Park Rapids woman keeps promise to father, which leads to more genealogy work, books
By VIVIAN (MAKELA) SAZAMA
For some people, their life’s calling comes at a very young age. That was the case for Lil Holm of Park Rapids.
“My grandfather, Alfred Miller, disappeared from our family when my dad was just six years old,” said Lil. “I always told my dad, ‘I’ll find him for you.’ He told me, ‘I believe you will!’” Though her father did not live long enough to see her accomplish that goal, Lil knows that she fulfilled her promise. Lil found her grandfather, caught the genealogy bug, and has found many other members of her family over the years.
Lil and her husband, Dan, live at the Crystal Brook Senior Living complex in Park Rapids. Dan is a retired Lutheran minister, “Five times retired,” Dan laughed. “Yes, he’s not good at retiring,” agreed Lil. Dan has been a Lutheran minister for a total of 53 years, with 36 years in Duluth. It was at the Mormon Library in Duluth where Lil spent a lot of time searching through their records when she at last found a microfiche of information on her grandfather’s whereabouts.
“The people there at the library were very helpful and kind. When I found my grandfather’s information I just sat there, speechless, with tears running down my cheeks,” said Lil. “The librarian could see how emotional I was, so he left the other people he was helping and copied down all the information for me. When it came time to pay, all I could do was hold out my hands with the coins; I still couldn’t speak.”
Lil’s road to finding her grandfather’s information was a long one, with many twists and turns. “I went to cemeteries. I found some information in county records and libraries. I even went to post offices and talked to the postmasters, who pretty much knew everyone in their town.” she said. Dan added, “I was her driver. I brought her to where she needed to go during her research.”
In 1999, Lil’s search led her to the small town of Sheffield, Iowa. By that time, Dan had retired for the first time and had bought a motorcycle. They decided that Lil would go to Sheffield while he took a trip to Sturgis, South Dakota, for the big rally there.
“At that time, you could still call the telephone operator and ask for information.” said Lil. “I had called Information and asked for anyone in Sheffield by the name of Miller. She gave me a list of first names and I settled on the name of a Ward Miller. You could say it was a “God thing,” because when I went to his home and he opened the door I almost fell over. He looked so much like my dad. He sounded like him and even had the same haircut!” It turned out that Ward was raised by Lil’s grandfather, who was his uncle, making Ward and Lil’s father first cousins. “Another thing you could say was a ‘God thing’ was that they just happened to be having a family reunion that day, and I was asked to join them. I met a lot of relatives I hadn’t ever met before and learned a lot that day!” said Lil. Though her grandfather had just passed on, she was able to go to his gravesite.
Since that day, Dan and Lil have visited Ward and his wife many times, having made a connection of shared family roots.
Lil’s research has led her to write a total of six books. “Four for Dan’s family and two for mine,” said Lil.
Lil’s family extends back 200 years. “When you do your research you need to look at all names involved,” said Lil. One such name for Lil was a Gottlieb Zirbel. “Gottlieb means ‘God is Love,’” said Dan, something that means a lot to the couple. “I had traced Gottlieb to a cemetery in Wisconsin,” said Lil. “A relative in that town had told me that he wasn’t there, but I knew he just had to be. We walked all over that cemetery and then we found his tombstone! I was right!” Her relatives were excited about her discovery as well.
After her books were published, Lil then sent out a form to all known relatives, inviting them to purchase the finished genealogy books. “Many relatives in one small town in Wisconsin started getting these books and they hadn’t even known they were related,” laughed Lil. “After they realized it, they decided to have a family reunion and invited me. They even named me ‘Queen of the Reunion’ with a corsage and all!”
Lil believes there are many reasons to preserve family history. “You can learn a lot about what diseases run in the family,” she said. “But also, it brings family together. In every book I send out I write ‘Keep the memories alive!’ -- something that I believe is very important.”
Were there any roadblocks during her research? Yes. “I had one relative try to steal all my research and take the credit. Another relative in California actually copied all the information and began selling it himself. It took many phone calls to get that one resolved,” she said.
“Copyrights don’t mean anything,” said Dan.
There were a few surprises, too, that came up in Lil’s research. “Grandpa Jack was my grandmother’s second husband. He became a bootlegger during the Prohibition, and he used to park right in front of the police station, saying that’s the last place they’d expect to find something!” Dan said with a laugh.
Another not so humorous realization was Lil’s grandfather Alfred leaving his family without a trace, and starting up a whole new family, was passed on down. Lil’s father also did the same thing, as did Lil’s brother. Those apples didn’t fall far from the tree.
After retiring from Duluth, Dan took a church north of Duluth for eight years. When Covid-19 hit, he decided it was a good time to retire again. The couple moved to Park Rapids a little less than two years ago.
“We used to have a log cabin on Lake Belletaine, with 100 feet of sandy beach, when I was ministering in Nevis from 1974 to 1986, but we sold it when we moved to Duluth,” said Dan. “Now we are looking for a place on a lake in this area again, which will be our “forever home,” he said. Dan is currently filling the pulpit at the Malvik Lutheran Church north of Lake George. “They were looking for an ordained minister to fill in while they waited for a new minister and asked if I could preach for a few weekends. Then it got extended for the summer. Now they’re asking if I could continue through the fall,” he laughed. “But I love to preach. To me it’s like a blank canvas, and I get to put it all together to make a beautiful picture.” Dan’s other activities after retirement include getting medals for many 5K races, and training as a massage therapist. He also took up downhill skiing.
Lil has taught many genealogy classes for Community Education. Her many other talents include knitting sweaters for family members. “I have even knit matching sweaters for my Ole and Lena dolls,” she laughed. “I guess I get that gift from my Grandma Lil.” Yet another reminder of the significance and importance of finding our family roots.