Finding the “Write” Time: A Trip to Pittsburgh

I am continually amazed at my friends and professional colleagues (you know who you are) that have successfully found that balance between family, work, and genealogy, and yet still find enough time to write. That is something I have struggled mightily with these past few months, evidenced by my lapse in blog posts. Finding that “write” time has not been very easy. I won’t make any excuses, but I have challenged myself to be more vigilant with my writing, not only to stay engaged with my family’s past, but also to focus my research in a way that keeps me moving forward.

Our family’s recent trip to Pittsburgh offered me the motivation to start writing again. Originally constructed as a quick trip to see the Bears-Steelers game, our trek to the Steel City quickly expanded into a weekend chock full of fun and family history. With my mother’s side of the family having lived in the Pittsburgh area for many years, finding something to research while I was in town was not a problem.

As our trip drew closer, my wife encouraged me to include our daughters into both my research planning and the genealogy itinerary itself. So in between breakfast at the hotel (conveniently located across the street from PNC Park, home of the Pirates) and lunch at Primanti Brothers, our family visited the Historical Society of Mount Lebanon, and then trekked – in the pouring rain – through Mount Lebanon Cemetery and St. John’s Cemetery. The girls were good sports about it; indeed, my oldest daughter has a genuine affection for history and asks good questions about the family and how the names all fit together. My budding genealogist!

St. John’s Cemetery, located in Millvale just a few miles northeast of Pittsburgh, was a definite highlight. I knew from previous research that Joseph Vero, his wife Phoebe, and their daughter Elizabeth, were all buried there. A cemetery transcription I’d found identified a fair number of headstones, yet not an overwhelming number. Using Google Maps, I was able to zoom in on the cemetery, which helped me realize that I could probably walk the cemetery fairly quickly to find the Vero headstones. With the eager assistance of my assistants/daughters, it would only take a few minutes. Here is a screenshot of the zoomed-in satellite view from Google Maps showing the cemetery.

St. John's Cemetery, Millvale (PA).

St. John’s Cemetery, Millvale (PA).

Google is fantastic and can do many things, but what it can’t illustrate particularly well is altitude. What looks above like a short and easy access entrance road to the cemetery is actually a slightly overgrown, suspension rattling, pot-holed crawl up a near 45-degree incline. Adding to the fun, just two feet to the right of the road (obscured by trees on the lower right hand corner) is a severe drop down to the houses below. At the apex of the hill, near where the paths converge, the cemetery itself is chained off, which a driver cannot see from the main road far below. And did I mention it was pouring rain?

After the family disembarked from the car, popped open our umbrellas, we split into teams and scoured the cemetery looking for the Vero headstones. Success! Here is Joseph’s headstone.

Joseph Vero, St. John's Cemetery, Millvale (PA).

Joseph Vero, St. John’s Cemetery, Millvale (PA).

My g-g-g grandfather, Joseph Vero was born in England in 1827 and immigrated to the United States in the 1860′s. After a brief stay in Jefferson County, Ohio, he and his wife Phoebe and their growing family moved to Millvale in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania in the late 1870′s.

After a harrowing reverse drive back to the main road, the genealogy component of our family’s rain-soaked adventure in Pittsburgh concluded. Baseball, football, and Mount Washington awaited, a fantastic weekend in a fantastic city.

Spreading the Word in Michigan

With a full slate of programs this week, including stops across Michigan in South Lyon, Charlotte, Davisburg, and Boyne City, I have a number of opportunities to reach out to and interact with library patrons, family history researchers, local societies, and their members.

This busy week comes at a most opportune time. With the transfer of the Abrams Foundation Historical Collection to the Archives of Michigan nearly complete, the time has arrived to promote the terrific collection and the many outstanding resources still available to family history researchers.

