GraveDiggers Blog

Never Leave An Ancestor Behind!

The GraveDigger’s Daughter

Barrens Salem Union Cemetery

Marlene S. Bentz Badger — The Grave Digger’s Daughter
Born Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1958

Marlene contributes to the website through her many years of research.  She lends advice and guidance, and we’re hoping to post some of her hard work in cemetery recording this summer.  Here is her story…

“I’ve spent my life wondering who I am, where I came from, and why I am the way I am. These questions have haunted me since I was five years old, when my brother was old enough to be “my Father’s boy” and my sister danced with the attention of my mother.  Life, as I understood it, seemed to suddenly change.  Usurped and emotionally cast adrift, I felt out of place, like I didn’t belong, and that no one wanted me or needed me.  Left to my own devices, I found my security by spending time walking in the woods, watching the animals, or playing with our numerous pets/animals on our small farm.  And then I found the cemeteries…

On Sunday’s after church when my mother stayed late for her meetings with other members,  I loved to roam the graveyard, wondering who those people were and what they were like. I thought some of those folks in there might be related to me because we shared the same last name.  At times I thought up stories about these interesting souls to pass the time. Out of curiosity I once asked my dad if we were related to them, and his answer was “No, they are all dead”. That struck me as a strange answer, and I never understood it since his parents were buried in that cemetery.

As a young adult I was still curious about those people, and maintained the love of spending time in the cemetery. Oddly enough, my father became the grave digger of several area cemeteries, and I would go with him when I could.  I read the names and dates, and tried to figure out the families, why some died young, or within a few days of each other. I realized that being a Scorpio everything needed to be analyzed and researched fully, and playing detective was something I enjoyed.

Later on, my mother gave me a very small handwritten version of her family tree compiled by my Aunt. At the time, I was too busy being a young wife, mother, and business owner to investigate this information further.  I set it aside and got onto the task of living.

When my daughter’s were grown, and my parents both still alive, I finally had a chance to start working on my family tree. My mother was excited to help me, so she planned trips for us to go to cemeteries where she knew family members were buried. Other times she arranged trips to meet some of her cousins and find out more about her lines. This was great, and finally my mother and I had something in common.  I never spent much time with her because she already had a daughter to teach all the “girly” things to.  Now, all these years later, we enjoyed a special bond, and although it was fleeting, I savor every moment of it.

Working with my mother only took me so far.  With the family interviews exhausted, I still wanted to know more about the Bentz’s in the Barrens cemetery, since that is where my curiosity really came from for this endeavor. As I tried to research this line, I could only get back as far as my great-grandfather. I found the Bentz’s were stubborn and very temperamental, not helpful at all. Information was just becoming available on the internet, but searching was long and tedious and a lot simply wasn’t yet there, or the index features were far from complete.

After months of searching, I found a connection on-line with a Bentz descendant from Connecticut who had been researching the Bentz family. This amazing fellow helped me connect my great-grandfather with my great-great-grandfather and sent me a great deal of information. I was ecstatic! I thought I was finally on my way.   As I looked through the material I discovered that he had lots of names and some dates; but, most of the information did not carry sources to prove his theories.   When I got to my father in his tree…well, he was listed with the wrong name, along with errors on some of the other family members I was familiar with. Once again, I felt like I ran into a brick wall…but then I realized I really hadn’t, I just needed to take the information I received and PROVE it. This meant I needed to do a lot more searching on-line, with many trips to cemeteries, libraries, and historical societies added in for good measure.

As I searched for records of the cemeteries l found out that churches do not have lists of who is buried in their cemeteries, only the purchaser of the lots. As I continued the search I found that cemeteries could be off limits to researches if they are on private land, some have been flooded to make reservoirs for water supplies, and others have been left go to the point the owners don’t know they even exist.

I sat back and thought about this mess of missing information.  I finally decided that there was only one thing to do, record the cemetery stones myself so I would have the information and at the same time, create something lasting for future generations. Where to start?  Barren’s Cemetery, of course!  As I worked through the cemetery, I found that ALL the Bentz’s and many other last names in the cemetery were related to me, nearly 75% !  What a thrill it was to complete the recording of the stones. As I worked through the cemetery, I mentally thanked the industrious people during the depression years who recorded the cemeteries at that time so I could include people where stones no longer existed or were illegible at the time of my recording around the turn of this century.   Friends, family members and a Girl Scout troop also pitched in to help.  In the end, the historical societies I gave copies to were just as thrilled with the information as I was. I posted my data on-line through PAGENWEB. Recently I found they changed their web page and that some of the information I sent them no longer exists in their new format.  What a shame!

As I continued to research my family and knowing what I knew about the recordings of the Barrens Cemetery, I came to find out the Dillsburg Cemetery was the same way. I began recording that cemetery nearly 10 years ago, but I had several years that I just could not bring myself to do it. I lost my parents within a year of each other and they were buried there in Section 2. It took me several years to finally be able to write their names in my notebook. I was glad that I started with the oldest sections first since they only had the recordings from the 1930’s and unless you went to the York Co. Historical Society/York Heritage Trust you would have to walk each row and read each stone to see if your ancestors were buried there. Luckily, those sections were the ones that hold most people’s interest. I finished sections 1 & 5 before I lost my parents, and I was glad I did. It has been rewarding to get phone calls from other genealogists looking for their ancestors, and knowing that I can help them with that.

During my Dillsburg Cemetery recording process, I received a phone call from a supervisor of Fairview Township, York County. He explained that he had two tombstones sitting in the township storage room for over 20 years. They were confiscated for evidence in a theft and never returned to the cemetery. Not knowing where they belonged, township employees  just moved those stones around each year like chess pieces when they tried to clean out the storage/evidence room.  Deciding he really had to do something about this, he searched the internet and found my list on PAGENWEB.  From there, he tried to locate someone at the Dillsburg Cemetery Association to help him get the stones back where they belonged,  who told him to contact Cocklin’s Funeral Home, who in turn told him to contact me. We had a wonderful phone conversation and a week later, we met to put the stones back where they belonged.  Now, thanks to my son-in-law who is the current gravedigger, the stones cannot be removed unless someone breaks them.  The Mitchells now rest in peace knowing their descendants can find their burial location with ease once again.

As a semi-seasoned genealogist, I have found that I love to share what I have found with others. Whether it is family information, how-to’s for researching, or time helping others with their family tree quest.   I can tell you that, at times, your important family search endeavor will lead you down paths that you would never have thought to go. You will meet some of the nicest people while doing the research.   You will discover that some family members become your friends, and some friends become your family.

Below, you will find a few ideas for researching your lineage.  If you have any suggestions, please share them with us. We would like to make a page of suggestions and how-to’s for researching.

1.    When searching on-line and through  numerous trees, import the new information into a separate family tree file to use for clues as to where to go from here. DO NOT take their information as gospel. DO NOT import to the family file that contains all your verified information.

2.    Only work on one surname at a time. If you don’t you may confuse yourself and keep researching the same information over and over again, wasting your time.

3.    Always, always, always document your sources of information, whether living relatives, other family trees, historical books, wills, marriage, birth, and death certificates, church records, tax records, census records, or other records. Document whom you received it from, where you located it, and when you received it. Make a copy for your records if possible.

4.    Use a filing system that works for you for easy reference, whether it is putting it in a notebook with sheet protectors, or in a filing cabinet.

5.    Always use acid-free paper and supplies. Make copies of information if you know it was before acid-free paper.

6.    Always identify people in photos. It is usually better to use acid-free labels to put your information on, and then stick to the back of the photo, or make sure you use a pen that will not bleed through the picture. NEVER write names on the front of the photo. Past generations had a habit of that if they actually bothered identified the people.  This information bleeds over time or rubs off depending upon the quality of the pen and the original photo.  You could always put your pictures in photo albums that have labels to write on beside or under them, then you don’t destroy the pictures for future generations.

