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My Perspective: Adding color to my family tree

By Jim Palmer

I have always had some interest in genealogy. It’s not a passion, but it is an interest. A few members of my family, on both sides, have traced our families back several generations. One day, I hope to contribute to the family tree in some way.

A lot can be learned by looking at these family records. I can see who has lived the longest, who died too young, and how popular the name “John” has been in the family (on both sides).

This photo, taken in 1900, includes my great grandfather Edward Behning (left), Frank Mackowski (back) and Charles Decker Sr. (right) in Decker’s Art Store, a frame shop in Duluth. Edward was a teenager at the time and went on to work for 60 years at the frame shop. Contributed photo

But one question I always have when looking at my family tree (or any family tree) is what I consider the most important part of any family history... who exactly were these people? What did they do for a living? What were their hobbies? Their passions? Their personalities? Of course, the further back you go, the fewer professions and hobbies there were, but there must be some details that could be added next to those names and dates.

I want to see things like, “William was a ornery man with a short temper, but he made a heckuva rhubarb pie,” or “Ethel loved to sew, but she was lousy at it. She was a gifted dancer and traveled by train to dances in the area.” or “Ingvall smoked a pipe and had a bushy mustache. He was single his whole life, but wasn’t always alone -- he had a family of squirrels that lived under his porch and he cared for them like they were family.”

No, you can’t fully describe anyone in just a couple sentences, but even a few lines on each person would make that family tree really come alive.

Of course, filling in that information is much easier said that done, but I’m sure there are some details out there to find if I was to dig in the right places. And sometimes, the information just presents itself...

A couple of years ago, my mom gave me a copy of an old, black and white photo. It showed the interior of a frame shop. In the photo, hidden off behind one of the frames, is a boy wearing a bow tie and suspenders. “That’s Edward Behning,” said my mom, giving me a copy of the photo. She said he worked at the frame shop for many years, starting as a little boy. Edward was my great grandfather.

I took the photo, cleaned it up digitally on my computer, printed it out put a little frame on it. I placed it in my office. I thought it was an interesting photo and thought it was unique that Edward had worked in an frame shop. I have worked in photography for a good chunk of my life and even sold a few frames for a while back in the early 2000s as part of my business.

Earlier this year, my uncle John Maki from Duluth posted the same photo on Facebook with more details. This would be an opportunity to learn some real family history. Edward was John’s grandfather.

The photo was taken in 1900 at Decker’s Art Store, located at 16 2nd Avenue West in Duluth. Included in the photo was Edward, Charles Decker, Sr., the owner, and Frank Mackowski, another employee. Edward was just 13 years old when he started at Deckers and had been working for a few years at the shop when the photo was taken.

John also posted a newspaper clipping that was published during Duluth’s centennial celebration in 1956. Edward was honored at the centennial pageant for being Duluth’s longest standing employee. Edward had worked 60 years at Decker’s. He had worked all but about 18 years of his life at the same place.

Looking for “the rest of the story,” I asked John for more details.

He said that when my great grandfather was a young man, he moved from the Kenwood area -- a neighborhood on the northern side of Duluth -- to a home closer to downtown. Why?

“He never owned a car and never drove,” said John. “He moved closer to downtown so he could walk to work.”

Edward Behning puts together a frame at Decker’s toward the end of his career in the 1950s. He was recognized at the Duluth Centennial for being the longest standing employee (60 years) in Duluth at that time. Contributed photo

John said Edward remained employed during the Great Depression, which turned out to be a great move for his family.

“Most of the affluent people in Duluth continued to acquire fine art paintings and had them framed at Deckers,” said John. “Also, starving artists could not pay for framing, the artists would give paintings to Deckers. Sometimes, my grandfather would obtain fine paintings. Many of his grandchildren received paintings and some still are on display.”

John added that he never remembered his grandfather taking a vacation, but he has seen photos of him trout fishing with the Decker family. Edward was also active in the Minnesota National Guard.

I never met Edward. He was gone more than a decade before I was born. His name was brought up at some family gatherings, but I never really knew much about Edward.

On the family tree and on his grave stone, the only information included is Edward C. Behning, born May 25, 1883, died May 16, 1961. That just tells me the stats. Now I know a little about Edward the person. I can now pencil in a little paragraph next to his name on the family tree. Edward’s branch on the tree now has a little color.

If you want to add more color to your family tree, I would suggest that you talk to the oldest members of your family or to explore historical societies/museum where past family members spent most of their lives. For me, that would be Pine County and St. Louis County in Minnesota. For my wife, that would be Brown and Beadle County in South Dakota. While this information on Edward just presented itself to me, many museums have historical records on people and families that go back several decades. You might find some nuggets of information about your family that can bring color to your family tree, too.

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