Revisiting Old Photographs

In my research, I came across an impressive collection of family photographs. Certainly a big find, and equally important, it offered me a new project! Many of the photographs were not labeled or identified, so as I scanned the collection, it was important to label everything as best I could, leaving many of the photos with a simple and unfortunate title – “Unknown.” In the field of family history research, is there a more frustrating word?

Once I finished scanning, I was excited to have crossed a project off my to-do list and anxious to start something new, so I never went back and really studied my “Unknown” images. So, I’ve started a new project and made it a point to go back and revisit those photos, and rename or relabel those individuals I can accordingly. There is never enough time in one night to go through the entire set, so I make an effort to do a reasonable number per night, perhaps 5 or 10 images. It will take me a while to go through the collection, but if I identify even a few ancestors in the photographs, it will have been worth it.

One of my ancestral re-discoveries is this gem of Sophus and Rose Hansen.

Sophus and Rose Hansen, August 1922.

Readers of this blog might remember the Hansen’s from the “Looks As If We Had a Fight Here” post. When I had first scanned this image, outside of the date, there were no identifying marks, so I was unable to determine who the couple was. Indeed, this was one of the first images I had worked with, so although not named in this particular image, they certainly were in different photographs far deeper into the pile. Only by going back and carefully reviewing those images, both the known and unknown, was I able to identify Sophus and Rose and extract them from my pile of Unknown’s.

I’ve been pleased with how many photographs I’ve now been able to identify at least one ancestor in the image. Clearly, something I should have done right away. A lesson learned!

A Dowagiac Interlude

Dowagiac is a small town in Cass County, Michigan in the southwest corner of the state. Located about 25 miles north of South Bend, Indiana, 90 miles east of Chicago, Illinois, and 45 miles southwest of Kalamazoo, Michigan, Dowagiac is perhaps best known as the home of the Round Oak Stove Company, a leading manufacturer of heating stoves in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

In my family, Dowagiac plays a brief but important role. After immigrating to the United States from Poland in 1909, Stanislaus (Stanley) Piotrowski settled in Chicago for a short time before relocating to Gary, Indiana. A butcher by trade, Stanley later married Wladyslawa (Winifred) Tobolska in April 1915 at St. Hedwig Church in Gary. Ten months later, a daughter, Stella, was born.

Some time between February 1916 and February 1917, Stanley and his family moved to Dowagiac. I’m still unclear on what brought the family there, but in February 1917, a son was born, John Albert Piotrowski. Tragically, John died of anemia a few months later at the family home at 201 Lagrange Street. Now a grocer, Stanley also became the president of the local branch of the Polish National Relief Committee. According to the 22 February 1917 edition of the Dowagiac Daily News, the group “reports a satisfactory collection of $51.10 which will be sent to the home office at Chicago for the relief of Polish sufferers in Poland.”

A second son, Francis John, was born in August 1918, and a few weeks later, Stanley registered for the World War I draft, listing the 201 Lagrange Street address as his residence. Here is a closeup image of the Lagrange Street area, as shown in the 1914 Standard Atlas of Cass County, Michigan.

Lagrange St., Dowagiac, from the 1914 Standard Atlas of Cass County, Michigan.

The Piotrowski house is located at the northeast corner of Cedar and Lagrange, Lot 51. Note how close the Round Oak Stove property is to the south. Today, the Lagrange Street property is a vacant lot.

By 1921, the Piotrowski’s had moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where they remained for many years. Although Stanley’s time in Dowagiac was brief, no more than 5 of his 87 years were spent there, it was an important interlude for his family’s 50-year story yet to play in Kalamazoo. The Dowagiac interlude saw the birth of two sons, the death of one, a draft registration, and a businessman establish himself in the local community. Perhaps that qualifies as an act all its own.

William the Fisherman

As a child, visiting my grandparents in New Buffalo, Michigan was always something my brother and I looked forward to. Upon arrival, we would run straight to the family photo albums and peruse through the new pictures. My grandmother had the charming tendency to photograph every visitor and/or stranger, whether a carpet installer or grand-child, so there were always new photos to be had!

My brother and I would then spend a lot of time in the lower level of the house, away from our parents’ watchful eyes. Downstairs, now that was where the serious fun was – cards, TV, board games, and the like. In that same room were several paintings, including portraits of my grandparents and one of an unknown fisherman holding his catch of the day. As I got older and became more curious, I learned the fisherman was actually my great-grandfather, William Alderson, and the painting was based on a photograph taken at Gravel Lake, near Lawton, Michigan. Here is an image of the painting on the wall.

