About Scott Phillips

Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. Scott specializes in immigrant ancestry, especially from Bohemia (Czech Republic), Cornwall, the United Kingdom, and Italy. In addition to GenealogyBank.com, Scott has been recently published by Ohio Genealogy Society, National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library, Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International, SaveEllisIsland.com, MyHeritage.com, and Greater Cleveland Genealogical Society. He was a presenter at the 2012 World Congress of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences in Slovakia. You can follow Scott on his Facebook page at OnwardToOurPast and on his website/blog at OnwardToOurPast.

‘Oh Christmas Tree’: History of Christmas Trees, Lights & Décor

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott searches through old newspapers to see how Christmas tree lights and decorations have changed over the years.

As genealogists and family historians, I do not need to tell you that the Christmas season is one filled with traditions, family, and memories. One of the first Christmas memories I have is of our Christmas tree. In our home when I was growing up, Santa brought the tree on Christmas Eve—which made Christmas morning all the more magnificent and magical to a child!

I recall inspecting the Christmas tree, every light and every ornament. On our Christmas tree were a few very special, antique ornaments. These were Christmas ornaments which had a small candleholder on their tops and wax drippings on them. As I eyed these I would always make my parents and grandparents recount how Christmas trees of their youth were decorated with real candles rather than electric lights, and every year I begged for us to please do candles like in the old days.

A Little Family Christmas Secret

Every Christmas Eve, when my family would go to my Nana and Gramps Phillips’ house to celebrate Christmas with them, I always got a very special Christmas treat! When everyone was in other rooms, Gramps would secretly take me with him to their tree, pull a small wax candle out of his pocket, put it on one of the old ornaments, and light it for me. To this day I don’t know whose smile was bigger, his or mine. But I do know this: that memory is just one of the many reasons that I loved my Gramps so very dearly!

Lights, Christmas, Action!

Recently as I was researching an ancestor in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, I decided to look for more information on the venerable Christmas tree and its decorations, especially how we have lighted trees over the generations for our viewing pleasure.

photo of author Scott Phillips and his Christmas tree

Photo: Scott Phillips and his family’s Christmas tree. Credit: from the author’s collection.

Christmas Traditions with Pagan Origins?

I must admit I was surprised when one of my initial discoveries was an article from a 1920 newspaper about how pagan some Christmas traditions are. This article actually made me laugh since it seems it could have been in one of today’s newspapers. But I moved on in my Christmas tree history investigation!

Much Paganism in Observance of Christmas, Charlotte Observer newspaper article 24 December 1920

Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina), 24 December 1920, page 1

Then I came across a 1908 article in my old hometown newspaper, the Plain Dealer. This old news article interviewed several ministers who were all in favor of trying to discourage the common practice of decorating Christmas trees with lit candles.

Christmas Tree Candles Hard Hit, Plain Dealer newspaper article 29 July 1908

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 29 July 1908, page 12

Real Candles on Christmas Trees

However, (and I SO wish that I had known about this next article when, as a child, I would make my annual plea for candles on our tree), I found a wonderful, full-page story from a 1908 newspaper titled “Watching for an Expected Guest.” This historical newspaper article included dozens of stories about Christmas traditions around the world, such as “Worship at Cross of Ice” and “In the Realm of the Czar.” But it was an item at the bottom of the page titled “The Christmas Tree” that caught my eye:

“Wax candles are the only real thing for a Christmas tree, candles of wax that mingle their perfume with that of the burning fir, not the by-product of some coal-oil or other abomination. What if the boughs do catch fire? They can be watched, and too many candles are tawdry, anyhow.”

Oh, how I would have used this as “ammunition” in my fight for candles on our tree!

Watching for an Expected Guest [Santa Claus], Repository newspaper article 13 December 1908

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 13 December 1908, page 43

An Old Christmas Quiz

Then I made a really fun newspaper discovery! It was an article from a 1983 newspaper titled “A Christmas Quiz.” If you love Christmas like I do, then you have to look this one up and take this awesome 25-question Christmas quiz!

While I didn’t score well on the Christmas quiz, I did learn a lot and one of the questions I did get correct was #11; “Which American President was the first to decorate the White House tree with electric lights?” Do you know who it was? It was Grover Cleveland and at that time (1895) he made a big push for families to switch to electric lights on all Christmas trees. By the way, since GenealogyBank.com has complete editions of its historical newspapers, you can jump to the next page of the Oregonian and check your answers—but no cheating! Remember Santa knows who is “naughty” and who is “nice”!

A Christmas Quiz, Oregonian newspaper article 25 December 1983

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 25 December 1983, page 98

Electrocution by Electric Christmas Lights

Next up I found another article that I could have used in my childhood campaign against electric lights on our Christmas tree—and this was a safety issue I remember. This 1959 newspaper article reported a warning about the new all-aluminum Christmas trees that had just been introduced. It turns out they posed a potential risk of electrocution if electric lights were used on them.

Warning Is Given: New [Aluminum] Christmas Tree Is Electrical Hazard, Springfield Union newspaper article 2 December 1959

Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 2 December 1959, page 2

The One Blown Bulb

I finally found what could have been a real winner in my candle crusade when I read an article from a 1920 newspaper. This article, while extolling the virtues of electric lights over “small wax candles,” did explain the difficulties of working with lights wired in “series.” You remember those: if one bulb went out, then the whole string went dark. Oh, my father (God rest his soul) would recall those lights I am sure! I can still hear him “discussing” this issue with the darkened string of lights. I bet if I had only asked right then, he would have acquiesced to my plea for candles!

New Christmas Tree Lights, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 12 December 1920

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 12 December 1920, section: Feature, page 6

Asbestos for Christmas?

Then I discovered even more support for my argument when I read this article from a 1913 newspaper. The very first sentence offered this advice:

“Asbestos snow for the Christmas tree and asbestos whiskers for Santa himself are part of the latest advice from the fire department.”

You see even the experts can be wrong!  Asbestos whiskers for Jolly Old St. Nick? Perhaps using reverse psychology, I could have wheedled those candles onto our tree.

Remember That X'Mas Trees, Easily Ignited, Often Bring Death through Carelessness, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 21 December 1913

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 21 December 1913, page 8

Bubble Christmas Tree Lights

Then my entire imaginary crusade for real candles on the Christmas tree fell apart when I discovered this advertisement in a 1947 newspaper article. It offered for sale my very favorite Christmas tree light of them all: the venerable “Bubble Light”! For only $3.98 I could get a whole set described as:

“NOMA BUBBLE LIGHTS for your Christmas tree…novel idea—the lights bubble and flicker like real candles and seem to make the tree dance with joy…nine lights, each 5 in. tall in assorted colors…special clip for fastening to tree…3.98

ad for Christmas tree bubble lights, San Diego Union newspaper advertisement 7 December 1947

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 7 December 1947, page 9

As you can see from this photo, I still adore bubble lights and have this one as a night light in my own home.

photo of a bubble nightlight

Photo: bubble nightlight. Credit: from the author’s collection.

