Monday, November 25, 2013

Uproar in the Upper Peninsula

The California Genealogical Society has a poster—which it is now selling—sporting a slogan I’d like to borrow for today’s post. The poster proclaims:
Genealogy Research:
is just the
tip of the iceberg.

The poster goes on to explain that “Most research is done in: Libraries, Archives, Courthouses…”

While I’ve always known better, perhaps it is habit (or the path of least resistance) that results in  behavior that does not line up with my agreement to that statement. Where do I end up doing most of my research? Online. What should I do when I can’t find what I’m looking for? Go somewhere besides online resources. But I seldom do.

Perhaps to redeem myself—after all, it isn’t as stark a confession of shortcomings as that flat-out statement portrays it to be—I decided yesterday to share a story of how I ventured outside the four walls of my Internet Prison, into the wide world of books, newspapers, charts and documents beyond.

I mentioned yesterday that I had been pursuing the records of Mildred Kelly’s husband, Willard M. Britten. While Willard Britten had died and been buried in Fort Wayne, there was no sign of any obituary for him in the Fort Wayne newspapers—at least, none showing through the usual Internet-researching avenues.

It was nearly ten years ago when I decided to tackle this problem. Perhaps some people would have just discarded the challenge, thinking this wasn’t a direct line—not an actual ancestor. Unlike many researching family history now, though, I’ve taken up the challenge to not only research ancestors, but to follow their lines of descent down to the present, including those people who have married into my lines, like Willard.

So, what to do when you can’t find an obituary in a town located twenty five hundred miles away from you? Many times, I’d turn to those wonderful online genealogy forums and post a request for “some kind soul” to help with an obituary lookup. Believe me, there are many such “kind souls” out there who have helped me in the past—and for whom I try to pay it forward by returning the favor in kind by other genealogical volunteer work.

I’m not sure exactly what first step I took in trying to locate Willard Britten’s obituary. Whatever got the whole thing rolling, I can’t tell. But I do know that, in the end, I encountered a whole cast of players—both genealogy aficionados and other big-hearted people, willing to help.

I’ve gone back through my saved emails—I use a simple electronic folder system to organize my genealogy correspondence—to retrace my steps. Here were a few of the highlights of that search mission.

Using Rootsweb, one of my go-to sites at that time, I did a universal search for Willard Britten. Rootsweb featured a resource called Obituary Daily Times, which revealed that an obituary had been printed for Willard—not in Fort Wayne, the city of his residence since early adulthood, but in his native Iron River, way up north in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Problem number one: in order to obtain a copy of the obituary as referenced by the Obit Daily Times volunteer, one had to be a fellow volunteer in the system.

I wasn’t.

Not swayed in the least by this obstacle, I remembered that many libraries—at least at that time—would respond to requests for obituaries by sending a free copy via email, or sometimes even by the Postal Service. I went searching for names of libraries in the Iron County, Michigan, vicinity, as well as contact information for any genealogical societies there.

Somehow, I came in contact with three people in the area: a librarian, a distant relative by marriage of the Britten family, and the president of the local genealogical society. Incredibly, each of them was eager to help.

Since I had the actual name of publication, plus the date in which the obituary appeared, it was just a matter of finding someone—and now I had three someones—willing to look up the edition of the paper, copy the material requested and get it back to me.

Problem number two: there was a binder of the newspaper’s archived issues that turned out to be, mysteriously and unexpectedly, missing. Of course, you know which date it included. What happened to that binder?

There is more than one way to solve such problems. Thankfully, there was supposed to be a card collection of clipped obituaries held at the local history museum for the county. Perhaps one of these eager volunteers could go check that out?

Problem number three: the card was not in its usual place in the collection.

Of course, all this was a great disappointment to me, even though I’m not even related to the guy. Beyond my own disappointment, though, it seemed to ramp up a number of people in that small town very far away.

Thankfully, by this time, a volley of emails and vested interest in seeing this thing through took on a life of its own. Apparently, some of these other people were caring as much for my quest as I—a total stranger to them—was.

