Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Family History as Window into Local History

My Dad, Harold D. Burk (1909-1978) was born in the middle of an historic celebration in New York City and environs. Despite the magnitude of this special event, I had never heard of it until I looked at the front page of the New York Times for his birth date, September 29, 1909.

New York was marking the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson sailing up the river that now bears his name...plus the 100th anniversary of Robert Fulton successfully using steam power on a paddle-boat. 

This combined commemoration was called the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, a multi-day extravaganza that captured the American imagination and attracted millions of viewers to parades on land and on water, flyovers, children's events, and much more. Wilbur Wright actually flew over the Statue of Liberty on the day Dad was born. Who knew? 

This celebration (remembered in postcards, medals, coins, and many other items) put the spotlight on new technology of the time, such as airplanes and electricity. Meanwhile, Dad was being born at home in Manhattan, just a couple of miles from all the fanfare and the honored guests (including President William Howard Taft, Vice President James Sherman, and NY Governor Charles Evans Hughes).

On what would have been Dad's 111th birthday, his special day in family history led me to learn about a special period in New York history. Miss you, Dad. 💙

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Curating My Genealogy Collection: New Home for 1911 Postcard

This photo postcard, sent in 1911 to my maternal grandma by a younger brother, is on its way to a new home--returned to the sender's grandson after 109 years. This is part of my ongoing efforts to curate my genealogy collection, keeping items most important to my family and finding new homes for other items.

Entrepreneurial Albert Goes West

My great uncle Albert Farkas (1888-1956), born in Hungary, was quite an entrepreneur. In his early 20s, he left New York City to establish a manufacturing business in the Pacific Northwest. Simply making that cross-country journey by train must have been an adventure in 1911, when he set out.

Albert bounced between Seattle, Washington and Vancouver, British Columbia, as he made contacts and arranged his new business. He registered with the Canadian Consul in 1916, saying he was a U.S. citizen (by virtue of his father's naturalization in 1906) and had entered Canada in 1912.

Farkas Family Vacations on the Farm

In August of 1911, my grandma, Hermina "Minnie" Farkas Schwartz (1886-1964), was taking a two-week vacation with her mother and younger sisters. (She married my grandpa later that year.) To escape oppressive heat in New York City, they boarded with a farm family in Hudson, New York, and enjoyed fresh air and greenery. 

While Minnie was at the farm, this postcard arrived from her brother Albert ("Berti") in Seattle, Washington. Another cousin who reads Hungarian translated  the postcard as, loosely: "Is it still hot in New York State? If so, you can come here, where it's cold." Now this picture postcard is in an archival sleeve, protected by cardboard in a padded envelope, and winging its way to Albert's grandson--who lives in Washington state! 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Family History at the Movies

Growing up, my husband's family attended many summer theater productions at Cain Park, a large outdoor theater in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. When hubby was a teenager, he and his siblings got summer jobs working backstage. Happily, his sister saved some of the old Cain Park programs inherited from their father, including the one shown above, for The Wizard of Oz. They have many fond memories of those days!

Fast-forward to 1980, when Frank Langella (fresh off his famous Dracula role) starred in a movie based on Cain Park's halcyon days: Those Lips, Those Eyes. The critics didn't think highly of the movie, but in watching it recently, my hubby felt great nostalgia for that theater, as an audience member and as part of the crew.

What made Cain Park special was the lovely outdoor setting, with plays under the stars. And the up-and-coming stars, such as Dom De Luise, who acted for several summer seasons at Cain Park. Above, the cast bio for his 1954 role as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. 

My husband just donated this and seven other programs from Cain Park's productions to the special collections room at Cleveland State University, which catalogs and archives local theater artifacts. This is one way we're curating our genealogy collection to keep nonpersonal items safe for future generations. 

"Should be a movie" is this week's #52Ancestors blogging prompt.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Adding Context for 3D View of Ancestors, Part 3

In addition to examining family situation (part 1 of this series) and community (part 2), another way to flesh out ancestors' lives is to look at influences on society at that time. 

