Searching the past

Everyone has a different starting point. That can mean starting point in the family, or a starting point for a place to do research. The starting point for Andrea Sonstegard was when "nobody could tell me any history of the house." That house is ...

Andrea Sonstegard
Andrea Sonstegard has been researching since April the history of the house she works in and the man who built it. She found that P.H. McEwen was a world-known hypnotist. She has found a poster, pictures and a book he wrote, which all line the hallway of her accounting firm office. (Brian Basham/DL Newspapers)

Everyone has a different starting point. That can mean starting point in the family, or a starting point for a place to do research.

The starting point for Andrea Sonstegard was when "nobody could tell me any history of the house."

That house is the large blue house next to Holy Rosary Catholic Church on Washington Avenue in Detroit Lakes that now serves as her office.

A curious mind led her to start researching its history on April 16, "the day after tax season ended," she said with a laugh. She started at the Becker County Museum, but there were no pictures of that section of Washington Avenue -- from Holy Rosary to about Subway. She tried a few other people in town until she hit the jackpot of starting points and went to the Becker County Recorder's office.

Sonstegard was able to trace back not only the origins of the house, but of the land as well.


"Darlene Maneval was wonderful," she said of the county recorder.

In 1862, the property belonged to Samuel Fox. The land was sold a couple of times, including to P.H. McEwen in 1889. When he sold it years later, it was for a substantial amount more, leading Sonstegard to think a house had been built in that time period.

She was right.

McEwen, who Sonstegard would later find was a world famous hypnotist, and his wife and daughter built the house in 1900.

Since then there have been additions to the house both inside and out, and a conversion of the carriage house out back into a garage. The house has been made into a duplex, and through a bit of research over the Internet, Sonstegard finally found a picture of the outside of the original house. She's still looking for inside pictures though.

In six months, Sonstegard has been able to find newspaper stories on McEwen, telling of his world travels and hypnosis, magic and mind reading work. He wrote a book before the turn of the century, and Sonstegard found an original copy through and purchased it.

She has found information that Peter Hartley McEwen was born in 1868, and in 1874 migrated to the United States from Scotland. But wait, she also found that he married his wife in Iowa, but the marriage certificate says he was born in Iowa.

"Is this the first known case of identity theft?" she muses.


So, although Sonstegard has found some of the history of the house, she plans to do more research on McEwen himself.

"He's a famous guy who built a house in Detroit Lakes and we don't know anything about him," she said. "I'm not done because I want to know exactly what year this addition was built on and more about P.H."

She's putting together a book of her findings because no one else is, she added.

"I know more about him than my own family history," she said with a laugh. "Not bad for six months of work."

Sonstegard is just one example of those looking for the beginning.

People walk into the Becker County Museum with everything from a story to a three-ring binder, manager Carrie Johnston said. Their job is to find out "what they've done and what they have."

After a skeleton -- an ancestry chart -- is filled in "we help more trying to fill in the chart," giving more details about family members.

Once all the research is done, the museum keeps a family file so another family member down the line doesn't have to do the same research over, Johnston said.


"No one wants the dates. It's the stories," Virginia Westin said. Weston is part of the research team at the museum -- along with Ann Shroyer and Peggy Stellmach -- and president of the Heart O'Lakes Genealogical Society.

While the museum provides local information, the Heart O'Lakes Genealogical Society, which was founded in 1970, can help search for information in other counties, states and even countries. Not to mention the tons of resources online. There is a links tab on the museum's Web site ( ) to help.

The museum has plenty of resources to start the research. They have all the newspapers from Becker County dating back to 1872, which are all headline indexed.

"It's as little as a five minute search, but it makes all the difference," Johnston said. "We love people's histories. We'll keep them here on file and preserve them."

She said it's amazing that when one thing is found, a lot of times it links to another person in town "because we are a small city, things come back. The seven degrees of separation are a little smaller."

Also with the smaller city, it's a little easier to trace the history because people were pretty grounded in Becker County once they got here.

That's not to say some exciting things didn't happen in Becker County over the years.

"Skeletons in the closet -- good or bad -- are found generations later," she said.


The museum staff knows first-hand that tourism is changing. A family from Canada came to the museum this summer, looking for family history they had traced to the Lewis family of Becker County.

Being the owners of one of the biggest hotels in Detroit Lakes, there have been many pictures, high school research papers, on other items on file concerning the building and family.

"It was very exciting when they found that. They wished they would have planned their whole trip here," Johnston said.

This year, the museum has seen people from 13 states and four countries, many of them doing research while they were here.

The Becker County Museum can do the research for people -- for a fee -- or people can do the research themselves for free. People walking in to do research of some sort can vary from one to 10 a day, Johnston said.

Another research tool is the Detroit Lakes Public Library. Library Associate Danell Haspel teaches a genealogy research class every month for beginners.

"I focus a lot on databases available through the library." Sites like and, she said.

Then during an intermediate research class, Haspel focuses more on the databases that people can use from home. Some of these include information from Ellis Island, Bureau of land management and Family Search courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.


"There are tons of them."

When researching, "make sure you start with yourself and go back generations," she advises.

The first step is to scour the house for birth certificates and other documents that will give names and dates.

"Then it's time to start picking on their relatives," getting stories, information and dates, she said with a laugh.

Document those stories before it's too late. Get a photocopy of the documents to keep in a file.

Haspel got involved in research herself when her mother died in 1992 in her 50s.

"I'm not ready to lose my mom -- this is keeping her alive," Haspel said of her research.

On her dad's side, she has gone back to the 1500s. On her mother's side, a relative had been on the Heart O'Lakes Genealogical Society since the beginning, so she has a lot of history research already done there.


She said she enjoys teaching the beginner's class because of the excitement when information is found.

"It's more fun for me. It's a thrill for me when they find someone they're related to. That's part of the fun, to see how excited they get."

History research isn't just for one age group. Haspel said there are a variety of ages taking her classes, and if they come to the beginners, they likely come to the intermediate one as well.

The next two beginning genealogy classes at the library are Jan 29 from 3:30 to 5 p.m. and Feb. 23 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Both require pre-registration, so contact the library at 847-2168.

"Talk to people," is the advice Johnston and Westin give when it comes to research. And, write down your own family history.

"We rely too much on just remembering," Johnston said.

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