Genealogy Is Family Stories & Newspapers Are Full of Them

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott hears some interesting family stories from his 93-year-old mother and digs into old newspapers to learn more.

If you were at RootsTech 2013 or followed much of that genealogy conference online as I did, you know that speaker after speaker reminded us that stories are what make our genealogy come alive. I am sure you will agree with this sentiment. Few things in our family history work surpasses the impact and enjoyment of stories.

So it was natural that I got to thinking again about the multitude of stories that adorn my family tree. It is probably the item I ask for most often from people for our tree, right after I hound them for a photograph. Family stories can tell us so much about the lives and times of our ancestors. They offer us snapshots of life that are often filled with amazing tidbits and personal details.

photo of Scott Phillips and his 93-year-old mother

Photo: Scott Phillips’s mother sharing her stories with him. Credit: from the author’s collection.

When I am working on my genealogy early in the morning and it is too early to bother family members for a new story over the phone, I scan the newspaper for new information and stories that might be of interest. Since I am also a GOG—a Grizzled Old Genealogist—I still like my newspaper the old-fashioned way, delivered to my stoop each morning.

I begin my day, every day, the same way my father always began his day. That would be with the comics section of the newspaper! My Dad, God rest his soul, always said “The headlines and business news can wait. It’s more important to start your day off with a smile.” Then he would first open the paper to the funny pages.

Still to this day, I start my day the same way! Two things happen: I do indeed start my day with a smile and a chuckle; and in my mind’s eye I can see and hear my dad chuckle over his favorite comic, “Pogo” by Walt Kelly. My dad even had his favorite quote, uttered by Pogo himself, taped on his desk: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Pogo cartoon for Earth Day 1971, Anchorage Daily News newspaper 18 April 1971

Anchorage Daily News (Anchorage, Alaska), 18 April 1971, page 4

Not long ago I was visiting with my 93-year-old Mother about all things family and asking her about stories from her youth in the Czech community of Cleveland, Ohio. One of the stories she shared gave me gooseflesh. She told me about living in fear at the time of the “Torso Murders” in Cleveland that instilled dread throughout her neighborhood and the entire city.

This story was new to me, so it didn’t take me long to pull up some articles on GenealogyBank.com and begin to research this story from the 1930s involving a set of serial murders which remain unsolved to this day. I dug into this story and was fascinated to learn that these murders greatly tarnished the career of one of America’s most famous “G-Men,” Elliot Ness.

The "Mad Butcher" Strikes Again, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 18 September 1938

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 18 September 1938, page 37

While I was reading my fourth newspaper article about the “Torso Murders” I was thrilled to find that one of my ancestors, Gordon Shibley, was a Cleveland Police Detective working to try and solve these horrible crimes. It was amazing and quite interesting to follow this strange murder case and read, in a 1936 article, about my ancestor’s efforts trying to solve these heinous crimes.

story about the "Torso Murders" in Cleveland in the 1930s, Plain Dealer newspaper article 12 September 1936

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 12 September 1936, page 1

As I was following this story as it unfolded in the newspapers of the day through GenealogyBank.com it was easy for me to check out, and add to, my family tree with additional items I uncovered. For example, I found other stories covering Detective Shibley’s experiences as a member of Cleveland’s “Thin Blue Line,” some family obituaries, wedding announcements, and many more family-related newspaper articles. I was able to more fully populate our family tree as I read and learned about some of Detective Shibley’s parents and siblings.

I have now become so intrigued with this historical murder case that I ordered a copy of the book In the Wake of the Butcher: Cleveland’s Torso Murders written by James Jessen Badal (Kent State University Press, 2001) for even more in-depth information on this family-linked story. I am excited to get this book—especially since I have been told there are multiple references to my detective ancestor in it.

My Mom finished her recollections by telling how her mother would admonish her and her brother each day, when they went to school or out to play, to be very careful. She said this warning continued for many years even when she and her brother headed just down the street to their highly-loved corner candy shop…the one operated by an uncle, which was half beer parlor and half candy store. Wow, did my ears perk up at hearing that! Here is yet another new family story I will get to investigate!

What is your favorite family story that you have been able to add to your family tree?

Newspapers, Food & Family: Just like Nonna, Nana & Grandma Used to Make!

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott writes about how old newspapers helped to connect two of his favorite passions: food and family.

