Before you head out to visit a cemetery for some genealogy or family history seeking, be sure to read over Mom’s list.
Here’s a little sample chapter of one of the two books that will be on shelves this month written by “Moi.” Since the summer days are long, the weekends are right for road trips, and maybe you have the kids captive and can load them up with a little family history education–I thought this would be a good preview to share.
Kids love this stuff–right?
From the upcoming “The State of Boone,” companion to “Boone County” enjoy this little “How-To” for Visiting the Relatives…
My family tree has many branches, both living and dead… but all equally important. I cherish the memories that make its roots run deep.” (Lynda I Fisher)
For me, visiting relatives usually means getting down and dirty. I think cemeteries are a tranquil, fascinating place. So many lives, so many stories untold–so much history we might otherwise miss! As a Family Historian, going relative hunting is one of my favorite adventures.
I’ve done this grave hunting thing all over the place. On vacations I’ve traipsed around above-ground crypts built inside below-sea-level cemeteries in the “Big Easy”– New Orleans. In old Louisville, I plopped down on the jutting-up exposed ends of vaults because it was the closest thing to a level spot around. Closer to home, I once spent a long snowy afternoon chatting with a gentle herd of cows while traversing acres of laid-over winter wheat. The cows were searching for leisurely snacks; I was seeking a lonely little plot.
There is little I love more than crisp autumn colors next to bleached-out marble. Except, maybe a majestic lawn of showy statuary at a big beautiful graveyard on a sunny day.
Nope, it doesn’t creep me out.
Yes, I guess that’s a little nutty.
The point is–I’ve done a lot of field-stalking for the graves of my forefathers, and I’ve learned some good tips and tricks. Sure there are lots more “do’s and don’ts” but this is my standard list of rules, go-to methods, and stuff to drag along.
Finding an old grave can be a challenge, but if you hang with it, you’re bound to make a discovery or two worth your while.
So here are my “rules” for visiting, and some handy-to-have stuff to take along. I hope you’ll take time to try some hunting yourself, and then let me know how it panned out for you and your kin!
- MANY cemeteries are on private property; especially the defunct ones. Some are even in people’s yards–very close to their house. Often, these properties are owned by seniors. No matter who lives there, be respectful.
- For visits on private property with no public right of way, drop a courtesy note in the mailbox of the occupant well in advance of your site visit. State your business, and ask for permission to come by at their convenience to take a look. Respect their wishes. Please describe your vehicle, ask before photographing, and give them all of your contact information.
- Do not stomp up next to someone’s home and start taking pictures of a little plot sectioned-off with some pretty iron fencing. Not cool.
- Take notes of your visits. Record the who, what, when, why, how and what I should do next time. Be sure to carry your notes at all times.
STUFF to TAKE — THINGS to DO
Here are my best tips for a successful trip to any cemetery for ancestor hunting. These can be especially important to heed if you’re setting off for a very old, defunct, or out-of-the-way location.
- Make a list of who you are looking for, and where they are buried ahead of time. You can use the spaces next to cemetery names in this book to jot down some notes, or make your own dedicated notebook. Most places (remember to check for additional names when more than one is noted) can be found with the mapping or GPS feature online at Find A Grave. This is a free site and a great resource when searching.
- Whenever possible, take a companion. This is good advice anytime you start an adventure.
- Also take along a bag with a large towel or heavy blanket, a flashlight, your notebook and pen, any emergency medications you might need (inhaler, nitro tablets, Epi-pen etc), a spray bottle filled with distilled water, a few old toothbrushes, some sturdy gloves, a small roll of aluminum foil, some kitchen shears heavy enough to cut through vines. Oh, and personally I do love a super sturdy trash bag to put between me and nature as I sit and kneel in the mud, bugs, and weedy grass.
- Always make a note of where your car is parked in your records during each trip (what entry point did you use?). No, I don’t think you’ll get lost, but it will be of use to you later when you are mapping sites and recording the position of certain graves.
- Never step out of your car without taking along a fully charged cellphone. In case of emergency–and lots of emergencies can happen–this simple tool can really save you!
- Have your camera on hand and ready. Carry spare batteries or be sure it is fully charged. If you will be using your cell phone’s camera, be sure you have it set for high performance with the automatic flash turned off. If you don’t know how to set up your phone to do its best picture taking, stop by a retailer and have a sales tech do it for you. Digital photos are the best tool for reading old stones.