One popular misconception is that because it is an archives, all the resources are in closed stacks. False! Approximately two-thirds of the collection will be in glorious open stacks, allowing researchers to browse and discover the resources they are looking for; the remaining one-third will be available for quick retrieval. All of the heavy-use items, including family histories, local histories, and passenger list indexes, will be on the open stacks. Here is a picture of one row of book stacks at the Archives:

Archives of Michigan, Abrams Foundation Historical Collection

After a quick check-in at the front desk, researchers will find family histories (Michigan, too), passenger list resources, military indexes, city directories, getting-started handbooks and manuals, and local history and genealogy resources for dozens of states. States of particular strength include those with strong ties to Michigan and it’s early migration patterns: the New England region, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. All of these resources fit seamlessly with the Archives’ already existing foundational collection of Michigan state, county, and local histories.

Researchers may wish to begin by browsing ANSWER, the online catalog. Please note that the locations in the catalog are still being updated to reflect the Archives’ new holdings. In the interim, researchers are encouraged to contact the Archives staff, who will be happy to assist you in finding the source of interest.

The print resources that have moved over to the Archives are a complement to the already-outstanding collection of manuscript source material for Michigan, including such genealogically rich records as naturalizations, rural property inventories, state prison registers, county court case files, tax assessments, and Michigan vital records.

The digital platform for the Archives can be found at Seeking Michigan. Including Michigan state census records (in-process), Michigan Civil War regimental records, death records (from the Library of Michigan) covering 1897-1920, and naturalization indexes for more than 30 counties, this online destination for Michigan research will continue to grow. Visitor information, including contact numbers, street address, and open hours, can also be found here, at the “Visit Us” link under the Seek tab.

This collection transfer to the Archives of Michigan would not have been possible without the continued support of the Abrams Foundation, the Michigan Genealogical Council, the Records Preservation & Access Committee, and the management team of the Michigan Historical Center. Researchers with roots in the Great Lakes State and beyond owe a great debt of gratitude to these forward-thinking organizations.

With the uncertainty of the last few years now behind us, this is an exciting time for family history research in Michigan. Archives staff will be working hard to make this transition as seamless as possible, and we encourage researchers to stop by, take a look around, and perhaps discover something new. We look forward to assisting you in your family history journey, whether it takes you to Michigan, the Great Lakes region, or beyond. And perhaps I’ll see you this week on the road!

Back in the Old Neighborhood

On my recent research trip to Chicago, there were a number of memorable finds and ancestral breakthroughs. Yet one of my most gratifying days was spent driving through the South Side, stopping at, taking pictures of, and trying to visualize those important and life-changing family events that took place at those locales.

Before my trip, I had amassed an impressive list of addresses for various bungalows, apartments, schools, churches, and other significant landmarks that defined and shaped my family’s life in Chicago. Using Google Maps, I plotted out all the locations out in advance, and re-ordered my list several times to make sure my route was the most direct possible. No sense criss-crossing the city wasting precious research time! Although Google offers the Street View, nothing compares to being there on location, driving the same streets and viewing the same neighborhood cityscapes.

Throughout the day, several locations stood out for me. The first was 8227 S. Indiana. According to my great aunt, this was the house where my grandparents were married in 1942.

8227 S. Indiana, Chicago (IL).

The Alderson’s first moved to that address in the mid-1930′s, according to the Chicago telephone directories from the era, and remained there for nearly 20 years. Fast forward to the mid-1960′s, a few short miles away. The Avalon Theater was showing “Disorderly Orderly,” starring Jerry Lewis. In the audience, my mother and father were on their first date.

Avalon (New Regal) Theatre, 1641 East 79th St., Chicago (IL).

Originally opened in 1927, the historic theatre was renamed the New Regal in the 1980′s. I remember both my parents pointing out that distinctive dome from the Chicago Skyway as we drove past. My parents’ first date must have gone well, as a few years later, they were married at St. Felicitas Church.

St. Felicitas Church, 1526 E. 84th St., Chicago (IL).

Located at 1526 E. 84th St., the church is again only a short distance from the other landmarks, schools, and residences that I visited on my travels that day. I thoroughly enjoyed my adventure, touring my family’s Chicago neighborhoods, viewing first-hand the sites and locations that shaped my family’s narrative. Yet perhaps the most rewarding part of my journey will be when I sit down with my parents to share and discuss my trip and findings. Perhaps I’ll glean some new insight into their experiences there in the South Side or learn about new locales that I’ll explore on my next adventure to Chicago.