So many elements influenced the society in which ancestors lived and the daily lives they led--including religion, economics, legal and political considerations, industry and technology, urban/suburban/rural life styles, plus local and global health developments. Not everything had a profound impact on every ancestor, but I try to consider key developments that shaped the course of their lives.  

I read the news today, oh boy! 

My top pick for analyzing societal influences is the newspaper. Not just local newspapers where that ancestor lived, but statewide and/or national news sources. For ancestors who lived in the 19th and 20th centuries, papers are a particularly valuable research resource--I browse the news as well as the advertisements, which reflect norms and beliefs of the time.

My immigrant ancestors settled in New York City, so city papers are good starting points for me. Actually, most papers (even small-town papers) had some national and international coverage, I noticed while researching my husband's ancestors in rural Ohio and Indiana.

Newspapers provide accounts of local/national politics, infrastructure improvements, crime, food and fashion, and so much more. Ads and reporting reflected new types of jobs, new transportation, new products and services, all part of societal influences on ancestors. Letters to the editor reveal unvarnished opinions expressed at the time and are fascinating to read.

Constant change

All these changes kept coming, affecting my ancestors day to day and over the long period. After the Roaring Twenties, when many ancestors got on their feet economically, the Great Depression was real challenge, followed by World War II. News reports allow me to follow along and understand these influences. Commercial radio, motion pictures, commercial television, jet planes, computers--these innovations were in the lives of my parents and some in the lives of my grandparents, and all were covered in the newspaper. 

Political and legal events made a huge difference in ancestors' lives. My mother was born late in 1919, a few months after Congress passed legislation granting women the right to vote (the 19th Amendment wasn't ratified until 1920). I read all about it in the newspaper! No wonder Mom brought her children to the polling place each year so we could watch her exercise her right to vote.

The drafts instituted in WWI and WWII affected the men in my family tree--of course, all well documented in newspapers of the time. Food rationing was a daily concern for ancestors living through WWII, especially for my maternal grandparents, who ran a grocery store and needed customers to bring ration books along when they made a purchase. 

Many genealogy websites have information and videos about paid and free access to old newspapers, just go ahead and search...and think creatively about the personal and professional lives of your ancestors. It was fun to run across ads for a Hungarian-style restaurant run by an ancestor in New York City when I searched via Fulton History, for instance. When this type of restaurant went out of fashion, he went out of business, context I kept in mind while looking at the arc of his life.

Don't forget: New newspapers are added to free and paid sites every month, so redo your searches now and then to pick up new clues to the context of your family history.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Book review: "Roots for Kids"


Note: The Genealogical Publishing Company provided me with a free review copy of Roots for Kids: Finding Your Family Stories, but the positive opinions in this review are entirely my own!

Susan Provost Beller emphasizes "family stories" as a key thread running throughout this practical and engaging book, aimed at introducing the younger generation to the fascinating and fun process of genealogy. She writes: 

History means much more when it is 'YourStory!'

Each of the 15 bite-sized chapters opens with an interesting story, drawing the reader in. Topics range from food and first names to geography and generations. After a few pages of clear explanation, each chapter ends with an activity --something the reader can easily try now to get involved with family history.

Beller encourages curiosity and individuality, giving readers ideas plus hands-on tools to start on the road to discovering and documenting family history. The book includes a blank pedigree chart, a blank family group sheet, suggested websites to take research to the next level, a useful illustrated glossary, and an index. 

The cover and illustrations by Kate Boyer beautifully complement the text and really enhance the reading experience. Do take a look at this book if you want to get the younger generation interested in family history!

Friday, September 18, 2020

Documenting Grandma Floyda's Needlework Legacy

Handmade items by Floyda Mabel Steiner McClure

My husband's maternal grandmother, Floyda Mabel Steiner McClure (1878-1948) left a legacy of beautifully-crafted needlework! 

Above, a snapshot showing only a few of these treasured crocheted doilies and dainty gloves, a lacy embroidered tablecloth, a cross-stitched tablecloth, and a colorful crocheted afghan, and more . . . all painstakingly hand-made by Floyda, with great care. 