- When possible, take a large stick with you. Though you may not have to fight back bears, you may stumble upon a snake or other critter. I’d rather shoo away a curious groundhog with a long stick than my camera bag any day! Also, uneven ground is a given–especially in the graveyards with the oldest interments. Count on them to be riddled with animal burrows, large roots, broken off stones and sunken spots. All of these can easily cause a fall or a broken bone. Use your stick as a “leading leg” to test the ground before you. Although it may seem awkward at first, one you get the hang of it, you’ll wonder how you ever hiked around without one.
- Be sure to keep your eyes and ears keen to your surroundings. Be on the look-out for feisty Hobos or thieves. Be sure to lock your car. Also, hornets, or ground bees, seem to adore living in old cemeteries. If you hear their hum, just steer clear of them and you will all have a better day.
- Wear a hat if you’d like, but be sure to remove it, or turn it backward before taking photos. The shade of the brim or bill can affect the automatic light level detection on today’s cameras and cause a lesser quality image.
- Long pants, boots or sturdy shoes, bug spray and long-sleeved shirts are a great defense against ticks and biting insects and poison ivy rashes.
- Once you’ve found who you’re looking for (especially in large graveyards) make yourself a little map. Remember how you noted where you left the car? Now is the time to use that. Photograph the grave marker so the name and shape are clear. Then, stand at the grave with your back to your parked vehicle (make a habit of beginning from this position). At eye level, take a photo. Make a quarter turn, and do the same. Keep going until you have an image of what you see in all four directions when you are standing graveside. Digital photography rocks! This 4-way-shot of the site will help lead you easily back to your ancestor next time.
- Visually inspect the stone/marker for signs of dangerous deterioration. Inspect each one closely before touching it. Watch for chipping, cracks, breaks, previous repairs, crumbling, or any open grainy or sandy looking spots. Be warned that even the thinnest upright markers can be very heavy and cause some serious damage if they “snap” while you’re nicely wiping moss away. Safety first!
- If you encounter old, very faded stones that are not quite legible, then a companion’s extra set of hands will come in really handy. Using the blanket or large towel to shade the tombstone, prop your flashlight onto the bottom edge of the grave-marker. Without a flash, take a close photo while under the shade of the cloth. Then try shining the flashlight downward on the faint markings (while still keeping it and the camera shaded from sunlight). The results may not be immediately apparent, but at home with some simple editing features found on most cameras and phones, you might be amazed.
- Do check (and photograph) the sides, back and top edge of each stone as well as the front. Often you will find a little surprise like a fraternal emblem or an ornamental symbol carved in the stone. Compare any findings like these to the exhaustive list available on the AGS website (address below). These may lead you to a previously unsuspected clue about your relative’s “earthly” interests.
- If the surface is obscured by weeds or dirt, cut away the vegetation with your kitchen shears. Mud and dirt deposits, along with any grass overgrowth on flat stones should be peeled off by hand (use the gloves if you’d like). Lichens and moss often plague markers in shady areas. Use a dry toothbrush to scrub them away. If you need a little something more, spray the area with water and allow it to soften the crud before wiping it away with a towel or toothbrush.
- Spritzing the face of a stone with water is another trick for reading barely-there etching. Be sure to try photographing the tough to read ones both wet and dry.
- Occasionally, you can get a good result by laying aluminum foil (shiny side down works best) over the epitaph and lightly rubbing it to conform with your hands. Once you’ve done your best, photo the stone again while the foil is still in place, and then carefully set the sheet aside to reexamine at home.
- Think you have a great idea for how to clean/read/repair a gravestone? Check in with the AGS website first (the Association for Gravestone Studies). These folks know their stuff and are up-to-date on what does and does not cause harm to these precious relics. Find their fascinating, info-rich website at https://gravestonestudies.org/
- And, Indiana-Boone-Jones, if you think you’ve found a previously undocumented grave site, be sure to contact the county health department to inform them of your discovery.
You’ll probably make the papers!
