Friday, April 16, 2010

Genealogy Society Discovers and Preserves Family History

This article was written by Sandra Knebel who lives in Russell, and works for the Chariton newspapers.  She interviewed the ladies at the Lucas County Genealogy group in Chariton and wrote the following article for the paper.  It appeared in the  paper in two parts

Part I

by Sandra Knebel

According to a popular genealogy website, 9,550,012 people added information to their family trees in just the last seven days.  The number of family stories submitted to the website the same week was 24,243.  Just under 200,000 photos were uploaded.  Within that vast population of genealogy addicts are the members of the Lucas County Genealogy Society.

    The shelves in the Laura Curtis Family History Room in the public library are filled with notebooks full of an extraordinary amount of facts that have garnered nationwide recognition.  People calling the local group tell them, "I've been all over the country researching and Chariton's records are the best except for maybe in the really big cities."  The facts that have created their widespread, respected reputation are rich with family history, interesting characters, and fascinating tales.  Here is one favorite.

    Paul was looking for his long, lost love.  As the story goes, in the late 1930's and early 1940's Paul and Katherine were in school together in Northern Iowa.  They planned to marry after graduation.  Katherine then moved to Chariton.  She graduated in 1943.  Paul went into the service and they eventually lost touch.

    Years later Paul was sorting through his late mother's things and found all the letters Katherine had sent him.  In his quest to find her again, Paul called Chariton's "Genie" room.  Reminiscent of the classic detective game, "Clue", where players move from room to room in a mansion to solve the mystery, Darlene and another volunteer, Lucille Chandler, searched the class of 1943, reviewed reunion data from classmates, checked out old addresses and phone numbers and scanned the newspaper indexes.  A 1945 article revealed Katherine's engagement to a soldier, which led to a clue that she might be in Georgia where she was going to be married.

    Sure enough, the trail to Georgia led to a university where Katherine had become a very successful professor.  Her first husband had died.  Paul was now a widower in Wisconsin.  Katherine's phone number was no longer in service, so Paul sent a registered letter.  Their first telephone call lasted for two hours.  The work of the Chariton sleuths was complete once they put the two together.  They don't know the story's ending, just the chapter they helped write.

    The dedicated volunteers of the Lucas County Genealogy Society have many such stories to tell.  Betty, whose family tree is now a forest filling fourteen books, says, "You can't stop.  It's like serendipity.  While you are looking for one thing you accidentally discover something else entirely that leads to a search for more information on that discovery which heralds new discoveries and it just keeps going on and on."  As someone once said, serendipity is when you put a coin in the gumball machine and three pieces come rattling out instead of one.

    Darlene's story is an example.  "It was the early 80's," she said.  "I didn't know much about my family.  I knew three of my four grandparents came from Germany.  I didn't even know one great grandmother's name because she died when my grandmother was young.  So mine is kind of a typical scenario when you first start.

    "By chance I found her in Washington County.  I found a George Schmitt over there that had a daughter.  It told in his will that his daughter, Mariah Smith, had married a Critz, which is my grandmother's maiden name.  So I started hunting for what was her mother's name.  I knew she was born in Ohio, so I asked myself if that meant that her parents were married there.  Ohio is a big place and Schmitt was a common name, but through census data I found that he had a brother, Mitchell, living with him.  So I started hunting for a Mitchell Schmitt in Ohio.  I followed the loops and turns and eventually traveled to Ft. Wayne, Indiana, where I found marriage records that gave me my great grandmother's last name.  It was Deyo.  The Deyo family were descendants of the small but brave group of French Huguenot refugees who came to America in 1678.

    "This led to my visit to New Paltz, New York.  The historic Huguenot district still features seven original stone houses dating to the early 1700's, a burial ground, and a reconstructed 1717 stone church.  Some of the local ladies that went with me went to the cemetery, but I went to the stone house where my grandmother lived with her family.  I can only describe it as elation.  It was like, okay, my great-great-grandparents walked here.  It's the same sort of feeling you get when you walk the paths of a cemetery where your ancestors once walked and are now buried.  You get this strong sense of their presence."

    Mary Louise had no idea where she would find the cemetery stone that she was looking for.  So when she reached the cemetery Mary Louise just followed the eerie feeling that came over her and walked directly to the grave she was looking for as if someone had taken her hand and led the way.

    "Genies" are not put off by the suggestion that their beliefs border the paranormal.  They just say they share strong feelings that their ancestors want to be found.  (At this point the lights in the genealogy room went dim, then came back on.  Apparently, in this room where the past comes alive, that happens on a regular basis - but then, that's another story!)

    The records compiled by the local genealogists are phenomenal.  Hundreds of notebooks line the walls.  They are continually adding information to the books of family histories.  They have war records and history books and lists of who is buried in which cemetery, births, deaths, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, divorces and unique stories from newspapers dating back to 1867 are indexed.  There are over 330,000 entries comprising 5,000 pages.

    Contrary to today's obituaries that give little to no information about cause of death, the old newspapers told all.  A quick peek tells us that Sam Goldwater was shot and died of a gunshot wound.  Merle Gookin died from a rusty needle in the foot.  The little son of Mr. and Mrs. Schaterick Nelson passed away after suffering for several hours from a snake bit, "a menace in southern Iowa that is becoming serious."  The boy and his father were picking blackberries when the little fellow, who was barefooted, stepped on the snake.

    The Lucas County Genealogy Society is the only one that has this amazing index.  The information leads to a place on microfilm where the whole story can be found.  The indexes are continuously being updated.  The pictures on the notices of memorial services that you see at businesses around town are added to the historical records for future generations to access.  In addition to being cataloged, photos of cemetery tombstones go on the Internet website called Iowa Gravestones. org.  Whenever someone calls in, their information is added to some book on some shelf or some computerized record.  The calls come in from every state across America from people hoping to add information to their family trees.

    Related to genealogy is a group called "Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness."  Volunteers in this group will actually go out to a cemetery and take a photo of a tombstone and send it to a caller or in response to an e-mail query.  Or they will look up obituaries or other records for folks far away who cannot travel to the information site.  As you would expect, members of the local group often perform these random acts.

    The Society's quarterly publication, "Lucas County Notes and Shakin' the Family Tree!" chronicles many stories.  Each report begins with a simple query and tidbits that are intriguing, amusing, curious, and often fascinating - exactly what lures so many millions of people to this hobby called genealogy. ( to be continued)

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