Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Why Make Floor Plans?

I'm curious to know more about the homes of my ancestors. Are they still standing? What did they look like, inside and out? How many bedrooms did they have? In large families how many kids slept in a single bedroom? I might eventually find answers to some of these questions, but I can make sure that genealogists who come after me have more information at their disposal.

I wish I had more photographs of the interior of the house where I grew up. Naturally, I have some, but they are more about the people than the place. As I no longer have access to the house (and live hours away anyway) acquiring photographs is currently out of the question. What I can do is to draw up a simple floor plan.

Since I lived there, a bedroom and dormer window were added in what used to be the attic. Here's the basic floor plan I drew up. Nothing is to scale because I can't go back and measure, but it provides an idea of what the house was like. It's not much, but it might answer some of my descendant's questions about where I lived over the years. Now I just need to draw up some more of these for other places I have lived and my grandma's house.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Daily Bread

My bread machine gave out on me a few days ago. I knew it was coming. For the past six months it has been acting flaky. Several times I've had to take the bottom off the machine to unstick the belt so the shaft would spin. Maybe the crusty, black gunk that has been seeping around the shaft had something to do with that. Anyway, the dough had only mixed for about ten minutes when the machine konked out and I detected a faint burning odor. I had to dump the dough out onto a marble slab and knead it myself. Though I'm sure my female ancestors could tell by feel exactly when the dough was ready to raise, I had no clue. I just kneaded it for a while before I plopped it into a loaf pan and stuck it in the microwave with a moist and toasty washcloth to raise for a while. 

While kneading the bread I thought about how spoiled we are by modern conveniences (bread machines, washing machines, dishwashers and electric ranges among other things). Even a toaster, an appliance used daily in my household, was new in the time of Downton Abbey. How different my daily life is from my ancestors'. While I can put my ingredients into a machine, press a button and forget about it until my bread is baked I'm sure many of the women in my tree baked bread by hand every single day. They did that while they kept a constant fire in the stove, cooked three meals a day, boiled their clothes in a big vat to wash them, mended, ironed, etc. etc. I still may not know by feel exactly how long to knead my bread dough, but considering all of the daily chores my appliances save me from, I'm willing to live with a slightly imperfect loaf of bread every now and then.

Your hundreds of loaves of bread were definitely appreciated (often with just a bit of butter).

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Liebster Blog Award

I would like to thank Angie Rodesky for selecting my blog as one of her five Liebster blog picks! (Liebster means "favorite" or "dearest" in German) The premise behind this award is that when you are nominated, you are supposed to answer 11 questions about yourself (chosen by the person who nominated you), and then nominate 5 bloggers with less than 200 readers and provide 11 questions for them to answer.

Here are the questions I was asked to answer:

1.  What is your favorite birthday party memory?
The birthdays I celebrated in high school were the best. My friends came to my house and we hung out in the basement playing games like Pictionary while we snacked on chips and dip. One year we covered the room with straws by shooting little straws through big straws. We still found the occasional straw in that room years later.

2.  What was your first book report about?
Now you're asking me about ancient history. Though I've had to do book reports since grade school, the only one I actually remember writing was on “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad in high school.

3.  What is your favorite family dish?
I know it's boring, but mashed potatoes and gravy. I always had seconds. I wasn't such a big fan of the squirrel that sometimes appeared on my grandma's table, however.

4.  What do you like to do on a snowy day?
I would like to take my daughter sledding, but on the few occasions when it does snow here there usually isn't much of it and it doesn't last very long.

5.  What was the best job you've ever had and why?
As much as I loved working in a research lab and being the first person to learn how something works, the best job I've had is taking care of my daughter and watching her discover the world.  And when I hear her say "that's really cool" while watching a National Geographic video about dolphins and whales I know I'm on the right track.

6.  What is your favorite holiday?
I've always enjoyed Thanksgiving, particularly in grad school when I invited friends who weren't going home to my apartment for dinner. I enjoyed preparing the food and since the group was varied every year we always had interesting conversations. One year someone even showed slides of his Alaska trip.