Before I knew it, I had more information on the family than I had counted on receiving. The Society president sent me information from the card collection on the obituary notices for others affiliated with the Britten family in Iron River. In addition, for those family members who had moved out of the area, she included hyperlinks for those counties’ websites and records, in case I wanted to follow up there.

In addition—hey, this is a small town and everyone “knows” everyone else—the president realized that there were still family members in town, and gave them a call, outlining the details of records confirmed through her interviews, sending along their addresses and phone numbers. Her presumption was, “if she is an aunt like me,” that relative would know “everything” about family members—“birth dates, addresses, married names, etc.”

Little wisps of details about Willard’s life and surroundings started coming out in the process. At one point, my contact mentioned that Willard was raised in the Nash District, and explained, “Localities up here often take the name of the mine that was in operation nearby”—in this case, for iron ore.

After realizing the bound book for 1988 of the newspaper in question was missing even in the newspaper’s own office, this woman headed back to the museum to double check the missing card file there. In the process, she ran into one of the founders of the museum, who asked what she was looking for. Turns out, the man actually knew Willard and went to school with him, remembered that he moved to Fort Wayne, and that he was “a good baseball player,” having played ball together. He also remembered an incident in which Willard had fallen off a horse and had knocked out his two front teeth.

That man’s name and email address got added to my list of contacts, too.

Meanwhile, separate from all this activity, a librarian in town was also working on my puzzle. As it turned out, she was not employed by the public library, but by a local high school library. It was summer vacation, though, and this woman was spending her free time on projects she loved: adding photographs of cemetery headstones to Find A Grave, adding data to the county’s GenWeb page, and organizing a host of other history- and genealogy-related projects. (Discovering that I was from California, she mentioned that she had, recently, been out West, but “could not wait to get home to where I meant something to someone.” Describing all the projects she was involved in—which arrangements required the permission of others in her community, she mused, “It is wonderful to live in a small town where I am trusted.”

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, as described by this librarian, is a place “where there is nine months of winter and three months of company.” I had initiated this quest for the Britten obituary, as it turns out, right in the middle of those “three months of company.” That summer, in the midst of what seemed to be a fruitless search, someone at the museum remembered that, in addition to the missing bound volume of the newspaper, they also kept an unbound volume of copies of the old newspapers, and took our undaunted librarian out to a dusty old padlocked building which stored, among many others, the 1988 issue I was seeking.

In the end, I got my copy of Willard Britten’s obituary, sent to me from this librarian-cum-agent of the Obit Daily Times, via her contact in that organization. I, in turn, sent letters of appreciation to this librarian, the ODT editor, as well as the genealogical society president who had also been such a diligent researcher. Now that I had the elusive obituary, I posted a copy on the forum for Allen County, Indiana—where Willard spent his working and retirement years—and received a note of thanks from the Genealogical Society president there.

And, after all that, I decided it would be a nice gesture to volunteer to do some indexing for the organization that gave me my first clue in this search in the beginning: the Obituary Daily Times.

Not all searches, I suppose, will be as eventful as what I experienced with Willard Britten’s obituary. But there is one thing I think we can all glean from the experience—no, two:
  • First, there are so many more resources for genealogical research than those that can be found online.
  • There is a whole host of wonderful volunteers out there, sharing—and even amplifying—your own fascination with family history, and they are both willing to donate their time and effort to help you achieve success in your search and to let their enthusiasm inspire you to turn around and do likewise.


  1. The generosity in time and effort of "some kindhearted" souls never fails to take my breath away.

  2. Yey! I knew you would find some help! It becomes a challenge somedays to help people find "stuff." I keep a three ring binder of obits by year at the museum. I am certain in years to come they will be a wonderful resource. :)

    1. Your binder will indeed be seen as a wonderful resource!

      Here in our town, we also had the good fortune to have someone with that sort of insight organize and preserve information from the local obits--in our case it was the librarians at the city library. Just recently, a joint project by some local associations, including our genealogical society, and got the stuff scanned, indexed and available on their website for all to use. The most popular posts on our Society's blog are the ones detailing the addition of that collection to's online offerings.


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