Grafton man, 94, a steward of area history
GRAFTON, N.D. — When Charles Stewart walks through his backyard to feed the rose-breasted Grosbeaks or orioles at his feeder or to tinker with some antique implement or car in his shop, he’s strolling through the pages of history.
Just a few dozen feet away stands a two-story frame house built in 1894 by his grandfather, Gust Colsen, one of Grafton’s founders. That sturdy house, overlooking the Park River, replaced the log cabin his grandfather built in 1884, when he homesteaded here.
“It was in the country back then,” the 94-year-old Stewart said. “There was no Grafton, no Walsh County, and no North Dakota. Where the log cabin was is a garden now.”
Stewart, one of the co-founders of the Walsh County Historical Society in the 1970s, has been preserving the community’s history most of his life. He played a major role in establishing the Walsh County Museum in Minto, N.D., nine miles to the south, and Heritage Village, a pioneer village on the west side of Grafton.
The local historical society also is responsible for the restoration of Elmwood, a stately Victorian mansion built in 1895 on an island in the Park River in northeast Grafton.
“History’s important,” he said. “I guess I’ve always felt it’s important to preserve what we have, what others have passed on to us.”
Gust Colsen was just 22 when he left Sweden, spending time working in a copper mine in Canada, north of Minnesota’s Iron Range, before finally settling here. That farm is now part of Grafton, including land on which the Walsh County Courthouse stands. The Colsen name later was changed to Carlsen.
Other Grafton co-founders, according to the historical society, are:
Thomas E. Cooper, born in England, first visited Walsh County in the spring of 1878. He returned in February 1879 at age 56, along with his wife, Amanda Locke Cooper, and four grown children. Cooper built the first building on the townsite and named the community Grafton, after the county in New Hampshire where his wife's parents were from. He served as the town's first postmaster.
Nils Monson was a 29-year-old bachelor who walked to the area from Winnipeg in the fall of 1878 to homestead. He was the first to deed his 160-acre homestead to the town.
Stewart, who served in the U.S. Army in World War II, returned to Grafton. In 1957, he bought five acres of his grandfather’s original farm, platted the land and had it annexed to the city. He then developed seven residential lots the family now calls Stewartville, plus a 20-lot mobile home park to the north.
Stewart taught industrial arts for 25 years, earning North Dakota teacher of the year honors in 1963, the same year he was presented with a distinguished service award from his alma mater, which then was Ellendale State Teachers College.
Stewart and his late wife, Ora Marie, a longtime librarian at Grafton’s Carnegie Library who died in 2010, earned master’s degrees from UND in 1970.
He served about a decade on the Grafton City Council. In 1992, he ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the North Dakota Legislature.
“That was interesting,” he said. “I learned something I didn’t like, like people telling me what to do and what to think.”
So, he returned to his passions: working on some projects and helping to keep history alive, not just in Grafton, but throughout Walsh County.
Stewart and others with the historical society also had a hand in the development of the Alexander Henry Rest Area, along Interstate 29, south of Drayton, N.D.
After learning that Henry, an 18th Century fur trader and partner in the Northwest Trading Co., had built a trading post near the Red River in what later became Walsh County, they campaigned to have a plaque erected along the interstate. While the state balked at the original idea of a free-standing plaque, the information was included in a historic display at the rest area.
The reins of the local historic society have moved into new hands in recent years. But it’s not an avocation he has completely let go.
“They still call on me to give talks once in a while,” he said. “A lot of the old-timers are gone now, and the younger ones don’t know a lot of the history. It wasn’t all that long ago, when you think about it. But we can’t let it fade away.”