Making Ardelle Neufeld smile

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I went looking for my grandparents in the newly released 1940 Census forms but found my real reward when the face of Ardelle Neufeld, an 80-year-old woman I’d never met, lit up at BB’s Diner in Mountain Lake on Wednesday.

As half the world knows, the federal government on Monday made public the actual forms census takers filled out 72 years ago this month. (That’s the half that clogged the National Archives’ servers for at least a couple days trying to do what I was trying to do.)

I immediately went searching online for the farm in Cottonwood County, in southwestern Minnesota, where my grandparents raised my father and eight other sons and daughters. I knew the farmstead was long gone, its buildings razed, its trees cut, its identity erased to become a ghost on the corn-and-soybeans fields of Carson Township.

But it had been there in 1940, so, when the Internet let me, I started scouring through the hundreds of names in Carson Township, looking for clues to a life I was connected to but had no memory of.

20120404_Census148650.jpgBob Peters and Gladys Harder try to pinpoint a location of where their grandparents farmed near Mountain Lake, Minn. The recently released 1940 Census data gave Bob and his brother Dave a lot of insight into their relatives past. Photo by Jackson Forderer for MPR

Nothing. I looked in nearby townships. Same result.

Did the census taker skip them? Did they refuse to answer? I resigned myself to waiting months for an index of names to become available. Instead, I switched grandparents and decided to hunt down my maternal grandmother in the nearby town of Mt. Lake.

Online paydirt this time. I found records of the home I had visited as a child, a solid square brick house my mother grew up in. In the 1940 record, there was my widowed grandmother, Mary Kintzi, and her oldest daughter, still at home at 36 and listed as assistant housekeeper. There were two other daughters, one a doctor’s receptionist who had earned $504 the year before, the other still in high school. My great uncle, wounded in World War I and on disability, was living there as well. The home was listed as worth $4,000, on the high end for those times; my grandmother called herself a housekeeper, 55.

I knew that a fire broke out in the house last year, and it was torn down. But, just to see what I could see, I enlisted MPR News reporter Dan Olson and my brother, Bob Peters, to drive three hours to Mt. Lake on Wednesday and maybe find someone in the town of 2,100 who could reveal more than five lines of a census form.

We found what was now a school parking lot, in 1940 the home of five people. Pines still stood, but the mulberry tree I remembered was gone. The ice cream store down the block was empty. It wasn’t a particularly revealing moment, I have to acknowledge.

20120404_Census057650.jpgWilma Lindstrom looks out her window as she reminisces about life in the 1940s in Mountain Lake, Minn. Lindstrom said she did a lot of rollerskating in her youth, and thinks that kids today play too many video games. Photo by Jackson Forderer for MPR

But we wandered across what had been the garden and back yard and chatted up Wilma Lindstrom, 89. She’s lived in the neighborhood more than 50 years and remembered my grandmother and especially my Aunt Rachel. She was happy to reminisce about high school days and how what once was a town dominated by Russian Mennonites has in recent years begun to reflect a much larger world, changes brought by an influx of Laotians and others.

“They’ve really helped our school, I guess,” Lindstrom said. “They are learners. They’re really intent about getting an education.”

census-kintzi-home-fire650.jpgMt. Lake firefighters try in January 2011 to control a fire in the home that belonged to Mary Kintzi when the 1940 census was taken. The home was later torn down. Photo: Mountain Lake Observer/Advocate

By now it was lunch time, and that brings me back to Ardelle Neufeld.

She’s the mother of Kris Langland, the editor of the Mountain Lake Observer/Advocate, who had graciously agreed to meet us and invite a few old timers along, including Ardelle. As it happened, my cousin Gladys Harder showed up, too.

Bob and I explained how we’d found the home of our Grandmother Kintzi but scratched our heads at the mystery of our missing paternal grandparents’ farm.

Wait a minute, Ardelle said. She had grown up near my grandparents. They didn’t live in Carson Township. Phone calls were made, maps were consulted. It was Midway Township.

Thank goodness the Internet gods at the National Archives had calmed down. (And thanks to my Verizon wireless card.) I opened my computer on the diner’s table and pulled up the census site. I found Enumeration District 17-13 and started paging through.

20120404_Census118650.jpgFrom left, Gladys Harder, Ardelle Neufeld and Bob Peters look at a map of Minnesota in BB’s cafe in Mountain Lake, Minn. to try to find where a relative of Peters farm property might be. Bob and his brother Dave traveled to Mountain Lake to revisit their past by looking at the 1940 Census data that was recently made public. Photo by Jackson Forderer for MPR

Bingo. There, on a laptop screen in the middle of a table full of hot beef commercial and BLT sandwiches, were my missing grandparents. I was surprised to find my father (29 years old, a bachelor teacher making $1,275 a year but still living at home, something I didn’t know), and there were six younger siblings. The kids spoke German as their first language, all living on a small, diversified farm that today is but a corner in a large field.

I scrolled down the page, following the path of the census taker 72 years ago, and there she was in his scrawled penmanship. Neighbor, Ardelle Loof, 8, daughter of Joe and Gertrude Loof, farmers who had come from Iowa. The woman across the table from me beamed, mouth open, tickled to see how this record from days gone by has resurfaced and to find it on a computer screen. It was as if a light went on.

And with that, she, Gladys and another long-time resident, Don Ross, were off to the races, recalling times past, recreating a community and a time they loved.

The census form noted that Ardelle’s 8-year-old self in 1940 had already completed two years of school. “There was only one boy in first grade and they didn’t want him to be the only student, so they said, ‘start her, she’s ready.’

20120404_Census151650.jpgArdelle Neufeld, whose maiden name is Loof, looks at the record of herself and her family from the 1940 Census in BB’s Diner in Moutain Lake, Minn. Photo by Jackson Forderer for MPR

Ardelle had eventually married a Neufeld and moved to town (as did my grandparents and most other farmers. The rural population of Cottonwood County is a third what it was in 1940.)

There was the 1939 high school basketball team to recall, the invention of a new clothespin by a local man during World War 2, people to conjure up from the census list of names.

Ross graduated from high school (with my aunt) and went to war. His brothers landed in Normandy on D-Day. He came home and went into his father’s dry cleaning business. He should have gone to college, he thinks now, but it’s been a good life.

After the war, he said, “The whole world was different, not only Mountain Lake.”

20120404_Census193650.jpgBrothers Dave and Bob Peters pose in front of a mural in the business district of Mountain Lake, Minn. Dave, director of MPR News’ Ground Level project, and his brother took a personal journey into their past by looking at the recently released 1940 Census data and traveling to Mountain Lake, Minn. Photo by Jackson Forderer for MPR News

So in the end, it wasn’t really the record of my grandparents that made the day. It was meeting a few folks who liked how their lives turned out, were proud of their community and who could happily open a window to the past and paint a little picture for some strangers.

In not too many years, that window will close, of course. I can only hope that when the 1960 census is made public in 20 years, someone will look me up and bring a smile to my face as rewarding as Ardelle’s.