As a genealogical historian, I have always enjoyed the intersections of food and family! To begin with, meals frequently offer wonderful opportunities for sharing time together. It makes little difference if it is Thanksgiving (my personal favorite), Shabbot, Christmas, Rosh Hashanah, or simply Tuesday night. This is one of the main reasons I added a set of pages for food and recipes on my website at Onward To Our Past® and why my bookshelf (which you can see at LibraryThing.com) contains such titles as The Food of A Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky, The Best of Czech Cooking by Peter Trnka, and A Taste of Croatia by Karen Evenden.

In my own family tree I happen to have three very long, strong, and prominent branches. One is from Cornwall in the United Kingdom, one is from Bohemia (now Czech Republic), and my wife’s family branch which is from the Molise district of Italy. I love foods from all three family lines, but I am particularly partial to Cornish pasty, Bohemian kolache and Italian gnocchi.

photo of Scott Phillips and family members enjoying a “pasty party” over the holidays

Scott Phillips and family members enjoy a “pasty party” over the holidays. Photo from the author’s collection.

During the recent holidays my daughter, who has become quite a chef, asked me about my family food favorites. Just for fun, she and I grabbed the iPad and dug into GenealogyBank.com to have a look at what we might find in the way of interesting additions to these food favorites of mine. We were pleasantly surprised!

We started, since she tends to bend towards the Italian family branch, with gnocchi, a marvelous Italian potato dumpling. We put the term in the search box and in an instant we were reading hundreds of articles and recipes for this unique food.

One of the stories we liked best came from the Idaho Statesman.

How to Cut Down Your Food Bill and Still Live Well, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 22 September 1918

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 22 September 1918, second section, page 9

We both enjoyed this story as it gave a very nice gnocchi recipe with the bonus of a delicious, easy accompanying sauce. However, we got a good chuckle out of the estimate that the meal described would only cost us “fifty cents.” Oh, and we decided to skip the step later in the article advising us to place some of our food on an “asbestos pad.”

My grandson must have heard us laughing and joined us. When we explained what we were doing, coupled with the fact that he is a bit of a dessert-hound, he immediately said “let’s look for kolache, Grandpa.” So we were off again. This time we were in search of kolache, a simple but delicious Bohemian dessert pastry. We began to scroll through some of the almost 2,000 articles that search term returned while I regaled my grandson and daughter with stories of my Czech Nana’s kolache.

The very first article we found was from my hometown newspaper, the Plain Dealer.

kolache recipe, Plain Dealer newspaper article 15 March 1951

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 16 March 1951, page 16

This article was titled “Fancy Breads and Rolls Are Enjoyed by Family at Easter.” That sounded right to me as my Nana Vicha only made kolache for special events. Then something really caught my eye. Two of the fillings that were suggested were apricot and prune. These were the only two fillings my grandmother ever made. No one could quite understand how excited I was, but I was madly writing down every step of these recipes and calculating when I could get enough kitchen time to try them out!

By this time our group had grown to a family crowd of nine. Multiple ideas and suggestions were offered and requested. My son’s plea caught my ear when I heard him say “how about pasty, Dad?” Now we were off to see what we could find about this fine Cornish meal-in-a-crust!

My grandson was duly impressed when I came across, and read, an account found in the Stoughton Sentinel all the way back in 1876.

The Cornish Pasty, Stoughton Sentinel newspaper article 22 April 1876

Stoughton Sentinel (Stoughton, Massachusetts), 22 April 1876, page 1

This article is a fine backgrounder on the Cornish pasty—or, as it informed us, the “Cornish fiddle”—plus it offered such varieties as mackerel pasty and squab pasty. While it provided a general recipe, we needed something a bit more detailed for our use so we continued to look—since we all agreed we’d skip the squab.

It wasn’t long before I found this article from the Oregonian.

100-Year-Old Cornish Pasty, Oregonian newspaper article 2 April 1939

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 2 April 1939, page 74

This article, “100-Year-Old Cornish Pasty,” offered a recipe handed down for over 100 years (not actually about a pasty that was 100 years old—much to the dismay of my grandson!) This was great, but I soon realized that unless I had time for an extra run to the grocery store and a day in the kitchen, we would be pasty-less. Or would we?