All Lines Lead to Chicago

In a few weeks, I’m headed to the Windy City for a few glorious days of research. With my professional and family life as it is, I have to maximize that precious research time, and an upcoming research trip motivates me like nothing else. Although life has gotten in the way (as it often does) the last few weeks, I’m now focused on completing my research agenda and itinerary. I’ve pondered the genealogical questions I’m hoping to resolve, identified the sources I’m anxious to jump into, and mapped out the different locations I’m headed to.

With a 5-day schedule jam-packed from dawn to dusk (and later), my agenda includes visits to the Newberry Library, Chicago Public Library, Cook County Recorder of Deeds, Probate Division of the Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court, Chicago History Museum, local churches, area cemeteries, and South Side neighborhoods. I’ve not even mentioned the Chicago regional branch of the National Archives or the Polish Museum of America!

Yet I’ve also learned from previous trips. Anxious to fit as much as I can into one trip, I’ve often not given myself the opportunity to truly follow a new discovery or pursue an intriguing avenue of research. Perhaps that speaks to something other than my research habits, but on this trip, I’ve allowed myself a “free agent” day where I will go wherever my research from that week takes me.

With my family’s deep roots in the city, this trip is truly just the clichéd “tip of the iceberg.” Indeed, as I’ve written before, all eight of my great-grandparents lived in Chicago at some point in their lives, and all but two of them during the 1909-1915 time period. I could research non-stop for weeks and still barely scratch the surface of my family’s narrative in the city. Given that, I’ll be thrilled with whatever discoveries are made.

NGS conference wrap-up

Hard to believe, but it’s been nearly a week since the 2012 National Genealogical Society conference wrapped up in Cincinnati, Ohio. With my work schedule, I was only able to attend a short time, yet I returned home bursting with new ideas, energized for my own personal research, and optimistic for what the future holds in the field of genealogy. A successful conference, to be sure.

NGS 2012 Family History Conference, May 9-12, Cincinnati (OH)

Always a highlight at conferences, I reconnected with colleagues from across the country, sharing updates on our places of work, and discussing future conferences and learning opportunities. I also enjoyed meeting new Facebook and Twitter friends face to face. My Friday program on Michigan genealogy went well, too, researchers’ enthusiasm and interest in Michigan continues to amaze and motivate me.

En route to Cincinnati, I stopped in Blue Ash at Blue Ash Chili for some outstanding 3-way chili and delectable mac & cheese. Skyline Chili was an enjoyable lunchtime spot the next day, although I preferred Blue Ash. Yet my Cincinnati culinary highlight was Graeter’s ice cream, conveniently located two blocks from my hotel. Black Raspberry Chip!

Although I unfortunately missed the opening program on the 1848 Cincinnati panorama, I did have the opportunity to visit the exhibit at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. It’s simply incredible how much detail we can glean from that image, down to the exact time it was taken. The exhibit hall is always an important part of the conference experience, both in conversations with vendors and in emptying one’s wallet; this year was no exception. It’s equally amazing – and inspiring – that FamilySearch is expecting the 1940 Census to be completely indexed by the end of August!

I look forward to my next visit to Cincinnati, perhaps at the Ohio Genealogical Society‘s annual conference in April 2013. Hope to see you there!

NGS 2012

The car is packed, fueled up, and pointed due south. Lunch dates and appointments with friends and colleagues have been confirmed. The conference schedule has been pored over and analyzed. Restaurants and watering holes have been identified. My program has been edited, rehearsed, and polished. It’s time. Cincinnati, here I come!

Next week, the genealogical community will converge on Cincinnati, Ohio for the 2012 Annual Conference of the National Genealogical Society. I have the privilege of speaking at this year’s conference – “Michigan Roots: Genealogy Research in the Wolverine State” on Friday, May 11 at 11:00a. I’ll be giving an overview of Michigan, its rich history, migration patterns, and the genealogical records available both online and in print.