7.  Everyone has a hobby or two, what are your hobbies?
I love to read (something I wish I had more time for). I enjoy mysteries, history, science and Jane Austen. I also enjoy planting flowers in the beds around my home. It's a work in progress, but it's fun to see the fruits of my labors and watch the critters they attract.

8.  What is your favorite childhood vacation memory?
I would have to say going to visit the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza when I was about twelve. It was amazing and an experience I have never forgotten.

9.  What is your favorite board game or card game that you like to play?
It's been a while since I've played it, but I look forward to introducing my daughter to Apples to Apples someday. It's great fun, easy to play and appropriate for everyone who can read.

10.  What is your all-time favorite movie and why?
That's hard to say. It depends on what mood I'm in, but I can say that a movie I enjoy again and again is Pride and Prejudice (with Colin Firth, of course). I recently bought it in Blue-Ray and now I really appreciate the details in the costumes.  I enjoy it because the story is excellent and it is interesting to see that while the times change, people (and how they act) don't.

11.  What is the fondest memory you have of your grandparents?
I loved going “Up North” (near Torch Lake) with my grandparents. I loved listening to the stream gurgling while we read in the evenings. I loved taking walks at night with them when we could really see the stars. We picked morels in the woods and searched for petoskey stones in the gravel pit nearby. It was a peaceful place and I was fortunate to share it with them.

Here are the five blogs I would like to nominate:

Here are my 11 questions for those who wish to participate:
  1. How did you get started doing genealogy?
  2. Do you live near where any of your ancestors lived? How close or far are you?
  3. What is your least favorite genealogy task? Labeling photos? Sourcing in your genealogy software?
  4. Who is your most interesting black sheep?
  5. Have you done any DNA testing and have you found anything interesting?
  6. Who is your earliest (verified by you) ancestor to cross the pond?
  7. Who would you most like to break down the brick wall for?
  8. What have you done to help out the future genealogists in your tree (besides blogging)?
  9. Which one of your deceased relatives would you most like to have a conversation with and why?
  10. If you could travel to another country from which your ancestors came, where would you most like to go?
  11. If you've written family stories, have you shared them with your family? How have they been received?

Friday, January 18, 2013

Mapping the Past

Every time I find a new address for one of my people I click to an online mapping program to see where it is. Is the house still there? What did it look like? How far was it from the house they lived in the previous year? Was it across town or just around the corner? Where was it in relation to other relatives' homes or to the person's place of business? I want to be able to see all of these things at once. Now, I have a way to get the big picture. I asked my mom if she happened to have an old map of Kalamazoo. Luckily, she did. Now I have begun marking the map to indicate where my people lived and worked.

I started with the low hanging fruit. I copied the known addresses for my ancestors (and some of their kin in whom I am interested) into a spread sheet along with their years in residence. Borrowing my daughter's markers I selected a color for each person/family. Using an online mapping program I then began to mark my map. This is a work in progress, but here's a photograph of what I have so far.

For me this is a qualitative project. Sometimes I may not be able to easily identify the exact house (assuming houses still exist at the specified location) because house numbers changed at least once in Kalamazoo (for more on that and Kalamazoo street name changes see my post). If a house number changed by only a few numbers it won't change the big picture. If I want to know exactly which house my family lived in I'll need to do some more work in historic maps and/or city directories.

As with anything else, mapping the past requires a certain amount of common sense. When an address seems to be too far outside of downtown red flags start popping up in my head. This could indicate that the street name has changed. Opening a historical map of Kalamazoo can often solve that issue (a few are available at www.kalamazoogenealogy.org).

I have also run into another problem with online mapping. According to Google maps, 521 E. Main St. and 517 W. Main St. are in the same place. Clearly, that wasn't correct. The key was realizing that Main street changes to E. Michigan Ave, but at the turn of the last century it was still E. Main St. A quick check of the street index in the 1899 city directory confirmed the location. Problem solved.

In addition to street name changes, other features may have altered since our ancestor's time. For instance, I noticed that Dan Harrigan's property on Portage (just north of Harrigan court) used to back up to one of two mill ponds (apparently long since drained). The mill ponds were just north and south of Lake street east of Portage. I added those to my map as well.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

More Newspapers Online at the KPL

Several additional Kalamazoo area newspapers have now been digitized and can be searched at the Kalamazoo Public Library website (click here to go directly to the search page). They are listed under Miscellaneous Kalamazoo Publications. While I cannot personally verify that all issues are in the database, given the limited run of these papers I would be surprised if they weren't. The following papers are now available for perusal.