7.  Don’t rely solely on your computer for storage.  Back up your computer data frequently, make a spare copy of all your data on CD’s even though you have an external hard drive.  Make sure you always have a paper copy that reflects your on-line information.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read my blog entry.  Please feel free to post your comments.  Need Help?  You can e-mail me at:

Fraktur — Artistic Family History Gold Mine Then and Now

Marriage Record designed by Jenine Trayer in the Fraktur fashion.

Last summer I visited the Perry County Historians in New Bloomfield, Pennsylvania, looking for those elusive Drayers.  We actually found one along with his wife, and after some local census diving we even found their grave — with a whopping huge tree growing right out of the center!  Perry Historians also had another treasure trove, a compilation of Pennsylvania German Fraktur in a well researched volume published for the society.  The book came with my membership, and at the time, I stuffed it in my backpack and thought I’d take a look at it…whenever.  Months later, looking for specific information on Pennsylvania German designs I realized that the same symbology found on the Frakturs could also be found on hex signs, pottery, quilts, butter presses, etc., from the same era.

Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, to craft some of my own Fraktur for my family and friends?  I spent about a month researching the topic, ordered several books, and found an amazing amount of information about what the people in my family (and my husband’s) may have been like a hundred years ago.  Sure, it is one thing to sift through census records, directories and church records; but, it is another when you “come to know them” through other means, such as their art, literature, and music.

In my search for understanding more, I learned about the amazing European mix of the German speaking Americans, who immigrated from where, when, and why.  I learned that many Germans refused to sign their names on documents when they entered this country, not because they couldn’t write; but, because they were suspicious of authority.  Dumb Dutch didn’t mean stupid — it meant not understanding the English language.  I also discovered that most of the Germans who entered this country between 1700 and 1800 were highly literate, and prided themselves in their ability to read and write…German.  From studying the typeset prevalent of the era, I discovered how transcription errors occurred from one printed document to another.  The common typesets for German letters made “s” and “f” look similar, the same with “k” and “t”, and a few others.  No wonder finding the correct spelling of a name can become a nightmare when searching through your lineage!

As a result of what I learned, I designed a full web page on Fraktur, giving a little history, examples, and a glossary so that when you are doing your research on your family line and run across that German word or two, you’ll know what it means.  The page also includes two downloads for you to add to your own genealogy scrapbook — a Birth Record and a Marriage Record — shaded, but uncolored.  These are .pdf files and easy to download — 8.5 x 11 inches to fit in your scrapbook.

If this subject sounds interesting to you, please visit my website at



Genealogy Family Secrets

Researching Indirect Relatives May Provide
Unusual Stories Not to be Missed

Today’s Post:  Dead Line Child — William Byron Baker — 22 May 1930 to 29 February 1936 — Fact that can Read Like Fiction
By J. B. Trayer

When Marlene Badger first started showing me her hard researched do’s and don’ts of genealogy she made one point perfectly clear — Always Go Wide, meaning just don’t focus on your direct blood line alone, take the time to gather information on siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., of your direct relative.  Family Group Sheets are imperative for a variety of reasons, especially when you can’t find something on your direct ancestor, yet plenty appears for a brother or sister in genealogical data.  Somewhere within their information you may discover what you need for your own direct-line research.

There is another advantage — a purely emotional one. Once you encourage yourself to go wide, you’ll find a plethora of interesting stories that can be added to your own collection on the general family name.  Sometimes you’ll get so emotionally attached to these indirect relatives that you just can’t seem to stop yourself from researching further, even if you know in your heart the information has no relevance to your own direct line.  You become caught in the story they left behind, entranced by something… a strange newspaper article, a haunting photo, or a group of census records that just don’t add up and the mystery carries you along until you have satisfied yourself with the conclusion.  This is especially so with children who shared this earth for a short period of time.  They won’t leave a direct blood line for you to follow; yet, there is a part of you when you find them that just won’t quit.  They need to be acknowledged, and you find yourself putting just as much importance on them as your own direct relative.

Every family has stories and anecdotes of indirect relatives, and in the telling over the years, you can bet that a great deal of the embellishment has no basis in fact.  Yet, they are fun stories, interesting facts, or tearful memories that make up the tapestry of your combined family history.  Most importantly, this history belongs to you, and if you are so lucky, your children and great grandchildren.  When you are interested in genealogy it is most often not for yourself alone that you research — it is for those to come.  Your eyes are always on the future, even though your nose is buried in the past.

When writing down a family story realize that you may not always know the right answers, and you can couch your verbiage in a way that explains this very fact.  Newspaper articles, obituaries, diaries, census records, wills, etc., can help support what you’ve been told.  It is okay to draw conclusions as long as you are clear this is your analysis.  Someone else in the family may study the same story and get an entirely different end scenario of the events.  That’s okay.  People make judgments based on their beliefs, their background, and their current emotional situation in life.  These conclusions are not always logical.  Things like religion, politics, and self-esteem can, and will, pummel your story from another relative’s point of view.  Truth is an enigma, after all.

Such is the case of William Byron Baker, a little boy who died tragically of an unknown malady at the age of six.  Billy would have been my uncle, had he lived to adulthood.  His brief sojourn here on planet earth and in the Baker family left a lasting impression on all who knew him, and these memories are those I heard from several older family members as I grew up.  Billy came to the forefront of my interest this past month when I decided I would drag out that proverbial shoebox of stuff I hadn’t gotten around to organizing in my family notebooks.  Sometimes, you are so concentrated on making headway on your direct line pedigree that you leave the more recent historical information you have to gather a bit of dust.  You already know the information, even have a few photos, so the mystery that might drive you isn’t really there.  We forget, I think, that just because we know this information, others in the family do not.  I’d promised myself that I would scan a large number of pictures into my gedcom file, and update my tree on-line as well.  As I was working through the photos — scanning, annotating, and inserting them into my private tree and the one on-line — I came across several of Billy that I never really paid attention to.

Hmmm, I thought, as I looked at some of the snapshots.  So…just who did have a camera in 1934?  Several of the photos weren’t professional.  I wondered who, in my family at that time, could actually afford a camera.  And, how interesting, that the only photos I have of those years in that family unit…are of Billy or have Billy in them with his mother and brother (my grandmother and father).  I realized that I’d never written Billy’s story for my genealogy notebooks, about his unusual meeting with death, nor what happened…afterwards.  My mind drifted to what I remembered hearing about Billy.

The Story of Billy Byron Baker

William Byron Baker at approximately 5 years of age

August.  Sweltering.  I am a teenager not yet driving and my normally over-protective mother has allowed me to ride my bike across town to frequent the local pool on one condition — I must always check in with my Grandfather Baker who lives one block away from the swimming club.  I have no problem with this.  My Grandpa Sam is pretty cool, even if he is in his early eighties.  He gives me rock hard cookies he baked himself, homemade iced tea, and pocket change for the pool vending machine on a regular basis.  He also shares with me, that blistering summer, stories of family and life in the early part of the 1900’s that I will take with me to my grave.  I don’t realize this then, of course, I’m too busy relishing my new found freedom from a West Virginia bred Scorpio mother who never did lose her distrust of her Pennsylvania relatives and co-workers.  Oh yeah.

We always sat in the kitchen, my grandfather and I.  He had his chair, facing the back door.  I had mine, angled toward the white wooden cupboards filled with a variety of mismatched dishes.  The cupboards were particularly special in this house because they were hand painted by my grandmother and decorated with distelfinks of her own design long before I was born.  Although she passed a year or two before, her presence could still be felt with those magickal birds of good will.

Sunny.  That kitchen, even though it was positioned primarily in the shade of an old cherry tree.  It is how I remember those afternoons, though.  Bright.  Cheerful.  Plastic tablecloth sticking to your elbows.  Dappled light.  That funky, country smell that I still don’t know where it comes from; but, if you’ve ever experienced it, you know what I mean.  Its not bad.  Just…different.

And stories.

But, it wasn’t until I really dove into genealogy that I experienced a strange clicking moment.  You know, like when you are turning the dial on a safe and suddenly the combination softly snicks and the door swings magically open and a true treasure evokes a jaw dropping moment?  Like that.


