Tuesday, February 19, 2013

When Opportunity Knocks, You Have to Open the Window

"When opportunity knocks, you have to open the window," a friend of mine used to say.  We enjoyed her inadvertent twisting of old sayings, but many times I've thought this goofed-up cliché was sometimes appropriate for family history.

Every so often we stumble upon that stubborn ancestor who refuses to “open the front door” for us - it is difficult to find any direct information on their families.  And then, those open windows, no matter how small they are, become all the more important.  Tonight, Uncle Soren opened up another window for me, when my Grandpa Pete wouldn’t open the front door.

This is not the first time Uncle Soren opened a window.  I’d researched Grandpa Pete before, using the few facts I knew about him – he was a baker, born in Dostrop, Denmark, and owned his own bakery for a number of years before selling out to purchase a farm.  I had his wedding photo, as well as a small photo of an older woman named Elsie Ericksen, said to be his mother, standing with a younger looking man that was her second husband.  They lived in Omaha.  I had some of Pete’s siblings names.  There were lots of bakers in the family, the younger men learning from the older men.  End of story.

The name “Peter Christensen” must be the “John Smith” of Danish names.  I had discovered information about Grandpa Pete, as well as his wife and children, but finding anything on his family of origin was much more difficult.    Enter Uncle Soren, Pete’s younger brother.  I determined to find out all I could about Pete’s siblings, hoping I would then be able to learn something of their parents.  I hit paydirt with Soren.  I found him in the 1920 census, living with “Gents” and Elsie Ericksen in Omaha’s 3rd Ward.  “Gents” was 49 and worked for the railroad; his wife Elsie was 60, and Soren was listed as “stepson” and worked as a baker.  I followed Soren in subsequent censuses, and collected all documentation I could find on him.  He had continued in the bakery business and lived the rest of his life with his wife Agnes in a home on Pinkney St. in Omaha.  This matched an entry in my grandmother’s address book for “Aunt Agnes” on Pinkney St. so I knew I was on the right trail.  But the trail of “Gents” and Elsie went cold after 1920.

Back to Grandpa Pete.  I was doing some research on his bakery, “Bell Bakery” in Huron, South Dakota, and found his entry in the Huron City Directory of 1911.  He was single at the time and lived in a room above the bakery.  However, two entries down, I found a much unexpected listing for Soren Christensen, an employee of Bell Bakery, also rooming above the bakery.  Uncle Soren!! 

Several hours later, I had succeeded in finding Uncle Soren on two ship manifests.  I’m still sorting out the details, but it appears Pete paid his passage from Denmark and apprenticed him in the bakery business, and then Soren went back to Denmark and brought his mother and stepfather back.  Between the information supplied on these two ship manifests, I’ve learned several things:

1) The sister we only knew as Christina was named Kristine Nielsen and she lived in Hobro.

2) Grandpa Pete had paid Soren’s passage to the U.S., and provided him with a ticket as far as Tyler, Minnesota, where Pete would meet him.  Soren was just 14 at the time.

Once again, Uncle Soren has come through for me.    While Grandpa Pete helped open the door to a new life in the United States for his family, Uncle Soren has been opening windows to the past.  Someday, I hope to get the opportunity to thank him.

Graphic courtesy of Rob Krause and stock.xchng (www.sxc.hu)

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