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Preserving history an inch at a time

The heights of Brodshaug-Qualley family members are recorded for posterity on the prized birch door. David Samson / Forum Communications Co.1 / 2
Jackie Brodshaug and LuAnn Brodshaug have played a role through the years helping record family history on the door they recently temporarily removed to come up with a plan for preservation. David Samson / Forum Communications Co.2 / 2

Appropriately dubbed the "family tree door," an inconspicuous closet opening has evolved into a historical benchmark - literally documenting the growth for the past 50-plus years of four generations of the Qualley-Brodshaug family.

Esther Qualley, who turns 100 in January, started the practice back in the early 50s when she and her husband, Jerome, lived on the farm homesteaded by Jerome's grandfather in 1878, located southwest of West Fargo. The couple lived in the original house for several years before moving into a new home constructed in 1951. It was this new home that served as the site for the now prized door.

Interestingly, Esther arrived at the design of the home in an extremely simplified fashion, using empty corn flake boxes to come up with the architectural blueprint, a method her daughter Jackie Brodshaug views as part of the home's unique historical charm. A young neighbor, Orten Bjore, who was also an NDSU student in architecture transferred the mockup into blueprints for the carpenters.

Included in the design were several birch doors, all similar in their look, with the closet door positioned in the hall covering an inclined closet

over the basement stairs. This door was ultimately singled out as the one that would register the growth of children and grandchildren and other extended family members of Jerome and Esther, including their daughter and son-in-law Jackie and Robert Brodshaug, and the other Qualley-Brodshaug children and their descendants.

When Jerome and Esther left the farm in 1968, Jackie and Robert moved in, combining their two-family farming operation and raising their four children, Beth, Mark, Jean and John.

Son Mark and his wife, LuAnn, took over in 1987 moving onto the site, while Jackie and Robert relocated to a Fargo condo for a couple of years, before moving into their present West Fargo home in 1991.

Throughout all these years, the door was regarded as special and continued to monitor the growth of all those stopping by to visit.

Jackie noted that the using the door as a measuring stick was strictly her mother's idea and everybody else followed through with it. "Every time we got the youngsters together for a family gathering they would say, 'can you measure us?' We were all eager to do it, but particularly on their birthdays if they happened to be visiting. A younger brother or sister would always like to compare their mark to that of an older sibling to see how they were doing."

LuAnn said that all the youngsters were thrilled with this measuring process. "Even out-of-town cousins would get measured when they visited."

Because of that enthusiasm, there are well over sixty etchings on the door, some of the same family member still growing. The heights of two treasured family cats can also be seen highlighted in red magic marker at the bottom.

One of the earlier names belongs to Jackie's brother, George, recorded on July 4, 1953, at the age of four. The most recent, and more than likely the last one to be included on the original door, is that of a great-grandson, Parker Dean, who was one-year-old on July 27. His height was measured this last weekend as the family gathered for back-to-back celebrations, a surprise 80th birthday party for Robert, and a 60th Anniversary wedding observance for Robert's sister and brother-in-law, Lorraine and Phil Hetland.

Jackie noted that among the taller markings are those of her dad, son Mark, and Mark's son, Jack.

Jackie said she has always been intrigued by history and now this door has become a valuable extension of that legacy.

With Mark and LuAnn recently moving off the farmstead and into a Fargo home, the house containing the door along with the farming operation is on the market for someone else to acquire and nurture.

Consequently, before any new owners move in, Jackie and LuAnn are on a mission that involves salvaging the memory of what's contained on this special door. "It has been part ritual and part family history and now we want to preserve it," Jackie said.

Toward that end, the pair recently removed the door "temporarily" from the home in efforts to come up with a plan. "We wanted to be able to take this information and distribute a mock up of the door to all of the families so they can continue the ritual as well as have a piece of the history," Jackie said.

They both agreed this would be the best option to avoid any future family conflicts.

"My brother, George Qualley, wants to bring the door to Sacramento," Jackie said. "We don't want to have any major fights over this," she laughed, "So we thought it best it will be going back to its hinges at the farm site and go along with the house to the new owner."

The door is obviously too thick and wide to be scanned and copying everything by hand would be a "monstrous chore," so the family, upon advice from a local well-known photographer, may decide to preserve each segment via digital photography, piecing them all together so all the markings are captured for posterity in their entirety.

Jackie said the family is hoping to be able to come up with something by her mother's 100th birthday. "That would be the perfect time to distribute it. I am also involved in putting together a family tree that I hope to be able to disseminate at the same time. My great-grandfather left his family farm to be a true North Dakota pioneer and his story has always been kind of important to me. By also documenting what's on this door, we feel we are preserving a part of our family history that everyone will be able to cherish and pass along to future generations who may want to continue the tradition with their own children and grandchildren."