Being a needlecraft enthusiast myself, I can appreciate Floyda's expertise. For some projects, she used the tiniest steel crochet hooks and ultrathin cotton threads. Her stitches are neat and even, with fine finishing touches. 

These lovely items were preserved neatly and safely for decades by my sis-in-law, who kindly gave them to me for documentation before we share with other descendants. 

My sis-in-law also wrote down some personal memories that will accompany these needlework keepsakes to their new homes in the family. One specific memory is that Floyda "taught me to sew when I was about four years old, and gave me fabric for my projects, mostly doll clothes..."

After I air these items, I will preserve them in archival tissue and archival boxes. Each box will include a write-up of Grandma Floyda's life story, growing up as the beloved only child of doting parents and becoming an accomplished crocheter and embroiderer, plus family remembrances of Floyda.

I do hope that sharing Floyda's legacy and details of her life with her descendants will inspire them as they admire the needlework items she created with love and dedication! 

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Ancestors Followed the Subway Out of Manhattan

1989 map of New York
City subway system

Sometimes a map or multiple maps can help us understand ancestors' movements within a city or region. That's the case with my immigrant Farkas and Schwartz ancestors who lived in New York City around the turn of the 20th century. 

Although they began their new lives in Manhattan, my maternal great-grandparents and grandparents were able to move to less-crowded residential neighborhoods in the northern borough of the Bronx because of the subway.

The Farkas family rode the subway and "the el"

My collection of now-obsolete
New York City subway tokens

My great-grandfather Moritz Farkas (1857-1936) was escaping financial ruin after hail destroyed his crops in Hungary. He sailed to New York and initially was a boarder in someone else's Lower East Side Manhattan tenement apartment. This was in August of 1899, before any modern mass-transit systems were even built. Once his wife, Lena Kunstler Farkas (1865-1938) and their children arrived from Hungary, they moved to an apartment of their own on the Lower East Side.

By 1920, however, Moritz, Lena, and their family (and many of the married children) were living in the borough of the Bronx, just north of Manhattan. This move was made possible by the expansion of the city's subway lines into what was then a much less-populated area. Ironically, many of the subway lines were actually overhead, not underground, and were usually called "the el," short for "elevated."

Now Farkas family members could ride the subway to work and to visit each other, not to mention go to the Bronx Zoo, the Bronx Botanical Gardens, and Coney Island by train! Family stories, corroborated by more than one cousin, say that to save money, Lena sometimes gave her two middle sons only a nickel each per day to ride the subway to work...one way. They had to walk home when the nickels ran out.

Teddy and Minnie never needed a car

My maternal grandpa Theodore "Teddy" Schwartz (1887-1965) also came to New York City from Hungary, arriving in 1902, before the subway opened to the public. He lived as a boarder on the Lower East Side for the first nine years, then married my grandma Hermina "Minnie" Farkas (1886-1964) in 1911. At that point, the subway system was growing by leaps and bounds, reaching far and wide year after year.

With affordable mass transit within walking distance, Teddy and Minnie moved their family from Manhattan to the south Bronx, then a fast-growing residential area with new schools and parks. They settled on Fox Street, directly across from an elementary school, and Teddy opened a grocery store down the block.

Teddy and Minnie never had a car and didn't need one, given the ongoing improvements of the New York City subway system. Here's what the network looked like in 1939. By that time, all three of their children were working--taking the subway into Manhattan and back to the Bronx on every business day. The price was right and the subway was the fast track to better-paying jobs in the heart of New York City.

"On the map" is the #Genealogy prompt for week 38 of the #52Ancestors series.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Adding Context for 3D View of Ancestors, Part 2

In part 1 of my series, I looked at how analyzing an ancestor's family situation can provide valuable context for seeing that individual in three dimensions.

In part 2, I look at how analyzing an ancestor's community can add depth and context to that individual's life from our perspective in the 21st century.

