Monday, March 27, 2017

Branching Out From History

Researching one's family history can reawaken that sense of wonder inspired by hearing ancestors' stories. I don't know about you, but I can be taken up by the stories unfolding as I research my family's history.

Sometimes, that rapt attention can take me far afield of the strict confines of genealogy. Knowing some streets have been named after particular ancestors in my tree, I find myself wondering how it came to be that a certain street received its name. I know others have fallen in love with house histories, learning more about the succession of people who once lived in the home owned by an ancestor.

This past weekend, I spent some time at a place inspired by someone obsessed with learning the history of one particular accoutrement of a bygone century's daily life. As much as our generation—indeed, the entire past century—has been taken up with automobiles, prior centuries' transportation needs were answered, not by horsepower of a machine, but by the power of horses.

The place I visited was a museum dedicated to exhibiting and explaining the history of the various contraptions devised by man to be pulled by history's workhorses. From humble wagons to the dress chariots of royalty, this particular museum examined the many variations that form of transportation has taken over the centuries.

The location is The Grand Oaks Resort and Museum in Lady Lake, Florida. Within the peaceful spread of the property is the Carriage Museum, featuring the collection of European and American carriages of all types, assembled by Gloria Austin, author and founder of the Equine Heritage Institute.

Though the facility itself is rather plain, the array of carriages housed in the collection is impressive. Each display includes a descriptive plaque to inform visitors on the self-guided tour of the collection. Included, where possible, is the provenance of each carriage—although, admittedly, there are some notable parts of the collection for which no explanation can be provided as to how the piece ended up where Ms. Austin and her advisors discovered it before its acquisition, such as the gala coupe of Franz Josef, former head of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Walking through the exhibit, my mind wandered to thoughts of just how enthusiasm for specific topics can branch out into fervent pursuit of related fields. Just as the love of equestrian sports surely inspired the questions that led to such an impressive collection of carriages, how could genealogy inspire related pursuits of collectibles? Each family may have specific interests which could evolve into a passion for an expanded collection.

It's not quite as if we collect people. Of course not. But some families may have members who love music or have old instruments from significant sources. Or that may love needlework or quilting and have a collection that can tell a more detailed story about the family members who once loved them or created them. I often look at the bookshelves in my living room and bedrooms, stacked double, and wonder what someone might glean about the inhabitants in our home, or what they might surmise we are like, based on the titles we own.

Each of the members of our family tree had artifacts that, themselves, could tell tales about the people who owned them. Granted, many of those tales were subsequently lost by too-enthusiastic de-cluttering descendants. But those who have been fortunate to inherit antiques from bygone generations in their family have sometimes also obtained the stories behind those prized pieces.

No matter what collectibles we might find ourselves branching into from the original pursuit of our family tree, those items, themselves, can reveal more about the very people we are trying to research. It is as if our ancestors left the fingerprints of their lives on the items that passed through their hands—and eventually to us. Learning to capture those otherwise invisible records—and learn how to properly interpret them—is an acquired skill that can augment our genealogical pursuits.

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