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Andrea Hunter Halgrimson, Published October 05 2013

Halgrimson: Boxes in basement hold insight to family’s past

‘Things ain’t what they used to be and probably never was,” columnist and actor Will Rogers once said.

According to historian Will Durant, civilization is the unnoticed history on the banks of the stream. In the past year, I have been overwhelmed by history. Not the history of civilization but rather my family’s history on the banks of the stream.

My parents have been dead for many years, my grandmothers and grandfathers for even longer. And my sister and one of my brothers have died. But the accumulations of their lives live on in the boxes in our basement.

My father was a pack rat, and I have inherited his affliction. My mother kept the books in our family, and I think she saved the mounds of paper that I’ve found at my father’s bidding.

The boxes revealed baptismal and birth certificates, marriage licenses, grade school and high school report cards, diplomas, diaries, receipts, canceled checks, airline tickets, travel brochures, tax returns and piles of articles from newspapers and magazines on a great variety of subjects.

At one time, my father had a collection of canceled checks that dated from his arrival in Fargo in 1935 to practice medicine until 1975, when my parents sold their big old house and moved into smaller quarters.

Most had been discarded during their move, but I recently found all of their checks from 1941 and 1942. The stack was about 6 inches high. Since a canceled check is a thing of the past, perhaps I should have saved them. I could have papered a wall and had a ready history of Fargo during those years.

As I looked through the checks, I found some made out to Northern States Power, Northwestern Bell Telephone and the Fargo Foundry, all of which are still in business although under different names.

There were many checks written to Earl Haeffner’s Grocery at 1412 2nd Ave. S. Although we had a neighborhood grocery store a block away from our house, Mom ordered supplies from Haeffner’s because Earl also delivered cases of beer. I remember cans of Fitger’s and Kingsbury. Before the days of tab openings, we had an opener just like the ones in bars that pierced the can tops with the pull of a lever. It was much more efficient than a church key.

Some checks reminded me of long-gone businesses – Alex Stern & Co., Ted Evanson’s Menswear, Moody’s and Herbst’s department stores, The Store Without a Name and Leeby’s, where you could buy fine cheeses that are not available here anymore.

As the duplex next to our old house on Broadway was being razed last month, I found a large envelope with the building permit – issued in 1951 – and all of the receipts for its construction.

Other envelopes held receipts from remodeling projects in the house, and most of those bills were from Olaf Anderson Construction, which is still in business.

I remember Tracy Myers, who was general contractor on many projects. Many years later he told me he had a hard time keeping his guys on their ladders as I walked through the house in my bikini. By then we had a swimming pool for which Howard Binford was the contractor.

There were copies of articles and book reviews that my father wrote for various medical journals. And there were papers and letters from my parents’ participation in the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony and the Fargo-Moorhead Audubon Society.

Mom always participated in the Audubon’s Christmas bird count and recorded the only cardinal seen in our area at that time.

And except for the legal documents, most of the above material is in the recycle bin. Thank goodness for the secure recycling available at Minnkota Recycling in Fargo.

I’m not one for much nostalgia. We can’t go back and probably wouldn’t if we could. I think Will Rogers is right.

Readers can reach Forum columnist Andrea Hunter Halgrimson at ahalgrimson@forumcomm.com