Maybe it’s because the internet didn’t become part of my life until I was well into adulthood, but I still believe it’s magical. And that’s been proven again and again in my family history research. Sometimes the magic is random, and sometimes it’s been the result of methodical research, but either way, the information and contacts that have come to light feel like gifts that have fallen from the sky.
My grandfather, William Edward Stephenson (1910-2004), was born and raised in Augusta, Kansas. His dad, Richard W. Stephenson (1874-1960), started a men’s clothing store in town around the 1910s, and Bill’s older brother Paul Noble Stephenson (1902-1972) and his wife Dorothy continued the business until about the 1960s. I wrote a post about Grandpa Bill and his younger brother, Clark (1911-1994), and their high school and college yearbooks here.
On a whim this week, I did a search on WordPress for Augusta, Kansas. No particular reason. And what popped up was a bunch of blog posts by crittersandcats/Dave, who shares stories for his kids and grandchildren about growing up in Augusta in the ’40s and ’50s.
As if it wasn’t enough for me to get some local flavor for a place I’d only visited a couple of times, Dave answered my comment by sharing that he’d known my family and had written a story including Uncle Paul, Aunt Do, and their son, my dad’s cousin Dick!
Back in the 1950’s, we had a men’s clothing store in Augusta, Kansas. It was owned and operated by Paul Stephenson as Stephenson’s Men’s Clothing. The store was located on the east side of the 500 block of State Street, nestled up against the Prairie State Bank, on its north and Mamie Hall’s book store on the south. Paul and his wife (only 60 years and I’ve forgotten her name) were in the store every day, well dressed and professional but friendly in demeanor. Their son, Dick, was a classmate of mine. Dick and I graduated in 1954 and I went to work and I think Dick headed for the University of Kansas. The following year, I was going to attend a wedding and needed a new suit. I went down to Stephenson’s and Paul fitted me with a new outfit and his wife set me up with a lay-away plan to pay for it. Those were the last dealings I had with the Stephenson family.
Dave goes on to write about an unplanned landing in Guam in 1959, where he bumped into Dick, who was by then an ensign in the Navy. Small world!
The moral of the story is: Methodical research is all well and good, but don’t forget that serendipity also plays a part. Indulge yourself in the obscure Google search. See if somebody has written a blog post about your grandfather’s small home town, or the tiny school your great grandmother attended, or the newspaper your great great grandfather published. Surprise connections sometimes fall from the sky. There IS magic. (And thank you, Dave!)
P.S. Dick had won my heart as a five year old (just a few years after Dave’s story) when he came to visit, looking quite dashing in his Navy uniform. He pulled out a guitar and sang to me. “The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night” has been a favorite folk song of mine ever since…
I managed to spend more time than usual frolicking in my family research this year, including a trip to England in August and a road trip through family-related places in Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina in March. The research was a refuge and escape from other worries at times, and the travel and people I connected with were pure magic. Genealogy was definitely a highlight of my 2019, with a few particularly special discoveries and experiences.
A brick wall came tumbling down; never seen photos emerged; I visited a cousin in England and made contact with several cousins I hadn’t known about; I walked in places where my ancestors spent their days. My plan was to blog about each of these, but most of those posts are still drafts… Goals for 2020!
OliversandOliphants – Finding the father of my born-out-of-wedlock 2nd great grandfather, David Oliver (my mother’s family name), has long been a challenge, and the discovery of DNA matches named Oliphant helped redirect my search. Thanks to the help of a great new online community, Walk My Past (see below), the mystery has been solved. David Oliver’s father, my 3rd great grandfather, was George Oliphant (1827-1904) from Bower, Caithness, Scotland. And… I found a photograph of the place he was living at the end of his life!
