Reporter never knew she had Minn. roots until job brought her … home

  • Article by: MAYA RAO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 16, 2014 - 6:19 PM

On a Midwestern odyssey, a woman from the East Coast discovers her Minnesota roots ­­— and a deeper connection to the power of family.

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Rao had hung a copy of the painting “The Prairie Is My Garden” to cover a bare spot on her wall. She didn’t know it was a family heirloom.

Photo: Courtesy of the South Dakota Art Museum,

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I once drove over the site of my great-great grandparents’ old farm without knowing it.

If you’ve traveled around southern Minnesota much, you have, too.

Bulldozed to make way for the construction of Interstate 90 near its junction with Interstate 35 in Albert Lea, the fields they once tended are now striped over by asphalt, near a McDonald’s and an Applebee’s.

Their cabin was moved in the 1960s to the local historical museum — where I stumbled across this relic of my Norwegian heritage last year.

Seeing it jolted my sense of cultural identity: I was used to thinking of myself as a biracial East Coaster. I never knew I had Minnesota roots.

Edward, my Norwegian-American grandfather, had been dead for 15 years by the time I was born. His mother had grown up on the Albert Lea farm, but had moved to Brookings, S.D. Edward never picked up her fluency in Norwegian or returned to Minnesota.

The only remnant of Norway my mother carried was that she was named after Kristin Lavransdatter, the heroine of a trilogy about life in Norway during the Middle Ages. My mother was raised in the South, and by the time she married a man from India and raised my sister and me in a Washington, D.C., suburb, the threads of our Norwegian heritage had weakened from time and loss of connection.

But on a road trip around the country three summers ago, I barreled east out of South Dakota through Albert Lea and, I learned later, right over the farm where my great-great grandfather Guttorm had settled after emigrating from Norway in the 1870s. Four months later, I accepted a job writing for the Star Tribune, moving from Philadelphia to Minneapolis — and into my family’s past.

My mother’s sister in California, Aunt Lore, had tracked our ancestry and shared a raft of papers and photographs detailing my Minnesota connections. Her research led me to a distant cousin in Eden Prairie, Frank, who showed me a book of our family tree that had my own name in it, along with hundreds of others going back to 19th-century Norway. One of the first pages had a map of Norway pointing to the location of the farm in Ringerike “where the journey to America began.”

Viking pride

On a trip to Minneapolis to see me, my parents drove with me to Albert Lea to meet another distant cousin. She took us to the Freeborn County Historical Museum, which featured a log-cabin replica of the home where my great-great grandparents had raised their 10 children. It had a wooden piano, a spinning wheel and a narrow staircase leading to the one bedroom. On the walls hung somber portraits of Guttorm and his wife, Sophie, and a framed copy of the Lord’s prayer. Guttorm and Sophie were buried a few miles away.

My aunt gave me a letter Guttorm had written to his daughter, my great-grandmother Clara. In it, he lamented in Norwegian that his sons were not helping tend to the livestock while he lay in bed sick. He said that because of his ill health, he might not make it back East. That was in 1911, exactly 100 years before I accepted a job in the Midwest.

Nothing in the family archives explains why Clara and her husband left Albert Lea for Brookings, but she clearly built a good life there. After her husband died, she ran the savings and loan where he had been an executive, eventually tucking away enough for the education of several generations.

Learning about my ancestors’ lives — where they lived, how hard they worked — prompted me to consider my own life. I realized that I wanted to find somewhere to put down roots, to have children to pass a legacy onto.

But I wanted to know more about my grandfather ­­— and how I came to be a part of this Midwestern pioneer family.

I knew that he had moved to a series of warmer states after college, married a girl of British and German descent, had three children and became a plant pathologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He died of a heart condition at 50.

A staid, autobiographical paper he wrote in the 1930s while he was at South Dakota State University expressed his pride in “my Viking ancestors … and their love of life and adventure.” He went on to confess his disappointment in his shyness and his sense of being a social failure.

His words seemed at odds with the handsome man in the photographs I’d seen, but they struck me deeply: I had struggled with the same insecurities.

  • related content

  • Although Rao, right, never met her grandfather, his childhood friend, Omar, brought him to life through his stories.

  • Questions about her grandfather led Maya Rao on a quest to learn about her family history.

  • In a 1915 photo, Rao’s great-grandmother Clara and her siblings pose in front of their Albert Lea home, which was later torn down.

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