Community context: County history books

Those wonderful late 19th century and early 20th century county history books really come in handy for community context. You can find some of these as links from the FamilySearch.org state/local pages, in the Ancestry catalog, in the MyHeritage catalog, by searching Hathitrust, and by searching with the place name (as I did with: "History of Fayette County, Indiana"). 

Despite the boosterism, such books provide fascinating background on not just local history, but topography, natural resources, industry, civic life, culture, and much more. Many include "reminiscences" of early settlers and veterans, a bonus for getting a sense of what the community was like, first hand.

Case study: Ira Caldwell

Ira Caldwell (1839-1926), my husband's 1c3r, served in Company I of the 84th Indiana Infantry during the Civil War. He was mustered in during 1862 and mustered out during 1865, marrying two years after leaving the Union Army. What could I learn about his life from looking at his communities?

Here is just some of what my "community" research uncovered to help me better understand his life:

  • Where born - Ira and his siblings were all born in Indiana not very long after it became a state. Reading History of Fayette County, Indiana (from 1885) I learned that his Caldwell family was among the founders of very rural Posey township in Fayette County, arriving even before statehood. 
  • Growing up - Ira witnessed the first roads, first schools, and so on as the local population doubled from 1830 to 1840 and beyond. Maps in the county history book helped me envision where he grew up on the family farm. The county history makes it clear that this was both an exciting time and a challenging period for pioneer farmers. 
  • Transportation and technology - During Ira's youth, Indiana became part of new canal systems and new railroad networks, transforming the way people and goods were moved. Ira's farming community would have known about newly-invented threshers and grain elevators, among other key inventions. By the time he died in 1926, electricity, telephones and radios were commonplace technological changes that had a profound effect on everyday life. 
  • Moving on - Tracking Ira in the US Census as he married and had children, I found him in 1880 as a farmer in Harrison County, Missouri. I located a digitized History of Harrison County, MO from 1921 and discovered that Ira left Indiana in the 1870s, spent four years farming in Illinois, and then settled in this Missouri county. See excerpt in illustration--this county history book was a gold mine of information! I would never have known Ira Caldwell won a solid silver cup for exhibiting the "best fat cow" at the Indiana State Fair in 1857 but for reading this book.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Adding Context for 3D View of Ancestors, Part 1

Last week, I finished a 40-page booklet about hubby's 18 Civil War ancestors. Even though these ancestors died generations ago, each lived a unique life that I wanted to honor and memorialize in this family history booklet.

Yet when I sat down to write, I had only bare-bones facts from the US Census, Civil War pension records, and similar sources.

To engage my readers (younger relatives of today and descendants in future generations), I needed to flesh out these skeletons beyond just names and dates. My goal was to provide a more three-dimensional view of each ancestor's life.

This first part of my new blog series examines how an ancestor's family situation can add an important dimension to understand his or her life. Later posts in this series will look at community, society, and history as context for understanding ancestors.

Ancestors in Context: Family Situation

Here are some of the elements of family situation I examined to understand the life of Benjamin Franklin Steiner, born in 1840 in Crawford County, Ohio. He was my husband's second great uncle, and he served for nearly three years in the 10th Ohio Cavalry, fighting for the Union side.
  • Birth order - He was the seventh of nine children, and the fifth of six sons. But since his father was a tailor, not a farmer, having a lot of boys didn't necessarily help the household prosper. It probably meant mouths to feed. Perhaps this is why I found Benjamin not at home in the 1860 US Census but living 40 miles away with a carpenter's family, and working as a laborer at the age of 20. Then I looked further.
  • Parents - Benjamin's mother was listed as head of household in the 1860 US Census, no occupation. Benjamin's father died before the Census. Still at home with his Mom were a 25-year-old son who was a carpenter; a 21-year-old daughter whose occupation was "sewing;" and three children under the age of 15. I think this explains why Benjamin wasn't living at home--he needed to board elsewhere and make money while one of his brothers remained at home to be the chief breadwinner for the family.
  • Siblings - One brother was a carpenter, one a plasterer, one a grocer, one a butcher, and one a farmer. After serving in the Civil War, Benjamin first started farming. With his second family, he tried brick and tile making before returning to farming. Both of these occupations he would have seen first-hand. Interestingly, none of the children chose to be a tailor like their father.
  • Spouse and children - In 1861, Benjamin married a farmer's daughter. He was 21, she was 23. They had one son before Benjamin went to war in October, 1862. It must have been difficult for his wife and child, on their own, financially and emotionally, while Benjamin was in the military. When he returned, he and his wife had two more children. Only months after the third child was born, Benjamin's wife died. He remarried three years later, to a widow bringing up three children on her own. Now Benjamin was supporting a wife, two children, and three stepchildren, which may be why he changed occupations to try brick and tile making. Once the children were all grown and gone, he went back to farming in his later years. 
Benjamin's life took many twists and turns, with both ups and downs, I realized as I looked at his changing family situation. This gave me a better appreciation of who he was and the decisions he faced--fleshing him out as a 3D human being, beyond the basics of birth, marriage, and death.