Kalamazoo Advocate:               Dec. 30, 1921 to Jun. 30, 1922

Kalamazoo Evening News:        Apr. 1, 1898 to Mar. 20, 1900

Kalamazoo Evening Press:        Feb. 9, 1909 to May 13, 1911

Kalamazoo Star:                       Oct. 9, 1921 to Dec. 31, 1921

The People:                              Mar. 7, 1918 to Jun. 8, 1922

Trench & Camp (Fort Custer):   Oct. 22, 1917 to Nov. 14, 1918

Publication dates come from the KPL website.

I want to thank the Kalamazoo Public Library for all they do. In this age of belt-tightening the fact that they continue to devote staff and money to promoting Kalamazoo history (and making it available online) speaks to their commitment to the community.

*Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with the library. I'm just a fan.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Perspective or I Have No Problems

There's nothing like doing some family history to gain a little perspective. For example, how many women have you come across in your genealogy research whose husbands died leaving them alone to support several children? I can think of four right off the top of my head. In some cases the women re-married and in others they just muddled through. Thinking about their lives makes me realize that I have no problems. Furthermore, knowing that the life I have could be gone in a moment makes it all the more dear.

Or there is the case of my Kopp family who lived in Tiffin, Ohio. In 1913 a terrible flood swept through the city and the force of the water even carried the piano out of their house. My family had to be rescued from the roof. They were lucky; nineteen people died.

Another of my people, Lawrence Flynn, worked as a carriage maker for the Michigan Buggy Company until a blazing inferno burned the factory to the ground in January 1902. (Michigan Buggy Inferno) About 300 men were left without work. I can only imagine Lawrence being buffeted by a chill wind as he walked up to the smoldering remains. I can envision him staring blankly at the charred ruins of the building in stark contrast to the snow-covered city all the while wondering how he would feed his family. Lawrence was lucky in that the company quickly rebuilt, but he and the others had to subsist somehow for those nine long months.

For me, though, the event that trumps all others in putting my life into perspective is the Great Irish Potato Famine which lasted from approximately 1845-1850. To illustrate this I'll present the case of brothers John and Daniel Harrigan. John was born about 1829 in Tipperary, Ireland, Daniel in 1838. At this time, approximately two-thirds of the Irish population depended entirely on potatoes for sustenance, because it was the only food one could grow enough of on a tiny plot of land (often less than an acre) to feed a family. [1,2] Consequently, a bad year was devastating. During the Great Hunger (as it is referred to in Ireland) there was complete failure island-wide in two of the years and partial failures (and lack of sufficient seed potatoes to grow more) in the other years. Those who didn't die of starvation died of disease (typhus, dysentery and cholera, among others). Tens of thousands were evicted (whether they were current on their rent or not) and their mud huts destroyed so their landlords could reduce their taxes (the fewer tenants they had the less they had to pay in taxes to feed the destitute). [1,2] The evicted were left to fend for themselves. Those willing to give up every possession might be accepted at a work house, assuming there was space. Here, families from age two and up were separated and adults subjected to back-breaking labor, all especially designed to be so abhorrent men would do everything in their power to avoid entering a work house. [1,2]

Visitors to the island described entering apparently deserted villages only to find themselves beset by walking specters, their rags hanging from their emaciated frames. [1,2] Whole families were found huddled together in their cabins, the dead intermingled with the living, who were too weak to stand let alone bury their loved ones. [1,2] The dead littered the countryside and carriage drivers remembered the thump of driving over bodies during the night. [2] Every edible creature (from dog to bird) was consumed and many described the unnatural silence that settled over Ireland. [2]

John Harrigan would have reached manhood during a five-year period that saw some of the greatest suffering of the Irish people in their history. Daniel may not even have remembered a time growing up when death did not pervade the very air. This was the world that John and Daniel Harrigan left, along with at least two million others. By conservative estimates, they left behind 2.5 million dead. [1,2] Assuredly, many more died for the numbers come from interviews of the survivors. When whole families and even entire villages died or emigrated no one was left to attest to their existence. The suffering did not end until emigrants were safely in the bosom of friends in the New World because from port to port they were swindled out of every farthing possible, crowded together in miserable conditions and given only insufficient or substandard food (assuming they were given any at all). [3] Learning about the famine and the abysmal conditions on board emigrant ships completely changed how I thought about the Harrigan family.

