Growing up, I never knew much about my family or its history. Family trees for school projects were always hasty, improvised affairs that rarely extended beyond my grandparents no matter how much I badgered my parents for information. Somehow, it never seemed strange at the time that my parents sometimes couldn’t even tell me the names of my great-grandparents – their own grandparents! I knew immigration was somehow involved but I wasn’t sure of the countries or even when it happened.
Last weekend I walked the streets of Bolan, Iowa, my great-grandfather’s birthplace for the first time. The town is a single street set amidst fields of corn rich with stands of electricity-generating windmills. It’s a small town – currently a population of 9 – and probably always has been. My great-great-grandparents came to Bolan from Sweden, Scandinavians drawn to the Midwest like so many before them.
I never met my great-grandfather but visiting his town made me feel like I had. The street, buildings, and landscape made this long unknown part of my history tangible, more real than I ever thought possible. Bolan was somehow my hometown, too.
It’s a funny thing for someone like me who writes about history and cares deeply about the past to know so little of my own story. There’s a deep connection that comes from understanding history and the forces that shaped a time and a place. It’s a feeling that once found is hard to shake. When I talk to people about history and why it matters, I often say that you can’t know where you are until you know where you’ve been.
I’m just now figuring out where I’ve been.