nothing if not persistent).  I spent almost that entire six weeks staying here at Fort Lincoln State Park.  I’d get up each morning, have breakfast at my picnic table, drive into Bismarck to do research either at the library or the State Heritage Center by the capitol, then go back to the campground in the evening and have dinner.  After several weeks of research, I was finally able to piece together my mother’s story.  Rather than growing up in Bismarck during the Depression in a well-to-do family, as she’d told me, I learned that she had grown up dirt-poor on a farm about 30 miles north of Bismarck.  Perhaps she’d been too ashamed to admit that to anyone in the family, including me, my siblings or even my Dad. 

Back in 2001 when I completed that research, I had felt a tremendous sense of sadness, not because I was ashamed of her, but because she felt that she had to hide her past from us.  I unearthed some incredibly painful events during that research and I left Bismarck with a tear in my eye.  So now coming back here to Bismarck 15 years later, some of that pain and sadness resurfaced.  But despite that, I wanted to revisit some of those places that were so important to my family’s story.

I left the campground around 7:30 a.m., then stopped at Dan’s Supermarket in Mandan to pick up some flowers for the various graves I’d be visiting later that day.  I crossed the Missouri River into Bismarck and stopped at the Bismarck Public Library, where I’d spent so much time doing research back in 2001, then walked by Bismarck High School.  After my mom's father lost his farm during the Depression, the family moved to Bismarck around 1933 and my mom attended school here.  Her dad died a few years later when she was 12, and her mother, Helga, had eked out a living raising my mom and her two younger sisters.  Helga, by the way, was born in a sod house in South Dakota in 1897 and died when I was just four, so I barely remember her.  My mom graduated from Bismarck High in 1943 and met my dad a month later, as I described in my previous entry.

I left Bismarck around 11 a.m. and headed north on U.S. 83 for about 30 miles, then pulled into the small town of Regan.  Nearby was the farm where my mother had grown up in the 1920’s.  I couldn’t remember exactly where the farm was; there’s nothing left of it now and no buildings.  But I stopped at the Regan cemetery to pay my respects to my mom’s father and grandfather, who are buried here.

The next stop was the small town of Wing, 10 miles down the road.  The most amazing event of my five-month trip in 2001 occurred here in Wing, when I met a delightful 86-year old woman named Hester Bailey who, as I learned, had been my grandmother Helga’s kindergarten student back in 1920.  I had a wonderful conversation in Wing’s little “Chat and Chew” café with Hester, back in September 2001, as she told me stories about my grandparents and, even more amazing, my great-grandparents, whom I’d known nothing about.  I showed Hester some old photos from the 1920s that my grandmother had kept and, incredibly enough, Hester recognized herself as a five-year-old girl in one of the photos standing next to her classmates by the school where Helga taught.  Meeting Hester back in 2001 had been the most incredible experience of my entire five-month journey and she and I kept in touch for years afterwards.  Sadly, though, Hester passed away about 10 years ago.

After leaving Wing, I drove north a couple hours to the town of Fessenden, which was where my grandmother Helga had grown up in the early 1900s.  From my prior journey in 2001, I’d located the house where she’d grown up with her mother Anna and paid another visit.  There was no one around, but it was nice to be here, nonetheless.  Afterwards I stopped at the nearby cemetery and visited the grave of Anna, my great-grandmother who died in 1933.  She had worked hard as a laundress for many years and, as her obituary said, “Anna had practically given her life to make a better life for her children.”

Tracing my Family History in North Dakota


The Geographic Center of North America:  Balta or Rugby?

With most of my family history touring done, I switched back to my Extreme Geographer mode.  The next stop on my trip today was the Geographic Center of North America.  As you know if you’ve been reading my website, during the past week I’d visited the Geographic Center of the contiguous United States (in Lebanon, Kansas) and the Geographic Center of the 50 States, which is understandably a bit farther north and west of there, located near Belle Fourche, South Dakota.  “North America” includes all the countries in the Western hemisphere north of Guatemala, including Mexico, several small countries in the Caribbean, like Cuba and Haiti, and of course, the big one, Canada, which is a tad larger in size than the United States.  There are over 30 countries that comprise “North America” and the geographic center is in central North Dakota near the little town of Balta.  So Balta (pop. 65) was my next stop.

I drove into Balta around 5 p.m. and discovered that there are just a few buildings in “downtown” Balta.  But my destination was past the town and several miles away, out in the farmlands.  I followed my GPS and drove down several empty dirt roads and finally reached it.  The geographic center of North America is actually in a small lake about 6 miles west of Balta.  Unlike the geographic center of the lower 48 States, in Kansas, or the geographic center of the 50 states, in South Dakota, there’s no marker here – probably because it’s in the middle of the lake, so I was a little disappointed.  Nevertheless, I took several pictures of it, including a panorama photo.  I’d now been to all three “center” points.

After spending 20 minutes at the geographic center, I backtracked on the dirt roads back to Balta, then continued heading north on Highway 3 for about 12 miles until I reached Rugby, North Dakota.  Signs on the outskirts of town proudly proclaim that Rugby is the “Geographical center of the United States,” even though the actual center is about 15 miles away near Balta.  But Rugby (pop. 2,876) is a lot bigger than Balta and it’s the county seat, so I guess it can push little Balta around.  I stopped at the stone marker in Rugby proclaiming the “Geographic Center of North America,” which is conveniently located at the intersection of two major highways.  Gee, what a coincidence, huh?

This “Rugby / Balta” thing reminded me of the situation in Florida regarding the southernmost point of the continental United States.  Key West claims the prize, but the southernmost point is actually nowhere near Key West.  It’s either about 10 miles to the southwest on tiny Ballast Key (if you’re counting islands) or several miles north at Cape Sable (if you’re not).  These sorts of proclamations are good for the Chambers of Commerce, I suppose, but real geographers know the truth!

The sun was dipping low on the horizon, but I had one more stop to make that day.  I never knew my grandmother Helga, who’d grown up in North Dakota and died in 1964, but after my Mom passed away many years ago, I inherited Helga’s photo album, which contained some fascinating black-and-white pictures taken in the early 1900s.  Years earlier I had used the album to help me piece together the story of Helga’s life, and I learned that she’d graduated from Minot Teacher’s College in 1920.  There was a photo in her album that always intrigued me, of Helga standing with some colleagues outside an impressive stone building.  It looked like a small graduation ceremony, so I had a hunch that this building might just be Minot Teacher’s College, which is now Minot State University. 

I was determined to find out, so I headed west in the fading light and reached Minot (pop. 47,997) around 7 p.m., then found Minot State University.  I pulled into a parking area at dusk and immediately saw the building.  I was right!  According to a placard, the building was called “Old Main” and it had the same fluted lamp post that was in Helga’s photo from 1920.  I walked on the same steps where my grandmother Helga had so many years ago, then went inside the building.  After a few minutes, and with a sense of satisfaction, I got back in the truck. 

It was well past sunset now, so I headed back to the highway and drove back to Bismarck, arriving at the campground around 10 p.m.  It had been another long day, but a day I’d never forget.

The Geographic Center(s) of North America, and a Visit to Minot



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