Got Burnout? Go Play in a Genealogy ‘Playground’

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott explains what he does to refresh himself when experiencing genealogy burnout after hitting a brick wall in his family history research.

One of the most common concerns I hear from genealogists is burnout. It can happen to anyone, especially after a difficult period of hitting a “brick wall” in your family history research. This got me to thinking about what I did at times in my life when I felt a case of burnout coming on. Most frequently, I recalled, it seemed to attack me in elementary school…almost every day, in fact. Then I remembered recess and the playground!

When I was a youngster in school, recess was my favorite time of day—next to dismissal when the school day ended. At recess I’d race to the playground just to see what was exciting, what was new, who was there, and what fun I could have. I’d come back in for the afternoon refreshed and ready for schoolwork again.

For me, GenealogyBank.com sometimes functions as my “Genealogy Playground.” In addition to being one of my primary “Go To” genealogy resources, it is also the place I love to go just to see what I can find, learn, have fun with, and almost always discover something to add to my family tree. Plus, the knowledge of history that I gain from GenealogyBank’s large newspaper archive helps me better understand the times and world of my ancestors.

In just half an hour of genealogy play time, I can find some great stuff! In my most recent case of “30-minute recess” I found fascinating articles simply by searching on the terms “immigration statistics,” “Berea, Ohio,” and “WPA Writers’ Project.”

In my first search I discovered some interesting statistics on immigration from the fiscal year ending June 30, 1896.

Italy Heads the List, Emporia Gazette newspaper article 18 July 1896

Emporia Gazette (Emporia, Kansas), 18 July 1896, page 1

This historical newspaper article listed the countries of origin and the numbers of immigrants to the United States from each country. I was surprised to learn that Italy was first in total number of immigrants that year, and found it enlightening that from the total number of hopeful immigrants, over 3,000 were rejected for being “paupers,” “convicts and laborers,” “idiots,” “insane,” and/or “diseased.”

Then I came across a fun historical gem about my own hometown. I always knew that Berea, Ohio, was called “The Grindstone City,” but I knew next to nothing beyond the fact that as a boy I enjoyed swimming in the abandoned quarries that had filled with water.

Letter from Berea, Ohio, Cincinnati Daily Gazette newspaper article 2 June 1869

Cincinnati Daily Gazette (Cincinnati, Ohio), 2 June 1869, page 1

This old news article explained to me the whole business of quarrying, making, and marketing the famous Berea Grindstones.

Since I am a fan of, and interested in, the Works Public Administration (WPA) and especially its Writers’ Project, I conducted that search in the archives next. I am fascinated as a genealogist and family historian that this project employed some incredible writers and also created significant and priceless Americana. With a quick online search I found (among the more than 350 newspaper articles) an interesting story.

Schools Carry Out WPA Writers' Project, Oregonian newspaper article 3 May 1936

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 3 May 1936, page 3

This historical news article intrigued me as it explained that a teacher, in partnership with the WPA Writers’ Project and its United States Guides series, created a school history project. The old article states: “Pupils of these schools collected information relative to local Indians, pioneer characters and incidents, and buildings and sites of historical interest.” How I would love to read those stories about those Indians and pioneers! I bet they held some priceless insights and information, especially from the perspective of youngsters.

So, in spending just half an hour playing in GenealogyBank I had some great experiences, was refreshed, and gained some great knowledge.

My advice for genealogists experiencing burnout? Don’t forget how fun and invigorating recess can be!

Italian Immigrant Ancestor Helped Carve Mount Rushmore!

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott shows what he found in newspapers about a friend’s ancestor who helped carve Mount Rushmore.

Almost all of us have stories of immigrant ancestors who came to the United States and toiled to make a better life for themselves and their families. Many, like mine, did so in relative anonymity. However, not too long ago I came across one immigrant to America who did his toiling in plain sight…and I mean really in plain sight!

photo of Luigi Del Bianco carving the left eye of Abraham Lincoln on Mount Rushmore

Luigi Del Bianco carving the left eye of Abraham Lincoln on Mount Rushmore. Photograph credit: Windows Live Photo Gallery.

A few weeks ago I was working on my wife’s Italian ancestry, especially her immigrant grandparents who came to America from the Molise district of central Italy. As I was working on this, I received an email from Lou Del Bianco. Lou’s family also came from Italy to the United States in search of the proverbial “better life.” While my wife’s ancestors were miners and agricultural laborers, Lou’s grandfather, Luigi Del Bianco, was different. He was a classically-trained sculptor, who as a young man studied in Austria and Venice.

Lou had quite a story to tell and he was interested in having it promoted on my website (http://OnwardToOurPast.com) and on my Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/OnwardToOurPast). Once I heard the basics of Lou’s story, I was hooked!

So naturally the first thing I did was click over to GenealogyBank.com to see what I might find on Lou’s grandfather, Luigi. As usual, I was not disappointed and I was able to add to Lou’s knowledge about his grandfather and his work.

The first story that I found was an article explaining Luigi’s arrival on his job: as Chief Carver on Mount Rushmore! Yep, the Mount Rushmore! As I said, this story is about one immigrant who “did his toiling in plain sight”!

According to the newspaper article, Luigi was the right-hand man to Gutzon Borglum, the driving force and lead on the Mount Rushmore project.

Borglum Aide Arrives to Assist in Rushmore Work, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 4 May 1933

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota) 4 May 1933, page 10

While there were over 400 men working on the giant carving, Luigi was one of only two trained sculptors, and as a result was named as the Chief Carver by Borglum. He spent an amazing seven years carving on the Mount Rushmore monument from 1933 to 1940.