NOMA & Christmas Lights

By the way, the San Diego Union article rekindled another Christmas memory. The NOMA label on Christmas lights was something I well remember my mother and father referring to when shopping for Christmas lights. NOMA (the National Outfit Manufacturers’ Association) began as a trade association and morphed into almost a monopoly on Christmas lights.

New NOMA X'Mas Lights, Oregonian newspaper article 20 December 1949

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 20 December 1949, page 14

You can read more about NOMA and Christmas lights history at this Library of Congress webpage.

Thinking about my love of bubble lights, I guess some things can change for the better; I can live without candles on my Christmas tree after all, as long as I have bubble lights!

Merry Christmas everyone—and now I have to go put the lights on our Christmas tree!

5 ‘Must-Haves’ on a Genealogist’s Dream Christmas Gift List

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott lets his imagination loose and dreams up five fantastical genealogy gifts he’d like to receive this Christmas.

As lovers of genealogy and our families’ history there are two things we can all take for granted: the first is that we are always on Santa’s “Nice List,” and the second is that there are always a multitude of new gadgets, books, and gizmos that we put on our list for Santa when this festive time of year rolls around. One of my very favorite Christmas gifts was from my wife, and was a “one-a-day” genealogy calendar with this quote on January 1st: “I used to have a life and then I started doing genealogy!”

Recently, while I was searching through GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, I got into the Christmas spirit—and I spent some time thinking about what my Genealogy Dream List for Santa would be if I ever got on the Jolly Old Elf’s special list: the one titled “These genealogists were SO nice they get whatever they want—money is no object!”

These are my five dream genealogy gifts, inspired by newspaper articles I read:

Ground-Penetrating Radar Unit

  • My own Ground-Penetrating Radar Unit for those cemeteries I visit that are not very well marked or not marked at all. Cost: around $40,000—but I am only asking for one! You see I was reading an article in a 2005 Vermont newspaper that told the story of some local folks using ground-penetrating radar to try and locate Native American remains.

Abenaki Remains Lie in Alburg, page 1, St. Albans Daily Messenger newspaper article 19 December 2005

Abenaki Remains Lie in Alburg, page 2, St. Albans Daily Messenger newspaper article 19 December 2005

St. Albans Daily Messenger (St. Albans, Vermont), 19 December 2005, pages 1-2

Google Street View Car

  • How about a Google Street View Vehicle with a camera for viewing any place on earth when I want to see where my ancestors used to live? Cost: Google headquarters did not return my call asking for their pricing for one of these vehicles—but I am sure, dear Santa, you have all the clout you need, even with Google, to make this happen. After reading an article in a 2008 Illinois newspaper, I decided to add this vehicle to my list. By the way Santa, I hope you are up-to-date on this technology, since I have learned that Google now has their Street View cameras mounted not only on cars, but also on snowmobiles, trolleys, bikes, and even backpacks.

Genealogy Tip: There is an app that will overlay Google Street View with historical images called HistoryPin. It is free to use.

Google Map Feature Now Gives People Close Look at Rockford Streets, Register Star newspaper article 28 March 2008

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 28 March 2008, page 31

NASA Spy Satellite

  • I also “need” my own NASA Spy Satellite, so that I can get truly awesome aerial views of anywhere on earth my ancestors might have lived (and I bet a few terrific sunrise and sunset photos in my free time). Cost: $500 million in 1988 dollars. Just so you know Santa, I got this price tag from an article in a 1988 South Dakota newspaper that referred to a “Lacrosse” model satellite. I realize the price may be a bit higher now than in 1988, but I like the comment in this article that a Lacrosse satellite would provide “extremely sharp” images. So please, Santa, if you have to modernize this request, keep the “extremely sharp” images requirement in mind.

Genealogy Tip: Google Earth may be the next best thing for aerial views. It is free to download and use.

Invisible Shuttle Countdown Clock, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 29 November 1988

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 29 November 1988, page 8

Top-of-the-Line Magnifying Glass

  • A really top-grade Magnifying Glass is also on my list. I got the basic idea for this from a fascinating article about the use of magnifying glasses in ancient times, from an 1893 South Carolina newspaper. I’m not interested in just any magnifying glass, however—I have discovered that there is a Swarovski Crystals magnifying glass encrusted in jewels. This would look just lovely on my desk! Even though the advertisement I read didn’t list the price, I am sure you can swing getting me one, Santa…or maybe a matching pair so that my wife doesn’t feel slighted!
Evidence of the Existence of the Magnifying Glass in Ancient Times, State newspaper article 10 September 1893

State (Columbia, South Carolina), 10 September 1893, page 6

“Wayback” Machine

  • I have just one more gift request if you would, Santa. If the spirit moves you to assign some of your elves to working on a new, sure-to-be-popular gift, how about this idea? My inspiration came from a 1981 California newspaper article titled “All-Time Top 40 TV’s Best? Try These.” I noticed the inclusion of one of my favorite shows as a youngster, Rocky and His Friends, which triggered my imagination. I recalled that my favorite segment on the show was “Peabody’s Improbable History” and his instruction to his assistant, Sherman, to “Set the Wayback Machine.” The more I think about it, the more I am sure every genealogist in the world would stand in any line necessary to get their own Wayback Machine. It’s a surefire winner—and my last Christmas gift request.
Rocky and His Friends, San Diego Union newspaper article 25 October 1981

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 25 October 1981, page 211

So tell me…what would you have on your Ultimate Genealogy Christmas List for Santa?

GenealogyBank Gift Memberships

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Christmas Presents of the Past: the Strange, the Unusual—and More

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott looks through old newspapers to find some truly strange, unusual—and sometimes heartwarming—presents given during past Christmases.

I always feel extra thankful around Christmastime that I am a genealogist. It is the best time to be with, and think about, family. Of course some of the most fun memories that always come flooding back are those of giving and receiving Christmas presents!

I grew up with many Christmas family traditions handed down from my Czech ancestors. I fondly recall that we always celebrated St. Nicholas Day on December 6th and that Santa Claus always brought our Christmas tree along with our gifts on Christmas Eve after we fell asleep listening for sleigh bells in the night. Now as an adult, I can hardly imagine how much work my parents must have done those late Christmas Eve nights…putting out packages, assembling toys, AND decorating a full Christmas tree. But, I certainly recall that those Christmas mornings were magical, seeing the tree for the first time with all those gifts for us kids under it.

Speaking of Christmas gifts, I remember being thrilled and amazed at what I found under the tree with my name on it! These fond family memories and my genealogy work got me to thinking about what presents other people might have found under their Christmas trees, so I turned to GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives for a bit of fun to see what I might find.

The Elephant in the Yard

My first discovery, from a 1985 South Dakota newspaper, was a “white elephant” gift: literally, an elephant. It seems a certain Marie Christianson, of Apple Valley, Minnesota, woke to find an eight-foot-tall fiberglass elephant on her front lawn! Now, my family will tell you I have “missed” on more than one gift over the years, but at least I never tried giving anything that big!

