Grand Forks couple’s search for truth yields book, ‘A Child from the North Dakota Prairie’
Looking back on his childhood, George Schubert recalls a certain mystery always shrouded his family's past, discouraging him from asking about his ancestors -- where they came from, where they lived, what they did.
Looking back on his childhood, George Schubert recalls a certain mystery always shrouded his family’s past, discouraging him from asking about his ancestors - where they came from, where they lived, what they did.
“The family never told the next generation what went on,” said George. “The feeling you got was, ‘it’s not your business.’ ”
About 20 years ago, however, he and his wife, Arline, with help from their oldest daughter, Kathy, began digging into his family’s background. They spent countless hours in an investigation that took them places they had no idea they would go.
The result is “A Child from the North Dakota Prairie,” a self-published book that details the story of George’s mother, Beulah Kensler, who grew up “very poor,” living with her family in a sod hut at Grano, a tiny town in northwestern North Dakota, he said.
The book is available at the UND Bookstore and Ferguson Books & More in Grand Forks.
George Schubert taught speech pathology and audiology at UND for almost 50 years. He also served as dean of the former University College, an administrative “home” for freshman students, for 20 years.
Although retired, he still teaches a course on sport law for the UND business college.
He wrote the family history because he “wanted to chronicle what people went through back then, the hardships they faced,” he said.
Desire to know more
As a young man, George was not too interested in family history, he said.
“I was busy with athletics, with school. I had joined the faculty at UND (in 1965). I just didn’t pursue it.”
His biological father had abandoned the family when George was an infant, and his mother remarried.
“I had a good stepfather, and I felt to ask too much about my real father was to be unkind to him,” George said.
But decades later, “as I got closer to retirement, I wanted to know what really happened.”
His daughter, Kathy Schubert, was practicing law in Bismarck when she started gathering information and scouring records about her ancestors.
“She did a lot of research on microfiche - that was before the Internet,” George said. “The information she was able to collect stimulated more questions.”
“You become obsessed with it,” Arline said. “One question leads to three more.”
As an attorney, it was easier for Kathy to obtain court records that shed light on their family history, George said.
As their research peeled back layers of history, some of what they learned was not exactly welcome news.
They found out that, in the 1920s, George’s grandfather, Henry Kensler, was sentenced to 20 years in the state penitentiary at Bismarck for incest with his three daughters.
“We learned about it in bits and pieces,” George said. “Nobody talked about it. It really was a shocker.”
The family had lived and slept together in the same room, George said. His grandfather “tried to use that as a defense for incest.”
Already poor and struggling, the family could not make it financially after Kensler was imprisoned.
Two of his daughters were sent to an orphanage in Fargo which is now The Village, George said. One of those girls, Beulah, was his mother.
George’s grandmother moved with her two other children to Milwaukee to live in the cellar of her sister’s home.
“My grandmother tried to get the girls back, but she didn’t write well and was not educated,” George said.
Her appeals were denied by North Dakota authorities who said they would not consent until they were sure she could properly care for them.
“Back then, there was no welfare, no system to turn to and not much help,” George said. “It was a matter of, ‘you figure out how you’re going to get through this.’ That went on through the Depression …
“It was awfully hard to write (the book) and not be emotionally involved.”
In Fargo, George’s mother graduated high school and married a man who may have been a carnival worker, George said. That man abandoned his wife and baby shortly after George was born.
The Schuberts discovered that George’s grandfather was released from prison after serving eight years, George said.
He moved to Montana, where he married another woman with whom he had three daughters. He went on to commit incest with those daughters and was jailed in California where he and his second family had moved.
“All this was discovered through computers, email, census records,” George said. “As hideous as the story is, I wanted to know.”
“It was the best-kept secret you can ever imagine,” Arline said. “Over the years, it never leaked out.”
Information presented in the book “is not sugar-coated,” she said.
She and George “were amazed at how strong these people were (given) what they went through,” Arline said. “There certainly was no counseling. Where Beulah lived, those housemothers were certainly not counselors.”
It took about 20 years of research, including finding and contacting family members - or anyone with knowledge of his family - to provide information for the book, George said.
The Schuberts waited years for the government to release of 1940 census records in order to get exact names, address and marriage certificate information.
They met with officials of The Village who gave them more information on George’s mother, George said.
He and Arline, who also compiled her family history, followed every lead that might give them more insight as to who their relatives were and what happened to them.
“I can’t tell you how many hundreds of letters I sent out, knowing that they might not yield anything,” George said. Some of the responses were “incredibly kind.”
“The most common response was, ‘Are you sure you want to find out (this information)? You might find out things you don’t want to know.’ ”
A couple years ago, Arline and George met and shared family history with one of the daughters of his grandfather’s second family who had known nothing about his first family, they said.
George sees similarities between the secrecy that trapped his family history and the way people hid the existence of mental illness, alcoholism or a cleft palate in families, he said.
“In the ’40s and ’50s, people were still shielding this information … Things were not as open, and accepted, as they are now.”
Over the years, societal changes “have brought these things into the open, and we’re willing to help people. They can access services,” he said.
“There are a lot of things in all of our families’ pasts that one can allow to come to the forefront, that we don’t need to hide anymore, and that we can learn from.”
Their family history book represents “a chapter in George’s life that is now clear,” Arline said. “If you don’t know, you’ll always wonder.”
Knudson covers health and family. Call her at (701) 780-1107, (800) 477-6572 ext.1107 or email firstname.lastname@example.org .