Today would have been my grandpa Konzen’s 100th birthday. He’s been dead for 20 years, but today our family is celebrating him. My grandpa Kermit John Konzen was born on 27 Jun 1915 in Montevideo, Chippewa, Minnesota, to John Charles Konzen and Ella Pauline Kuske. Kermit was John and Ella’s first child and at the time of his birth John was 45 years old and Ella was 25 years old.
After his birth, Kermit didn’t seem to thrive and he almost died before his first birthday. A wet nurse was hired for him, but he didn’t get better and instead he turned brown and wrinkly. They discovered that the wet nurse didn’t have enough milk for him and she was adding water to it before giving it to the family. They found another wet nurse and my grandpa started to get better. My great grandma would be push him in the baby buggy and people would look in to see the baby and be startled by how bad he looked. Kermit’s younger sister Kay was born in 1920 and his younger brother Karl was born in 1922.
John owned a furniture store in Montevideo and he was one of the wealthiest men in town until the Depression. My grandpa was the only one of his siblings old enough to remember how their life was before the Depression. During his childhood, his mother Ella nearly died from scarlet fever, but she survived and endured a long recovery.
Kermit went to work for Red Owl grocery store in Montevideo and that’s how he met my grandma Yvonne Marcella Sumner. She worked at an attorney’s office on the same street as the Red Owl and she would walk by the grocery store to and from work. My great aunt Kay says Kermit was a little shy, but he always found a reason to wash the windows of the store when Yvonne would be walking down the street. Yvonne was from the nearby town of Dawson. They fell in love and eloped in the fall of 1939. For their honeymoon, they drove to Yellowstone National Park together.
My grandparents moved to Wheaton, Minnesota, after their honeymoon and Kermit worked as a manager at a grocery store. My aunt Karol was born in Big Stone, Minnesota, and my aunt Karen was born in Douglas, Minnesota. They lived in Alexandria for a little bit and then my grandparents moved to Billings, Montana, and Kermit worked at Sawyer’s grocery store.
Soon afterward, Kermit and Yvonne moved farther west to Bozeman, Montana, where Kermit worked at Sawyer’s. Their son John (named after his grandfather) was born in Bozeman. The family moved back to Billings and the rest of their nine children – yes, nine – were born there: David, Janet, Janice, Konstance, Kathy, and Randall. Kermit started working at the Carter Oil refinery – now the Exxon Oil refinery. He was an operator and eventually he became the chief operator.
My grandpa had always been fascinated by the Battle of the Little Bighorn, American Indians, and Montana. My great aunt Kay says that when he was a kid he’d tell his friends that the portrait of an American Indian chief hanging in their stairway was his father. When my mom was a child he took his kids to the battlefield and he’d tell the tale of the battle in full detail. After he retired, my grandpa was able to pursue his passion for history.
Grandpa called himself an “interested student” of General George Armstrong Custer. He worked on the 1984 and 1985 archaeological digs at the Battle of the Little Bighorn site, he helped create a map of historical interest points for the Billings Gazette, he was interviewed by Time magazine about the battle, and he collected artifacts and memorabilia. Spending time at his home was like visiting a museum. I don’t know anybody else whose grandparents had arrowheads, bullets, and a piece of hardtack (the less desirable version of a saltine cracker) on the wall in their stairway.
Grandpa always seemed so full of life so it’s hard for me to remember that he’s been dead for so long. When I was a baby, he had a stroke while visiting his sister in Minnesota. Eventually the doctors discovered he had a brain tumor as large as a medium-sized lemon. They removed the brain tumor, but they couldn’t get every piece of it. Grandpa had to learn to talk and walk again, but it couldn’t keep him down for long and he always had plenty of time for his grandchildren.
He died about 7 years later on 5 Mar 1995, less than 4 months before his 80th birthday. I’m thankful every day for having 7 years with him. We spread his ashes – and later my grandmother’s – in an area he loved near the Rosebud Creek Battlefield where Crook’s Battle was fought days before the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
It’s because of my grandpa that I love genealogy. He was a great man and a wonderful father and grandfather. He lives on in all of his family. It’s fitting that the 139th anniversary reenactment of the Battle of the Little Bighorn is happening on his birthday. I’ll be there enjoying it. Happy Birthday, Grandpa.