Woman Gets Surprise from Elephant, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 15 December 1985

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 15 December 1985, page 20

A Gold-Dipped Cow Chip

Next up I just had to read an article I found in a 1980 Texas newspaper, since it was headlined “Oh, just what I always wanted…a gold cow chip.” No kidding! This strange story leads with the opportunity to buy, for only $125, a gold-dipped cow chip made into a Christmas ornament, and it didn’t stop there. The article also reports on such gifts as cow chip drink coasters, a “hospital booze” dispenser, and other strange gifts. As the reporter comments: “But, of course, with Christmas gifts, like anything else—beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

"Oh, Just What I Always Wanted...a Gold Cow Chip," Dallas Morning News newspaper article 14 December 1980

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 14 December 1980, page 177

The Worst Christmas Gifts Ever

Then I came across a 1975 article from a Texas newspaper titled “Christmas gifts. Everything they never wanted.” It seems that the UPI undertook a survey to find some of the worst Christmas gifts ever. Right up there at the top was the WWII GI who was fighting in the mud of the western Pacific when he received his Christmas gift: a shoe shine kit! That one really had me laughing, as did several of the others as the UPI interviewed a host of big-name celebrities including Bob Hope, Carol Burnett, Phyllis Diller, David Niven and others. While I laughed over gifts such as Carol Burnett’s “a case of chicken pox” and shuddered over Phyllis Diller getting a snake, the gift that took the cake for me was Stanley Marcus, of the Neiman-Marcus Department Store chain. It seems his children couldn’t figure out what to give the man that probably literally had everything, so they gave him a live donkey for Christmas!

Christmas Gifts: Everything They Never Wanted, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 24 December 1975

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 24 December 1975, page 9

Oh! It’s Moleskin Pants…Again

The laughter really rolled around my office when I came across a real “winner” of a Christmas gift in a 1984 Massachusetts newspaper article. This one makes me wonder if the genealogy and family history of Roy Collette of Owatonna, Minnesota, will include his Christmas gift of a pair of moleskin pants. It seems Roy and his brother-in-law gift and re-gift the same pair of moleskin pants each Christmas. In the article, Roy tells the story that it took him two months to unwrap his Christmas present of those pants since his brother-in-law, Larry Kunkel, sent them wrapped “cemented in a 12,000-pound, 17-foot-high red space ship”! Can you imagine? The two of them had been exchanging this same pair of pants, wrapped in various zany ways, since the mid-1960s.

Moleskin Pants Finally Free from Concrete Cocoon, Springfield Union newspaper article 29 March 1984

Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 29 March 1984, page 2

The Real Santa of Danby & Mount Tabor

Soon I found a heartwarming article from a 1983 Louisiana newspaper, which told the story “Christmas legacy continues” from the small towns of Danby and Mount Tabor, Vermont. It seems a local boy, who made a fortune in the lumber trade, never forgot his hometown. When Silas Griffith died in 1903, his will set up an endowment to buy Christmas gifts each year for all the boys and girls in the towns of Danby and nearby Mount Tabor. This old newspaper article begins with a 75-year-old fellow recalling “washtubs full of large, juicy oranges” beneath the Griffith endowment tree as holiday gifts. William Crosby comments: “In those days, an orange was a pretty scarce item. It meant an awful lot to me.” That one really took me back, since every year when I was a child, year in and year out, my Christmas stocking held an orange in the toe as a very special winter treat. I can still taste the marvelous flavors as my sisters and I would stick a peppermint stick into the orange and drink the juice through our makeshift straws. Christmas magic indeed.

Christmas Legacy Continues, Advocate newspaper article 25 December 1983

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 25 December 1983, page 3

The Red Cross Delivers a Great Gift

Tears formed in my eyes as I read the next article I came across, titled “The Funny Christmas Gift,” from a 1918 Pennsylvania newspaper. This news story was incredibly moving to me, especially as we approach the centennial of World War I. If you want to truly get into the Christmas spirit and have immigrant ancestors in your genealogy as my family does, you must read this great story about a gift both simple and hugely meaningful. The story is told by a Red Cross worker who is helping process packages to troops overseas during WWI, and concludes this way:

The Funny Christmas Gift, Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader newspaper article 26 November 1918

Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania), 26 November 1918, page 12

Remember Rural Free Delivery?

Things got lighter after this when I found myself reading an article from a 1905 Pennsylvania newspaper, titled “Christmas with the Rural Free Delivery Carriers.” Now if you are old enough to recall sending mail with an address that featured “R.F.D.” in it, then you will really enjoy this wonderful trip back in time. This one is almost like having your own genealogy time machine! Be sure to check it out and read about what these wonderful rural carriers got from their appreciative customers around Christmastime. It was special to read how these fellows often received “potatoes, flour, apples, preserves, etc., in such quantities that the family is kept supplied with these things all winter in this manner.”

Christmas with the Rural Free Delivery Carriers, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 17 December 1905

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 17 December 1905, section: comic, page 2

Strange Christmas Presents of the Rich & Famous

I was especially intrigued when I came across an article from a 1909 Louisiana newspaper, titled “Some Queer Christmas Presents.” This story tells of many gifts received by actors and actresses at Christmas, and I was pleased to see that several had been given bricks from a building that was significant in their lives.

Some Queer Christmas Presents, Times-Picayune newspaper article 12 December 1909

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 12 December 1909, page 48

I was given a brick once, as you can see in the photograph below. While it may not be from an opera house or famous theater, mine is from a community center in a small village in Michoacán, Mexico, that I was instrumental in getting built. I do believe that, as the earlier reporter noted, the beauty of a gift truly is in the eye of the beholder.

photo of author Scott Phillips with a brick he received as a present

Photo: Scott Phillips with his prized brick. Credit: from the author’s collection.

What have been some of your favorite, strange, or outrageous Christmas gifts in your family? Please tell us about them in the comments section.

Breaking through Genealogy Brick Walls & Finding Family Tree Firsts

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott shows how old newspapers helped him break through a genealogy brick wall that had stumped him for years—and led to an amazing find: the only known photograph of his great grandfather Vicha!

Several years ago I discovered GenealogyBank.com’s extensive historical newspaper archives through a referral by a wonderful newspaper reporter in Tennessee. While I don’t recall his name now, I thank him every time I am working on my genealogy and family history.

Subscribing to GenealogyBank has been one of the best decisions I have ever made for my ancestry and genealogy. Why? Let me give you a few examples of how GenealogyBank has helped me break through brick walls and discover a multitude of “firsts” for my family tree.

Incredible Family Tree Find: Only-Known Photograph of This Ancestor

This is the only known photograph my family has of my great grandfather Joseph K. Vicha.

photo of Joseph K. Vicha

Photo: Joseph K. Vicha. Credit: from the author’s collection.

Let me tell you how GenealogyBank’s old newspapers led to this amazing photo of my great grandfather.