I led my “gang” into the kitchen, pulled open the freezer drawer and showed everyone eight beautiful pasties ready for the oven (courtesy of the really awesome Lawry’s Pasty Shop in Marquette, Michigan). Although this bakery is all the way in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the good news is that they are willing to ship nationwide. I heated up the oven, and in a wee bit over an hour there we all were, having a “right proper” pasty party!

As I was putting my grandson to bed that night he drowsily said to me “Gee, Grandpa, who would have thought old newspapers could taste so good?”

I just smiled and agreed!

Genealogy Tools & Resources Review: Best Bang for Your Buck!

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott shows the method he uses at the end of each year to evaluate all the genealogy tools and resources he used, to help him prepare his genealogy budget for the new year.

About this time of year I go through my annual exercise of evaluating the benefits, or “bang-for-my-bucks,” that I derived from the money I spent on genealogy tools and resources during the past year to indulge all my family history pursuits. I do this as the first step toward building my genealogy tool budget for the upcoming year.

More Bang for Your Buck, Greensboro News and Record newpaper headline 5 August 1984

Greensboro News and Record (Greensboro, North Carolina), 5 August 1984, page 144

2013 is no exception and, due to a variety of reasons, I decided that I was going to adhere to the “brutally honest” approach in my genealogy tools and resources review.

Each year I make up a simple table and list all the genealogy software and website subscriptions I spent money on for family history research and write them down in the far left-hand column. Then I begin to take stock of each of them. If you’d like to do a similar analysis for your genealogy tools and resources, feel free to use my spreadsheet as a model for your own evaluation.

Download the Genealogy Tools Evaluation Spreadsheet.

My evaluation criteria are simple and few. The following are the four I used for this year’s review:

  1. How often have I used the genealogy resource or tool in the past year?
  2. How successful have I been at finding useful genealogical information for my family tree from this genealogy resource or tool?
  3. How many times have I had an “AH-HA” moment of discovery using the genealogy resource or tool? And, of course,
  4. How much did I spend on this genealogy tool or resource?

I proceed to place a value of 0, 1, or 3 points for each of the first three evaluation criteria for each item in my list and the dollar amount in the fourth. Then just in case of a tie, I have a column on the far right-hand side that asks: Is this genealogy resource or tool fun to use? I really like to have fun with my family history, so I place a premium on those genealogy research tools and resources that offer me not only useful information, but some enjoyment as well. This column, since it is a tie-breaker, simply gets a “-” or a “+” sign.

When all was said and done, after this exercise my genealogy tools budget for 2013 was remarkably easy to assemble.

My review includes every subscription and membership that I purchased during the year for any genealogy or history society, museum, software program, database, or association. In my case (simply for example) I have such diverse line items as MyHeritage.com (the software I use for my family tree and our family social network website), the British Newspaper Archive, Ohio Genealogical Society, Ancestry.com, Ohio History Society, Cornwall Family History Society, Minnesota Historical Society, Association of Professional Genealogists, National Genealogical Society, Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International, National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library, Ontario, Canada Genealogical Society, and almost two dozen additional state and local societies—in addition to GenealogyBank. I include them all from my largest individual annual outlay of $299 for Ancestry to my smallest for a local genealogical society that still only charges $10 a year. (I do not enter the costs I incur each year for experts, long distance assistants, translators, and genealogy tourism/travel in this evaluation spreadsheet because I have a different analysis I use for these outlays.)

You might find it interesting to know that GenealogyBank.com was one of the very top-rated genealogy resources in my analysis.

screenshot of an Excel spreadsheet

The following are the answers from the table I constructed:

  1. I used GenealogyBank.com at least every week and some weeks every day: 3 points.
  2. Over and over, on almost every log-in, I discovered extremely useful, critical, and unique information for my family tree: 3 points.
  3. My “AH-HA” moments were numerous, ranging from articles that provided needed background, obituaries that listed previously missing family members (especially married names of daughters and nieces), and the intensely precious newspaper photos that in several cases make up the only family photo we have of a particular family member: 3 points.
  4. I pay for my GenealogyBank.com subscription on the annual plan, so I notice when I have to part with the fee of $55.95—but I actually do it with a smile because if I divide this total by month, day, article found, or “AH-HA” moment, it works out to pennies a discovery. Well worth it!

