Filling In My Family Tree with Stories in Old Newspapers

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this blog post, Scott shares some of the family stories he’s learned by searching through old newspapers—stories that help him get to know his ancestors better than just the names and dates on a family tree.

Everyone who enjoys working on their family history knows that nothing enhances your family tree and attracts more family to your work than the stories you weave together in your research! My family tree is full of interesting stories—and I am always on the lookout for more of them to add to our family history every opportunity I get. One of the best places I have found for discovering these stories is in historical newspapers—and GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives are my “go to” source for those newspapers.

GenealogyBank’s newspapers have given me some of the biggest leads in my genealogy work, as well as having added real sparkle to, and interest in, our family tree.

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My Great Grandfather the Union Man

It was a newspaper discovery that really helped me break down the brick wall that was my maternal great grandfather, Joseph K. Vicha. My breakthrough genealogical find was this 1896 newspaper article that stated: “J. K. Vicha of the Clothing Salesmen’s union was nominated and elected by acclamation.” With this tidbit of knowledge that my great grandfather had been the president of the Central Labor Union, I was able to begin following his career through the years.

article about Joseph Vicha being elected president of the Central Labor Union, Plain Dealer newspaper article 9 January 1896

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 9 January 1896, page 3

It was then with particular interest that I read an article from the same date but published in a different Cleveland newspaper, titled “Peanut Reform. How the Central Labor Union Regards the School Bank.” It seems that with my great grandfather as president, the Central Labor Union was protesting the establishment of savings accounts at public schools…something that I well remember from my own younger school days. I guess he must not have been successful in his protest on this matter!

article about the Central Labor Union protesting the establishment of savings accounts at public schools, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 9 January 1896

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 9 January 1896, page 8

My Mother’s First Engagement

Another fascinating fact I found concerned my own mother. While I was looking for any possible newspaper articles regarding her marriage to my dad, I happened to find this 1942 article. It was a brief story regarding an engagement announcement made by my grandmother for my mother, Laverne Evenden. However, I quickly noticed it was to a man she never ended up marrying. What a fun family find! Plus it brought a great opportunity for me to hear the whole story of what happened from my mom later on.

engagement notice for Laverne Evenden and Lincoln Christensen, Plain Dealer newspaper article 4 January 1942

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 4 January 1942, page 50

My Cousin & Minnie

Of course one of my all-time favorite story finds in the newspaper for my family tree—as regular readers of this blog have heard me talk about before—was the story of one of my cousins, Joseph Kapl, who as a zookeeper was almost trampled to death by the “loveable” Minnie the elephant!

article about zookeeper Joseph Kapl and Minnie the elephant, Plain Dealer newspaper article 23 March 1915

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

The West Side “Dean”

In one instance I was able to find, in an obituary, wonderful details about the life of another of my ancestors, Dr. J. J. Kotershall. While I am accustomed to finding worthwhile genealogical information in obituaries, Dr. Kotershall’s held some real gems. His 1945 obituary explained that he was “instrumental in bringing to Cleveland the city’s first X-ray units in 1903.” It also reported: “Born in Cleveland of Bohemian parentage, Dr. Kotershall had spent the major part of his practice among the Bohemian, Slavic, Polish, and German groups on the West Side.” The old news article even listed where he attended college and conducted his internship. It was a real gold mine.

obituary for Dr. Joseph Kotershall, Plain Dealer newspaper article 11 December 1945

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 December 1945, page 6

Pictures of the Pretty Twins

On another occasion I was working on a branch of our family tree that included two sisters, Josephine and Florence. I had the feeling they might be twins since their births were listed as the same on the 1920 U.S. Census. Then I discovered a 1937 article with the headline “Twins Choose Dissimilar Careers.” This old newspaper article confirmed my suspicion that the sisters were indeed twins, plus it featured photographs of the twins as well—and provided a very complete review of their formative years. The best, however, might have been the fact that it also listed their parents and home address.

article about the twins Florence and Josephine Kotershall, Plain Dealer newspaper article 7 June 1937