Genealogy Brick Wall Busting: My Great Grandfather Vicha

When I began working in earnest on our family history, my Mother, God rest her soul, was fascinated by what I was finding and asked me for only one genealogy favor. That favor was to find out what I could about her grandfather, Joseph K. Vicha. As a family, we knew nothing beyond his name, the name of his wife, and the fact that he was Bohemian. I struggled for the first years of my family history work trying to discover much of anything about my great grandfather Vicha—until that day when I was directed to GenealogyBank by that wonderful newspaperman (to look for an entirely different person, I might add).

When I searched on my great grandfather’s name in GenealogyBank’s online archives, I was astonished to find over 110 results returned! As I opened each article, it was as if I were back on the streets of Cleveland, Ohio, in the 1880s, right there with the ancestor I had been searching for.

I discovered his work as a union organizer in an 1896 newspaper article that told me he was the president of the Central Labor Union.

[Joseph K.] Vicha Will Resign; Will Retire from the Presidency of the C.L.U., Plain Dealer newspaper article 28 November 1896

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 November 1896, page 2

In an 1897 newspaper article I discovered that my great grandfather Vicha was later appointed by the governor of Ohio as the superintendent of the Free Employment Bureau, where he pledged to “do everything in his power to do something for the good of the laboring people.”

His Commission: Joseph K. Vicha Receives It from the Governor and Expects to Assume the Duties of His Office Today, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 4 January 1897

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 4 January 1897, page 10

I also made the sad discovery that there was a son, Joseph K. Vicha, Jr., who died at the age of two—and whom no one in the family had known about until I found his death notice in this 1890 newspaper.

death notice for Joseph K. Vicha, Plain Dealer newspaper article 25 February 1890

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 February 1890, page 6

Then I even found a story about my great grandfather being held up at gunpoint in an 1898 newspaper article!

[Joseph K.] Vicha Held Up, Plain Dealer newspaper article 24 November 1898

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 24 November 1898, page 3

The Genealogy Thrill of a Lifetime: Finding My GGF’s Photograph

But the best discovery of all was hidden in an 1891 newspaper article I found in the archives.

Ten Thousand Bohemians Celebrate the Anniversary of the Birth of Huss, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 6 July 1891

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 6 July 1891, page 8

I was thrilled at the mention of my great grandfather in this article: “The formation of the [parade] column was under the direction of the chief marshal of the day, Mr. Joseph K. Vicha.”

Most importantly, this old newspaper article provided the clue that led to one of my most exciting discoveries in all of my genealogy efforts. In the news article’s description of who was in the parade column, I saw a reference to the Knights of Pythias. Not being familiar with this group I began to do more research, eventually finding a book published in 1892 with the title History of the Knights of Pythias.

As I began reading this book, I heard genealogy bricks falling down everywhere. Then it happened—there on page 180 I found myself looking at my great grandfather! I had made an amazing genealogy discovery: the only known photograph of my great grandfather Vicha that anyone in my family alive today has ever seen!

It is hard to describe the overwhelming emotions and the great thrill I felt when I was finally “meeting” my great grandfather for the first time. My voice was still trembling when I phoned my Mother to tell her the news of such a great family tree find. What a happy day that was—and I owe it all to GenealogyBank!

Finding Fabulous Firsts for Family History

I have subscribed to GenealogyBank continually ever since my initial genealogy research successes with those early discoveries of my great grandfather. I am thrilled that I have remained a constant subscriber, since GenealogyBank continues to add new content to the online archives every day—and this has enabled me to add more and more first-time discoveries to our family tree.

Many of my earlier GenealogyBank Blog posts discuss in detail many of these fabulous family firsts that now add incredible value, texture, and meaning to what I like to call the tapestry of our family history. For example:

I’d sure enjoy hearing about your own genealogy research successes: what is the best brick wall buster that GenelaogyBank.com helped you to find?

Shipwreck of the ‘Essex’ Whaleship: A Real-Life Moby Dick

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott searches through old newspapers and other sources to learn about the incredible story of the whaleship “Essex,” which was sunk by a huge sperm whale in 1820!

Longer ago than I care to admit, my English teacher suggested (OK, it was actually required) that I read the classic American novel Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. While I found this book to be a better adventure story than most of my required reading, I must admit that as a youth I was not the biggest fan of Mr. Melville’s style. Then a few days ago a friend of mine mentioned that November 20th is the 193rd anniversary of the sinking of the whaleship Essex by a giant whale, and that I might find that shipwreck story interesting.

I took up that suggestion, and first I decided to check the newspapers of GenealogyBank.com to see what might have been reported regarding the Essex. My first discovery was a tremendous article in an 1822 New Hampshire newspaper.

The Essex Whale-Ship, New Hampshire Observer newspaper article 18 March 1822

New Hampshire Observer (Concord, New Hampshire), 18 March 1822, page 2

This article is amazing and I was immediately captivated by this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story. It seems that the Essex, a whaleship out of Nantucket, Massachusetts, was “stove” or rammed in the South Pacific by, believe it or not, a huge sperm whale!

The tragic story of the few crew members (only 8 of 20) who survived the sinking of the Essex is almost beyond comprehension. They had to sail thousands of miles of open water in three small boats in a desperate attempt to reach South America, with short supplies of food and water that soon gave out—forcing the men to rely on cannibalism and drinking their own urine in order to stay barely alive. Their ordeal lasted three months and over 4,000 miles.

The ship’s captain, George Pollard, Jr., had left two letters on a deserted island in a tin box, fearing he would not survive the ordeal (he eventually did). I found his public letter that was later reprinted in the newspaper (the other was for his wife) to be truly heartrending.

letter from Captain George Pollard Jr., New Hampshire Observer newspaper article 18 March 1822

New Hampshire Observer (Concord, New Hampshire), 18 March 1822, page 4

I looked further and my next discovery was far more recent, having been published by a Georgia newspaper in 2000.

book review of Nathaniel Philbric's book "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex," Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 4 June 2000

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 4 June 2000, page 53

I was curious to see what was being reported in 2000 about a shipwreck that happened way back in 1820. It turns out the article was a book review of a new book by noted history author Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Although the review got the date of the disaster wrong (the Essex was sunk in 1820, not 1821), it explained that the Essex tragedy may well have been an inspiration for Melville’s classic. Given my love of history, I immediately bought Philbrick’s book and began reading a truly fascinating account of this period in American history, as well as the details of the Essex and her crew’s ordeal.

As I read Philbrick’s book, which I highly recommend, I discovered that he based much of his book on something that each of us as genealogists can hope for and relate to: a long-lost family notebook. It seems that one of the few shipwreck survivors, Thomas Nickerson—who was a cabin boy on the Essex—was encouraged to write down his recollections of this tragedy, and did so in 1876. However, for more than a century his notebook lay undetected, until it was discovered in an attic by Ann Finch of Hamden, Connecticut.

I found the story of Ann Finch’s amazing notebook discovery in a 1981 Texas newspaper.