This isn’t the first time it’s happened–but it will likely be the last. And I suppose that makes it different, harder, odd. My Mom and Pop are selling their farm. And why shouldn’t they…they’re both past 80 now. When they bought it several years back, there were only two grandchildren. I don’t know why I feel so shaken by this. After all, I never lived there. They moved to this farm after my husband and I had been married almost 10 years. But so much of our family story is perked into that spot of ground, it’s been hard watching the Realtor sign go up next to the mailbox.
They love to tell the story of how they came around a bend in this old, barely paved country road and followed a long line of overgrown orchards mixed in with native trees. They passed over a one-lane bridge and came up a hill past the biggest Sycamore tree in Indiana. Suddenly, there, with the Sycamore standing vigil, the woods opened up and a meadow became visible. It sloped downward toward a barn lot on a gentle rolling hillside. Uphill, the tall meadow grasses and overgrown pear, apple and cherry trees hid the eaves of an old, long abandoned house.
They looked at each other and nodded. They carefully steered their city sedan up what was left of a gravel drive–more like a natural gully made by a hundred years of neglect and summer showers. Tiger Lilys grew wild, poking their fiery orange and speckled brown heads up above the wild Timothy hay. The well-house had long ago blown over in a forgotten storm, but the pump-head still stood, with the handle only lightly rusted. They looked at each other again, and stepped out into the knee deep weeds, grass and wildflowers.
The old house looked a bit ragged. It seemed the barn had fared better. The way it was sited on the hillside had probably given it some breaks against the weather. But the old house stood tall and straight. It had been built by a Quaker family in 1857 the farmer had told them. No one had lived in it for over 50 years, except an occasional Mama Coon raising her kits. It hadn’t been painted for much longer than that. At some point a porch had been added, then fallen away and removed again. So that’s how it stood, looking so plain-faced and sturdy.
My parents said they looked at each other again and smiled. My dad said–“Just looks like a Grandma and Grandpa farm doesn’t it?” they shook hands with the farmer and officially bought it the next week.
The Grand-kid population kept growing over the years, and regular weekend visits to the country were always a favorite treat. Where else could you go fishing, talk to a cow, climb a tree full of Bumblebees and cherries or walk along manger walls to the hay-rope and pretend you were a circus performer? All the flowers in sight were grown just to be picked by eager little hands, and the crop of barn kittens was an unending rainbow of variety.
So, I hope that the next family who buys it understands it for the treasure trove of childhood entertainments that it is. Maybe then they can overlook the uneven floor boards or the agony of the electrical and phone lines failing for days on end during an ice-storm or heavy snow. It’s time for Grandma and Grandpa to move on. The children are all Great Grandchildren now, and the farm is too much to keep up with. But it sure was fun mowing that grass–all 7 acres. The other 25 or so were for the big tractor
There is storytelling, and then there is telling a story that makes sense (even years into the future and long after it’s written). Sometimes as Family Historians, we find that our tales get twisted up into mazes of confusion and backtracking.
It’s frustrating. I’ve been there, and I understand completely.
At times, even while we’re writing a piece we know that it will “never do.” Unfortunately, this is how so many of us give up before we’ve ever really started. So here’s my 10-step remedy for such situations…presented of course with one of Mom’s little soul-baring stories as a side dish…
10 Steps to Writing a Good Story (that makes sense)
The first time I attended a writing workshop I was full of fire! Inside my leather satchel (yes, it’s been that long ago) I had four typed and double spaced pages of pure storytelling genius. Our samples were collected at the door by a teaching assistant, and then whisked away to the copier room to reproduce one set for each attendee.
Back then, I would guess the photocopying and stapling expense comprised about half of the $25 fee for the series.
Over the next three Thursday evenings, we were immersed in technique discussions and submission sample reviews done in alphabetical order by each author’s last name. Until my “time at the table” I was feeling really good about my little story. Dang good. But when “R” time came in the lineup, my confidence faltered. I deflated, melted, and disintegrated into a thin grimy layer of humiliated dust atop my chair.
The teacher was quite nice about “it” –the killing of my pages that is. She could have been much worse I suppose. As she wrapped up the previous story’s glowing critique and announced my piece, she fanned out the four pages, raised them above her head and proclaimed them “a perfect example of a beginner’s error.”
Apparently, in the meager 1000 words I had slavishly typed during lunch breaks on the nice IBM Selectric at work, I had wasted no paper. She briskly lead us through my beloved pages emptying out red pens as she guided us in circling large chunks of my lovely prose.
