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Sherri Keaton, Published August 09 2010

Photos open views into pasts of Clay County and Ellis Island

As a young British war bride, Esther “Betts” Henry traveled by boat across the Atlantic Ocean in 1946, settling in Downer, Minn., to make a new life with her husband, Lamont Henry, an American soldier who met Betts and married her in Liverpool, England.

Carrying a treasured child in her belly and a few items with her, the anxious 23-year-old Betts moved with Lamont to the Fargo-Moorhead area. She spent the rest of her life there.

“It was a shock for her,” said Jessica Henry, Betts’ granddaughter, a Nebraska resident.

Betts Henry died last summer at age 85. But her rich history still continues to be treasured through family memories and an exhibit featuring her story and those of about 30 other Clay County immigrants called “Coming to Clay County: 150 Years of Immigration.” The display opens Tuesday, at the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County at the Hjemkomst Center, 202 1st Ave. N., Moorhead.

The exhibit features immigrant life in Clay County and the region from the 1850s to present day. The collection of people it focuses on represents hundreds of families and thousands of stories passed on through generations.

It also delves into the questions of who came here, when they arrived, why they left their homelands, and why they chose to stay in the Clay County area.

“I think my grandma would really appreciate that her story is going to be heard by a lot of people. She loved to tell her story of how she came to America,” Jessica Henry said.

She remembers these stories and her tiny grandmother with flaming red hair very vividly, keeping them both close to her heart.

“My earliest memory of Grandma was her as a ball of energy, and she was very dramatic,” Henry said, remembering her grandma’s red hair bouncing from side to side as she told stories of her past.

“She was the type of person who would have become an actress – she liked to put on a show.

She really liked telling these stories, and we’ve all heard them. And I think the whole war bride experience is really interesting.”

A similar story centers on John G. Bergquist, who came to Moorhead from Sweden in 1868, when he was 19 years old.

A family story says Bergquist left Smaland, Sweden, because of a musical instrument.

As the story goes, he played an instrument on a Sunday, and due to religious restrictions, his parents smashed the instrument because he was not supposed to be playing it.

“He got angry and decided to leave the country,” said his great-grandson, Jim Bergquist, who lives south of Battle Lake, Minn. “If (the story) is true, it goes along with the personality trait called the Bergquist stubbornness.”

After settling in Moorhead, John G. Bergquist built himself a log cabin, which is now the oldest house in Moorhead still on its original foundation. Jim Bergquist helped restore the cabin to its original framework in the 1970s with his father and others.

“We put it on a nice cement foundation, and we restored it log by log from the ground up,” he said.

The Bergquist Pioneer Cabin, now on the National Register of Historic Places, is at 11th Avenue North and Eighth Street in Moorhead.

During one of Jim Bergquist’s moments of restoring the house, he stood on the banks of the Red River and reflected on his family’s past and the life of John Bergquist.

“I was standing on the same place he did before, and I was able to think about some stories that my father told me that had been handed down through generations,” he says.

Exhibit curator Mark Piehl said this show is important because it emphasizes what immigrants have meant for our country. It also allows viewers to gain an appreciation of what immigrants went through.

“Immigration has always been extremely important, especially to this area,” Piehl says. “Nearly everyone in the county today is a descendant from people who come from other places overseas. We are a nation of immigrants for the most part.”

The national importance of immigration is also on display at the Hjemkomst Center in an exhibit featuring the Ellis Island Portraits of Augustus Frederick Sherman.

His black-and-white photography documents the people who passed through Ellis Island, the gateway to America for so many people from around the world who moved here to find a better life.

“That was true in the 1860s, and it is true today,” Piehl says.

And it was true with Esther Henry. But the former immigrant never forgot where she came from. A native of Great Britain, she helped establish and met with the British War Brides’ Club. The group, which reminded her of her past, was part of her life until she died.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Keaton at (701) 235-7311