Woman Finds [Thomas Nickerson's] Manuscript; One Whale of a Discovery, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 19 February 1981

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 19 February 1981, page 2

Edouard Stackpole, an expert from the Nantucket Historical Association, verified the notebook’s authenticity and historical value.

Author Philbrick does a tremendous job of introducing the readers of his book to the crew of the Essex, and it was her crew that began to captivate me. Soon the genealogist in me took over and I decided to do some genealogical investigating.

The genealogy detail was there to be found. On the free website FamilySearch.org, I found the 1850 United States Census for Nantucket, listing Thomas Nickerson as a “mariner.” The 15-year-old cabin boy was now a 45-year-old married man.

listing for Thomas Nickerson of Nantucket in the 1850 U.S. Census

Credit: FamilySearch.org

He was still listed as a mariner in the 1855 Massachusetts State Census for Nantucket.

listing for Thomas Nickerson of Nantucket in the 1855 Massachusetts State Census

Credit: FamilySearch.org

I even found his listing on the 1883 Nantucket Death Register; the ancient mariner died of “old age.”

listing for Thomas Nickerson in the 1883 Nantucket Death Register

Credit: FamilySearch.org

Further investigation of the life of Thomas Nickerson led me to an article published in an 1879 Michigan newspaper.

article about the sinking of the whaling ship "Essex," Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 24 October 1879

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 24 October 1879, page 2

Here I learned that cabin boy Nickerson ultimately became a captain later in his life, and I enjoyed this account  of the story of the great whale that did in the Essex and, as a consequence, so many of Nickerson’s crew mates.

This account of the whale attack contained the following exciting description. After the whale first struck the ship, it rushed back for a second attack.

article about the sinking of the whaling ship "Essex," Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 24 October 1879

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 24 October 1879, page 2

The old news article concludes with this description of the then 74-year-old Nickerson, who by that time had been living with the horrible memories of the Essex ordeal for almost 59 years.

article about the sinking of the whaling ship "Essex," Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 24 October 1879

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 24 October 1879, page 2

Now I am off to continue my genealogical investigations into the surviving crew members of the ill-fated Essex. I think my next crewmember is going to be boatsteerer Benjamin Lawrence.

But before I begin learning about Mr. Lawrence, I need to look further into a certain “Mocha Dick”! You see I also happened to discover an article published in an 1839 New York newspaper, which tells the story of another fearsome sperm whale, this one an albino who was “white as wool” and supposedly had over 100 fights with whalers before he was finally killed.

"Mocha Dick," of the Pacific, Auburn Journal and Advertiser newspaper article 12 June 1839

Auburn Journal and Advertiser (Auburn, New York), 12 June 1839, page 1

I suspect the story of Mocha Dick was another influence on Melville’s imagination when he wrote his great epic Moby-Dick, which was published in 1851.

What a tremendous shipwreck story with so much more to learn! It’s time to dig deeper into these historical newspapers and find out more about the rest of the survivors.

News of the Weird & Wacky: Just Plain Bizarre Family Stories

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott searches through old newspapers to find some truly weird, bizarre—and sometimes funny—family stories.

If your family is at all like my family and the family of my wife, you have your share of funny and weird stories. As a matter of fact, just the other day my wife and I were having a good laugh over one of these family stories when she said “good thing the newspapers never got a hold of that story.” It was then that I decided it would be interesting to take a look at “News of the Weird & Wacky” family stories that did make their way into the newspapers of GenealogyBank.com.

An Unintentionally Incestuous Marriage

The first news article I found definitely falls into the “weird” category. I’d actually say it graduates to “extremely weird”! It’s the story about a wedded couple in England that was published in a 1926 Georgia newspaper. The headline says it all: “Brother Marries Sister.”

Brother Marries Sister, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 8 August 1926

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 8 August 1926, section D page 2

While truly bizarre, this old newspaper article does give some interesting facts regarding how the family was broken up and then, much later, these siblings “found each other,” fell in love and got married—without knowing they were brother and sister! But no matter what the circumstances, the “weird” factor is way too high for me on this one.

Murder Victim’s Twin Drives Murderer Insane

Then another newspaper headline grabbed my attention. Published in a 1909 Ohio newspaper, it states simply: “Driven Insane by Twin.”

Driven Insane by Twin, Plain Dealer newspaper article 18 May 1909

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 18 May 1909, page 7

Now I have heard (and witnessed with my daughter-in-law and her twin sister) that twins can do some very special things, but drive someone insane? I think not! Then I read the article and discovered this amazingly weird story of an uncle who killed his nephew. This heinous crime went unsolved until the uncle happened upon his victim’s twin walking down the street—upon seeing him and believing it to be the ghost of his victim, the murderer confessed to his crime and promptly went insane. Now this one is just plain weird for sure.

Heroic Ghost Saves Entire Family

By now I was in the mood for something a bit more cheerfully weird. I continued searching the newspaper archives and quickly came across an old article published in an 1893 New Mexico newspaper titled “Saved by a Ghost.”

Savced by a Ghost, New Mexican newspaper article 25 October 1893

New Mexican (Santa Fe, New Mexico), 25 October 1893, page 2

This was a ghost story with a decidedly nice twist in that the ghost in question came to the rescue of an entire family up in St. Lawrence County, New York. Although I usually conjure up images of ghosts as veiled in wispy white, this ghost is described as “a tall, heavily built man clad in furs to his chin, his fur cap pulled down over his ears, his head bowed, with both hands outstretched…” You really must read this story since, after all, the author says: “This story is a true one.”

Laughed to Death?

As I continued searching, there was no way I could hold back my smile at the headline of the next article, “May Have Laughed to Death,” which was published in an 1899 Connecticut newspaper.

May Have Laughed to Death, New Haven Register newspaper article 11 September 1899

New Haven Register (New Haven, Connecticut), 11 September 1899, page 5

I read this article with a bit of skepticism, but there it was in black and white: “He [William Gandy] is subject to uncontrollable fits of laughter, and if his attention is not directed in some other channel by friends he may have laughed himself to death, his nervous system having become exhausted. He has been known to laugh for an hour or two at a time before the fit could be broken up.” There is no conclusion in the historical newspaper article of what happened to the unfortunate Mr. Gandy, but I must admit to thinking that death by laughter is certainly more than just a bit weird.

Animals to the Rescue!

Moving along I was struck by the headline “Saved by Animals” from a 1900 Mississippi newspaper. The second headline heralded “Instances in Which They Have Been Known to Avert Serious Accidents.”

Saved by Animals, Daily Herald newspaper article 10 August 1900

Daily Herald (Biloxi, Mississippi), 10 August 1900, page 3

Now the only “serious accident” averted for me by animals (a great many Labrador retrievers over the years) was that they never allowed any food to remain on the floor for more than a nanosecond, sparing me any slips. This newspaper article, however, describes a dog saving a baby from an open window, a whole family saved by a cat, rats saving a ship, a parrot saving a family from a flood, and more astonishing tales including a fellow saved by his…now this is weird…pet bear.