As it turned out, I had managed to write about five different story fragments in one small essay.
“Yes,” she reiterated to my classmates, “This is a perfect example of the huge mistakes a beginner makes.”
So in an effort to spare you all from making the same classic “beginner’s errors” I offer you my 10 Steps to writing a clean, clearly focused, enduring and easily understood Family History story.
- Start writing. Don’t worry about any of the above. Just think about a person or branch of the family or an event you would like to tell a story about and begin.
- Keep writing. Write everything you know via family lore, genealogical and historical research.
- Gather together all the media (photos, ephemera, source books etc) and check to see if you’ve left anything out. If you find something, add it in to this piece.
- Write a bit more about how you came to discover/know/guess on the details of the subject: “Old Daniel always wore striped overalls, he saved the solid denim set for Sunday Church”–per photos and stories told to me by Aunts Aida and Lily Poindexter and Uncle Les.
- When you simply cannot write any more about this seemingly narrow subject, get out your red pen.
- Begin circling small or large blocks of text that could be made bigger. Who are the other people (neighbors, the mail carrier, a teacher, the Poindexter Aunts and Uncle Les) mentioned in the story? Do they matter? Is the setting of the tale of interest on its own? Did these events take place at a newly built home or on a farm passed through generations, on a steamship or clipper crossing the Atlantic in August? Is there back-story here that needs to be added in so that years from now–when “everyone” doesn’t possess what we currently think of as common knowledge people will “get it?” Would a future reader need to do research to understand or find explanations in order for this tale to hold their attention? Perhaps the small town your relatives “traded in” no longer exists. Can you map it– if no, why not? Was it wiped out in the TVA project? What was the TVA? Was the town on the main road, and suddenly the railroad came through about a mile to the east…killing all the businesses and leaving the area rather abandoned? Is that small town now swallowed up by a larger city and only referred to on maps as a neighborhood? Was your family’s first home on American soil razed to build Slugger Stadium in Louisville (mine was!)?
- Don’t be intimidated. This really is the fun part. This is when you discover that you have a much larger story to tell when you may have thought otherwise. The “trick” is to dissect it in this way so that it doesn’t all get convoluted and become a “perfect example of huge mistakes that beginners make.”
- Now take your time. Go back to each circle of red ink. Relax. Simply tell your reader the story of that solitary snippet. Make it into a stand alone piece. Give it all the care and attention that you’ve given it’s “parent” essay.Try out steps 1-7 on this new work. Worry about weaving together the bigger story later.
- As a luxurious bonus, if you have a kind friend who knows little to nothing about your subject matter, ask them if you may read a completed story to them. Have them stop you anytime they have a question or have no point of reference for what or whom you are storytelling about. This info is gold…it’s just like having a reader from the future sit with you over coffee and ask you questions about the story you are telling.
- Since this method will work equally well with pieces you’ve already written…put them through this exercise and see if anything cries out for the red pen treatment! You may find an additional batch of stories to write adding to the richness of the work you’re doing.
Above all, enjoy your writing and storytelling. Go ahead and tell as many stories as you’d like. But make the events clear, interesting and well thought-out so your readers will stay engaged and keep turning pages and wanting more.
Maybe even throw in a photo of yourself at work on the laptop you used to write it with…imagine what a hoot that’ll be to your great grandchildren seeing dinosaurs of all types!
this little cutie is from the image collections available on The Old Design Shop web page
This is not my favorite month. Maybe its a wee bit’o jealousy because the only Irish in my family’s DNA runs through my husband’s side of the equation. St Patrick’s Day has always been a fun day of green beer and sheepish pretense.
I’m not Irish, but kiss me or pinch me anyway! I do have green eyes though…the better to be “pea green with envy” with my dear…
Perhaps my disdainful attitude toward March is more about the weather here in the heartland. Good Lord what a ride! I, like many Hoosiers, dream of retirement in the desert, any desert. A place where the humidity level rarely flinches. Here, my sinus cavity is under a constant state of attack with it’s little faucet running full on, then suddenly dried up to a painful pinching sensation, only to find a tortured relief in the post-nasal agony of the drip..drip..drip. Yep, Indiana weather~ if you don’t like it ~ stick around for an hour, it’ll change.
