Some history buffs dig into genealogy websites to mine ancestors' records. Some send in saliva for DNA scrutiny. Others comb through photo albums and mildewed boxes in attics and basements.
Then there's Linda Leraas Ray, 67, a retired floral designer who lives along the Mississippi River near Monticello. She embraces history with action, delving into her past with unusual zeal.
Ray has placed new headstones in a Minneapolis cemetery where her great-aunt and great-uncle were buried in unmarked graves in the 1870s, childhood victims of diphtheria and dysentery. She's raised $90,000 to shore up and preserve a rural Minnesota church where her great-grandfather, Ole Leraas, plied his carpentry skills to build the altar and communion rails at Immanuel Lutheran Church in the 1880s.
Ray dresses in black Norwegian period costumes to portray her great-grandmother Martha, Ole's wife, for cemetery tours and family reunions. She's trekked up a Norwegian mountain on foot to find the farm where Ole was born in 1844. There's no road leading to it.
"I'm just humbled by the sacrifices my ancestors made and the many hardships they endured," she said.
Through extensive research, Ray learned that Olav (Ole) Leraas became the first family member to emigrate from Norway to America in 1866 — but not before he asked for Martha's hand. They'd known each other their whole lives. Martha worked as a maid at the Leraas family farm.
Sailing alone to Quebec, Ole made his way to Goodhue County and worked as a cook at a hotel in Kenyon. He saved wages to return to Norway four years later, fetching his bride and sailing back west with Martha aboard the ship Harmonie.
They married in a church near Kenyon on Sept. 19, 1870, signing the marriage certificate as Ole Johnson and Martha Larson. When they realized how many Ole Johnsons lived in Minnesota, they opted for "Leraas," a reference to Ole's birthplace in Norway.
After two years in Kenyon, they followed some friends to Lien Township in Grant County, stayed there a couple of years and then moved to Minneapolis, where Ole worked as a carpenter and lumberman to earn enough to buy land on Cormorant Lake in Lien Township. They built a house there in 1878.
As charter members of Immanuel Lutheran Church two miles west of Barrett, they often welcomed newly arriving immigrants from Norway. But heartache soon defined their lives. Of Ole and Martha's 13 children, only six survived to adulthood. One son, John, drowned at 13 after falling through the ice on Cormorant Lake in 1885.
"We know the pain of such loss," said Ray, whose historical activism was sparked by a similar tragedy. She and her husband of 49 years, retired Navy submarine officer and nuclear power instructor Steve Ray, met in high school in Barrett. Their eldest of two sons, Jason, 30, died in a kayaking accident in 2005. He was engaged to be married.
Nine years later, Linda discovered an obituary written in Norwegian about the deaths of two of Ole and Martha's children who were buried at the Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery in Minneapolis.
Lars died from dysentery in 1874 when he was 10 months old, and his sister Anna died the next year from diphtheria at 4. In 2015, Linda and Steve hired an engraver in Monticello to etch their names, birth and death dates into gravestones that they placed in the cemetery's paupers' section where they were buried among 2,300 others, mostly children.
"We had to do a lot of detective work to find when and where they were buried," she said. Cemetery records spelled Anna's last name as "Luirass" instead of Leraas, and Lars' record was filed under his middle name.
Only 20 of the graves in the paupers' section were marked with stones. "Now there are 22," Ray said.
These days, she's focusing on the church near Barrett that Ole helped build. She found his signature on Immanuel Lutheran's original mortgage papers.
"Out of 27 early churches built in Grant County, only three remain," she said. The cemetery owned the church but was barred from using its funds until Ray stepped in. "It's become a passion in my heart to try and help save the church," she said.
Fundraisers included the sale of legacy bricks to families connected to the country church, with donations from across the country enabling the foundation to be shored up, she said. While the congregation has long since dissolved, Ray said they hope to use the church for events.
"It's an amazing feeling to be cleaning and dusting the altar and rails my great-grandfather built in the 1800s," she said.
Ray is wrapping up a stint as cultural director of the Daughters of Norway, Lodge No. 51, Minneapolis, a chapter first launched in 1898 that went dormant until she and others revived it in 2010. They recently sponsored a Zoom event with a Viking-style blacksmith. That's the kind of hands-on history that Linda Ray loves to embrace.
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.