Quadruple Rainbow Sighting

Then I found an article from a 1905 Maryland newspaper titled “A Quadruple Rainbow.”

A Quadruple Rainbow, Baltimore American newspaper article 25 December 1905

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 25 December 1905, page 9

The article reported that a quadruple rainbow was sighted in Mons, Belgium. This 1900s news article caught my eye since I really love rainbows. I have seen my share of single rainbows and even a few lovely doubles (the best double I ever saw was out on the Great Plains just west of Lemmon, South Dakota), but I have never seen a triple and certainly never a quadruple rainbow. This rainbow weirdness made me click over to Google and see what the all-mighty search engine had to say about this seeming impossibility. It turns out that triple rainbows are a rarity and quadruples are almost unheard of! I noted that on 10 October 2011 the Mail in the United Kingdom reported “the world’s only photograph” of a quadruple rainbow, but the photo only shows two rainbows. Now that is just plain weird all by itself!

Well, I am off now. It is starting to rain and I am hoping for my shot at fame with my camera and a quadruple rainbow I can call my own. Have you or anyone in your family ever seen a triple or quadruple rainbow? If you have, I’d love to know!

And if you have a weird family story of your own you’d like to share, please tell us in the comments section; thanks!

Genealogy Collaboration to Trace Czech American Ancestry Pt. 1

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott shows how some old newspaper articles led to a breakthrough in his genealogy work—and to a fruitful collaboration with the Jewish Genealogy Society of Cleveland.

Genealogy and collaboration go together just about as well as peanut butter and jelly! If you have been working on your genealogy for any time at all, you have made some wonderful family discoveries that were possible due to collaboration—as have I.

American Antiquarian Society

It is my belief that collaboration is one of the best additional benefits of using the newspapers of GenealogyBank in your genealogy research. When I first began to subscribe to GenealogyBank, I noticed right away that its newspaper collection has benefited from a collaborative effort with the highly esteemed American Antiquarian Society (AAS).

By the way, if you have never checked out the AAS I’d suggest a visit to its website at http://www.americanantiquarian.org. As you will see on its homepage, “The American Antiquarian Society (AAS) library houses the largest and most accessible collection of printed materials from first contact through 1876 in what is now the United States, the West Indies and parts of Canada.” Located in Worcester, Massachusetts, the AAS is high on my “Genealogy Must-Visit List.”

Tracing Czech American Ancestry with Newspapers

On a more personal note, a recent GenealogyBank discovery I made while working on another genealogy project has put me smack-dab in the center of a very valuable collaboration.

I have been working on documenting the earliest Czech immigrants of Cleveland, Ohio. One of these early immigrants was a man by the name of Leopold Levi (sometimes spelled Levy), and I was making pitiful progress on discovering any valuable leads on him until GenealogyBank’s newspapers came to my rescue.

My first discovery was in an 1892 Ohio newspaper.

death notice for Stella Levi, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 27 February 1892

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 27 February 1892, page 5

This article reported that Stella, the daughter of Leopold and Esther Levi, died on 26 February 1892 at 831 St. Clair St. While an interesting find, with some very nice details and from the appropriate timeframe, it did not provide me with any indication that this was “the” Leopold Levi I was seeking. So I continued reviewing the results from my newspaper search.

It wasn’t long before I discovered a second interesting article, this one in an 1899 Ohio newspaper.

Assistant Assessors, Plain Dealer newspaper article 16 April 1899

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 16 April 1899, page 8

Here was a Leopold Levi from the same address as in the 1892 article, and he had been appointed to be an enumerator for the upcoming 1890 Federal Census.

Next I found a much more recent article, from a 1951 Ohio newspaper.

notice about Leopold Levi, Plain Dealer newspaper article 10 December 1951

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 10 December 1951, page 22

This substantial article was titled “Early Jewish Life in Cleveland” and included the following sentence: “Leopold Levi, who arrived in 1849, served as tax assessor for many years.” BINGO! This article provided me with a nice link to the previous article of 1899 and from there back to the 1892 article. Additionally, I had discovered the important fact that Leopold Levi was Jewish.

Jewish Genealogy Society of Cleveland

A quick Google search ensued to see if there happened to be an active Jewish genealogy group in the Cleveland, Ohio, area. Sure enough I located the Jewish Genealogy Society of Cleveland. After taking a look at their website at http://www.clevelandjgs.org, I filled out their online research request form and submitted it via email. I realized I may have stumbled upon something good when, within 24 hours, I had a magnificent response back from their researchers complete with a terrific set of materials.

They provided me with an obituary for Leopold Levi, his burial location, details regarding his civic works, and the fact that he died intestate. They even gave me the link to an “Application for Letters of Administration” that lists all his heirs-at-law. Additionally they sent me obituaries for his wife, one daughter, and his son. As an added bonus, included with these items was the married name of a second daughter as well as the married names of several granddaughters.

My collaboration with the Jewish Genealogy Society of Cleveland is continuing and I will be sharing my work with them once it is completed. This is especially worthwhile because they have no indications that anyone else has undertaken previous work on Leopold Levi and his family.

Now I am well on my way to a more complete understanding of Leopold Levi, his life, and his impact as one of the very earliest Czech immigrants to Cleveland, Ohio.

Best of all, this continuing genealogy success story started as a result of leads I discovered in the newspapers of GenealogyBank, and then led me to a fruitful collaboration—one of the real delights of genealogy research.

I’d enjoy hearing what your best collaborative efforts have been in your genealogy work.

The Leaves of Fall: Leaf Stories, Poems & Decorating Ideas

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott celebrates the colorful foliage of the autumn season by finding lots of leaf stories in old newspapers.

I am an unabashed lover of autumn and all it brings us! It is my favorite time to go out and take photographs at cemeteries. I love the crisp mornings coupled with the still-warm afternoon sunshine, walking in the woods, and perhaps most of all the leaves as they present us with all their magnificent fall colors.

One of our family’s favorite autumn pastimes when our children were young was for me to rake the leaves into a huge pile and then allow our children to make a massive leaf “fort.”

photo taken by Scott Phillips of his son in a leaf fort, circa 1979

Photo: the author’s son in his leaf fort, circa 1979. Credit: Scott Phillips.

The other day, I was enjoying the wonderful fall colors and delightful vistas—along with some wonderful autumn memories stirring in my mind’s eye—when I decided to take a look at the online historical newspapers of GenealogyBank.com to see if other folks shared my love of autumn. Let me just say it appears, much like the colors of our autumn leaves, to be a bit of a mixed bag.

Fall Fairy Tale

My first discovery was a delightful fairy tale from a 1917 South Dakota newspaper. Featuring autumn leaves, “Mr. Wind,” the “Breeze Brothers,” gnomes, and fairies, it is exactly the kind of story I would have enjoyed telling my children and I have now saved it so that I can read it to our grandsons.