Oh, and one of my favorite parts is that GenealogyBank.com also gets a “+” in the “fun column.” I have had more fun finding my family history discoveries and learning new and exciting aspects of the times of my ancestors through GenealogyBank’s newspaper collections than I have had on any other genealogy-oriented site. In fact I always find myself looking forward to logging in, ready for another session.

So GenealogyBank came out of my analysis with a score of 9+, the highest possible score. Renewal for sure!

We all know that genealogy can be an expensive hobby, but in this case there is no second-guessing my use of GenealogyBank.com as one of my premier, must-have sites.

I hope you found my genealogy resource and tool review method helpful. Good luck with your own family history searching in 2013!

Old Newspapers Help Find Family’s ‘Lost’ Town

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott searches online newspapers to solve the mystery of why/how his ancestor’s hometown of North Hibbing, Minnesota, disappeared.

We all know how challenging it can be to find elusive ancestors for our family history and genealogy work. However, recently I had an almost opposite situation. I knew my ancestors and family members, but their hometown was gone! So I decided to give GenealogyBank.com a try to see if their newspaper archives might be of help to me.

I had often heard my father-in-law, Carlo (God rest his soul) talk about being born and raised in the town of North Hibbing, Minnesota. He spoke fondly of this community, what a close-knit place it was, and related wonderful stories of being a youth in what seemed like less complicated times. His stories would always end with the statement that the whole town was gone now. I was remiss in not asking how a whole town goes missing, but I never did ask.

GenealogyBank.com to the rescue!

I used GenealogyBank’s Advanced Search function and entered “North Hibbing.” I was thrilled when the search results page came back with 73 entries for the “missing” hometown.

As I scanned the newspaper articles, I was treated to snippets of life in North Hibbing. A billiard hall raid (complete with a signal system to alert the hall’s owners), meetings of The Sons of Italy Italian Lodge, the beginnings of the Greyhound Bus company—which started with a seven-passenger Hupmobile running in North Hibbing, and even a fellow who reportedly brought in his 49th and 50th wolf skins to collect the bounty.

I even learned about the North Hibbing lingerie thief!

Thief Steals Lingerie, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 7 November 1922

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 7 November 1922, page 4

Then I hit pay dirt with another article from the Duluth News Tribune. This article explained that some 40 residents of North Hibbing were suing to keep the city from moving the City Hall out of North Hibbing.

Hibbing City Hall Restraint Suit Opens, 2 Witnesses Testify, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 18 January 1922

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 18 January 1922, page 6

Odd, I thought—who moves a whole City Hall? So I searched further.

The next article told much more of the story. I learned that the residents’ lawsuit made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court. This article, along with others, explained to me that the Oliver Mining Company owned the very valuable mineral rights under the city of North Hibbing. That was why the city agreed to move the City Hall, to make way for a mine.

In their lawsuit, the residents argued that it was unlawful for Hibbing to turn public property over to the mining company—but they lost their case, City Hall was moved, and the mining company got to work.

Hibbing, Mines Win Battle over Property Sale, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 19 October 1922

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 19 October 1922, page 5

The railroad then abandoned the North Hibbing line, and the city began to disappear. Quickly everyone had to sell their homes and relocate. Not long after, the city of North Hibbing vanished to become a new open-pit iron mine feeding the burgeoning steel mills of Cleveland, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Then, as Carlo used to say, the entire town was simply gone.

So now I have a much more complete understanding of the missing town of North Hibbing and it has added greatly to our family history.

My next stop? Back to GenealogyBank.com so that I can try and find out what transpired in the old neighborhoods of my Czech ancestors in Cleveland, Ohio. All I know now is that those neighborhoods are six lanes of Interstate concrete. I wonder if my Czech ancestors fought the changes like the residents did in North Hibbing?

She’s Been Workin’ on the Railroad! Researching Railway Records

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott discovers his centenarian cousin once worked for the U.S. Railway Mail Service—and delves into some railroad history.

As a genealogical historian, one of the aspects of family history I love the most is discovering something new about an ancestor. Then I can take some time off from working on my family tree and spend it learning about this new aspect, or area, that I have uncovered. So it was recently as I found myself once again working on my Bohemian (Czech) ancestors in Ohio.