NGS 2012 Conference, May 9-12, Cincinnati (OH)

As I’ve written in earlier posts, I am a big supporter of conferences and seminars, that collection of subject experts, content providers, vendors, local societies, booksellers, and attendees, complete with new product announcements and content releases. The 1940 Census and Ancestry.com’s acquisition of Archives.com will certainly be two of the hot topics of discussion, and there will no doubt be many new announcements and product launches.

On the culinary side, my Michigan friends still give me a hard time for my trip to Philadelphia for the FGS conference a few years back. Taking advantage of the local cuisine, I ate a hearty number of Philly cheesesteaks, in pursuit of the “best.” With Cincinnati known for its chili, I’ve been busy compiling a list of “best” candidates. Although my chili intake in Cincinnati will not reach those Philadelphian and stomach-churning heights, I’ll still give it my best effort. I’m sure my blog post review of the conference will discuss this important development….

I’m looking forward to meeting new researchers, reconnecting with old friends, and learning about new resources, gadgets, online tools. Whether it be to learn new research techniques, empty your wallet in the exhibit hall, or sample the local cuisine, there is truly something for everyone in Cincinnati. See you next week!

NGS 2012, Cincinnati

With the attention of the genealogical community focused, understandably so, on the release of the 1940 U.S. Census in just a matter of days, I’d like to write about an equally important event to be held in southern Ohio a few weeks later.

The National Genealogical Society’s Annual Conference will be held this year in Cincinnati, Ohio from May 9-12, 2012. I have the privilege of speaking at this year’s conference – “Michigan Roots: Genealogy Research in the Wolverine State” on Friday, May 11 at 11:00a.

NGS 2012 Conference, May 9-12, Cincinnati, Ohio

In today’s one-click world of Tweets, Likes, and Pins, with instant communication and information sharing, there is still something to be said for attending a national conference, such as NGS or FGS. There is a certain energy and excitement in the air at these events, a hybrid collection of subject experts, content providers, vendors, local societies, booksellers, and attendees, plus new product announcements and content releases, all set against the backdrop of the host city. I’ve experienced this phenomenon recently at NGS 2010 in Salt Lake City and at FGS 2011 in Springfield, IL, and am already looking forward to RootsTech 2013 in Salt Lake City. I expect NGS 2012 in Cincinnati to have that same vibe.

Conferences like these offer attendees limitless possibilities. Myself, I look forward to reconnecting with colleagues and friends, making new friendships, and of course, spending some serious money in the exhibit hall. Let’s not forget about studying the new technological gadget, exploring the latest time-saving solution, and the opportunity to discuss product with the content providers themselves, including Ancestry, FamilySearch, Fold3, and others; as a librarian that works with these products on a daily basis, this opportunity to have a face-to-face conversation is priceless.

One other benefit of these conferences is the opportunity to dive into the local cuisine. As my Michigan and Ft. Wayne friends will attest, I take it as a personal challenge to find the “best” example of the food the host city is known for: the Philly cheese steak, a deep dish Chicago-style pizza, or the horseshoe in Springfield, Illinois. A big fan of chili, I’m particularly excited about the culinary possibilities in Cincinnati; I’m open to suggestions and recommendations!

With a number of the national-level conferences being held recently in the Great Lakes region, including Cincinnati, Springfield (IL), and Ft. Wayne (IN), plus the superb Ohio Genealogical Society Conference held annually, Midwest-based researchers are incredibly fortunate to have these fantastic events so close to home. I encourage everyone to look at their calendars and try to find some time in May to spend with an enthusiastic gathering of family history researchers at the “Gateway to the Western Frontier.”

I hope to see you in Cincinnati in May!

Research Trip Preparations

With my research trip to Chicago coming up later this year, I have a lot of preparatory work to do before I ever set foot in the Windy City.

I prefer to work on one family line or geographic location at a time, not only to help me keep things straight in my head, but also to keep my research focused and streamlined. With my deep ties in Chicago on both sides of the family, I am currently exploring both my paternal and maternal lines during their time in the city, beginning in the 1880′s and continuing on up through the 1950′s. A tall order, to be sure.

