Family Ties, and Some Stubborn Knots

Today is the centenary of my dad’s birth.  Gordon Leslie Register was born on January 16, 1912, and died on November 30, 2004, six weeks short of 93.  I could go many directions from here, but ultimately my subject will be the maintenance of family ties.

For too long already I have been doing research for a book about a rather obscure historical event in my home landscape: the drainage of an 18,000-acre wetland between Albert Lea and Austin, Minnesota, by non-resident land speculators. I’ve been curious about my ancestors’ experience of the affected landscape, their attitudes toward the drainage, and its impact on their lives. Of course I also want to trace whether they influenced my orientation to the natural environment and to socioeconomic issues. I know that my dad’s maternal grandfather, E.H. Ostrander, was a vocal opponent of the drainage project.  Dad’s paternal grandparents, John and Amanda Register, were more directly affected by it: Turtle Creek, the natural creek that was reamed out and turned into Judicial Ditch Number One to empty all that surface water into the Cedar River, ran through their farm. carries incomplete collections of a couple of newspapers from the area:  The Freeborn County Standard and the Austin Daily Herald.  Earlier I had searched the word “dredge” on the Ancestry site to find mentions of the drainage project, and I have skimmed reels and reels of microfilm of the Standard at the Minnesota Historical Society.  Last week I decided to search the name of the township where the Registers farmed in Ancestry’s copies of the Herald.  These small town newspapers carried news from each of the rural townships, and since the Registers lived nearer to Austin than to their county seat, Albert Lea, I figured some of their news might get reported there.  My keyword search for “Moscow” yielded a good many items, even excluding the reports from the 1905 revolution in that other Moscow.

I learned that my grandfather, “Little Leslie Register,” suffered a sore throat in May of 1898, when he was nine, and that the family lost four head of cattle to a lightning strike in August of 1911.  My dad took pride in being the third generation of the family born on the farm that his great-grandparents, Robert and Mary Speer, had settled in 1855. Now I wonder if he was indeed born there.  For the birth of her first child, my aunt Vivian, in November 1910, my grandma, I learned, had moved back home with her parents in Alden township to spend her lying-in time. Did she do that for Gordy’s birth, too? As I finished my search through the 1911 Herald last Friday and signed out of the Ancestry site, I thought I would soon know. But the next morning I discovered that Ancestry’s collection stops in 1911 and resumes in 1951. I’ll soon be skimming microfilmed copies at MHS. I imagine the Ostranders would have had a harder time accommodating my grandma the second time around, since her mother was also about to give birth–to her eleventh child, a frail boy who died months later. We’ll soon see.

My most striking find in this collection of township “gossip” was the effort the Registers put into maintaining their family relationships.  As John and Amanda’s children married and moved to other townships and counties, the frequent visiting began.  The married children came home to visit their parents; the parents and family went to visit the married children.  The children still at home in Moscow spent days and weeks with their married siblings.  The Minnesota Registers visited Registers in Kansas, North Dakota, and Iowa, and Speers in Iowa and Wisconsin, and received their visits in turn. They probably had a local telephone by 1907, when the lines were strung to Moscow, but long distance came later. We can be smug about our instantaneous online connections–oh, wow, Skype!–but the Moscow Registers could step onto a train at several times of the day and travel in any direction.  Judging from the frequency with which they did so, access to family mattered a great deal.

My dad’s experience as the fourth generation to live on a single farm (until his parents lost it in the recession of the 1920s) obscures the fact that his family was more mobile than stationary.  Robert and Mary Speer were part of a gradual westward migration typical of  European American families.  They left his parents in Wisconsin to find land in Minnesota. His parents had left an older generation in Michigan after a migration from upstate New York.  The New York Speers had come from New Jersey, where a boatload of Dutch immigrants had arrived in the seventeenth century.  Some of our Dutch ancestors were descendants of exiled English Puritans. We have long been on the move.  Even so, the impulse to connect with family took my parents and sisters and me back to our grandparents’ homes every Sunday.

All that impressive visiting in the Herald obscures another truth about the family: its internal rifts.  Those become apparent only when I stop to notice who is missing from the record. There is no reported visiting to or from Ottertail County, where John’s brother Leroy ended up. George Speer, Amanda’s brother, disappeared from the U.S. Census, and, I thought, from the earth–until he turned up visiting “friends” in Moscow months after his father’s death, apparently when the will was settled.  We visited elderly Great Aunt Hattie and her “nervous” brother Bert on a farm near Austin, and we drove Great Aunt Isabelle from Austin to Albert Lea for family occasions.  Yet there were other Austin relatives I never got to meet–something to do with the loss of the farm, I guessed.  I have cousins from Arizona I am barely beginning to know, because their dad and mine–brothers–were estranged for 27 years.  Knowing that family legacy of orneriness, I understand why John and Amanda held on so tightly–or might it have been Amanda’s doing?

I would like to give the last word about family ties and legacies to my daughter, who posted this lovely entry on her Facebook page just before Thanksgiving:

With the holiday just around the corner, I find myself thinking a lot about family, like who I may see next week for dinner, ones who will be out of town, and those who are no longer around. I am so thankful to be part of such a loving family. Today, I recall my grandma’s beautiful, clear blue, caring eyes and how active and involved my grandpa was throughout his entire life. The two of them have passed down so many great traits to their children. My mom found her own way to give back through her church, and more recently, through volunteering her literary skills at a correctional facility. I ♥ family.

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