William Byron Baker Studio Photo 1934/1935

There’s so much I could tell you about Billy — William Byron Baker — and these things are always mixed with poignant sadness.  I never met Billy.  How could I?  He died in 1936 at the age of 6; yet, his death resounded through the family with such heartbreak that it resonates in my own life.  Indeed, I deal with the results of Billy’s death now, seventy-five years later, with the behavior of my father, a man whose fear of loss is so astronomical that he sits paralyzed by it in a big, old recliner, watching the western channel all day.  A thousand times, it seems, I’ve heard various stories about William Byron.  My Dad even has a toy that belonged to him.  A wooden monkey that climbs up and down a stick.  It sits safely in a drawer near my father’s chair.  It is one of the few things he remembers these days — Our Lady Dementia his only mistress.

The short saga of Billy’s death is very unusual. It is a tale of death, justice, and perhaps…revenge.  My sources are from two people — my grandfather and my father — told at different times by father; but, so painful, only once by my grandfather.

On that summer afternoon.

In August.

In the sanctity of the Baker family kitchen.

“Neighbor boy hit him with a rock in the back,” said my grandfather.  “Never healed.”  He shook his head.  “Left a hole that just kept getting larger.  By the time he died, it was as big as a softball.  To this day we don’t know what it was.  Doctors couldn’t do anything.  Your grandmother even went to a Braucher.”

“What’s that?” I asked, as I crunched through one of those concrete snickerdoodles my grandfather loved to make.

“A Pow-Wow.  Faith healer of sorts,” he answered.  “Your great grandmother was one; but, she was long dead, so your grandmother found a man to come.”  He shook his head again, his faded blue eyes staring at a tragic mental scene I could not see.  “They couldn’t do anything, though.  They said we called him too late.”

“What happened to the nasty boy who hit Billy with the rock?” I asked, my own fury slowly burning at the injustice of it all.  “How dare that mean boy hurt Billy!  Just a little boy!  Only six years old!” I said.  “As my father tells it,” I went on.  “He and Billy were outside the house, and this awful bully ran up behind Billy and slugged him with the rock square in the back.”

My grandfather nodded.  In the Baker family there has always been a lot unsaid on any subject.  It isn’t a gossipy family, in general, this unit.  Almost entirely German and Scottish stock, closed mouths on personal business has always been the norm.  It went, unsaid then, that day with my grandfather, my Dad’s entire telling of the story.  My father, at the time, was aged nine.  He was supposed to look out for Billy.  That was his job in the pecking order of the family, the others available for baby duty being older, male, and uninterested in watching out for their littlest brother, who to hear my father tell it, was viewed as a burden by his older siblings.  Until my father began to lose his mind, he carried the guilt for not standing up for Billy his entire adulthood.  He was supposed to protect Billy.  He didn’t.

All this went unsaid.  My grandfather knew the guilt my father carried.  He made no mention of it.  My attention drew back to my grandfather, who was strangely silent until I looked straight at him.  I was hoping that he would answer my question of what happened to the bully.  He didn’t.

Instead, he said, “All the neighbors made fun of your grandmother for calling that Pow-Wow in… you know, when your great grandfather died, D.B.?  They burned everything.  All of his personal things.  All his papers.  They say the Johnstown Flood was a terrible thing.  That was back in ’36.  Your grandmother was never the same, after that.  Took a lot of life out of her.”

I could understand the loss of a child and my grandmother’s heartbreak.  How the flood that occurred almost three hours away driving distance and my great grandfather’s papers related to Billy, I wasn’t sure.  Indeed, at the time, I didn’t know a thing about Johnstown or the horrific disaster that occurred there.  By now I’d lost interest, itching to get to my friends, swimming fun and maybe an ice cream or two.  As I peddled down the street toward the distant sound of splashing and delighted squeals I forgot all about the morose story of little Billy, his wasting disease, or my father’s small part in it.

Lottie Grace Baker, Living Relative, William Byron Baker and Skip the dog.

My question of what happened to the boy who threw the rock went unanswered for thirty-eight years.

Now, you might think that my grandfather, at eighty, was just letting his mind wander; but, don’t you kid yourself.  He lived to be 100, and stayed in his home taking care of himself into his late nineties.   Unlike my own father now at approximately the same age as when my grandfather first told me Billy’s short story, his mind was needle sharp.  I attributed his side-dance verbal thread of Billy, D.B., and the flood to the way conversations sometimes go with human stream of consciousness speech (something my entire family is in a habit of doing) and thought nothing of it.  After awhile, I forgot all about it.

In the ensuing years I remembered pieces of the conversation with my grandfather that day for a different reason.  He’d mentioned the Pow-Wow man and that my great grandmother had practiced.  Curious I began to do research and eventually found a man to teach me.  In the meantime, I also learned that my Great Grandfather — D.B. Baker (my grandfather’s father) — was quite a character as well as a graduate from Dickenson College.  In his lifetime he wrote a book, sold textbooks, farmed, and taught school.  His best friends were judges and bankers, politicians and such — let me be clear about this — of a small town.  He had a very varied net of interest — including the occult, and wrote copious letters to relatives in Germany to further his research.  Which is probably why his sister burned all his papers.  This was another story I picked up that summer, verified by my father when he still had his wits about him.  Don’t panic, though.  When I say the word — occult — I’m talking about astrology, phrenology, healing herbs, Braucherei (Pow-Wow) etc. — not devil worship.  These subjects, at the time, were all lumped together under the word — occult, and so for the sake of historical accuracy — we’ll just keep the same label.

Fast forward to 2009.  Dementia patients go through stages which are varied according to personality type.  There are periods of rage or at best anger, normalcy, crystal clarity of the past, and a return to childish behavior, etc.; but, no retention of the day before.  It is as if the hippocampus takes a vacation for long periods of time and the information of the now doesn’t follow the bridge to the long-term memory banks.  This means that you never know what is going to come out of the patient’s mouth.

We are sitting at the dinner table — my father, my husband, and some of my adult children.  We are talking about history.  My father, who takes three hours to eat a meal (no kidding, he chews in ratcheted slow motion) looks up from his plate and says, “You know, so-and-so that hit Billy with that rock?  Rock as big as your fist.  He died in that flood.”

“What flood, Pop?” asked my husband.

My father gave him an irritated are-you-stupid? look.  “Johnstown!  The Johnstown flood!”

I glanced from my father to my husband, who passed me a silent what-the-heck expression.  “Wait,” I said.  “How did the kid who hit Billy with the rock die in the Johnstown flood?  Lemoyne isn’t anywhere near Johnstown.”

“The boy moved,” said my father.  “He hit Billy with the rock!” he said, shaking his fork at no one in particular.  “Billy died.  That family sold everything and took off within the month.  Good riddance to bad rubbish.  They were a crude lot.  Violent people.   Went to Johnstown.  Nasty bastard was dead in no time flat, like Billy.  He got what he deserved, just like old D. B. said he would. ”

“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” I asked.

My father shrugged.  “You didn’t need to know.”

And just like that, I heard a snicking sound in my head.  And my jaw dropped.

You see, my Grandfather Sam (the original story teller) was a pretty slick fellow indeed.  He was always careful what he said and to whom he said it and how he said it.  That Baker thing of no-gossip?  Grandpa Sam certainly understood that if he told a teenager unusual facts they might drift back to her mother who (unlike most of the family) couldn’t normally keep a secret to save her soul, and who may not approve of the unveiling of said knowledge, let alone how it would go through the rest of the family like a Tsunami unlike the world has ever seen.  And so he said nothing of D.B.’s prediction that day.  Nor the untimely demise of the bully.  My mother simply wouldn’t have approved.  Instead, he gave me side-step data, and if I was smart enough, and I thought about it long enough, I would eventually put it together myself.  D.B. had made other predictions during his lifetime that have come true, including the idea of cell phones, television, and something like Skype — no kidding — and remember, he lived before Star Trek.


I didn’t think this was a prediction, and to this day I’m certain there’s more to it than that.  D.B. (Grandpa Sam’s father) was known to have a tremendous temper.  When you look at D.B.?  Think of a Banty Rooster on crack (except he didn’t do drugs), and that was only when he was angry in the key of minor.  Major fury would make a category five hurricane look like a pansy attempt at destruction.  As a grandparent myself, invested in the lives of my children…I wouldn’t stand down at the death of a grandchild.

