Grateful, first, to my dear cousin and travel buddy, Shellee Sauer. Her grandfather, Roland, was brother to my father, LaMoine “Larry” Stillwell. They grew up in Watford City, McKenzie County, North Dakota. Shellee is a wonderful woman who shares my interest in family history. I don’t drive, and she does marvelously, even when there’s a ferocious downpour with high winds amid the mountainous terrain.
The drive to Watford City went quickly, in part because I read to Shellee the 111 short clippings I had harvested from a microfilmed collection of the Schafer Record, 1907-1919. These provided a good backdrop for our research, giving us a sense of how our relatives fit into the community and what they did.
We arrived early enough in the afternoon to stop in at the McKenzie County Library. The director, Stephanie, helped us locate former family land in the library’s plat books. We were able to determine who is the current owner of each property. Our purpose was to give the owners a courtesy call before going exploring, but we were unsuccessful in making any connections.
Stephanie brought from her office an historical gem: A transcript of interviews in the matter of Charles Bannon, the hired hand who murdered the entire Albert and Lulia Haven family in Schafer in 1930. Bannon was never tried for the murders because he was lynched by a vigilante mob. The transcripts include testimony from locals about the Haven family and their knowledge of events surrounding the murders.
This local scandal was of interest to Shellee and I for a particular reason. Family lore has it that Orin Wesley and Mabel Stillwell hosted the Haven family for Sunday dinner the day before they were murdered!
Our mission for Day Two was to be at the McKenzie County Courthouse as soon as it opened. We wanted to look for records of land bought or sold by ancestors. Windy cheerfully explained how to access the records on computer, and we found a few, but it was quickly apparent we would not be able to do a methodical and comprehensive search in the little time we had. We learned that all the data we are seeking is available online by subscription.
We arrived at the Pioneer Museum as soon as they opened. We knew they have done extensive work indexing the many books and scrapbooks in the collection. Frances Olson has done much of this work herself, and she was on hand to answer questions, bring books and print out spreadsheets. This computerized index took them a great deal of time to build, and we were so grateful for it. We were able to get photocopies of at least a dozen pages about Stillwells and Quinnells. Shellee’s grandmother was born Margaret Quinnell.
Another major goal was met at the Pioneer Museum. We found an obituary for Mabel Lamb that I did not recognize. It stated that her father, John A. Lamb, died in 1932. John was in the 1930 census, but his second wife, Willa Mae Hubbard, was in another state living with her family by 1940. We don’t know where John Lamb is buried, or how he died.
After a break we headed out looking for the Schafer Cemetery, family land and the Schafer townsite.
The only building left standing where Schafer once was is the old jail, from which the murderer Charles Bannon was once taken. As we approached the building, on what appeared to be private property, with a house rather nearby, I wasn’t comfortable getting out of the car to approach it. Before we even stopped the car, Shellee had discovered another good reason to stay put: there was a rattle snake slithering its way away from us into the grass!
We did walk around the Schafer Cemetery, with a careful eye out for snakes. We found the markers for Orin Wesley and Mabel Stillwell, Wayne Berdine Stillwell, Leona Stillwell and Beatrice Stillwell. They were located in the first row facing west and Highway 1806. In the second row, behind them, was a single granite marker for the entire Haven family. Neighbors in life, neighbors in death.
Next, we drove around on public roads, looking for what had once been the lands of our ancestors. We took Highway 1806 north of the cemetery. The road had two bends, right, then left, where the road moved a mile east before continuing north. As soon as the road straightened out going north again, we took a left. We drove west along the south border of land once owned by Charles Wesley Stillwell, my great-grandfather. Next to it was the quarter-of-a-quarter that had been filed under the name of his wife, Frances Smith Stillwell.
At the end of the section, we hoped to find a road to take us north to see land held by my grandfather, Orin Wesley Stillwell and Grandma Mabel. The beginning of the road was still visible, but the road itself had reverted to nature. In the distance where the road would have crossed over the ridge, we thought we saw a notch in the ridge where the road would have been.
Encouraged by our finds, we backtracked to Highway 1806 and continued north. We found another west-leading road and followed it to where George Seelye had owned land. George is the brother of Cora Seelye, first wife of John Lamb, and mother of Mabel Lamb, who married Orin Wesley Stillwell.
Thanks to our library research, we knew that a Forland Trust has recently owned the land. As we gazed at the landscape, we saw a sign posted with the name “Forland,” so it’s likely the right land.
Shellee and I had a goal of viewing the land where the Haven family once lived. We were able to locate it on plat maps, but in driving the actual territory there was no public access to reach the land, and it was heavily posted with No Trespassing warnings.
That evening we headed north of Watford City to the home of Terry and Jonilla Kellogg. Terry’s mother was born Donna Quinnell, daughter of Lars Peter Quinnell, brother to Margaret Quinnell. Margaret married Roland Stillwell, son of Orin Wesley Stillwell. (That makes Terry my aunt’s great nephew.) What a beautiful home they have, nestled amid the seriously steep terrain.
After a lovely dinner we went for a drive in a Jeep. We saw some wildlife and the stone foundation of an old cabin. I loved the views and managed not to put any fear-induced claw marks in the dashboard of the vehicle. The whole evening was so enjoyable, it reminded me that family history is more than land, records and photos. It’s also living people who are fascinating to meet.
Our last day, Saturday, we drove around Arnegard where Shellee’s grandmother/my aunt was from. Then we arrived back at Watford City for one final stop. The Heritage Park is a collection of buildings brought in from all around McKenzie County. They are building a new center there that features an amazing set of ceiling fans that look like windmills and are operated by connecting belts. Can’t wait to return to find it all done.
In each of the buildings, we carefully checked books, photos, and artifacts to see anything related to our family. We found a photo of Schafer’s main street in the 1910s, showing several buildings that corresponded to the enterprises of family members. One building was “Schafer Cash Grocery,” which I now believe was owned by John A. Lamb, father of Mabel Stillwell, my grandmother.
One of the best highlights of the trip, to me, was moments before we left the Heritage Park to go home. We were visiting with Heather, one of the volunteer staff, about the movie being filmed this summer called “End of the Rope,” about the murder of the Haven family and the lynching of Charles Bannon. I almost mentioned to Heather that my grandparents had hosted the Haven family for Sunday dinner the day before the family was murdered. Not sure if I had already said that, I kept my mouth shut.
Then Shellee looks at her and says, “You know, our family lore says…” and told Heather the story.
“Yes,” Heather replied, nodding, “I remember hearing about nine years ago that the Havens had been to the home of friends for Sunday dinner the day before they were murdered.”
Yes! Yes! Yes! Confirmation for an amazing family story that is hard or impossible to document, but I believe true, nevertheless.
Such an amazing adventure with my dear cousin Shellee, learning about the past, enjoying the present, and looking forward to many more good times in the future.