Regardless of the snow, no snow, shorts and t-shirt weather and/or tornado laden skies outside, we Family Historians must push on. For that end, I offer you a list of To-Dos for March~
1. Do something really nice for yourself this month~ begin a little achievement journal. Nothing big and fancy (unless you just crave that kind of candy…I don’t judge). This can be as simple as making a to-do list on your calendar at the beginning of the week, and then checking off the “done-did-its” as you go. It’s a gift to give yourself. Mark down exciting (to you) stuff that happens on that day: Found cousin Dehlia’s Christmas card with her contact info under the sofa cushion…bonus…also cleared the underside of all sofa cushions!
During points of drought over the seeker’s field, these can be reviewed to help you re-inspire yourself.. RahRah Me!
2. Start getting the kids involved. This is a great time to plan and gather. Spring break car travel-time looms, or being stuck at home with “bored” loved ones. Instead of hiding inside your head, invite them to start their own spiffy project. Call in the cousins for support and reinforcement. If you would like to see a shining example of what a kid’s book can look like click the link and visit Raelyn of Telling Family Tales…all her little book projects are fringed with magnificence. You don’t have to be this elaborate, just drink it in for inspiration ~ http://tellingfamilytales.com/2013/03/04/when-he-was-young/
3. Toward the end of the month, prepare and send out another “mailing” to let everyone know you are still working on this project (call it the “story of us” or something clever and inclusive). Include a little crumb of “reactive bait” like a photo, or a couple of little questions (does anyone recall the name of the road Grandfather’s farm was on? Was it named? Was it always paved?). If you have been lucky enough to elicit a response or two from the last letter binge…build on it. I find that others are kinda generous with sharing scans of photos, and that they love telling me about how much fun it was “digging through the dusty boxes with mum” but, they don’t really convey the meat of that to me~without direct and subtle inquiry 🙂
So, I then start feeding back to them…hey, that pic of Granny and Harry, where do you think that was taken? Do you know about when? What the heck were they doing there in that place? Wonder who took the picture? That looks like the 60’s to me (when clearly it’s more like the 20’s…trust me on this one…try it!).
Then, it never hurts to throw in something utterly stupid (this is a great technique to get info…everyone loves “correcting” me). Ask a questions that you are sure you know the answer to ~
Say something really, profoundly, ignorant…”Did Harry have any bothers?” This would be a good one if in fact, Harry comes from a brood of 10-12 assorted gender children, or was the younger brother of a famous prize-fighter, or was taken in as an infant or purchased from Gypsies (as my family generally insists about me)
Everyone loves to be right. Everyone likes to “school those fools who have it wrong.” So say your dumbest stuff, and listen to every little utterance that comes at you as fall-out. That’s YOUR pot o’ gold! Have fun with March where ever the weather and the “stupid questions” land you, and I hope you get kissed on St Paddy’s day too!
ps…definately make sure that Someone writes this down!
My Ancestors, and perhaps many millions more of your own, are actively being held for ransom. Donating to a local Historical Society seems like a kind and generous act when you have finished scanning and scrutinizing photos and papers. BUT. Lately, I’ve been learning a tough lesson about handing over the “goods” to a big omnipotent archive.
Well of course I’ll elaborate…thanks for asking!
Remember 10 or 15 years ago when the digital imaging thingy was hotly debated and very new? I clearly recall telling my oldest daughter she couldn’t have a “camera phone” because I was sure they would be quickly outlawed. Copyright and plagiarism issues were the angst du’ jour.
Well, that didn’t happen. And now, I cannot imagine doing my job, any of them…without my smartphone. I use it more for photos than I use it for incoming/outgoing calls. It’s cheap. One micro SD card = a bazillion images stored. It’s immediate. The clarity of the photos is startling and WYSIWYG (blog-speak for “What You See Is What You Get) lets me know immediately whether or not the pic is good.