More about context in Part 2.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

School Photos, Back in the Day

This week's #52Ancestors prompt is "back to school."

Following the lead of my UK pal Paul Chiddicks, who posted old school photos on his genealogy blog, I'm posting two photos from my school days.

At left, a high school photo.

My "groovy" purple dress is a good fashion clue to the period when this photo was taken. Lots of groovy music back in the day!

Here's a photo from my junior high years (now known as middle school). I removed the year to protect the innocent, but left the place (Olinville Junior High School #113 in the Bronx, New York).

See the boys in jackets, white shirts, and really narrow ties? Those styles help narrow down the period. Many girls (including me) are wearing pleated skirts with wide belts, more fashion clues. In those days, we had to iron our white cotton blouses--no such thing as "wrinkle free" fabric, not till many years later.

Thanks to Amy Johnson Crow for this weekly #Genealogy blogging prompt for week 37.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Authentic or Enhanced Images in My Family Histories? Yes!

Sgt. Dorothy Schwartz, serving in WACs, 1942
Currently, I'm working on a dual family history of my mother (Daisy Schwartz Burk, 1919-1981) and her twin sister (Dorothy Schwartz, 1919-2001).

My goal in writing and printing family history booklets is to introduce my relatives and ancestors to future generations who never knew them in person.

Authenticity AND clarity

Authenticity is very important--but so is clarity. Enhancing the scanned versions of creased, faced, or out-of-focus photos doesn't change the original. In my view, enhancement helps my readers (and the readers who will see this booklet in 10 or 25 years) see these ancestors more clearly, more vividly. Better digital images make ancestors look like real people without damaging the originals.

The above digitized snapshot shows my Auntie Dorothy in her WAC coat and hat during World War II. Doesn't her face look clearer in the photo on the right? I used MyHeritage's photo enhancement to make my aunt's facial features less fuzzy. The effect is subtle but makes all the difference.

Who's hiding in that photo?

After Vivid-Pix enhancement: Dorothy Schwartz
in flapper costume (and surprise! her mother is at right)
Here's the enhanced "after" version of a snapshot from the late 1950s that shows a different side of my aunt's personality. She's dressed as a flapper for a family masquerade party. Staring at the "before" image, Sis and I strongly suspected the face at right was Dorothy's mother, our grandma Minnie Farkas Schwartz.

So I used Vivid-Pix's Restore software to rescue the faces and the costume from near-oblivion, and was able to confirm that Grandma was most definitely in the picture.

The "after" version is far better and can now be inserted into the family history booklet, along with the story of the party, for posterity. Of course, the original photos are all sitting untouched in archival envelopes, carefully stored and ready for future genealogists of our family.

I don't feel I have to colorize the b/w and sepia photos to catch my reader's eye. There are more modern, full-color photos to scan and sprinkle throughout the booklet--after being digitally enhanced to correct the faded colors and give these ancestors a true-to-life look.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Finishing Touches for Family History: Think Like a Reader!

Top, snippet of front page of family history booklet. Bottom, index of names in the booklet

This summer's genealogy project was writing about my husband's 18 ancestors who served in the Civil War. Although most were fighting for the Union, thanks to a wonderful Wood cousin, I had a head-start researching the distant cousins on the Confederate side.