I don’t think he did, either.


Historical Information:  William Byron Baker (22 May 1930 to 29 February 1936)
Samuel Cornelius Baker (13 June 1891 to 20 September 1991) Billy’s Father
Lottie Grace Knaub Baker (28 July 1891 to 10 March 1971) Billy’s Mother
Living Family Member:  Brother, my father
Daniel Bentz Baker (D.B.) (10 April 1859 to 14 May 1940)

Story Location: Lemoyne, Pennsylvania, USA

Burial Site of aforementioned family members: Dillsburg Cemetery, US Route 15, Dillsburg, PA.

Johnstown Flood: On March 17, 1936, Johnstown experienced a devastating flood caused by heavy runoff from melting snow and three days of rain.  The 1889 flood is not the only flood in Johnstown’s history that caused significant loss of life and property damage. The most famous of these occurred in 1936 and 1977.  Source:

Distelfink: Stylized gold finch (bird) used primarily in Pennsylvania Dutch artwork symbolizing luck, success, and happiness.  Distelfink means thistle-finch in German European and painting them on birth certificates, marriage certificates, hex signs, and home furniture was a common practice in South Central Pennsylvania.

How This Story Relates To Your Own Work
And that’s how I left the end of the story that I recorded — open.  The reader, depending upon his or her own background will now be left to draw their own conclusions.  What did D.B. do?  Did he take his political and family connections and put them to use by so denigrating the bully’s family that they picked up and moved the month of Billy’s death?  Only to vacate into the arms in one of the worst disaster’s of Pennsylvania history?  Or, did D.B. focus his intent on justice in a different way?  Those with more colorful imaginations will draw one conclusion from the belly of mystery and magick.  Those with a belief in an avenging God will think another.  What doesn’t change are the few facts we have:

The kid hit Billy with a rock.
Billy died.
The bully moved.
The bully died within the month in a terrible disaster.

The genealogical facts we have are Billy’s death date and the date of the Johnstown flood.  Upon research, we find the flood date fits the memories of both story tellers.  We tie the flood to the event of Billy’s death through two first person accounts through their narratives.  We also have pictures of Billy, which help to boost the story and give the reader an emotional tie to the child.

Too, Billy’s story is actually two stories — you read about Billy in 1936, and you read about memories of the family unit as time progressed past his death through the eyes of the storyteller.  You learn a little bit about each person mentioned within the story, which makes them seem more real.  Tags like the distelfinks my grandmother painted makes it plausible that she might, indeed, consult a Pow-Wow as that was a strong belief within her childhood.  D.B. was smart (Dickenson College), a character (his temper), and a researcher on the occult as well as other subjects (letters to Germany).  And so forth.

What I’m trying to express to you here is that your genealogical work and what you share with future generations does not have to be boring.  Too often we are accustomed to reading genealogical accounts that are so full of dates and relationship information that the real meat of the story gets lost.  By the end of paragraph one, you are yawing and maybe you’ll get to the end.  To me, that’s what the Ahnetafel or Register Reports are for — and if you like that, that’s fine.  Just don’t forget that there is room for creative expression in your work.  By adding the historical data at the end of the story we’re allowing the reader to relish the story for what it is without sacrificing the facts to fiction.  Many facts in this tale read like fiction — the setting for example, in the kitchen that hot summer.  Although it moves like fiction — it isn’t.  The added touch of photos of Billy throughout the story helps the reader to remember this is a story about Billy even though the major characters in the telling are other folks.  Finally, the postcard type Photoshop 9 collage that will go on my title page in my notebook allows the reader to see all the characters for themselves.

Those interested in facts alone can find them at the end of your story with as many notes as you wish to provide.  In the story of Billy I included the birth and death dates of all the real-life characters, where they are buried, and a cited source for the flood date and the devastation as a result.  I chose my source — a bricks and mortar museum that will hopefully exist in the future, even though access information for the facts is currently on the web.  I also added the definition of a distelfink.  Just because I know what it is doesn’t mean the reader is familiar with this type of stylized art form.  If your inner researcher is truly in panic mode that the facts must prevail, consider using footnotes, or even better — endnotes.  That way you can still satisfy that inner itch for accurate data and still keep the flow of your tale moving in hopes of keeping your future reader interested enough to actually get to the end!

Finally, some of you reading this article are asking — Do you know the name of the bully?  Yes, is your answer.  I didn’t include it for a variety of reasons, and am still undecided whether or not I will put it in the family account.  Our family, as you have read, sees the injury done to Billy and his resulting death as a murder with Billy the victim and the bully the cause of his demise.  Why should the bully be remembered at all other than the fact that Karma definitely operated here with an unusually swift sword?  On the genealogical side, however, there is credence in adding at least his full name and a record of his death in the flood.  What would you do?

Did you find this article helpful?  If so, please leave a comment.  Didn’t find it interesting?  Tell me why.  We can all learn from different points of view and I would be delighted to hear your thoughts.  Have a good story of your own?  Please do share!  Thanks for reading!

Missing Family Units & Search Stories

Write Your Own Search Stories! Let the next generation enjoy your heartfelt prose!

1930 Missing Family Group — Cletus Ward Strader

A cold February afternoon.  Icicles hanging long from the trees and spouting.  The white house across the street stark against a snow grey sky.   I know the world is moving out there beyond my office window.  I just don’t feel a part of it.  I’m cocooned among old photos with no names, documents with faded handwriting, and the oh-so-many mysteries of family genealogy.  Today I am bound and determined to solve one of those puzzles — where the heck is the census information for Cletus, Ina, and Mildred in 1930?  A cursory search on all three names on various genealogical sites came up empty.  It was time to put my sleuthing cap squarely on my head.

I have always lived in Pennsylvania; but, not so for Cletus (my grandfather), Ina (my grandmother), and Mildred Mozelle (my mother).  They were born, bred, and raised in Upshur County, West Virginia.  I’ve learned that when you are looking for a family group, go with what you know and allow room for error.  It is highly possible that for a ten year period, your missing family group might have moved to another state, and then moved back.  It can happen.

Try Logic First
Review what you know.  If you are a kinetic personality, you may like to set up a story bulletin board in your work area, or use 3×5 cards that you can move around on your desk when you are working on a particular family group.  Every person could represent the one key to success that you are looking for.  What you know about each of these individuals can help you to solve the mystery of the missing group.  In this case I only had three people to work with.  I considered what I knew:

1.  They all lived beyond 1930.  I knew my mother and grandmother, and was present when they passed in later years.  I also knew that Cletus died in West Virginia in 1944.  Therefore, all were alive in 1930.  Therefore, there should be a census record for them.

2.  My grandfather was a West Virginia coal miner.  I’d heard stories about his profession, and found that he worked in Century No. 2 mine according to his obituary.  In 1930 he was most likely in West Virginia.  A quick search for Century No. 2 mine, however, didn’t give me the location of the mine.  If I had to, I could go back to that and dig deeper.

3.  My mother was born in 1928, therefore I knew that the family group was most likely (notice I said, most likely) together in 1930.  Her birth certificate indicates Buckhannon, Upshur, West Virginia.  Given that they were all together in 1930 they may still be in Upshur County.  Unfortunately, the 1940 census records at the time of this search are not available.  I could, however, search business directories if necessary.

With these three facts in mind — my mother’s birthplace because the date was in close proximity to the census date, Cletus’ employment, and that they were all three living in the selected year — my focus should be on West Virginia first, Upshur County second, and possibly the Buckhannon district.  I then looked at the most unusual name of the three individuals.  Ina is an odd name, so is Cletus.  Mildred is common; but, throughout life she used her middle name as her first — Mozelle.  I’d already plugged in all four names in the search engines with no success.  I finally chose the head of household, Cletus Strader as my focus in reviewing the census records.

