Reflections on 2012

Every New Year’s Eve, before my wife and I watch “To Catch a Thief,” we review the events of the past year and speculate on what the coming year will bring. I look forward to that discussion even more than seeing the divine Grace Kelly onscreen in the 1955 Hitchcock classic.

For this genealogist, 2012 was a particularly good year. My research trip to Chicago revealed that my g-g-grandfather was the first entry in the Cook County tract books for the family’s longtime property, several years before I had originally thought. Subsequent research in the Recorder of Deeds office confirmed this, as well as an earlier marriage.

The other big discovery of the year centered around the Kamp family of western Pennsylvania. For years, I was unable to find any trace of Frank Kamp or his wife Mary following the 1920 Census. Yet with the December 2011 changes to the vital records laws regarding public access to Pennsylvania vital records, the floodgates opened to my personal research. Indeed, I had finally solved my most enduring and frustrating genealogical mystery. As it turned out, Mary Kamp died in 1927, and her husband Frank died later in 1940; both are buried in Mount Lebanon Cemetery, the same cemetery I visited a few years ago researching a different line of the family. As with any discovery, new questions immediately surface. Where was Frank in the 1930 and 1940 censuses, and why am I struggling to find him?

Professionally, 2012 also brought big changes, the most important being a new position at the Archives of Michigan. Now as a Senior Archivist, I work closely with the Abrams Foundation Historical Collection, as well as outreach and programming in support of the Archives’ outstanding holdings. I look forward to the challenges of my new position, learning the intricacies of an exciting and unique archival collection, and maintaining my relationships with the Michigan genealogical community. Recently elected to the Board of Directors, I also look forward to becoming more involved with the Federation of Genealogical Societies.

So what will 2013 bring? With a March trip to Salt Lake City and a fall jaunt to Fort Wayne (IN) already on the schedule, I can hope for an exciting and rewarding year of genealogical discovery.

The Next Generation of Family Historians

A few weeks ago, the Archives of Michigan was visited by Junior Troop #123 of the Girl Scouts of Michigan.

After a brief introductory discussion about family history, the girls looked at a few selections from the Archives’ collections, including a map of Michigan, Michigan (as Lansing was originally known), a state prison register of inmates (complete with mug shots), records of naturalization from Ingham County, and a Sanborn Fire Insurance map of downtown Lansing and the State Capitol. Some of the more compelling questions included: “How old is that map? – It looks really old!,” “What is Prohibition?,” “What does naturalization mean?”, and “Why is that building pink?”

The real fun started when the girls began their online explorations at Ancestry, FamilySearch, and several other destinations. A few weeks before, I had encouraged the kids to talk with their families to better prepare them for their upcoming visit to the Archives. A very encouraging sign was that many of the girls had filled out the pedigree charts and family group sheets I had left with them; the foundational conversations with the family had clearly taken place. In my experience, success for a beginner – whether a 4th grader or a retiree – can be directly attributed to having spent the time on preliminary research: talking to family members, identifying and charting out the names, dates, people, and places on the family tree. In short, getting a good sense of who was where when.

Some of the Girl Scouts located 1940 U.S. Census records of their families, while others enjoyed looking at the 1860 entry for Abraham Lincoln or the 1940 page with a young Martin Luther King, Jr. Some learned that their family had a radio in 1930 (still my all-time favorite census question), while others identified a grandparent as a child in the 1940 Census. The key with this first foray into genealogy was to discover something that was personal to them or captured their interest; whether they found an actual ancestor or not was almost irrelevant. An enriching and positive first experience makes it more likely the beginner will return, and bringing something home to show their family reinforces that notion.

One of the Junior Girl Scouts in attendance was my oldest daughter, a real treat for me. These last few years, she’s been very interested in my research, even tagging along on a cemetery walk. Although I’m certain it’s a stalling technique to stay up past her bedtime, she will often ask to look at “Daddy’s books” and the family images on my computer. At the Archives, my daughter was thrilled to find her grandfather in the 1940 Census in Detroit as a toddler; the idea of “Grandpa B.” as a youngster was particularly enchanting.