Daddy's Evening Fairy Tale: Autumn Leaves, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 10 October 1917

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 10 October 1917, page 7

Decorating with Leaves

Next I came across a name that rang a bell with me. It was “Cappy Dick” in a 1954 issue of my hometown newspaper in Cleveland, the Plain Dealer. I recall looking forward to Cappy Dick’s “Hobby Club” ideas in the newspaper every week when I was a child. In this article, Cappy instructed his young fans to take a vase and “Brush shellac all over the surface. Then stick the bits of leaf to the shellac after first applying glue to the back of each leaf.” Reading it made me laugh out loud at the thought of how my mother and grandmother might have reacted had I ever dared take shellac, glue, and autumn leaves to any one of their precious vases.

Decorate a Vase or Jar with Leaves, Plain Dealer newspaper article 15 October 1954

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 15 October 1954, page 51

Moonshiners Make Crafty Use of Leaves

Still chuckling over my likely “shellacking” had I shellacked a vase, I came across an article from a 1928 North Carolina newspaper, during the height of Prohibition, that contained a unique take on autumn leaves. The article reported: “Officers in recent days have discovered that the moonshiners are taking advantage of the fall of autumn leaves in a unique way. A trench deep and long enough to contain about four barrels of beer is dug next to the log of a fallen tree in the depth of the woods…On top of these is (sic) laid sheets of iron roofing and then leaves are raked so that they gradually slope up to the top of the log as if blown by autumnal breezes. Four barrels like this were found during last week by the use of sticks to punch into the leaves.” I guess there were smart moonshiners in those days—but perhaps even smarter officers.

Officers Locate Horse Head in Barrel of Corn Beer in East Davidson County, Greensboro Daily News newspaper article 12 December 1928

Greensboro Daily News (Greensboro, North Carolina), 12 December 1928, page 13

Leaves Cause Broken Ankle

Mrs. Francis M. Whitlaw evidently did not take too kindly to autumn leaves, as reported in a 1908 Missouri newspaper. While it made me a bit sad that Mrs. Whitlaw broke her ankle due to the leaves, I found it an interesting bit of time-travel to read that she was treated by her doctor at “Rose & Gordon’s drug store” and was taken “in a carriage” to the hotel where her husband was the manager.

Autumn Leaves: An Accident, Kansas City Star newspaper article 9 November 1908

Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri), 9 November 1908, page 4

Leaves Cause Fall Fatalities

Then I got a real shock when I read an article from an 1898 New York newspaper about a fatal train wreck caused by autumn leaves. While definitely a tragic story, I found the amazing details related to this autumn leaves event extremely interesting.

Wreck Caused by Autumn Leaves: Clogged Brakes, and Sent Lehigh Valley Train Dashing Down Mountainside to Collision, New York Herald newspaper article 12 November 1898

New York Herald (New York, New York), 12 November 1898, page 7

Poem about Leaves

I closed out my searching after making a delightful discovery in a 1911 Idaho newspaper. Oh what memories this lovely poem brought back! I could smell the wonderful aroma of burning leaves (now forbidden in our community) in the fall. I encourage you to read this nifty little poem. As the anonymous author writes, “such scented censer smoke” brings each of us “The glory of our olden dreams.”

A Poem: The Burning Leaves, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 29 October 1911

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 29 October 1911, page 4

I hope you enjoy the wonder of this autumn’s colorful leaf display, and indulge in some fun memories of your own as you rake the leaves. And if you have a moment, how about sharing your favorite autumn family memories here with me in the comments section? I’d certainly enjoy hearing them!

Remembering James Dean, Woody Guthrie & Janis Joplin with Newspapers

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott looks up profiles, news stories and obituaries in old newspapers to learn more about these three famous entertainers who died this week in American history.

During this week in history (30 September to 4 October) America lost three of its most iconic entertainment personalities. America, and indeed the whole world, lost film actor James Dean in 1955, singer Woody Guthrie in 1967, and singer Janis Joplin in 1970.

Newspapers are filled with obituaries and profiles that help us better understand the lives of our ancestors—and the famous people who lived during their times. The following newspaper articles about these three famous Americans are good examples.

James Dean (1931-1955)

Although he only starred in three movies in his short lifetime, James Dean was already being compared to Marlon Brando when he died. In 1955 Dean shot to stardom as a result of his starring role of Cal Trask in East of Eden, which earned him the first-ever posthumous nomination for an Academy Award. For most of us today, James Dean is best known for his role as Jim Stark in Rebel without a Cause. At the time of his death, Dean had just finished filming his now-famous role as Jett Rink in the film Giant, and had set off in his Porsche sports car to indulge in his passion for car racing at a racetrack in Salinas, California, in the upcoming weekend. Dean never made it to Salinas.

How did James Dean die so young? As you can read in this article from a 1955 Texas newspaper, a tragic automobile accident claimed the life of James Dean at the age of only 24.

Car Collision Kills Actor James Dean, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 1 October 1955

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 1 October 1955, page 1

Then just two days later, the Dallas Morning News again reported on the Dean tragedy, this time focusing on his funeral to be held in Dean’s home town of Fairmount, Indiana.

Funeral Services for Dean Planned in Indiana Saturday, Dallas Morning News newspaper article, 3 October 1955

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 3 October 1955, page 18

This newspaper article not only provides a fascinating look at the early life of James Dean, but also reports the stark reactions of his costars such as Elizabeth Taylor, who “took it the hardest” and was “crying unashamedly.”

I always thought James Dean was buried in Hollywood; now that I know he lies at rest just a couple hours from my home, I will be taking a future road trip to pay my respects to this marvelous actor and icon of youth angst. Interesting note: this same small Indiana town is also the hometown of another American cultural icon, Jim Davis, the cartoonist and creator of “Garfield.”

Woody Guthrie (1912-1967)

While some folks reading this might be more familiar with Arlo, the son of Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie, many musicians and music historians would agree with the claim in this 1971 New Jersey newspaper article that Woody is “generally considered America’s greatest balladeer.”

Okie Folk Poet [Woody Guthrie] Loved Underdog, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 27 June 1971

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 27 June 1971, page 102

Woody Guthrie wrote more than 1,000 songs, of which more than 400 are preserved in the Library of Congress (and dozens of which populate my iPad). He also wrote an autobiography Bound for Glory(also on my iPad), and has been acknowledged as a major musical influence on such modern-day musicians as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, and dozens of others. His best known musical piece might well be “This Land Is Your Land.”

When he succumbed to his 15-year battle with Huntington’s disease on 3 October 1967, the news of Guthrie’s death was carried from coast-to-coast. This obituary from a 1967 Louisiana newspaper makes note of a fact still true about Woody today: “Many persons heard Guthrie’s songs without ever knowing his name. Among those who have recorded Woody’s songs are Bing Crosby, Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra, and Peter, Paul, and Mary.”

Folk-Singer [Woody] Guthrie Dies, Times-Picayune newspaper obituary, 4 October 1967

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 4 October 1967, page 8

Being a born and raised Clevelander (home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), it was especially nice to read a 1987 news article from my hometown Cleveland newspaper that reported the 1988 Class of inductees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: not only was Woody Guthrie being honored—but also a singer whom he greatly influenced, Bob Dylan.