This time I was delving into one of my first cousins, twice removed, Theresa (Sluka) Armstrong. I was reading her obituary in GenealogyBank.com and among all the other tidbits of great information I was finding, I came upon the statement that she was a retiree of the United States Railway Mail Service.

As you can see by reading my cousin’s obituary, Theresa was 100 years old when she passed away. She must have loved the city as she was the wife of a Cleveland policeman and the sister of Frank and Albert Sluka, who were also both Cleveland policemen. (You can read about the tragic murder of Albert Sluka in my previous GenealogyBank.com blog article found at http://blog.genealogybank.com/author/scottphillips.)

obituary for Theresa Sluka Armstrong, Plain Dealer newspaper 19 February 1991

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 19 February 1991, page 11

The more I thought about it, the more intriguing this organization called the United States Railway Mail Service became to me. Additionally, I found it quite interesting that my female cousin worked for them. Having never heard of it before, I began investigating her occupational history with the railroad almost before I realized it.

Still on GenealogyBank.com, I began searching on “U.S. Railway Mail Service” and was instantly treated to amazing railroad background and historical information.

Unbeknownst to me, in about 1863, the United States Postal Service began outfitting and utilizing specially-designed railway cars to accommodate the collecting, sorting, and distributing of mail aboard railroad trains as they traversed across the United States as an integral part of the early postal system. This efficient railway system was even designed so that at many locations, usually smaller, rural towns where the train did not stop, mail pouches were hung by the railroad tracks where a special “arm” attached to the train would snag the bag while moving. Then the postal clerks on board would retrieve the pouches, open their locks, and sort and process the mail as the train roared along. The train never slowed down or missed a beat!

Quickly I was treating myself to multiple stories about the development, history, and operations of the United States Railway Mail Service. One of my early favorite stories was from an 1891 newspaper article that not only explained the functioning and design of this delivery service, but even contained a drawing of what the mail pouch pick-up looked like.

Mail on the Rail, Plain Dealer newspaper article 25 October 1891

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 October 1891, page 13

Then I really found myself hitting pay dirt with a 1909 newspaper article from North Dakota. This historical article is an entire page of the newspaper explaining in detail the U.S. Railway Mail Service and containing six extraordinary photographs of the working areas of these specialized train cars. It even contains the names of the postal clerks working that run. Lists of employee names are always a treat for genealogists and family historians!

U.S. Railway Mail Service in North Dakota, Grand Forks Herald newspaper article 24 January 1909

Grand Forks Herald (Grand Forks, North Dakota), 24 January 1909, page 16

I am now engaging in a full pursuit of finding the employment and pension records for my cousin, which for the U.S. Railway Mail Service are held at the Civilian Personnel Records Department of the National Personnel Records Center, housed at the National Archives and Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri.

I am keen on discovering more about the employment history of my centenarian cousin and finding out if her working career involved actually “riding the rails” or staying on the solid ground at the station in Cleveland.

 

 

You Find Family in the Most Unexpected Ways

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott tells about doing genealogy research on an author—and finding a surprising, direct link to one of his own ancestors.

Recently I was searching the Internet for genealogy resources relating to the early Czech-American immigrant community. I was looking for information that would assist me with my work on my early Bohemian (Czech) immigrant ancestors who settled in the City of Cleveland, Ohio. In conducting my genealogy search one of my first hits was for an article in the journal MELUS (Volume 6, Number 2) published by the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States.

This article, written by Professor Clinton Machann of Texas A&M University, is titled “Hugo Chotek and Czech-American Fiction.” Reading this scholarly article on author Hugo Chotek and early Czech fiction writing in America, I was so impressed that I gave Dr. Machann a call. Since that day we have enjoyed staying in touch and I am pleased to say we have now become friends.

One sentence stuck in my head as I read Dr. Machann’s article. It was this one: “Although we have little biographical data on Chotek…” I found this particularly interesting since Dr. Machann also pointed out that Hugo Chotek spent at least some portion of his life in the Czech community in Cleveland. So, always hoping to find a hidden genealogical gem, I began investigating to see what I might discover about this gentleman.

photograph of gravestone of author Hugo Chotek (1851-1911)

Gravestone of Hugo Chotek in Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio. © 2012 Scott Phillips

Wondering where to begin, I decided on searching GenealogyBank.com to see what I might discover about Chotek in its online archives. I was especially hopeful that I would find relevant information because I remembered that Machann’s article also mentioned that Chotek spent time living in the Czech communities of New York, Michigan, Texas and Nebraska in addition to the time he spent in Ohio.