Perhaps the most rewarding outcome from the Junior Girl Scouts visit was that my daughter and I talked at length about my wife’s side of the family. With deep roots in Detroit, that branch of our tree has many discoveries waiting to be made. Indeed, given my work experience at the Library of Michigan and now at the Archives of Michigan – and the ready access to piles of records and resources inherent there – I am ashamed to admit that I have worked very little on that side of the family. With her renewed interest in the family and a relatively blank slate to work from, my daughter and I can make the discoveries together. I can’t think of a better way to spend some time with her.

“Left County” for Chicago

One of my enduring research mysteries had always been the Grobner family during an 8-year window in the late 1800′s. Living in St. Louis, Joseph and Frederica Grobner seemingly vanished in 1882 until they reappeared in Chicago around 1890. Their three eldest children – including my g-g-grandmother Rose Grobner – were all born in St. Louis, and two other children were later born in Illinois. I’d always presumed that meant Chicago, since the family eventually lived there for decades, but I was unable to locate them in the Windy City during that important 8-year window.

Everything came together last year. In planning a fall research trip to Quincy (IL) to further my research on Frederic Jarand (Frederica Grobner’s father), I discovered the Quincy Public Library’s outstanding database of early Quincy newspapers. In full digitized glory, I found piles of information on Frederic Jarand……..and Joseph Grobner and his wife Frederica. Success!

Using the Quincy newspapers, city directories, probate files, tax records, and more, I’ve now been able to glimpse into that 8-year window before the Grobner’s eventual arrival in Chicago. After her father Frederic died in 1882, Frederica and Joseph Grobner relocated to Quincy from St. Louis to take over her father’s saloon. Financial difficulties perhaps played a role in the family later relocating to Chicago around 1890.

"Left County" for Chicago, 1890 Quincy IL tax records

The image here shows a snip from p. 53 of the 1890 Quincy tax records (held at the Gardner Museum of Architecture & Design). The entry for Mrs. F. Grobner clearly shows “Left County,” and their residence at 1254 Kentucky. Joseph Grobner appears in the Chicago city directories shortly thereafter, bringing a gratifying conclusion to one of my many research mysteries.

Harrison Park, Kalamazoo MI (My first blog post!)

I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and over my 20+ years living there, I drove past Harrison Park thousands of times. Located on the northeast edge of town, the small triangular-shaped park is in what was the city’s Polish neighborhood. Growing up, I remember my Dad pointing out several buildings in the neighborhood that tied back to the family.

A few years ago, my Dad mentioned that there was a monument at Harrison Park, dedicated to the fallen men of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam that were from that neighborhood. With two ancestors that were killed during World War II, my curiosity was piqued.

My next visit to Kalamazoo included a stop at Harrison Park, and sure enough, there was the monument. Among the men listed were Francis Piotrowski (1918-1944) and George Topoll (1918-1943), my ancestors.

Harrison Park monument, Kalamazoo (MI)Discovering the monument was certainly important, but the big find was the lodge number and name of the Polish National Alliance (#2144, White Eagle Society), the fraternal group that dedicated the monument as a memorial to those Polish men who had died during the war. Francis’ father – Stanley, my great-grandfather – was very active with the PNA, and I now had identified the lodge he’d been active with.

I’d driven past Harrison Park thousands of times over the years, but had never noticed the monument, its historical significance, nor its important genealogical value. I had been so focused on the names and dates on my family tree, learning as much and as quickly as possible, I had failed to take a step back and explore the historical context of my ancestors’ lives – the neighborhood they called home, the parks they played in, and the national events that shaped their lives. I had nearly missed a vital piece of my family’s story in the old neighborhood. A lesson learned!