Lads, Boys, Girls, Bob [Dylan] in Hall, Plain Dealer newspaper article 28 October 1987

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 October 1987, page 83

Oh, and just in case you are a fan of the website FindAGrave.com, I’ll let you in on a “secret.” There may be a memorial stone to Woody in his hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma, but Woody’s not there. His ashes were actually spread at Coney Island, New York.

Janis Joplin (1943-1970)

The year was 1970. America was at war; the Vietnam War was raging in its 11th year. The fight over the war raged across our nation’s home front. The divisions that this war caused throughout America were evident in families, public protests, college campuses, and beyond. Rock and roll music was a boiling caldron fueled by many of these divisions (for instance my parents would not allow rock and roll in my house). Into this scene burst some of America’s most noted rock artists.

One of these was one of my personal favorites, Janis Joplin. Her name is forever welded to “Mercedes Benz” in my mind, a song she recorded just two days before her untimely death in 1970 at the age of only 27. As you can see it was Page One news in this 1970 article from a Texas newspaper.

Singer Janis Joplin Found Dead in Hotel, Dallas Morning News newspaper obituary 5 October 1970

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 5 October 1970, page 1

As you can imagine there followed numerous articles that mourned the loss of this one-of-a-kind singer. Other newspapers seized the occasion to rail away at the excesses of America’s youth.

This 1970 article from a North Carolina newspaper reported that Janis had signed her will only three days before her death, and left half her estate to her parents and one quarter each to her brother and sister.

Janis Joplin Left Estate to Family, Greensboro Daily News newspaper article 22 October 1970

Greensboro Daily News (Greensboro, North Carolina), 22 October 1970, page 11

Janis had a unique voice and style. In this 1969 article from a California newspaper, reporter Carol Olten had this to say about Janis: “Janis Joplin never leaves doubts in anyone’s mind about being THE rock ’n’ roll woman. Any musicians who appear on stage with her have been more or less reduced to mashed potatoes.”

Janis Joplin Here Saturday, San Diego Union newspaper article 28 September 1969

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 28 September 1969, page 78

Janis was indeed quite the woman of rock and roll. As reported in this 1994 article from an Illinois newspaper, she was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of the 1995 Class of inductees.

[Janis] Joplin, [Frank] Zappa Join Hall of Fame, Register Star newspaper article 17 November 1994

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 17 November 1994, page 35

By the way, whenever you are in Cleveland, Ohio, pay a visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Famewhere you can see some of Janis’s memorabilia and a whole lot more. From personal experience, I suggest you allow at least two days for your visit!

Obituaries provide personal details about someone’s life that we can’t find elsewhere—whether they are our ancestors or famous people we’re interested in. GenealogyBank features two collections of obituaries:

Dig into these obituary archives today and see what you can discover about your family and favorite celebrities!

Researching Our Old Family Vacation Destinations with Newspapers

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott reminisces about a wonderful vacation at a Wyoming ranch his family enjoyed when he was 11—and supplements his memories by searching in old newspapers for articles about the R Lazy S ranch.

My mom passed away recently and as a son and genealogist, you must know that I have been doing a lot of reminiscing. Most often I have found myself thinking of all the things my mom taught me in life. She was a woman who moved with urgency and purpose, enjoying a wide variety of interests, and she cultivated those traits in my older sisters and me.

One of the memories that came back to me was of one of our quintessential “family car vacations.” This one happened to be what the family still refers to as “Scott’s Summer Vacation.” My folks decided that my sisters and I needed to see the grand sites of the Western United States. I was bouncing-off-the-ceiling happy that our vacation destinations included such places as the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, Petrified Forest, Painted Desert, several more U.S. National Parks, and concluded with a week at a “Dude Ranch.” Now, I will admit right here that my sisters were hoping more for Western sights such as Las Vegas and San Francisco, but off we went in the family station wagon—complete with the third seat facing rearward.

The dude ranch was truly the highlight of the trip for me. For a boy of about 11, “real” cowboys, outhouses, a potbellied stove in my cabin, learning to rope a calf, and riding into the Grand Tetons every day simply could not be beat. Finally from my memory banks came the name of the ranch we stayed at: the R Lazy S. The brand, I still recall, was an upright “R” with an “S” on its side.

photo of the sign for the R Lazy S ranch, Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Photo: sign for the R Lazy S ranch, Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Credit: courtesy of the R Lazy S ranch.

I wanted to find out more about this boyhood memory of mine, so I did a quick check of GenelaogyBank.com to see if there might be something.

To my delight and surprise, on my first search in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives I got results!

The first article I opened was published by a Wyoming newspaper in 1920. This old news article gave me far more background about the R Lazy S ranch than I had known (or perhaps recalled) from our long-ago visit. It turns out the R Lazy S ranch had quite a storied history to it. The property was once owned by Owen Wister, who wrote The Virginian and other works set in Wyoming. Wister sold the ranch in 1920 to the R Lazy S “outfit.”

Owen Wister Tires of His Old Ranch; Parts with It, Wyoming State Tribune newspaper article 1 March 1920

Wyoming State Tribune (Cheyenne, Wyoming), 1 March 1920, page 1

Smiling from this find, I looked further into my results and quickly found a 1958 travel article from my Cleveland, Ohio, hometown newspaper. Immediately I wondered if my mother had read this article—had it been the genesis of the plans for our family vacation? I had a good laugh when I read this author’s description of the R Lazy S ranch that included “luxury cabins.” Now perhaps I was in the wrong cabin, but mine was outside the gate, had only a potbellied stove for heat, and the outhouse was a good 200 yards away. But perhaps “luxury” is in the eye of the beholder!

Bainbury's Western Diary, Plain Dealer newspaper article 8 July 1958

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 8 July 1958, page 8

Next I discovered a newspaper article from 1982, again in the Plain Dealer, explaining that Mr. Howard F. Stirn, then chairman of the R Lazy S ranch, was in Cleveland to present a photographic exhibit of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and the surrounding area. I’m wondering if perhaps there was a connection between the R Lazy S ranch and my hometown. This may be one of those many questions in our family histories that we are never able to fully answer (and is a good reason why preserving our stories and memories onto our family trees is so crucial).

Jackson Hole Nature Photography, Plain Dealer newspaper article 10 January 1982

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 10 January 1982, page 116

With my head full of wonderful memories and our crazy family song (which we all made up along the way and called “Touring Our Country: Monuments and Parks”), I searched Google to see if the R Lazy S ranch is still in existence.

Guess what—it is! You can see at http://rlazys.com that they are indeed alive and kicking like a bronco.

Hmm, maybe it is high time for a family vacation…back out to Wyoming and the R Lazy S ranch with our grandsons.

I do believe, as a proper grandfather, I need to share my memories with my grandsons in person, especially since the Ranch looks far less “rustic” than back in my day!

What were your favorite family vacation destinations growing up? We’d love to hear your personal vacation stories. Share them with us in the comments.