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 7 June 1937, page 3

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A Genuine Country Fair

In addition to our ancestors’ stories that we can find in newspapers, there are also those stories we can discover that add to our understanding of places and events in our own lives. For instance, as a youngster I remember when the week of the county fair was something that my buddies and I looked forward to all year long. The rides, the midway, the games, the booths, the animals, and naturally the food! In just a few minutes of searching in the newspapers I found an 1896 article showing that the fair began as the “West Cuyahoga County Fair” and was advertised in the newspaper back then as “a genuine country fair.”

article about the West Cuyahoga County Fair in Ohio, Plain Dealer newspaper article 16 September 1896

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 16 September 1896, page 10

As this 1927 newspaper advertisement shows, it is evident that the fair had become “the” fair since it was billed as simply the “Cuyahoga County Fair” complete with horse racing and the King’s Rodeo.

ad for the Cuyahoga County Fair in Ohio, Plain Dealer newspaper advertisement 28 August 1927

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 August 1927, page 10

It was even more fun when I came across a 1967 news article. Oh, how that one brought back memories! My best boyhood friend Matt and I would marvel at the sideshow barkers while we tried to make up our minds as to which show we would spend some of our hard-earned paper route money to see! Those were the days!

article about the sideshow barkers at the Cuyahoga County Fair in Ohio, Plain Dealer newspaper article 18 August 1967

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 18 August 1967, page 8

Over and over, newspapers provide us with key leads, great stories, and many details about the times of both our own lives and our ancestors.

What are some of your favorite stories you have found in the newspapers as you work on your genealogy and family history? I’d love to hear them so please leave a comment!

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My Ancestors’ Life Stories as Told in Old Newspapers

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this blog post, Scott shares some of the family stories he’s learned about his ancestors by searching old newspapers.

Stories are what make our family trees and all the work we do in our genealogy truly come alive! If you are like me, the stories about your ancestors were the initial spark that ignited your interest in conducting your genealogy research and discovering the amazing stories of your family’s history. The old family stories you discover and preserve also spark the interest of others to begin their own genealogy work, or perhaps to carry on your family history work.

The stories of the lives of our ancestors can come to us from a variety of sources. Many come firsthand from our elders and other members of our extended family, often aunts, uncles, and cousins who enjoy sharing all kinds of memories. Another great place to find the stories of our ancestors is in old newspapers, which is a big reason why I keep on subscribing to GenealogyBank.com. Let me tell you some of the family stories I have found in newspapers.

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The Charvat Family Tragedy

Of course there are the sensational stories that capture the attention of the reporters. I happened to come across one of these while working on a branch of my family tree recently: the Charvat family. After going through the more mundane aspects of genealogy such as census records, I moved on to newspapers and found this 1951 article. It was a true tragedy.

Not only did this unfortunate little girl of 14 lose her mother to murder and her father to suicide, but the story related that she “tiptoed to her door and opened it when she heard her father and mother arguing. She saw them struggling over a shotgun. She saw shooting.” The article goes on to say that the mother and father had argued previously over the husband’s desire for his wife to “follow the European way by staying home.”

From a genealogy perspective, this article not only provided quite a bit of information on the deaths of the parents, but also informed me of the jobs of those parents, that they only had the one child, gave the name of the grandmother, and the home address that matched their listing in the 1940 U.S. Census.

Girl (Corrine Charvat), Orphaned by Murder, Suicide, Is Shock Victim, Plain Dealer newspaper article 21 July 1951

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 21 July 1951, page 4

Joseph Kapl & Minnie the Elephant

There are also the extremely humorous stories you find occasionally. One of my all-time favorite funny stories that I discovered in the newspapers was this 1915 article titled “I Fed Her; I Petted Her; I Trusted Her; But Never Again!” This story detailed how my ancestor, Joseph Kapl, was a zookeeper who was entrusted with the care of Minnie the elephant at the old Brookfield Zoo in Cleveland, Ohio. It seems that Joseph was attacked and almost trampled by this elephant! Now there is a story you don’t read every day in your genealogy! You can read more about this humorous family story in my previous blog post “Family Search Uncovers Circus Elephant Story.”

article about zookeeper Joseph Kapl, Plain Dealer newspaper article 23 March 1915

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

From Banking to WWII

There are also some wonderful articles that I have found in newspapers’ Business Section that are filled with valuable family history information. One example I found is this 1943 article, which continued my work on my Kapl family line. This old news article provided me with some very nice details regarding the career of Joseph H. Kapl, who was the son of the zookeeper. It seems that Joseph must have decided that banking would be safer than dealing with elephants!

