Thursday, June 2, 2011

Our Town: Who’s Who

Just prior to the turn of the previous century, it became fashionable in a number of American towns to publish a specific type of local history book. These 1880s publications, full of those quaint ads for pills and potions, often included a large section of biographical sketches of the local citizens. Much the same as clever producers today, those publishers realized that anything that gives people their fifteen minutes of fame often serves best to line the businessman’s own pocket.

Those publishers’ fortunes are probably long spent, but the “fame” they bestowed upon the subjects of their books lives on—if you know how to find it.

Fortunately for our family, at least one line of ancestors lived in such a town. Chris’s mom, born and raised in an isolated farm community in Perry County, Ohio, nevertheless lived in a hometown caught up in the nineteenth-century City History craze. Of course she wasn’t there at the time. But one look at the pages of those biographical sketches reveals that quite a few of her ancestors were.

Fortunately for this armchair researcher, the Perry County historical publications have been scanned and posted on a website, providing a wealth of material for me to access. The site is provided through the long-time labor of love of another child of Perry County, Timothy Fisher. For nearly ten years, Tim has scanned historic documents pertaining to the area and posted them online for all to see, while making this all possible out of his own pocket (plus the generous donations of appreciative others)—a real grassroots endeavor.

Looking through the website, I could find some listings for the Gordons, my mother-in-law’s family that supposedly had “just stepped off the boat.” And for the Metzger family relations, too. Her maiden name, Flowers, caused a bit more trouble with the Google-assisted search engine, since the surname is also a common English word, but with a bit of perseverance, I found listings for Flowers family members, too.

While your direct ancestors may not be featured in such a book, you can still glean a lot by reading up on other relatives in the area. For instance, it was fun finding a picture of my mother-in-law’s third cousin, once removed—Clement A. Flowers, pictured above. And reading in incredulity at the blunders experienced by one of our many George W. Gordon ancestors.

Many other cities across America published similar books. It didn’t take me long to find a similar volume for Fort Wayne, Indiana, for my husband’s paternal line. (As an added bonus, I stumbled upon that book in my own library, thousands of miles from Indiana!)

In researching your family in the late 1800s, if you know where they resided, check with that city’s library to see if such a book is in their holdings. Better yet, get in touch with the county’s historical society or genealogical society to see if they have a copy posted online.

Reading through these old pages gave me such a sense of continuity—connecting with what has always seemed like the remote past. History in general has always seemed dry to me—mainly, I suppose, because I sensed that it wasn’t relevant. Knowing someone who lived there at that time, though, was just the right touch to get the pages of what used to be dull, drab text to come alive in my mind. That dry powder—for me, at least—somehow turned into fairy dust, sprinkled for a more pragmatic purpose: to let those long-gone come alive again.

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