If you haven’t visited the National Archives online yet and subsequently clicked-through their fascinating “1940 Census” project — then you need to make some space in your day for that feral education of human proclamation in an agrarian society.  The 1940 Census project was so popular when it debuted last week, the servers repeatedly crashed.  You should be able to get on that site and do some searching now, though.  I decided to peel back a now-living history to Ord, Nebraska to see if I could find some of my ancestors alive in that historic marking and recording of prairie lives.

Here’s what Ord looked like in 1940.  Simple.  Static.  Basically unchanged from the village today.

In the “Enumeration of Districts” for Valley County — Ord and North Loup and other villages are all clumped together in this particular Census gathering — you can see North Loup’s population in 1930 was 657 and in 1940 it was 567.  Today, North Loup has only 292 residents.  Death and dying in a small town are in full and lonesome evidence in the decline of the living in the lower Loup Valley.

As I paged through the 62 virtual screens of the 1940 Census for Ord, I was surprised by how many names I remembered from my childhood visiting with my grandfather in North Loup.

I saw Cetaks and Babcocks — families that are still vibrant in Valley county today — and when I happened upon “Sershen” my heart triumphed a bit as history became palpably real.

John Sershen, age 63, and Iva Sershen, age 51, were right there — alive and well in 1940.  Sershen was my grandmother’s maiden name.  I was finally meeting her family.

I did not know my grandmother, Elfreda Sershen, because she died of a heart attack soon after I was born.  A haunting image of her seated next to my grandfather and awkwardly holding me in her arms as a newborn still survives today, and I have always wondered what it must have been like to hold a grandson for the first time only to lose your life a few months later.

Elfreda married my grandfather, William Vodehnal, and they had two daughters.  As I continued to page through the 1940 Census, I found two entries for “Vodehnal” and I felt a circle of human completion.

Vincent Vodehnal was 55 years old and his wife, Anna Vodehnal, was also 55. Vincent and Anna now belonged to me as well.

I urge you to visit the 1940 Census online. It’s an amazing miracle of an experience as modern technology brings our real and bright history to life again right before our begging eyes and breaking hearts.


    1. They’re working on it — but it is a labor-intensive, volunteer project. Human eyes have to decipher the handwriting and then enter it into a searchable database.

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