Painting of William Alderson, photo taken c. 1966

William Alderson was born in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania in July 1894, joined the National Guard in 1917 and later served in France during World War I, and after returning to the United States, married Julia Kamp in November 1919. Their first child – William, my grandfather – was born in 1922 in Pittsburgh, and the family moved to Chicago soon thereafter. William – the fisherman – died in April 1951 and is buried in Bly Cemetery near Marcellus, Michigan, a short drive from Gravel Lake.

The fisherman painting clearly held a place of prominence at my grandparents’ house, and I regret not talking to my grandfather more about it and his family. Rather, his World War II stories were always more enthralling to me as a youngster.

One can imagine my excitement when I stumbled across an actual photograph of “the fisherman” during a visit with my great-aunt – a particularly gratifying find! Here is the actual photo of William Alderson, showing his catch of the day at Gravel Lake, taken c.1940.

William Alderson, c. 1940.

I’m no fisherman, but that’s an impressive catch….

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!

“Looks As If We Had a Fight Here”

One of my all-time favorite family pictures is of my Grandma and Grandpa Alderson, sitting with all of their grandchildren, 5 of us at the time. Taken in the mid-1970’s, I was a young blond-haired toddler. Everyone in the picture, with one exception, has a look of absolute disgust, annoyance, and “I can’t believe I have to sit here for another picture.” My Grandma, on the other hand, looks as if she’d won the lottery, complete with a beaming million-dollar smile. Neither my brother or I remember the circumstances with that photo, but we both just love it.

I am reminded of that Alderson smile-fest when I look at another family gem, this one of a different line in the family. Sophus Hansen was born in Denmark in 1860, and after immigrating to the United States, settled in Chicago. He married Rose Grobner in 1895, and together, they lived at 7042 Kimbark Avenue in Chicago for nearly 50 years. Rose Grobner was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1878, and moved to Chicago with her family around 1890. Rose died in 1939, Sophus in 1945, and they are buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Chicago.

This photo of Sophus and Rose Hansen was taken sometime in the late 1920’s. Their expressions are priceless, and reminiscent of the Alderson photo mentioned above.

Sophus and Rose Hansen, c. late 1920's.

To top it off, there is a caption written on the back of the photo: “Looks as if we had a fight here.” I love it! Based on their body language, Sophus did not fare well in the exchange with his beloved Rose, and she looks particularly delighted with the course of events. Perhaps he “can’t believe I have to sit here for another picture.”

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!

Russell: A Hat Above the Rest

You have one, probably more. We all do, even if we try and avoid it: the dreaded common surname. Oh, my family has Hansen, Parker, and Thomas – no Smith yet! – but the surname that really gives me a headache is (and no, it’s not Rzepczynski)………Russell.

My Russell of interest lived in Chicago roughly from the early 1900’s until the 1940’s. Do you know how many Russell’s are in Chicago then? Let me tell you – a lot. Despite my misfortune with a common surname in one of the biggest cities in the country, I am incredibly fortunate, because my ancestor has that fantastic gift that we all hope and pray for – a unique first and middle name.

Meet Fenton Harvey Russell, my great-grandfather. Born in Toronto in 1883, he immigrated to the United States in 1909, settling in Chicago. Here is Fenton in May 1919 at a local Chicago park.

Fenton H. Russell, Chicago, 1919.

I’d like to think he’s reading the sports page, dissecting the White Sox box score, or perhaps looking at the Marshall Field’s ad for men’s hats. Most images of Fenton that I have show him wearing some stylish hat, and this photograph is no exception; he certainly wears it well.

Fenton joined the Masonic fraternity soon after he arrived in Chicago (Garden City Lodge No. 141), trained as an architect by profession, and became a U.S. citizen in 1922. He died in 1947 and is buried in the family plot at Mount Hope Cemetery in Chicago.

Here is another picture of Fenton, taken while still a youngster in Toronto. His distinctive face really stands out, as does the nice hat. He wears the hat well here, too, even as a young boy. I love this picture, one of my favorites.

Fenton H. Russell, fashionable since 1883.

In my research on Fenton, I’ve been incredibly fortunate. Despite living in one of the biggest cities in the United States, there is only one – and a stylish one, at that – Fenton Harvey Russell. If I ever need a reminder how challenging and frustrating those common surnames can be, I need to look no further than Fenton’s own parents – Henry and Mary Russell. Unique first names, they are not…..


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….