Editor's note: This story is from Generations, a special joint publication of the Perham Focus and Wadena Pioneer-Journal. For more great stories like this one, find Generations inside the Thursday, August 26 editions of those two newspapers.
The official history of Perham tracks back to 1871, 150 years ago, when a small number of European families came to the area and settled down. A few came even earlier than that, helping to create and shape the rugged little town that, over the years, evolved into the vibrant community we know today.
Among those was Mary Pfeffer's family.
Pfeffer, known for her work as a historian at the History Museum of East Otter Tail County, first started researching her own family history around 50 years ago. She built a family tree, and learned that her ancestors were part of the early St. Joseph settlement (which was located near Marion Lake, only a few miles from Perham). They came to the area in 1868.
"When I started, there was no internet," Pfeffer laughs, recalling the first years of her genealogy adventures.
She started simply because she found it fascinating. When she was 21, one of her dad's uncles died, and when they returned home from the funeral, she started asking her grandmother about her family. She then went to her grandfather and asked him questions. She wrote down what they told her, and her journey of studying family history was underway.
Because of the lack of internet, Pfeffer wrote a lot of letters to family members, tracking down their names and connections to other people she'd connected to herself. She also found old newspaper articles from the Perham area to be extremely helpful. Because of them, she not only had names, but she also had some stories to put to those names.
However, the task quickly proved to be much larger than what originally met the eye. There was a lot of intermingling between the early European settlements of Rush Lake, St. Joseph and Perham.
"I'd start (looking in the old newspapers) for my family, and I'd see several of the same names," Pfeffer said. "And I'd think, 'How are those people related to the people in my family?'"
From there, she got interested in researching families she wasn't related to. And with that extra research, she began connecting all those early families together. She started mapping out the family trees of most families in the Perham area, and the history behind them.
She discovered generations upon generations of connections between the current people of the Perham area, all tracking back to some of the first European settlers, such as the Drahmanns, who ran Perham's first general store, and the Schoenebergers, who ran Perham's funeral home and furniture store. Her work has helped her connect Perham's current residents to the town's history.
"There's still that family connection here," Pfeffer says. "The family ties have stayed here."
"I just love to connect people," she adds. "When I find someone, I ask, 'Who are you? Where are you from?' And eventually you find a connection to a lot of people."
In addition to writing letters, Pfeffer would also look through censuses and church records before the internet came along. Now, websites such as Ancestry.com are available to anyone who's interested in their genealogy.
There are several tricks to tracking family histories that Pfeffer has learned along the way. For example, learning to read some Latin, German and Polish. She also quickly learned that, in the past, people often switched their first and middle names. Because of that, newspapers would often use a different name than a person's official first name.
"You start with what you know first and then you work your way out," Pfeffer says of researching. "After a while, you just start to learn the process of (how to find) who you're looking for."
While there have been a lot of new people and families in Perham throughout the years, Pfeffer often finds that if she knows someone's grandparents' names, she'll be able to track their Perham family history, if they have one.
The History Museum of East Otter Tail County offers classes on creating family trees and tracking down family history. They've had people from all over the world visit with questions about their genealogy and connection to the Perham community.
Several years ago, for example, a couple from Holland visited that were related to the Drahmanns, early settlers of Rush Lake. The couple had an RV and planned to visit three different families of Drahmanns that had settled in three different locations throughout the U.S. They stayed in Perham for a couple of days and spoke with Pfeffer, sharing pictures of their family store in Holland, which looked exactly like the Drahmann's store in Perham. Pfeffer found this incredibly fascinating.
Pfeffer loves being able to connect Perham with people from all around the world -- it's one of the many reasons she finds preserving the community's history to be so important.
Though she has slowed down on her self-initiated research over the years, sometimes the information will still find her, and she'll continue to add to her family trees. She has multiple physical copies she keeps with her, as well as a computer version. If anyone comes in with an interesting tidbit about their family tree or history, Pfeffer makes sure to write it down.
She's found that connecting people with the history of Perham makes that history much more tangible to her: "If you actually think about (how we're) walking across the ground our ancestors walked on…" she reflects.
And she's still in contact with some of her own distant relatives to this day because of her research.
For more information about the history of Perham, or to share interesting stories of your own, call the History Museum of East Otter Tail County at 218-346-7676 or visit in-person at 230 1st Avenue North in Perham.