Every man who served had a fascinating and often poignant story. I researched and wrote about their lives and families before the war, what their military units did during the war, and the course of their lives and families after the war. My research showed that only two ancestors died during the war--both of disease, not wounds. This was a sadly common pattern during the Civil War.

Now, to add finishing touches that make this booklet as appealing and accessible as possible, I needed to think like a reader!

Finishing touch: Catch the eye

From experience, I know that the next generation enjoys a pop of color to catch the eye. So I found a colorful and evocative free photo to illustrate the first page (thanks to Pixabay), as you can see at top of this post.

In fact, every ancestor profile has some illustration, whether it's an excerpt from a pension record, a letter from the man's military files, or an illustration from an out-of-copyright mug book. My goal is to keep the reader's attention or at least intrigue the reader enough to look further.

Finishing touch: Did you know...

My first page also contains a few highlights and spoiler alerts. After all, when I pick up a book, I read the inside flap or back cover to see what's inside. That's what my highlights/spoiler alerts page is all about.

I explained that some Wood ancestors were in hotly-contested battles like Chickamauga...in famous engagements like the Monitor vs. the Merrimac...came from all walks of life before the war (blacksmith, farmer, tinsmith, mariner, doctor-in-training, career military). This is my way of saying to my audience: Read on for even more interesting details!

Finishing touch: What's in it for me?

I also needed to answer the unspoken question from every reader...what's in it for me? Well, one ancestor might be a distant cousin, one might be a 3d grand uncle, but all are related to you. The surnames are also a tipoff that these people were in our family tree.

My table of contents lists each man (and his birth/death dates) and indicates whether he served for Union or Confederacy (yes, I used color to make the words stand out). Next, I list the full name of his wife or wives, and their dates. Then I show the exact relationship to my husband and to the next generations.

So Lemuel C. Wood, Jr., who was in both the Union Army and the Union Navy, was a 1st cousin, 3 times removed to my hubby and his siblings. Their relationship to Dr. Thomas Fanning Wood, who served the Confederacy, was much more distant: he was their 6c3r.

Finishing touch: Find an individual quickly

Thinking like a reader, I realized someone might want to find a particular person or family quickly. In a 40-page family-history booklet, that's not possible without an index. With an index, if readers are curious about only the Larimer ancestors, they can look at the Larimer names in the index, for instance. Or if readers want to look up a name that's familiar, they can browse the index.

See part of the first page of the index I prepared for this booklet at top. Every family or associate name mentioned in the book appears in this index. I indexed women by their maiden names, showing married names in parentheses. In this Mayflower 400 year, I mentioned when a Civil War ancestor was descended from a Mayflower or Fortune passenger--and indexed those names as well.

The only people not indexed are Civil War figures like Stonewall Jackson. They're not part of the family, and are mentioned so often that the index alone would balloon to 5 pages.

Quite a labor of love for my family, but well worth the time I invested now that the youngest generation has expressed interest in the Civil War. And being close to home during this pandemic has allowed me large blocks of time to concentrate on the research and writing.

Bigger than bite-sized but achievable little by little

This is a longer but worthwhile "bite-sized project" that can be accomplished by researching and writing a brief bio of one ancestor at a time. I repurposed some of the bios by posting them on genealogy sites to share with more people. Little by little, I completed each bio and eventually assembled all into a booklet that has been shared (printed and digitally) with the Wood family.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Free! RootsTechConnect, Feb 25-27, 2021

RootsTechConnect registration confirmation--I'm attending!
Family Search announced today that its 2021 RootsTechConnect conference will be all-virtual and entirely free! Mark your calendar for February 25-27, 2021.

The world's largest and most exciting genealogy conference will have something for everyone, everywhere.

Don't miss this opportunity to see some of the genealogy world's brightest stars, and learn new tricks and techniques while sitting at home in your bunny slippers.

Registration is entirely free. Just click here to go to the website for more info and to register. See you there!