It was exciting to see how much data availability and access has improved since 1979 when Dr. Machann’s article was written. Searching on Hugo Chotek with GenealogyBank, my first hit was stellar! It was a 1911 newspaper obituary entitled “Bohemian Editor Stricken by Death.” Opening this article, I was even treated to a portrait of Hugo Chotek himself. If you are like me in your genealogy work, you love getting to “see” someone and there he was—looking quite dapper, I might add.

Bohemian Editor Stricken by Death, Plain Dealer newspaper article 11 May 1911

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 May 1911, page 4

My interest in author Chotek was deepening the more I was reading. Here was a fellow who, while not only an author, was also an accomplished newspaperman! As a genealogical historian I believe there is little better than reading work by newspapermen and women as they follow that old adage of the 5 Ws: “Who, What, Where, When and Why,” exactly the kind of information we so wish to find.

I was quickly discovering Hugo Chotek’s family history, connecting with his living descendants, and finding more information about his work in the Cleveland Czech community. For example, this newspaper article announcing the marriage of Hugo Chotek’s daughter Anna was very helpful, containing many excellent genealogical leads, and including her picture.

Cleveland Woman Who Marries Lawyer, Plain Dealer newspaper article 7 July 1913

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 7 July 1913, page 11

Look how much genealogical information is contained in Anna Chotek’s one-paragraph marriage announcement:

Mrs. Edward J. Russick, Plain Dealer newspaper article 7 July 1913

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 7 July 1913, page 11

I was especially interested to learn that Chotek had written about the early Czech community not once but twice, and—for me most exciting of all— finding his one-on-one interview with Frantisek (Frank) Knechtl, my very first Bohemian ancestor who arrived in Cleveland in 1852 and remained there until his death in 1911.

It really is amazing how you can find family in the most unexpected ways!

photograph of a page from "Amerikan Narodni Kalendar" featuring interview with Frantisek (Frank) Knechtl

Page from Amerikan Narodni Kalendar featuring interview with Frantisek (Frank) Knechtl. Scan courtesy of Archives of Czechs and Slovaks Abroad collection, University of Chicago Library. © 2012 Scott Phillips

Now I have my work cut out for me. My company, Onward To Our Past® Genealogy Services (http://www.OnwardToOurPast.com) is undertaking the first-ever translation from Czech to English of the more than 220 pages of both of Hugo Chotek’s works on the Cleveland Bohemian (Czech) community, written in 1894 and 1895. Containing several hundred surnames, these works, once translated, should be a bonanza for many genealogists and family historians for generations to come.

 

 

Genealogist Chips Away at His Family History ‘Brick Wall’

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott tells how the discovery of a faded news clipping in the drawer of an old desk provided an important clue about his family history.

The most impenetrable brick wall in my personal genealogy quest began as, and continues to be, my maternal great grandfather, Joseph K. Vicha.

When I was starting my genealogy the sum total of our family’s knowledge about my great grandfather Vicha was his name, his wife’s name (Anna Knechtl), and a penciled note of unknown date and author that simply stated “Joseph K. Vicha – Pisec (sic).” Nothing more.

Over the years of my searching, I can happily report that I have been successful in finding my great grandfather’s birth family, home village in Bohemia (Czech Republic now) of Milevsko, and have traced this family line back to the mid-1600s in Bohemia. However, he still disappears from view in 1911. But what wonderful things I am finding in the years between his birth in 1862 and his disappearance in 1911!

What I am discovering to be an extraordinarily useful method in my work is to expand the search terms I am using in GenealogyBank.com and other places.

A couple of examples might help me explain this best.

Quite by chance, my cousin was rummaging through an old family desk when he came across an envelope. It held a barely legible, torn, and undated newspaper clipping. This article showed me that my great grandfather was a labor union activist with something called the C.L.U. in Cleveland, Ohio.

old, faded newspaper clipping about J. K. Vicha, the author's ancestor

Old, faded newspaper clipping that provided the author his first clue in tracing his ancestor J. K. Vicha

Upon learning this I immediately started searching anew on GenalogyBank.com. I searched using terms such as C.L.U., Central Labor Union, and Joseph K. Vicha in the search boxes and I struck gold!