Healthy potato plants growing in my garden.

So, now when life gets difficult I try to think about what some of my forebears lived through. It puts things in perspective. And I can tell you that I will never look at a potato quite the same again.

  1. Woodham-Smith, C. The Great Hunger, Ireland 1845 - 1849, the Story of the Famine of the 1840's. 1962. Harper & Row. New York.
  2. O'Murchada, C. The Great Famine: Ireland's Agony 1845-1852. 2011. Continuum.
  3. Coleman, Terry. Going to America. 1972. Pantheon Books. New York.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Stumbling From Scrap To Story

Do you find yourself scurrying from one bit of information to the next without taking the time to sit down and really analyze what you've found? Yep, I'm guilty of this myself. When I'm busy discovering new information I feel like I am truly making progress. And I am, but at some point I need to stop gathering data and analyze my findings. But I often have a difficult time transitioning from one mode to the other.

This is not a newly recognized problem for me. No, this goes back at least twenty years. When working in research labs over the years I had to force myself at the end of each week to transcribe my working notes for my experiments (successful or not) into my permanent notebook. In the process of writing everything in my notebook I thought more deeply about the significance of my results and often came up with better troubleshooting methods than moments after completing the experiment. So, if penning my results and conclusions into my notebook was so useful, why did I loathe it? Well, one reason I hated the task was because I felt (wrongly) that I wasn't “accomplishing” anything.

My other stumbling block is that I enjoy the thrill of the chase. One of the things I love about scientific research is that I can be the first person to see a new result and think “wow, so that's how it works!” The same is true in genealogy. Finding a new clue to my family's past is thrilling. Even if the “discovery” is something trivial to others, that excitement is what drives me to search for the next piece of the puzzle. However, in genealogy, as in science, at some point I need to put on the brakes and think about how that jigsaw piece fits into the larger picture. Beyond the big picture, there are other benefits to writing about my genealogy findings. First, it allows me to really see what holes I have. This can be dangerous because I then have to fight the urge to run off to fill the gap. But as I live several states away from Michigan and have a child to care for, I can't just hop in the car and satisfy my curiosity. Second, writing permits me to see how much I have learned since I last wrote up my findings (this can be fun). While this is valuable, it simply isn't as exciting as that momentary thrill of finding a new clue to the past.

Once I finally overcome the activation energy to writing I actually do enjoy it. This is, in part, why I began blogging. Although I didn't intend to work through some of my findings in my blog, it has sometimes worked out that way. This has been good for me, but when I contemplate writing another life story for one of my people (not book length by any means) I kind of get a sinking sensation. Part of this is the old “not accomplishing anything” feeling I get when I'm not crossing something off a list. The other part is that it is time-consuming to re-examine every scrap of information I have to come up with a satisfying whole (time I could be spending hunting down more information). While writing, I do get a little thrill when I realize “maybe THAT'S why Emma did (fill in blank).” In the end, however, the best part for me is receiving feedback from family who read what I write. When they tell me “I feel like I know Emma” I know I really have accomplished something. Maybe this year I can do better at bridging the gap between gathering and recording..

If you need more reasons to spur you to write I recommend you read an article that started me thinking about the subject. Harold Henderson's piece “How Not To Be Buffalo Hunters” is at Archives.com.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Review of 2012

I can't believe it has been a year since I began my genealogy blog.  87 posts and over 7100 hits later it is exciting to see that some people have actually read something I wrote.

In case anyone was curious here are the top posts from the past year:

8. Poisonous Cheese (March)

7. Kalamazoo Public Library (January)

2. 1940 Census Shirker (March)

I have more ideas than I have time to write.  Just like I have an ever growing stack of books, that as usual, grew over the holidays.  All I can say to all of you is thanks!   If nothing else, I hope I have entertained you a little.