James Mills and Maria Milnes Photos – I’ve always had a fair amount of information on Granny’s (Elsie Mills, 1899-1993) maternal family, but not much on her father’s side. So far I’ve only turned up one blurry passport photograph of her father, James Mills (1863-1925). And then this unexpected gift! An Ancestry member posted a pair of photos from a family album–Granny’s grandparents, James Mills (1824-1904) and Maria Milnes (1825-1892). It was remarkable to see their faces and especially to discover how much my Granny looked like her grandmother.
Living Cousins – 2019 brought re-connection and first contact with close-ish cousins in England, Scotland, New Mexico, Texas, and New York. Some were through DNA matching and others through more old-fashioned methods. It turns out that a childhood friend is a 10th cousin (thank you, Ancestry DNA) and a friend from college is a 9th cousin. Best of all, I spent a lovely afternoon with my Mum’s first cousin in London. Another goal for 2020 is to be in contact with more cousins.
Ackworth School – Oh, my, what a thrill this was! In August I arranged to spend a day visiting Ackworth School in West Yorkshire, exploring the buildings, and poring through the archival material collected for me by Celia Wolfe, the school’s kind and incredibly knowledgeable archivist. I won’t spoil the post that I really, truly do still plan to write, but the short version is that I strolled the campus where my great grandmother, Emily Wright (1865-1954) was born and spent most of her childhood, where her parents worked, and where her ancestors on both sides and her siblings were students from 1780 through the late 19th century. The original buildings and grounds of this Quaker boarding school are little changed, so it felt like they could have been right there, walking the halls and pathways with me.
And there were photographs of students and teachers, including lots of wonderful images of Emily Wright and her parents, Mary Ann Deane (1841-1884) and Alfred Wright (1831-1901). The Quakers are precise record keepers, so there were documents rich in details about many family members. Proper blog post to follow!
Pennsylvania/Virginia/North Carolina Road Trip – A spur of the moment driving trip in March took me first to Sunbury, Pennsylvania, in the Susquehanna River Valley, north of Harrisburg, where I researched my Miller and Deppen ancestors. Thanks to the helpful folks at the Northumberland County Historical Society, I learned that my 4th great grandfather, John Miller (1774-1821), is said to have drowned in the Susquehanna River while checking his flooded land on the Isle of Que. The tiny island is one half mile wide and 5.5 miles long, part of Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania on the west side of the river. I paid a quiet visit to that shore at dusk.
Next stop was Staunton, Virginia, where James and Maria (Milnes) Mills settled around 1870. I took a whirlwind tour of Trinity Church, where the family worshiped; Thornrose Cemetery, with a sizable Mills family plot beneath a majestic magnolia tree. Census records and city directories provided me with the addresses of several family homes, so I was able to find where James and Maria lived during their later years with some of their children.
The North Carolina leg of my road trip took me to Davidson County in search of late 18th to mid-19th century graves of my Owen, Bodenhamer and Goss ancestors. It was a bit of a wild goose chase. Visits to the Abbott’s Creek Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery, Reeds Baptist Church Cemetery, and Becks Reformed Church Cemetery led me to graves of some collateral ancestors, but no direct ones. But the bonus was some exceptional decorative gravestones–well worth a quick visit!
Walk My Past – A new resource for genealogists appeared on the scene this year when amateur genealogist Abbie Allen decided to create Walk My Past, a website where people could easily offer or request help with their family history. The idea is simple– volunteer “genies” are available to help with requests for information, cemetery photos, or a trip to a nearby archive. With willing helpers scattered across the globe, it gives access to information that can be out of reach otherwise. There are now 187 genies in 14 countries and the numbers are growing. Definitely worth checking it out!
And I’m the happiest of users. A kind-hearted “genie”, Meredith Cane of Revill McKay, Scotland, saw my request for help tracking down the answer to my Oliver/Oliphant mystery. She was already working in Scottish records for that region, and was able to identify my 3rd great grandfather, George Oliphant. Hoorah!
There’s my 2019 in a very large nutshell. Now, onward to 2020 and new adventures.