Monday, September 8, 2008

Those Wonderful Historical Societies

From time to time I 'rummage' through my file cabinets and binders looking for information and documents that have either been misfiled or overlooked. I'm always rewarded in this activity as lost or forgotten treasures turn up, much to both my chagrin and delight.

I use an extensive filing system and try to keep all my genealogical documents organized and correctly filed. However, long hours at work, church activities and other general 'busyness' seem to intrude and at times foil my filing.

Recently, I noticed that my database was missing data that I knew I had in my files. After looking through the carefully labeled and numbered binders and file folders, the documents were still only aCalaveras_historical_society memory and not a hardcopy in my hand. Eventually, I found them filed under the wife's maiden name rather than under the husband's surname. Not only did I have the documented information I wanted, the tour through my files also revealed many other treasures.

In 1985, I first visited Calaveras County, California looking for information about my 2nd great grandparents and their families. One of the highlights in that trip was the stop to the Calaveras County Historical Society in San Andreas. After listening to the purpose of my trip, the wonderful person at the desk immediately made a telephone call. The director answered and conveyed the latitude and longitude of 'TREASURE' on the shelves in the vault of the Society.

Climbing up the ladder, the assistant stood on one foot and reached as far toward the back of the top shelf as she could. She retrieved a dusty old box and carried it down to a table for review. Little did I know that the contents of the box would cause such an impact on my life. The box contained a history of my great grandparents along with their photos and the photos of their children along with the text from grandpa's diary as a miner in the gold rush. It also contained and old rice paper photo album that was full of photos taken my my great grandfathers niece.

Carrie May Wilbur moved to California from Plymouth, Massachusetts to live with her uncle and aunt, David and Helen Drew in about 1902. She married David Ross, a widower and manager of one of the copper mines near Copperopolis. The family had enough money to purchase not only a camera, but based on the number of photos in the album, as much film as they wanted to use. Fortunately for me, Carrie liked to take photos of the family and even had enough money to return home to Plymouth and take photos of her mother, sisters and inside and outside the Drew home at 51 Pleasant Street.

Just as I started to ask how they had obtained possession of the photo album, a note dropped out of the album explaining that it had been found in a yard sale about forty years after Carried died. A member of the Society purchased it to add to the collection of records and photos in the vault of the Society.

My grandfather left home while still in his teens and our branch of the family had little to no knowledge about our Drew lineage. The photo album opened a window in time.

The rice paper had dissolved where the ink was written, so the photo descriptions were read by following the remaining outlines of Carrie's handwriting. Looking closely at of of the interior photos of the parlor in Plymouth, I saw two large old photos hanging on the wall. Could they be my ancestors?

I had to have a copy of the photos in that book.

We were joined by another member of the Society who suggested that we photocopy the book, which we immediately proceeded to do. The photocopies weren't very good. I wanted more. They agreed to take the book to a photo shop in Sacramento and have photos taken of all the photos I wanted. I left a deposit to defray the coping costs and left on my long trip home.

Eventually the photos arrived and I scanned them at very high resolution hoping to see more detail. Wow! I was rewarded! Looking at the photo of the parlor, I could see the faces in the photos on the wall. They looked just like my great grandfather, David Lewis Drew, but were obviously older. Of the two, I could see that one was older than the other. I later found additional information that confirmed that the two men in the photos were my 2nd and 3rd great grandfathers.

I never would have found all of this treasure without the existence of the Calaveras County Historical Society.

Fast forward eighteen years. Great grandpa Drew's parents-in-law, Thomas and Mary Tirrill Farrar had long been 'Brick Walls' in my research. Late one evening in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, I found a newly published book by the Walworth Historical Society the cataloged that tombstone inscriptions in the Brick Church Cemetery in Walworth, Wisconsin.

Earlier research said that grandma had died in or near Walworth but after years of research, I couldn't find anything about her death or about she and Thomas' immediate family.

Quickly opening the book, I found her tombstone inscription listed along with other members of the family. Christmas came early that year, all thanks to the Walworth Historical Society. The story gets better. After contacting one of the of the members of the Society, she agreed to take photos of the Farrar tombstones for me. A day later, I had digital copies of the photos. A forty year quest finally produced results.

The Farrar tombstones are all grouped together and one showed that I had a great uncle who died as a child. Another listed the name and information of my third great grandmother!

I love those wonderful local historical societies. Societies around the nation have continued to help me ever since that day in San Andreas. If you haven't visited or contacted the societies in your area or near the locations associated with your own ancestry, don't delay. Do it today. They contain magic, adventure and treasure. Support them financially, with your time and with records and photo contributions. Pay it forward and reap the harvest of your investment from that time on.