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….



“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.