Perusing the 1930 Census

Using I went into the 1930 Census Collection and bypassed the individual search options as they previously didn’t hit.  Instead, I pulled up Upshur County and the districts associated with Buckhannon.  For two hours I searched line by line, checking every head of household entry.  I realized quickly why I couldn’t find my family unit — the handwriting was abysmal, the spelling was atrocious, and the condition of the document images was extremely faded.  No wonder I couldn’t find them in the general search!

As hour two slipped into hour three the sky outside my window blazed a birdie blue.  Sunlight now streamed across the white surface of the house across the street and the sound of melting snow and ice tapped its own beat on the sidewalk outside.  I was just about to take a break when, in Buckhannon District number 4, sheet 20 B, Upshur County, I found my family unit!  Whoopee!

Talk about a messy entry!  All three names were spelled incorrectly, and my mother was listed as Mazelle.  I shook my head.  Even the last name was spelled wrong, and the handwriting was so bad that in tracking back under individual records, I found the family unit listed as Anders — of course it wouldn’t come up in previous searches — the last name was totally different!  I’d been dealing with a faulty record to begin with and a transcription error on top of that.  I didn’t blame the transcription process — if I didn’t know what I was looking for, I would have probably made the same mistake.  Luckily, allows you to add transcription changes so that future folks can find the information easier.  On the other hand, I did mutter an explicative or two in regard to the enumerator’s handwriting and spelling abilities.  I wondered who that person knew back in 1930 in order to get the job in the first place.  Argh!

Collecting the Data

The best way to work with the census records is to use a blank form (you can get them for free at and copy the census information onto the form.  Yes, you can digitally copy or photocopy  the actual record (which I do) to your tree and put a hardcopy in your file without writing anything out; however, when you take the time to write each entry by hand you get to know the family unit better, see things that you might have ignored before, and have a legible copy as a bonus.  This process takes only a few minutes and allows quick eyeball review for information that can be used in later searches.  By the end of the day I’d added the information to all three individuals on my tree both on-line and in my hardcopy notebooks.

Search Story

By the end of the day, I was excited about what I’d found; but, when I tried to share the information with my family they were all just too busy.  Genealogy is a subject that you have to be enamored with to appreciate it.  Someone 2,000 miles away may congratulate you whole-heartedly on your success; but, the people you are doing it for, right under your nose, won’t put much import to it at the moment because their life cycle hasn’t brought them to the place where they are ready to quietly enjoy the mystery — and that’s okay.  As I cleared the table after that night’s supper I realized that whenever I showed my research to family members, all they saw were charts, data, old documents and perhaps some pictures.  There was nothing there to really bond them to the material.  All they saw were burgeoning notebooks filled with boring facts.  They needed a presentation, of sorts, to hold their focus.

I decided that I didn’t want to lose this moment of personal joy in solving just one piece of the puzzle that would be locked away in a musty notebook.  Instead, I wrote about it, and developed a new format for my genealogical books — pages that say:  Search Story, along with artwork and how I found the information.  It took a bit of ingenuity.  I worked with PhotoShop9 and Word2007 to create a background template that could be used for multiple stories, though I’ll change the theme per family generation to keep the book interesting.

To me, the journey is just as exciting as the mystery and I really wanted to share that with my family.  Someday, somewhere, someone will be delighted when they find these stories.  I probably won’t be around when their interest brings them here.

But, my stories will.

And that’s enough for me.

The Trouble With Harry

The Trouble With Harry
by Silver RavenWolf

When Mick and I first sat down together to work on his family history, I said, “Okay, let’s start with what you know.”  He listed the names of his mother and father, then the names of his grandparents, amended with “I believe.”

I frowned.  “What do you mean — you believe?  You don’t know?”

My husband grinned.  “Can’t you just plug their names in the computer and all sorts of good stuff pops up?”

I have this cocked eyebrow thing I do when I’m irritated?  Yeah.  I was doing that right then.

“Its not my fault,” he said defensively.  “My Dad’s father died before I was born and his wife passed away a few years after my first or second birthday.  I didn’t know them, so I’m just not sure.”

I sighed.  “And there isn’t anyone you can think of that you might be able to ask for more detailed information?”

“Nope.  We weren’t a particularly social family to begin with.  I do know that they lived in Wellsville — if that helps.”

I sat back in my chair, brain-wheels spinning as I tossed around genealogy sleuthing options.  “Okay, then,” I finally said, feeling a little more hopeful, “this shouldn’t be too hard.  At least we have a general time frame on when they passed away.  We’re talking about the early 1960’s, so they may be in the Social Security Death Index, and their obituaries should be available…somewhere.  Maybe the Bulletin — that paper serviced that area at that time…”

Thus began the search for the elusive Harry and Margaret.

The first option for us because of our lifestyle (busy) is always the internet, and that’s where we began.  Mick and I took turns searching for Harry and Margaret.  Although I love, without a decent birth or death date, there were no little leaves for us, just dried up sticks that lead to nowhere.  After seven paid-for on-line services, a plethora of free ones and a good twenty hours of searching we came up fairly empty handed.  Through on-line census records, we could trace Harry as a child and young adult, but came up empty handed after 1920.  The same for Margaret, stopping at 1930.  We moved on to other resources.  From a business directory listing in 1928 we discovered that, for a time, Harry was helping his Aunt Annie with the shoe business in Carlisle, which is most likely why he wasn’t with Margaret in 1930.  From we netted a few interesting articles on Harry.  On January 31, 1937, Harry was mugged and lost $100 and two checks, in 1951 his son was killed in a motorcycle accident, and in 1956 his grandson died in a trailer fire (another story).  In 1957 Harry went into the hospital for a few months and then was released.  Nothing after that.

The Social Security Death Index was a bust.  We discovered later that neither he nor Margaret appeared in that index because they didn’t collect any benefits.  I even called the funeral home that took care of his son, hoping for information.  They were less than helpful, promised to get back to me, and then never did.

At this point I was getting irritated.  I knew that Harry’s obit would get me the dates I needed and most likely his cemetery of eternal rest; but, not having either birth or death dates, trying to find that elusive little news item in the archives of the dailies at the county historical society would take me loads more time than I had.  I was hopeful that a weekly paper at the time might net us the information we needed, and so I pursued my original idea of The Bulletin, only to find out that some idiot at the library threw them away, and that the microfiche of this paper was supposedly at the town historical society.  When I asked to view the microfilm I was told that it was in such poor shape that I would have to go to the state archives.  At the state archives they told me they didn’t carry any newspapers and that I would have to go to the state library, which by the way was only open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday thanks to Pennsylvania state budget cuts, which had also hit the archives to the tune of dangling ceiling tiles, leaking roof and duck tape holding the women’s bathroom stalls together.  No kidding.

Needless to say, I was not a happy camper.

Had this been just any old ancestor, I probably wouldn’t have been so irritated (okay, so maybe I would have) but, it truly bothered me that this was my husband’s grandparents for pity’s sake, and he should be able to at least find the graves to give his respects if nothing else.

Finally, one night I sat down at the computer and said, “Harry.  Enough is enough.  It’s time to find you!”  I spent several hours cruising those same services I used before, hoping I’d missed something, when I happened across a message board.  Five years ago, someone in their quest for information on another person, mentioned Harry — and gave his birth and death date.  Whoopppeeee!  I was on a roll.  Where there was a Harry, there had to be a Margaret!

The following weekend, Mick and I drove to the York Historical Society.  While he headed off in a different search I asked a library helper what newspapers were available in Harry’s time period.  She led me to a cabinet and pulled out the York Gazette Daily (a newspaper I’d never heard of) handed me the microfiche and told me how to use the machine.  At first, I was elated because I found the obit; but, my heart sunk as I eagerly scanned the page.  The obituary didn’t state where Harry was buried and I could tell the family was totally unprepared for his death because the article indicated that place of internment had not been chosen.  I made a copy for our files, sighing as I plopped my fifty cents into the machine.  I felt like I was never going to find Harry (or Margaret).  What made it worse, Harry had the unmitigated gall to drop dead at 3:20 in the afternoon on a Friday.  Although York had a Saturday paper, they didn’t have a Sunday paper.  By Monday, Harry was old news, and his place of internment never made print.

