Summertime genealogy day trips

As the family plans its summer schedule, the term “day trip” looms large, as I’m sure it does for many families in these cost-conscious times. I’m toying with the idea of the genealogy day trip, which would thrill me to no end. It might not thrill the kiddies as much, though.

Still, on the positive side, my kids are a little older now and might actually enjoy trooping through a graveyard or three. Plus, there’s the added bonus of a chance to make fun of Mom and her graveyard obsession. And a chance to take goofy pictures of Mom weeding graves. Sweet!

So I scribbled out this list of possibilities within a day’s drive of northern New Jersey:

• To Calverton National Cemetery on Long Island to photograph family markers there — my parents, and several aunts and uncles.

• To various cousins’ houses to look at their photograph albums. (Hmm. Might do this on a day the kids are in day camp.)

• To NARA-NYC to look at a bunch of indexes. (Another one for a day-camp day. In a perfect world, my kids would love hanging around microfilm viewers for five hours … but …)

• To Albany County to take a better picture of my great-great-grandparents’ tombstone. I really need to rectify this awful photo, which has been bugging me for four years. I would post it, but I’m just too mortified. If I succeed in getting a better one, I promise to post Do and Don’t pictures.

Will I do all of these things?  The biggest enemy to productivity is the way summer fries a perfectly good brain. Summertime always seems to stretch into infinity on the day school ends. With so many more hours of daylight, what’s the rush?

Then, all too soon,  it’s Labor Day already, and the genealogy to-do list has maybe one item crossed off.

I think I’ll ask the kids tonight how they feel about cemeteries.

Ancestral Dish: The lost salads of summer

My dad knew his way around a kitchen, but he did not cook every day. He preferred to be known for a selection of specialties, a niche he could comfortably occupy while my mom did the day-in, day-out job of cooking for the nine of us.

The dishes for which Dad was famous included a hearty version of Irish stew, a snappy, spicy Manhattan clam chowder and liver and onions, for which I can’t supply a positive adjective, sorry. When summertime rolled around, he was famous for his potato and macaroni salads.

Dad never made just a little salad. He always filled at least one, preferably two, cafeteria-style stainless-steel trays, which my parents happened to have on hand, along with a commercial deli-style slicing machine. We were not in the deli business; we simply had this stuff. As a kid, I assumed everybody did.

When Dad cooked, he usually took over the kitchen for the day, regarding the arrival of kids wanting lunch as an act of aggression, or at least an unreasonable intrusion. If you hung around, you might find yourself peeling potatoes. (“KP”, he called it.) Dad’s salads had no fancy secret ingredients. He thought that putting relish in macaroni salad was an abomination and that chopped hard-boiled eggs were overkill.

Still, decades after my dad died, I will occasionally hear wistful comments about “those wonderful salads your father used to make.” And they were wonderful — reserved for special occasions like Fourth of July barbecues or First Communion parties. Over the years I have tried to replicate them, without success. The true secret was in the dressing, I have come to believe, and Dad made his dressing in completely unscientific fashion, eyeballing quantities and shaking everything up in an empty Hellmann’s mayonnaise jar. He’d have driven a recipe editor crazy, and having been one myself, I ought to know.

Sometimes when you give up trying on a dish, you find it anyway, or at least, you find its essence. Recently I hosted a First Communion buffet lunch at my house for 40 people. In between bouts of questioning my sanity, I found a large-scale recipe for pasta salad. It is extremely different from Dad’s, with corkscrew noodles and steamed broccoli florets and a bunch of other things he’d disdain. And yet — something about it reminded me of his macaroni salad. Maybe it was the dressing.

See what you think on the jump.

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Too cool for my own good

About a year ago, I took up bicycling. Some people might call it “road cycling,” but I am not one of those hard-core types. You know, the ones who have to have the latest equipment, the ones who obsess over the latest techniques.

Nuh-uh. I may think it’s fun to ride 25 miles and up a couple of mountainsides, but I would never be like that.

I don’t even own a brightly colored, zipper-covered cycling jersey that makes me look like I just came off the Tour de France. I was bragging about this recently when a fellow rider said mildly, “Well, you know, all those zippered pockets do come in handy.”

Suddenly, I felt counterproductive, not romantically rebellious.

This exchange got me to thinking about ways in which this kind of reverse snobbery has affected my genealogy. I haven’t gone so far as to avoid computer genealogy programs (thank you, Reunion!!).

But it took me a good year of saying, “Nah, I don’t NEED that gimmick” before I consistently started using the Shoebox feature on Of course I could squirrel away those records on my own. I’d just jot the image number down in my handy notebook … now where was that notebook? And that pen?

And lately, I’ve been thinking a master genealogy task chart might not be a bad idea, as opposed to all the little task lists I stubbornly cling to for each family group. Of course, I would never be that geeky … except it might actually help me get more done.

I wonder what other helpful short-cuts I’ve been missing?

Links 06.07.10

This week we’ve got a lot of grave tidings and record achievements. Cliche watchers, take note.

Cemetery records suit: A Virginia genealogy society was unsuccessful in proving ownership of a collection of cemetery records being offered for sale in CD and book form by a local museum. The U.S. District Court ruling means that the Bedford (Va.) Museum and Genealogical Library can continue to offer the items for sale. The case was more about procedure than genealogy. It hinged on whether, in voting to incorporate last year, the society was really the true successor to the parent group, an unincorporated volunteer group organized as an affiliate of the museum. The court held that the entire membership should have been notified of the vote in order for it to be valid. An interesting case to consider for volunteer genealogy societies amassing record collections.