Everything starts, however, with my research agenda. Is there a particular ancestor I want to focus on? Is there something specific I’m looking for? What do I hope to find? What things have I looked at already? What gaps do I have in my ancestor’s timeline? How I answer those questions will lead me to particular print resources or online tools as I progress in my research – probate, land, naturalization, church records, directories, etc.

My next step is to explore, from home, online web sites and databases, keeping in mind my answers to those research agenda questions above. FamilySearch, Ancestry, Fold3, and Mocavo are just a few of the sites I explore and constantly revisit to see if any new content has been posted that addresses my research needs. Of particular interest to me is the recent addition at FamilySearch of Archdiocese of Chicago records for dozens of area Catholic parishes.

Despite the wealth of information available online, I still have a number of unanswered questions, which brings me to my next – and favorite – step in my research trip preparations: the library. In addition to my daily access to the Library of Michigan‘s collections (on my lunch hour!), I am fortunate to be a short 2-hour drive from the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

In anticipation of my next ACPL visit, I will spend hours poring through the online catalog, looking for and identifying titles of interest, and then adding their title, author, and call number to an Excel spreadsheet. One of ACPL‘s many strengths is their unparallelled collection of local society journals and newsletters from across the United States, indexed in PERSI. Depending on the family line I’m researching, I often compile an expansive list of journal citations to explore.

As a librarian myself, I encourage patrons to come to the library “armed and dangerous,” ready to attack their research immediately upon arrival. Equipped with their priorities, exact titles, call numbers, and the like, researchers can then quickly find and pull their titles of interest. The key is to spend as little time getting organized once onsite, instead maximizing the limited research time at the library, archives, or clerk’s office. Those researchers that arrive at the library unprepared and without a clear sense of what they’re looking for will likely have a more uneven experience than those that come equipped with a clear agenda and research priorities.

I will arrive at the library with my research agenda and Excel spreadsheet, sorted by call number, and get to work. With my next visit to ACPL coming up in just a few days, I look forward to finding new information and genealogical leads, and in the process better preparing me for my visit to Chicago later this year.

With my new iPhone (my old phone used two cans and a string), I’m playing around with having my research available right on my phone. My research agenda and title list will be right at my fingertips, although I haven’t pulled the trigger on an actual family tree app yet. I suppose that’s something I can write about in a future blog article, so stay tuned!

Sweet Home Chicago

Growing up in southwestern Michigan, Chicago was always the big city my family looked to for shopping, dining, museums, and the overall urban experience. My parents often pointed out certain South Side landmarks to my brother and I in the back seat as we sped (or crawled) by on the Skyway en route to some downtown destination. So, although I certainly recognized that my family had origins in the Windy City, I did not truly appreciate the impact Chicago had on my own life until I really began to explore my family history.

At some point in their lives, all eight of my great-grandparents lived in Chicago, all but two of them during the 1909-1915 time period. Ironically, those two great-grandparents not in the city then were the family I always associated as being “old Chicago,” when in fact, they were the most recent arrivals in the early 1920′s.

Later this year, I’ll be spending an extended research trip in Chicago, exploring libraries, archives, museums, clerks’ offices, churches, cemeteries, and more. Given my deep roots in the city, my research “To-do” list is already substantial, and will only continue to grow in the weeks leading up to my trip.

Here is an image from a previous day-trip into the South Side, St. Michael Church at 83rd and South Shore Drive. One of the more visually striking churches I’ve ever seen, this church was where my great-grandfather Leo Stempkowski married Helena Zdzarska in January 1914.

Over the next few months, some of my blog posts will explore my research preparations, lessons I’ve learned from previous trips (including Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, and western Illinois), what I hope to find on this one, and much more.

One of the things I’m most looking forward to is the time I’ll spend with my brother in the evenings, after all the libraries and research rooms are closed. Since he lives in the area, we’ll have an opportunity to spend quite a bit of time together, more than we’ll we’ve had in years. I expect there will be some outlandish family stories exchanged, many of them starting with “Do you remember when….?” A perfect way to wrap up a day of spending time with the family….