I trudged out to the main room of the library.  “I’m going outside for a break,” I said to my husband.  He looked at me quizzically and followed after me.

“What’s the matter?” he asked after we got outside.  I leaned against the brick wall of the building and told him I’d found the obit; but, it had little to share.  Harry (and Margaret) were still among the missing.

He nodded and we just stood there, enjoying the beautiful day.  “You know,” he said, “when I was a kid, York had more than one newspaper.”

“The helper only showed me the one set of file cabinets,” I said.  “Maybe there was only one paper in that time period.”

“I don’t think so.  I’m sure I remember the Dispatch.  I never heard of the one you looked in.”

We talked about other things and then retreated back inside.  Once again, I headed for the microfiche room.  This time I examined all the file cabinets in the room.  Sure enough, there was a row that held the York Dispatch.  I pulled the fiche and once again slogged through the reel.

Bingo!  I found Harry, and I found where they laid him to rest. I was ecstatic!

In that moment I learned several valuable lessons in genealogy.  First, never give up.  Your ancestors, I think, take great pride in making you work for it.  Second — never take what you are told by anyone at face value (the helper only showed me one paper even though I had originally asked for all papers in that time period).  Third, not all newspapers run their obits, death and funeral notices in the same way.  For example, a death by injury often is posted as a news item that turns into an obituary all in the same article.  There are straight obits (one’s that you would expect) and many times a few days later Funeral Notices (that give less but can help just the same).   Dates of death and print dates of the event can vary widely.  If you can’t find the obit, always look a week before and two weeks after the death date, especially in the older papers.  And, finally, not all obits are printed the same — different newspapers due to press times, space, and policies may not share the same information.

With gusto I slapped my fifty cents into the machine with a big fat smile, printed my copy and peered at the obit.  I frowned.

I found Harry, alright, and I’d discovered where he was buried.  Prospect Hills.


Prospect Hills in York, Pennsylvania is a beautiful cemetery.  There is one small, teeny-tiny problem…it is super big.  It is a dillion times bigger than any cemetery I’ve ever seen.  You’d never be able to walk it and find someone in a day, let alone a few hours.  I trudged out into the library section with the obit dangling from my hand.

“Well?” asked Mick, looking up from a file.

“I found him.  But…”

“Don’t tell me…”

I nodded.  “Yep.  He’s in Prospect Hills.”

Mick laughed and shook his head.  “Now what?  We can’t walk that graveyard.  We just don’t have the time.  Its too big.”

“Right, ” I replied, “but we’re lucky that they are still operating and adding landscaping and monuments.  That means that they will have some type of record keeping.  Now we call Prospect Hills.  We will find Harry, and when we do, we’ll find Margaret and their headstone should tell me her date of death, and if we’re lucky, her birth year.  Then we can consider this bit of mystery closed!”

Lesson number ninehundredandfortythree — never assume anything in genealogy.

The people at Prospect Hills were marvelous on the phone.  After explaining that Harry was Mick’s grandfather, they pulled the card file and found him.  As a note, had Harry not been a direct family member the price for searching their records is $45.00 an hour.  “He’s in a plot that holds eight.  There are five family members there,” said the secretary enthusiastically.  “Come out on Friday and one of our employees will take you to the gravesite.  I see there’s a big headstone.  That’s nice.”

“You’ll escort us to the gravesite?” I asked in wonderment, thinking of all the hours Mick and I had already spent searching lonely, sun scorched graveyards this year in triple digit heat.

“Absolutely!” she said.  “The cemetery is very large, it is the least we can do.”

I was so excited that I forgot to ask who all rested in the plots before I hung up.  Maybe we would find Robert Francis, too.  He was the son who died in a motorcycle accident in 1951 and up until this point, we hadn’t been able to find where his estranged wife stuck him.  (And yes, there is a reason that I worded it just that way).

Bright and early Friday morning Mick and I headed for York.  I had my camera and notes (just in case) and felt a sense of accomplishment.  One mystery, I hoped, would finally be solved.  We would find Harry and Margaret, discover her birth and death dates, take a picture of their final resting place, record the information and move onto the next mystery (which was Robert Francis).  I smiled and my heart beat faster in anticipation of our accomplishment.  We drove into the well maintained circular driveway, met with the employee, and drove down the winding roads of Prospect Hills, surfing through a sea of tombstones.  Finally, we pulled over to the side of one of the long lanes and scrambled from Mick’s truck.  I almost dropped my camera I was so excited.  I chattered to Bill-the-employee as we walked, bringing him up to speed on our mystery of the elusive Harry and Margaret, which probably bored him to tears.

“Its over here,” said Bill, holding a piece of paper and pointing to the back of a large headstone as we hurried to the gravesite.  I rounded the stone and stood there blinking.  What the?  This was the headstone of Mick’s great grandparents, not his grandparents.  I looked around at the nearby stones.  They all represented other families.  I stared, simply not comprehending.  No Harry.  No Margaret.

Don’t get me wrong, we were happy to find his great grandparents, but…where the heck was Harry?  Margaret?  Mick looked crestfallen.  My camera dangled limply in my hand as I looked from the tombstone to Mick, to Bill-the-employee, and back to the tombstone.

Bill reviewed his paper.  “Wait,” he said, “they are here.”  He held out the paper which showed a neat diagram of the original purchase and indicated who was where.  Harry was there.   So was Margaret.  In unmarked graves.  And I happened to be standing on Harry.  Ooops.  I took a step back and smiled weakly.

Mick closed his eyes and opened them again.  I knew what he was thinking.  Why hadn’t any of Harry’s children stepped up to the plate and put in headstones for them, or at least footers?  “You know,” Mick said sadly, “if we had come out here alone, on our own, and even found this grave, we would never have known that my grandparents were in here.  We would have believed we somehow made a mistake in our research.”

I knew there was nothing I could say, and Bill obviously didn’t know what to say either — so, we just stood there in silence.  Finally, Bill handed me the paper and said, “You can keep this.  It has the dates the family members were interred.  This will help you find his grandmother’s obituary.”  Oh!  So he had been listening!

I nodded and examined the paper.  “Robert isn’t here,” I said to Mick.  “Just your grandparents, your great grandparents and one of your great aunts.  No Robert.”  Silly me thinking we could knock out two mysteries with one tombstone.

Bill offered to look in the cemetery records to see if he could find Robert; but, I already knew Robert wasn’t there.  I had an idea of what happened in that scenario, and now wasn’t the time to discuss it.  Bill gracefully extricated himself from us and hurried off to escort another family.  Mick and I hung around, giving him time to sort out his feelings.  I took pictures of the gravesite for our records, then wandered up the hill and took other photographs (I collect pics of interesting statues and tombstones) and found my first DAR medallion.  After a bit Mick caught up with me.  “You know I’m not happy that they didn’t bother to mark the graves.”

I sighed.  “Yeah, I know.”

“But, at least we know where they are and have the right dates.  We can swing around tomorrow at the historical society and pull my grandmother’s obit.  Maybe later we can think about marking these graves.  Ask a few questions.  Get a few quotes.  Is that okay with you?”

“Fine by me.”

Smiling, he said, “When I was looking on-line?  I found quite a few Boeckels in here.  Let’s drive around.  See who we can dig up!”

I shook my head and checked my camera batteries.  The hunt was on again.

Your Journey is Just as Important

Let the future know about you!

Your Journey is Just as Important!
by Silver RavenWolf

Traveling through time to unearth your family connections can conjure a wide range of emotions — curiosity, frustration, elation, disappointment, amazement, and even shock (on occasion).  Once you solve a particular mystery, a new one surely follows.  Personal history research often moves into local, political, and national events in your quest to understand and honor those who have gone before you. For example, in looking for an obituary in the early 1920’s you may run across articles on health epidemics, ads for clothing styles, and what the greatest invention of the year might be.  A window to the past opens beyond the confusing labyrinth of names and dates — of far too many Jacob’s, Mary’s, Daniel’s and Catherine’s who didn’t have the common decency to be creative in naming their children, and secondly who never thought to leave some sort of record so that I would know, in 2010, who was related to whom in 1836!  The nerve!