As I continued to search in GenealogyBank.com’s online newspaper archives, I found some great stories about the carving of the Mount Rushmore memorial. I enjoyed an old news article published in the Tampa Tribune from 1927, when the Mount Rushmore project was still little more than an idea in Borglum’s head.

Start Soon Carving Head of Washington on Mount Rushmore, Tampa Tribune newspaper article 31 March 1927

Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Florida), 31 March 1927, page 23

The following historical newspaper article reports the hilarious exchange of telegrams between Borglum and President Calvin Coolidge regarding the history that President Coolidge wanted carved on Mount Rushmore, and Borglum’s attempt to cut the wordy President’s text down to size.

For Intimate Correspondence, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 29 May 1930

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 29 May 1930, page 6

Here is an old news article reporting that Luigi kept a life-size cast of the fist and arm of famed Italian heavyweight boxing champion Primo Carnera in his studio—a  model which folks often mistook for a sledgehammer!

Hills Sculptor Knew Carnera as Youth in Italy, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 29 June 1933

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 29 June 1933, page 2

I have since learned even more about Luigi Del Bianco, this amazing Italian American immigrant, who—although  not well known—accomplished some of the best known work in our entire nation, artistic carving that millions of tourists have viewed with awe and wonder.

In addition to reading about Luigi on GenalogyBank.com you can also discover more about his life and work at http://www.luigimountrushmore.com, or you can see how the hit television show Cake Boss recently baked a Mount Rushmore cake in honor of Luigi on Lou’s website at http://www.findlou.com.

Mining for My Italian-American Wife’s Minnesota Hometown History

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott tells about researching his ancestors’ lives and the history of the Mesabi Iron Range in northern Minnesota where they lived.

The most significant blessing in my life was when the young woman who is now my wife of 37 years said “yes” to my proposal of marriage. During our courtship I learned that she and her family were living in a part of the country that I was not particularly familiar with. OK, wait, I will rephrase that and be more honest about it. While the blessing part is 100% accurate, the fact of the matter is that when I met my future wife I did not know a plug nickel’s worth about her hometown area, which is located on the Mesabi Iron Range in northern Minnesota. One of my favorite aspects of genealogy is learning the history of the times that goes along with discovering our ancestors and their information.

Learning the ancestry essentials from my wife was easy. Her family is 100% Italian on both sides, all four of her grandparents emigrated from central Italy to northern Minnesota for economic opportunity, I was going to be the first non-Italian to ever join her family (but that’s a story for a different time), northern Minnesota is far more beautiful than I had ever imagined, and the area owes its prosperity, and future, to the iron ore hiding in the soils of the Mesabi Iron Range.

photo of workers at the Scranton Mine in Minnesota in 1932

Author’s grandfather-in-law, Pasquale, during the Great Depression at the mines of the Mesabi Iron Range. This was the entire annual output of the ore from the Scranton Mine in all of 1932. From the collection of Scott Phillips.

Several years ago, as I was researching deeply into my wife’s Italian ancestry, I realized I had a hankering to learn even more about the history, background, and the life and times of the area in northern Minnesota that her Italian immigrant grandparents chose to call their new home. While I knew a lot from wonderful stories told to me by her grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and especially her parents, I was looking forward to learning even more.

So naturally I found myself clicking over to GenealogyBank.com to delve deeper into her Italian family’s past!

Utilizing the “Advanced Search” feature on the site, I began by looking up such keyword terms as Mesabi Iron Range, Hibbing, Chisholm, Eveleth, Minnesota, while tossing in a surname and a few other terms periodically. My depth of understanding was growing with every old newspaper article I was reading. As the expression goes, “It’s the next best thing to being there.”

For me, one of the most impressive features of GenealogyBank.com is the geographic reach of their more than 6,100 newspapers, which I was having a blast researching. It was thrilling to be reading a full page story from 1890 in the Chicago Herald titled “Mountains of Riches,” all about the early times on the Mesabi Range.

Mountains of Riches, Chicago Herald newspaper article 14 October 1891

Chicago Herald (Chicago, Illinois), 14 October 1890, page 9

Another interesting historical newspaper article was about the challenges of building the first railroad from Duluth, Minnesota, on the shores of Lake Superior to the towns on the Iron Range, published in the Duluth News-Tribune.

A Road to the Mesabi, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 6 June 1891

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 6 June 1891, page 2

Of course, being an avid American baseball fan it was personally thrilling to find an old newspaper article in the Marietta Journal, in Marietta, Georgia, on a story from the movie Field of Dreams that was relating the true story of Doctor Archibald “Moonlight” Graham. This time the story was being told by our family friend and a newspaper editor herself, Ms. Veda Ponikvar, of Minnesota’s Chisholm Free Press.

Real Character in 'Field of Dreams' Has Point of View, Marietta Journal newspaper article, 1 June 1991

Marietta Journal (Marietta, Georgia), 1 June 1991, page 2

Then just for what seemed like good measure, I found myself reading an obituary from the Hibbing Daily Tribune for one of my wife’s uncles. It was an obituary that I didn’t have in my family tree.

Mike D'Aquila Newspaper Obituary, Hibbing Daily Tribune newspaper article, 21 September 1999

Hibbing Daily Tribune (Hibbing, Minnesota), 21 September 1999

This obituary brought back wonderful memories of family times gone by—especially since the article was noting that his funeral was held in The Church of the Immaculate Conception, which I was quickly remembering was known all over the Iron Range simply as “the Italian Church” since daily Mass was still said in Latin and Italian. There I was, all over again, sitting in those church pews surrounded by family.

Now here I sit, smiling and teary-eyed all at the same time.

 

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!