My first hit was an article from the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, dated 28 November 1896 and headlined “Vicha Will Resign. Will Retire From the Presidency of the C.L.U.” I still feel pleased when I think back on that discovery, and am thankful the newspaper articles in GenealogyBank.com are very carefully digitized and come complete with attribution of newspaper and date.

Vicha Will Resign, Plain Dealer newspaper clipping 28 November 1896

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

This early article held the new clue that my great grandfather was seeking an appointment from Ohio’s governor, Asa S. Bushnell, to become the superintendent of the Free Employment Bureau. On I went with new searches looking into the Free Employment Bureau in Cleveland and sure enough there was more to be learned! Soon I was discovering that my great grandfather was also a close political advisor to Robert E. McKisson, a two-term mayor of the City of Cleveland from 1895 to 1898.

Mayor McKisson Had His Picture Taken at a Bohemian Reunion, Plain Dealer newspaper article 27 June 1898

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 27 June 1898, page 5

I was fast learning to follow each seemingly unrelated, but actually related, clue in article after article. For instance, moving from Vicha I found myself searching on Central Labor Union, then moving to C.L.U., Mayor Robert McKisson, Labor Unrest, Cloakmakers’ Strike, Lumbermen’s Strike, Czech, Bohemian, and the name of each company where my great grandfather was reported to have been working. One especially nice aspect of GenealogyBank.com is that it not only contains papers from the major Cleveland daily, the Plain Dealer, but it also has issues from the Cleveland Gazette and the Cleveland Leader.

Real Condition Given by Superintendent Vicha of the Cleveland Free Employment Office, Cleveland Gazette newspaper article 15 December 1900

Cleveland Gazette (Cleveland, Ohio), 15 December 1900, page 1

While searching each new term, it was exciting to find that while my great grandfather did start out as a tailor just like his father, he:

  • became a Union organizer
  • was active in some of the most contentious labor strikes in the history of Cleveland
  • was elected the president of the Central Labor Union
  • received a gubernatorial appointment as the superintendent of the State of Ohio Free Employment Bureau in Cleveland
  • fought against sweatshops and child labor in Cleveland
  • authored a bill for the Ohio State Legislature to provide for the teaching of Bohemian (Czech) in the public schools
  • worked as a political advisor to Mayor McKisson
  • was instrumental in the mayor’s campaigning in the Bohemian community of Cleveland
  • and, while making some of the most powerful enemies one could have (such as Mark Hanna, Max Hayes, and United States President William McKinley), great grandfather Vicha was also recognized as one of the most influential Bohemians in Cleveland at that time

Unfortunately, my great grandfather does simply disappear in 1911. Family legend has it that he was branded “persona non grata” by his political and business-community enemies in Cleveland and was forced to leave in order to find work and survive.

Undeterred, I am continuing my hunt—chipping away at the brick wall that is Joseph K. Vicha after 1911. I just have this feeling that the resources of GenealogyBank.com are going to hold the key for me!

Family Search Uncovers Circus Elephant Story

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott speaks of his love of genealogy, and shares some of the family history discoveries he’s made—including the tale of an ancestor, a zookeeper, who was nearly trampled to death by Minnie, the lone elephant at Cleveland’s Brookfield Zoo, in 1915!

Right off the bat I’ll admit it. I’m a genealogy nut! My wife calls my pursuit of family history “our shadow.” My favorite quote is “I used to have a life and then I started doing genealogy.” Plus, I am hoping for another grandchild, simply because I have a myriad of historic family names that I think need to be carried on. I wonder what my chances are for either Lovejoy Cinderella for a granddaughter or Sylvia Marathan for a grandson?

Well, maybe not.

Additionally, it is a matter of great personal satisfaction that I have been able to trace my family roots, with documentation, to the 1500s on my father’s side (Phillipps and Cottle) in Cornwall, United Kingdom; to the early 1600s on my mother’s side (Vicha and Knechtl) in Bohemia, now the Czech Republic; and to the 1700s with my wife’s families (D’Aquila and Casagrande) in the Molise district of Italy. My Cornish and Bohemian immigrant ancestors all happened to find their separate ways to Cleveland, Ohio, between 1852 and 1911. My wife’s ancestors made their way to the Mesabi Iron Range of northern Minnesota.