And that’s my point.  In 2184 someone will be looking back at the research you’ve done (provided you file it in more than one historical society and keep home records — never can be too careful) .  Not only will they be reviewing your work about the Jacob’s, Mary’s and Catherine’s in 1836, they will be wondering about you.  Are you making some sort of journal, record, or diary of where you traveled, who you spoke to, how you felt in your quest to build your pedigree?  Truly, the effort you spend on your research is just as historically significant as the lives you are attempting to piece together.

Don’t be shy!  Even if you only take notes, go ahead and scatter a little of your day-to-day life in the margins, or write a journal page in that composition book you dedicated for collecting pieces of information.  Go ahead and share your feelings.  Let the future know that you searched for three months to find Harry, or had to drive 200 miles just to get a death date for Elizabeth, or how you felt when you found your grandmother’s birth certificate shoved under a box filled with old canning jars that were headed for recycling.  That’s all a part of history, too!  Did you have to stop your sleuthing because you went camping with the family, or landed a great new job that ate up more hours than you anticipated, or perhaps you exhausted a particular line of information and just don’t know where to turn next?  Your journey, your life, your feelings are just as important in the tapestry of your genealogy experience as the names, dates, and other information you work so hard to reconstruct!

Have someone take pictures of you while researching and be sure to add them to a section in each of the books or files you may be building.  When working on each family unit, why not write down your experiences in diary form?  Add current information and how current events or your feelings affected your research.  Talk about the questions you have, how you found this source or that.  Show us the person that cared enough to retrieve and share the past.  Let the future see and hear the author that is you!

Ode to Annie

In my mind’s eye, I can see Annie.  Disheveled.  Wandering the halls of her modest, Carlisle home.  Cotton nightgown catching on a stair tread.  The wooden floor boards creaking under her frigid bare feet as she drifts from room to room.  Upstairs.  Down.  The porch.  Back again.  December snow falls softly beyond the black window panes.  She carries a burning candle, yet she doesn’t really see the stuttering light.  She doesn’t need to.  She knows these walls.  This furniture.  Those pictures.  “Burn it, burn it all,” she whispers.  “Down to the sticks.  Down to the bones.  They’re dead.  They’re dead.  They aren’t coming home.”

It will happen to you, you know.  You’ll be chugging along in your research and someone will reach up from the grave, and capture your heart.  Suddenly, you’ll have a driving psychological need to discover everything you can about that person.  You won’t sleep.  You’ll stop doing a present-time important thing to jump back in the past to put the pieces together.  You’ll bond with another’s life without ever speaking to them.

Annie began as an innocuous character in the vast array of the Trayer/Drayer family.  Not in the direct line, she was a figure that popped up as we went wide, hoping to piece together my husband’s sketchy lineage.  We didn’t realize, at first, just how pivotal a part Annie played in our data collection.  Just as in her life, so she became in our research – the glue that held an entire family together.  And the last woman standing that picked up the pieces when it all blew apart.

1928.  Annie Trimmer is married to William Henry Trayer, and she is the head of a large household in the city of Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  Her husband, William, a recovered polio victim, has a successful shoe business that he shares with his father.  Annie’s days are filled with numerous tasks, including the management of eight children, ages ranging from early twenties to under ten.  According to the previous census, Annie’s only daughter has moved out of the house.  Annie is manning the helm of this all male family without servants (none listed in the census) and is now saddled with taking care of her father-in-law who has temporarily moved in with them.  This alone earns Annie a gold star.  Yet, the year from hell is about to unfold.

I wonder what New Year’s Day, 1928 was like for Annie.  The previous year, Samuel, her brother-in-law, passed away.  A veteran of the Spanish-American War, they buried him beside his mother, Harriet, out in New Kingston.  Did Annie think at all of Samuel and his early passing as the clock struck the New Year?  Did she ponder the nature of life and death as she prepared the dinner for her large family?  Did she have any inkling at all what 1928 would bring?

Annie’s life came together for us a little bit at a time.  A marriage date here.  A church record there…births of her children as the census years marched along.  She became a person of interest when we realized that her father-in-law, Daniel, a direct-line relative,  moved in with her family in 1920 even though he kept his own residence.  To us, this meant he must be sick or in poor health.  As we unearthed the 1930 census we realized that something had gone terribly wrong.  We couldn’t find William (her husband), or Daniel, Sr., or even Annie.  What the heck happened?

Many times in working with census records we’ve discovered just how unreliable they can be.  For some reason, no one seemed to be able to spell or speak the name “Trayer”.  In fact, to date we’ve found fifteen derivations (including Grayer) and we’re still counting.  So, at first, we figured that someone screwed up  on the census… again.

That was before I started moving hell and high water to pull obits.  By the time I was done, I’d joined two news services and spent hours on the microfiche machine at the historical society.  My tenacity did not go unrewarded.  The story of Annie unfolded obit by obit, copy by copy, grave by grave.  I gained an unending respect for this woman.  And I felt her pain.

In February of 1928, Annie’s husband, William passed away.  This had to have been an incredible shock to the entire family.  Fine one week, dead of pneumonia the next.  Annie’s widow’s vendue shows a complete inventory of the household and business.  It appears that one of William’s brothers came to live with the family for a short time to assist either in running the business or in selling off the stock and equipment.  Unfortunately, for Annie, it just gets worse.  In March of 1928 a headline hits the Carlisle Evening Sentinel – Man Shoots Himself in Head.  One of Annie’s sons, distraught over his father’s death and estranged from his wife (he’s in arrears in his child support) dispatches himself from this life in Annie’s front hallway with a shotgun.  Funeral number two.

In the late spring of 1928, Annie’s sister passes away.  Although she is not living in Annie’s home, this had to be traumatic and makes funeral number three.  Funeral number four occurs in October – a sister-in-law which completely scatters that family.  Funeral number five, her father-in-law’s brother, hits December 9th.  December 11th, Daniel, her father-in-law is found dead in her upstairs bed.  By this sixth funeral, Annie doesn’t have enough money to pay for it, and the burden is assuaged with the help of Daniel’s daughter, as shown on the records from the funeral home.  Annie drops Daniel Sr. in the family plot in New Kingston without a headstone.  In early 1929, Annie loses one of her infant grandchilden to influenza.  In all, Annie has suffered through eight funerals in a little over a year, the loss of the family income, her emotional security, and most likely, her sanity.

When we visited the original address we found the house was gone, and half the house beside it was also missing – as if a fire took it.

For weeks I thought about Annie.  Where had she gone?  What happened to her children?  In 1928, her youngest was only seven or eight years old.  How she must have struggled!  When I couldn’t find Annie in the census or church records I feared that she, too, had crossed beyond the veil in that terrible year.  My husband and I double checked the cemetery in New Kingston.  Although Daniel was buried there (another story), and Samuel, his son, and Jacob his brother, and Harriet, his wife… no William.  No son Daniel.  No Annie.

Late one night as I was surfing through I found a reference to Annie from someone’s family tree.  An Annie Trimmer that lived until 1950.  Was this the same Annie?  I hoped so.  I would like to think that Annie was afforded some peace, some joy in successive years.  Back to the historical society we went.  I vowed I would find Annie.  I didn’t.

Searching through the cemetery records, however, I did find William.  Armed with camera, chalk, and a scrub brush, we drove to the listed cemetery.  “Let’s use the side entrance,” said my husband.  “I think it will be easier to pull the truck in that way.”  He drifted about 500 feet onto the black, cemetery  macadam  and cut the engine.

I glanced to the left, just to take in our surroundings and uttered a screech of surprise.  There she was, my Annie, right smack beside the side entrance we’d chosen to use.  I know it sounds stupid, but I ran to the headstone and sunk to my knees before it.  “Annie!  I found you,” I cried, gently fingering the carved letters of the date of her death – 1950.