And this brings me to the digital scanners we dedicated family history hounds tow along in our purses and dity-bags. The amount of light these wonders of the modern age expose delicate pieces of documentation to is minimal. They are relatively safe and will not markedly degrade the object. With our memory cards, once again we can store a bazillion images inexpensively. We can then upload the images and SHARE with loved ones. Or use them to head up blog articles (guilty 🙂 )
Meanwhile, back to the real late 90’s and copyright infringement and book-snarfing via blatant acts of plagiarism like photographing each page for free ala a Boris and Natasha…
I went into our local climate controlled, nothing-allowed-in but a #2 pencil and a single sheet of standard notebook paper, air locked and hushed-if you-whispered image archive room. My mission for the day was to find a photo and perhaps some biographical info on my husband’s Granddad who was a big shot in banking. It was a really cool place with little self-serve lockers in the airlock where you could lock away all the stuff you weren’t allowed to bring in. That most certainly would include a camera–phone!
I dutifully used my #2 to request the file box that I wanted to see, and about 20 minutes later, was happily pawing through it elbow deep. Now, it seems the archive had been in possession of this box for about 20 some years. However, they had not gotten around to cataloging the specific contents. I had struck gold by devine intervention during a discerning round of eeny-meeny-miny-mo. I was only allowed one box at a time.
All the goodies were not delicately preserved in acid free sleeves– handled only with the long surgical steel tongs and white gloves I had imagined. Some warehouse guy heaved the box up the basement stairs and plopped the cardboard box on the austere table before me. “Dig in” he gruffly stated as he disappeared back through the “staff only” door to the stairwell.
After an hour or so, I found a couple of trade journal articles talking about BankerBilly with a press photo included. Elated, I filled out another form requesting a photo copy of these items. I forked over $2.25 (after being allowed to go back to my locker to bring back only my check book and driver’s license) and left. You see, there was about a two week turn around on photocopy requests. As guardians of the frail past, the archive had a strict standard for xeroxing anything. Each item was only allowed to be exposed to the copier “X” amount of times. After that, only a copy of a copy would be offered. The two week turn-around was necessary for the staff to research the number of times on record the same items had gone “through the light.” Respectable I thought, prudent of them.
In about 16 days, I had my copies in hand. Happiness.
Now let’s enter the digital age. How exciting. Everything is less adverse to the integrity of images, the work of a scanner is cheap, Memory cards and flash drives are rather universal to most scanners and results are immediate. Life is good.
Except. It’s expensive. Because there’s a ransom to be paid.
My local archive has done a real bang-up job in acquiring mounds of historic and familial documents. Still mostly uncatalogued, these items have been dropped at their feet by the bushel-full from institutions, families, and new owners of old homes with trunks full of goodies found in the attic. I would guess all of the donors felt like they were really doing a good deed. A public service–preserving history. Walking to the dumpster and giving this stuff the “heave-ho” isn’t illegal as far as I know. And although I would find such an act “unthinkable” it sure would be easier than driving the stuff downtown, dodging Hobos, and paying to park.
So several weeks ago, I went tootling down to the archive to order digital copies of several images I need for a book I’m working on. It’s a local history thing. It’s not going to hit the NYT top ten or rival John Grisham. Frankly, I am hoping for robust sales in order to break even on the hours of research etc. I brought new, clean, still in their packages sets of memory cards and a large flash drive. I purchased these thinking it would make the whole transaction less expensive ( I was looking for over 100 images) and one less step for the curating staff.
Imagine my shock to learn the “new” pricing structure. With the upgrade from copy machine to digital imaging, each image I wanted to take home would cost me $15. For that $15, I didn’t even get a lousy sheet of copier paper. Additionally, to publicly use any images in their holdings, a separate fee of $75 was imposed as a “use” fee. In short, those same images of Grandpa BankerBilly whose own last name was the property and birthright of my own children, would have cost me nearly $600 to walk out the door with that day! Back during the copy machine days, I was dinged for around $20 with postage.
Needless to say, I was stunned and a little more than just pissed off!
So before you haul a bunch of stuff to the mother-ship of your Historic Archives, I suggest doing a little bit of research first. What exactly is their policy for sharing and cataloging, and storage. Does it seem like they care? Is there another, smaller institution–even your local, small town library–who would like first dibs on this stuff?
Can it be deposited somewhere where it will be more than warehoused and shared at extortionist prices? Look for these places first. Please!
Abhorred may be the more succinct description. How dare you hold my Grandpa-in-law hostage in a box in the basement on a warehouse shelf…unopened, ignored.
Maybe someone should write that down…