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In search of a soldier

DCN Correspondent

The wind whistled through the Park Hill Cemetery on Sunday, Feb. 10, as I braved the nearly minus 50 degree wind chills. I was on a hunt, but I wasn’t sure what for…yet. I was bundled from head to toe; yet the instant I stepped out of the car, I felt as though I was wearing nothing. The wind cut through my layers and instantly froze my exposed skin.

The snow was past my knees and I treaded lightly, looking for the first gravestone I could find with visible birth and death dates. When I arrived at my first stone, I took out my pen and tried to write, but the cold had frozen the ink. After sticking it to my mouth, however, I could finally accomplish what I was there to do.

Sgt. Helmer A. Peterson (Co. 350th Field Hosp), 1894-1918, was written on the gravestone. I jotted that down and moved on. I found a few more headstones with dates on them, but soon returned to the warm car hoping I would never have to do that again.

Out of the names that I had found, I narrowed it down to two, Sgt. Peterson, and Alfhild Mildred Ofstun, a 7 year old who had died in 1919.

The next step was to look up each of them online. I tried the two Web sites that we received in class, but they didn’t prove to be very helpful. In fact, Alfhild Ofstun wasn’t in the databases; instead Alphild and Affhild Ofstun came up. Also, the Helmer Peterson’s that I found had several death dates, which I would later find to be the wrong dates.

Without much to go on, I tried searching Google for both names. Alfhild was nowhere to be found, but I did find a short paragraph about Helmer. As it turned out, author Walter VanBrunt wrote a book titled “Duluth and St. Louis County: Their Story and People, Vol. II,? in which Helmer was mentioned.

The book has this to say about Helmer:

"Helmer A. Peterson was born in Duluth, and was well-known. He was born Jan. 23, 1894, son of John and Hannah Peterson, and his academic schooling was obtained in Duluth schools. He became a pharmacist and in that capacity was employed at Beyers Drug Store, Duluth, for some time before reporting for military duty on September 21, 1917. He was sent from Duluth to Camp Dodge, Iowa, and assigned to the Medical Corps, 350th F. A., 313th Sanitary Train. At Camp Dodge he remained for the winter and would probably have gone overseas in 1918 had he not succumbed to disease at Camp Dodge, on April 10, 1918."

After reading this, I doubted the information I had previously found, which claimed he died on January 19, 1918.

To find an exact date, I took a trip back to the cemetery, this time to the office. After looking through all of their records, they couldn’t tell me a thing. Helmer was no where to be found in the books, and the plot where he lays isn’t a specific “baby plot,? or “mason plot.?

Next, I went to Pat Maus, the archivist at the Northeast Minnesota Historcal Center in the UMD library. After two hours together, we didn’t learn much more about Helmer. We went through each Duluth yearbook and searched through several directories, but we couldn’t find anything about him, although we did find a little bit about his parents. Helmer’s dad owned an unnamed saloon in downtown Duluth.

My next stop was the microfilm. I spent nearly two hours going through the Duluth News Tribune and the Duluth Herald looking for anything I could find about Helmer. Remember though, I still didn’t know his exact death date, and back in 1918, the papers didn’t have obituary sections. Instead the obituaries were spread throughout the paper. So after looking through most of January, and some of April, I found something.

The Duluth News Tribune ran a story on April 12, 1918, titled “Bring home body of Duluth soldier from Camp Dodge.? It said, “The body of Sgt. H. A. Peterson, who died at Camp Dodge several days ago, arrived in the city yesterday. Sergeant Peterson is the son of Mr. and Mrs. John Peterson of Hermantown. The funeral will be held Monday afternoon and will be held under the auspices of members of the Fourth regiment.?

This biographical sketch was written for the Research for Reporters class at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Each student in the class went to a cemetery in Duluth, got a name from a grave marker, and then used a variety of primary and secondary sources to find out as much as possible about the person.