“Let’s see if there are other Trayer’s here,” said my husband, enthused that we’d finally found Annie.  We discovered several more around her.  She must have used money from sale of the business in 1928 to buy a number of plots.  William, her husband, son Daniel who killed himself, his  grown daughter, and other grown children of William’s were clustered around my Annie.  We were so excited that we decided to walk the cemetery, to see if there were any more.  In front of us stood a large building, and we really didn’t think much about it.  My husband took the left side of the cemetery and I took the right, thinking that the bulk of the graves were in the front of the building.  I rounded the corner first and stopped dead in my tracks.  The cemetery stretched for…forever!  Tombstones as far as the eye could see, and then flags and flat stones beyond that.  Had we used any other entrance we may never have found Annie.  Stunned, I turned in the hundred degree heat, a massive chill enfolding my shoulders.   “Thank you, Annie,” I whispered.  “Thank you.”

I don’t know why I bonded with Annie.  She isn’t even my relative; yet, somehow, through time and space, although years and death stretch between us without the possibility of ever speaking, a connection has grown.  And I wondered, as I stood there, could I pray for Annie now?  They say time is not linear.  Was I somehow tuning in on Annie’s pain?  Was she wandering those ghostly halls or rocking on sore knees, asking the Divine for help?  Could I stand here and send her my love?  Would she feel it?  If I really believed, could the barrier between 2010 and 1928 melt away – just for a moment?  Or was dead really dead and gone very gone?

Screw the philosophical questions, I thought, and prayed my heart out.

If it wasn’t for Annie, there is a lot we wouldn’t know.  She was instrumental in filling out the paperwork of the times that filtered down to us, that lead us further in many directions of our genealogy research.  Although it seems like such a pain  to work with indirect lines in your family, now and then you’ll meet an Annie.  And when you do?  Your physical reward may be facts and figures; but, you’ll reap something far more important — a strange and loving connection that lives beyond the grave.

Thanks, Annie.

In the Beginning…

Lottie's Reminder

“I’m bored,” said Marlene.

“Me too,” I replied, and then concentrated on my soup.  I hadn’t seen Marlene in…geeze…ten years?  Okay, I’d run into her around town, said a few words; but, I’d gone my way and she hers.  Once upon a time we were good friends.  Life, kids, spouses, work… got in the way.  And then, a week ago, she called me and said something about lunch.   So.  Here we were.  Eating lunch at the local diner.  Catching up.

It wasn’t so much that I was bored.  Exactly.  I felt…adrift.  A tad angry.  And old!  I was staring my 55th birthday in the face, three of my grown children had long left the nest, with the fourth one  (presently eating lunch with us) still hanging in there, trying to find his way in this gawd-awful economy.  When he graduated five years ago, I thought my husband and I were finally free to do the things we wanted to do.  I was euphoric that I no longer had to be so darned responsible every moment of my waking life.  In that same month, my father became ill, was hospitalized, somewhat recovered, and walked smack into Alzheimers.  Although its not right — my anger at my circumstances boiled — that my career had been derailed by the needs of others.


By the time Marlene called for that fateful lunch I was monitoring medication, cooking full meals, doing laundry, playing cabbie for doctor appointments — flap hand, yada — for my 84-year-old father who simply refused to do anything for himself.  We’d just gotten over a major fight because he insisted on pissing in a bucket instead of walking ten paces to the bathroom.  He didn’t see the sense in using the brand new toilet if the bucket was at hand.  I won the battle; but, carried emotional wounds and the near miss memory of a swinging cane.  Although my husband of thirty years was sympathetic, he’d long since retreated to the television on a daily basis as soon as he got home from work, nurturing his own frustration in the boob tube escape.  I felt like an unappreciated, old biddy servant who’d be better off dead.

Yeah, bored was a good catch-all word — and then some.

“I’m thinking of taking a genealogy course,” said Marlene.  “I’ve been doing it for years; but, I’m sure I could learn something new.  The local historical society is giving a class.  Its forty bucks — six weeks.”

“You know,” said my son.  “You two should do something together.  You really need to get out of the house more, Mom.”

Hmmm.  Ain’t that the truth.

“Why not go to class with me?” asked Marlene.  “I’ll even come and pick you up.”

“I don’t know…” I hesitated.

“I think its a great idea,” encouraged my son.  “You should do it!”

I could feel my right eyebrow raise.  Genealogy?  Okay, so I knew that meant looking into your family history.   I knew some things about my family, especially my father’s side — my mother’s side was a different story and I’d always been curious…

“Oh come on,” wheedled Marlene.  “We’ll have fun!”

Had I but known.

We waited about a month for the class to start, which gave me plenty of time to prep my husband and father.  Hubby was great about it — not so my father.  At the time, whenever my father knew I was going somewhere he would have “spells” — sometimes they were angry outbursts, sometimes he would just collapse on the floor (no, not writhe or black out — just plop down), and other times he would push my buttons with well placed words of complaint.  However, I remained firm.  I was going to that class if it killed me because my lifestyle was certainly murdering my brain now!  Oh, did I mention that my father is OCD?  Yeah — mix that with Altzheimers and see what sort of puppy you get.

The night of my first class came and my father decided he would take three hours to eat his dinner (he usually takes two — no kidding).  He played with his food as much as possible so I couldn’t clear the table before I left.  When Marlene came to the door he tried to brain the dog with his cane, screaming at me that some woman was on the porch.   I gave my husband a look of quiet thanks, grabbed my notebook and literally fled.

In the next six weeks my father calmed down about my leaving, resigned I guess, that there would be a time or two that I would be unavailable for a few hours.  Every week my husband would make a of point of helping me gather my genealogy gear and usher me out the door.  Marlene and I had a great time.  Suddenly, around week five, I noticed I wasn’t so angry with my life any more.  By week six I knew how to spell the word genealogy, bought the Family Tree computer program, and had 235 people in my tree.  I worked on my tree, at first, on the weekends and about once a week — building, documenting, and researching.

Throughout the genealogy course my husband asked me if I’d started his tree yet.  At the time I snorted, because although he was supportive, he had no real clue how much work it was.  He was just happy that I was becoming a human being again, and I think that he thought that if I finished my tree I would go back to the old me.  Understandable.

When our class ended, Marlene didn’t want to give up our weekly time together.  “Why not meet at my office (she owns several businesses),” she said.  “Let’s keep going!”  She asked a few others in the class if they would like to participate, and they agreed.  Marlene is an excellent researcher and I owe her a great deal.  Not only did she provide the means to pull me out of my mental muck, she gave me tons of good advice on just about everything on the subject of genealogy.

In the following weeks I bought a subscription to , , and .  I was really getting into this new genealogy thang.  In honor of Marlene, I bought the rights to my website — (Marlene’s father among other things, was a grave digger, and his father before him).  I didn’t exactly know what I was going to build; but, I knew I wanted to build it.   Marlene took me on my first historical society archive trip, and I found a gold mine of information.  I was revved — there’s no doubt about it.

One weekend, my husband drove me all over the county on a Sunday afternoon looking for one particular old church so I could get photos of a few of my ancestors graves.  When we got back he said, “When are you going to work on my tree?”

Ohhhhh.  “Soon.”  Uh-huh.

Later that week my husband said, “I’m bored.  All I do is sit and watch television when I get home.  Everyone else is going places and doing things… and I’m not.”

I felt really bad.  “Give me some names,” I said, “and we’ll start your tree.”

Had he but known.

I’m delighted to say that we  began a whole new and exciting chapter in our marriage.  Genealogy gave us both something different to explore, time together, good conversations, and a common interest other than my father and our children.  Recently, we joined Find A Grave, and have started to take pictures for others across the country.  This blog is about our adventures, the mysteries we ran into (and continue to wrestle with), things we have learned, and hopefully…just cool stuff about genealogy.  Our website is still in its infancy and we hope that as we grow, it too, will grow in interesting material and content.  Don’t worry, we didn’t leave Marlene behind.  You’ll be reading about her, too.

Come join our crew — the GraveDigger Genealogy gang.  We’d love to have you travel the road of ancestral history with us.  The more the merrier!

Post Navigation


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.