Irish census of 1901: Meanwhile, across the pond, excitement reigns over the release of the 1901 Irish census, the earliest complete Irish population count available. The records took five years and 4 million euros to digitize, and join the 1911 census online for Irish researchers. (Many 19th-century Irish records were lost in a 1922 fire at the Public Records Office, during the Irish civil war.) The BBC’s website summarizes the news angles nicely, including examples of famous folks and their census forms.

Also in Ireland: This news item popped up, containing an intriguing reference to a proposed merger of the Irish National Archives, the Irish Manuscripts Commission and the National Library of Ireland into a new national library/archive. The legislation is to be introduced by the end of this year, said Fianna Fáil leader Brian Cowen.

“Uncle” is correct: I love genealogy stories that bring distant history close to living generations, and this one is a classic. An Ohio man recently succeeded in replacing the official grave marker for his uncle, who served in the Civil War. Yes, you read that right. Sid Sines, a WWII veteran himself,  belongs to what must be a small group of living Americans with a biological uncle who fought in the Civil War. Sines’ father Martin (born 1868) was the product of Simon Sines’ second marriage. The Civil War soldier, James (born 1844), was an elder child of Simon’s first marriage. Martin waited until he was 52 to marry, and Sid was born in 1922. A perfect storm of genealogy circumstance! Congratulations to Sid on replacing his uncle’s marker — the original was vandalized 30 years ago.

History in the walls

When you reach the point in your family history research at which you’d like to start writing some sort of narrative, you might turn your attention to house genealogy.

That’s because as a writer, you can only get so far with vital statistics. Weaving them into a a story about your ancestors’ lives and times cries out for context. If you’re lucky and an ancestor’s former address is still standing, you can really add to your research by learning its story.

Imagine knowing exactly how the house was constructed, how big the yard was, how many neighbors lived on the street, what the view was from the front-room window. It’s possible to learn these things.

Of course, a lot of people, myself included, become curious about old houses because they live in them. Sometimes house history helps an owner undo decades of neglect or bad remodeling. Sometimes it’s just fun.

Here are some basic resources I’ve enjoyed exploring in researching houses:

Tax records. The ultimate starting point for determining a chain of ownership. Tax assessment data will give you the owner of record (though this might not necessarily be the person who actually lived in the house). My town library has the massive yearly property survey books, including lot numbers, assessed values and ownership data. In other places you’d check with city hall.

City directories. Very useful in conjunction with tax records, especially since they can give a more complete view of who actually resided at an address in addition to, or instead of, the owner.

Sanborn (and other) maps. Insurance maps can give amazing details, down to the composition of the roof and the location of windows and doors. They also show a lot of context about the neighborhood, including street layout, schools, churches and nearby businesses. Although Sanborn maps are best known, don’t neglect the possibility that local libraries may hold other detailed historical maps, too.

Other ideas:

The University of Maryland offers a houseful of resources for beginning researchers, some of it Maryland-specific, but also a lot of  great general information and links.

The New York City Tax Photograph database might actually produce a picture of your ancestor’s house.

Case study: The Smithsonian has a neat presentation about 200 years of history in a house in Ipswich, Massachusetts, including tips on being a house detective.


A response to the 52 weeks to Better Genealogy Challenge #22: Find-A-Grave.

I can spend hours hanging out at Find-A-Grave, and here they are telling me to poke around on this site as a challenge. Yeah. Right.

Oops! I meant to say, “Wow, tough assignment; I’m just going to have square my shoulders and do my best.”

Find-A-Grave has done fine things for my research. It helped me clarify where my great-great-uncle William’s wife was buried, since they weren’t next to each other. It was also nice to see my dad’s headstone on the site, placed there by a volunteer who has photographed many veterans’ graves in Calverton National Cemetery.

I also get an enormous kick out of finding out which famous people are buried in cemeteries near my hometown. Searching by locale, you can easily pull up a list of cemeteries in your area and browse the entries. There’s always an interesting story or two.

But the most important things I’ve learned from Find A Grave have been in the forums, where regulars congregate to swap tips, pet peeves and general wisdom. For example:

• I know that you will not win any friends by bragging about how the chalk you put on that 18th-century headstone made the inscription clear as day.

• Ditto for whipping out a Sharpie to color in the letters.

• I know that each year, kind volunteers fan out across Woodland Cemetery in Newark, N.J., to record inscriptions and photograph markers. It’s a chance for volunteers to work in a big group with an escort from local police. (Security concerns are a fact of life in many urban burial grounds.)

What’s very interesting, and important for genealogy enthusiasts to know, is that Find-A-Grave is primarily a gathering place for people who love graveyards. Some of them also love genealogy; the two interests often dovetail.

I don’t mean to imply that genealogy queries are unwelcome there — quite the contrary. I’m just saying that when I first found Find-A-Grave, I was thrown for a loop. Why were complete strangers (at least, I think they were strangers)  photographing tombstones in my family lines? What was in it for them?

The answer for many really is simple: They get to explore cemeteries and read interesting tombstones. And because so many Find-A-Grave volunteers love what they do, we all gain in our research. Thanks, guys.


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