The “Chase-of-the-Trace”

While the thrill of what I have dubbed the “chase-of-the-trace” is always amazing, I have to admit that, for me, the best part is more often the “little things.” You know, those human interest stories or unexpected items that one discovers pursuing genealogy and/or family histories. Sure there is the rush of excitement when we chip a brick out of a longstanding wall by finding a birth, marriage, or death certificate we’ve long been looking for, but to see the real lives of our ancestors unfold is what gets me truly excited.

A personal goal in my family tree and website (which I keep on the genealogy/social network site MyHeritage.com) is to find, capture, and then weave the threads of the culture, times, and values of our ancestors into what I call the quilt of our family history. For instance, in my family I will be the last person who will have grown up hearing Czech spoken in our home. I don’t want that memory to be lost. Not ever!

Sister Marjorie: the Chase Begins

Recently I got a phone call from a Cleveland cousin. Since I use our genealogy website as our worldwide family social network, she wanted to inform me of the passing of another cousin, Sister Marjorie. In the family we knew Sister Marjorie, before her vows, as Florence Kotrsal, a member of our Knechtl family branch. Cousin Florence had always intrigued me, especially since she was a twin (rare in our family tree) and I had not done any significant amount of work on her. As so often happens, the loss of a family member caused me to be doing something a bit too late.

First, I began learning more about her life as a member of the Order of the Sisters of Holy Humility of Mary where she lived for 73 years in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania. Next, I began to work more on her family members. I knew Florence was the daughter of Dr. Joseph J. Kotrsal (later, as with so many Slavic names in my family, “Americanized” to Kottershall) and Florence Kapl, and that Florence was the twin sister of Josephine. I began to move back in time and soon discovered I was in my favorite element, which is the early Bohemian community of Cleveland, Ohio.

As always, one of my first stops during my family history search was at GenealogyBank.com. I love the site and the coverage in the Cuyahoga County/Cleveland/Northeast, Ohio, area through the Plain Dealer and the Leader is excellent and very deep. Plus, with bated breath, I am awaiting their forthcoming additions of some of the early Cleveland Czech-language newspapers they recently acquired from the Balch Museum in Pennsylvania.

Sister Marjorie’s Father, Dr. Joseph J. Kotrsal (Kottershall)

J.J. Kotershall, Physician, Is Dead, Plain Dealer 11 December 1945

Obituary for Dr. Joseph J. Kotrsal (Kotershall), Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 December 1945, page 6

During my family search my first exciting discovery was that Florence’s father, Dr. Joseph J. Kotrsal, was the same medical doctor whose name I had seen frequently on death certificates and other documents. As I searched farther, I found his obituary, always a terrific find. As I read, I was amazed to see that Dr. Kotrsal was instrumental in bringing the very first x-ray machine to Cleveland, Ohio. Now you might think this would have changed him as a person or his practice, but his obituary states that he continued to focus on providing medical care in the Bohemian community of Cleveland his entire life.

An additional precept in my personal family history work is that I want to be as inclusive as possible, so I study spouses and their families for equal inclusion in my family tree. In this case, I directed my searching to Florence’s maternal grandparents, Joseph F. and Louise Mary (Babicky) Kapl.

Circus Elephant Story

But Never Again! Says Keeper Kapl of Minnie, Plain Dealer newspaper article, 23 March 1915

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 23 March 1915, page 4

The next item I found brought me to a stop. The first “hit” (of 31) in Historical Newspapers on Joseph Kapl, Florence’s grandfather, was a real keeper. Zookeeper that is! Not only was there a full newspaper article on this man, but there was a story, a terrific ink drawing of Joseph (so far the only picture anyone in the family has of him), and the unique story of how he was nearly trampled to death by Minnie, the lone elephant at Cleveland’s Brookfield Zoo, where Joseph happened to be Minnie’s keeper. Very kindly, the newspaper reporter even thought to list Joseph’s home address in the article, which matches spot-on with the 1920 United States Census listing for the Kottershall family.

Between the obituary for Dr. Kottershall and the wonderful circus elephant story with Joseph Kapl these newspaper articles gave me the exact threads I was seeking—ones that allow me to weave a bit of what the real lives of my ancestors were like into the quilt of our family history that I am still laboring over.

Ah, but what a labor of love it is!