Kapl Is Head of Branch, Plain Dealer newspaper article 8 January 1943

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 8 January 1943, page 9

Going back further in time, I learned about another ancestor from this 1896 newspaper article. In this historical news article I discovered that my great grandfather, Joseph Vicha, was an officer of the Central Labor Union—and he not only addressed a crowd of striking garment workers in Cleveland, but he did it in “Bohemian.” All key pieces of information for our family tree.

article about Joseph Vicha, Plain Dealer newspaper article 27 April 1896

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 27 April 1896, page 10

Even an apparently mundane newspaper article can hold genealogy treasures for us as well. This 1942 article about registration for WWII included a list of inductees from the previous week, which included one of my cousins, Allan R. Evenden. This tidbit of information allowed me to begin researching his military records for our family tree.

article about WWII registration of soldiers, Plain Dealer newspaper article 5 April 1942

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 5 April 1942, page 33

Grandma’s Letter in the Cleaning Column

Another article I discovered even caused me to chuckle a bit. This 1961 article came with the pretty bland title of “Bleach Ineffective on Cement Spots.” It just goes to show you never know where in the newspaper your ancestor might turn up!

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It turns out that my grandmother, “Nana,” had written in to the cleaning column in the newspaper asking how to remove dark spots in her new cement breezeway. She said in her letter “I thought it needed a good sweeping, but I have scrubbed with soap and swept, but it is no different.” I actually laughed out loud when I read that since my mind went back to my many visits to my grandmother’s home, at her request, to apply yet another of her home remedies combined with lots of elbow grease to try and get those spots out of her new cement. I guess Nana was using the equivalent of the Royal “we” when she said “she” scrubbed and swept those spots.

Bleach Ineffective on Cement Spots, Plain Dealer newspaper article 2 September 1961

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 2 September 1961, page 41

I could continue on and on with many more family stories I’ve discovered in the newspaper archives through the years, but instead I’ll ask you: what are some of the best stories you have uncovered in newspapers that now bring your family tree to life?

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GenealogyBank Made 2013 Best 101 Genealogy Websites List!

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott—sparked by an award announcement he read—reminisces about some of the great family history discoveries he’s found in GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives.

Congratulations on the great news! I just read that GenealogyBank.com, one of my all-time favorite “Go To” genealogy and family history websites, has been selected one of the “101 Best Websites for Genealogy in 2013” by Family Tree Magazine again! You can find the list online on the “Best U.S. Genealogy Websites of 2013” page on the Family Tree Magazine website.

I was happy to see this selection for such a super genealogy website, especially when I know that Family Tree Magazine has the largest circulation of any genealogy/family history magazine in America. I’m going out now to get my copy—the new issue of the magazine went on sale at newsstands nationwide today—to read all about the inclusion of GenealogyBank.com in the “101 Best.” This is certainly well deserved recognition for a terrific genealogy website.

Personally, I access GenealogyBank.com on almost a daily basis. Not only do I look up articles of interest on my ancestors, but with the constant growth and daily additions to GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives, I am always finding new and exciting gems for my family tree.

As I think back, GenealogyBank.com has provided me with some of the most memorable discoveries for my ancestry and in my genealogy work.

I will never forget the excitement and feelings of wonder when I first subscribed to GenealogyBank.com and quickly discovered an article in an 1897 Ohio newspaper titled simply “His Commission.”

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 had been working for years trying to find any clues that might lead to my great-grandfather, Joseph Vicha. This was especially meaningful since my then 90-year-old Mother had asked me to “find my grandfather” for her. This old newspaper article was the first lead I found, and it included such details as his work, approximate age, his activities in the Bohemian community, and even that he had received this position through an appointment by the governor of Ohio. It opened the doors to dozens more articles that have resulted in me gaining a much fuller picture of my great-grandfather. It was through a lead in one of these follow-up articles that I was able to locate an actual image of my great-grandfather. To this day it is the only known photograph of great-grandfather Vicha the family has ever seen.

photo of Joseph K. Vicha

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

I have used GenealogyBank.com to find the serious side of my ancestors’ lives, such as death notices, estate matters, divorces and more. I have also found the positive through births, marriages, anniversaries, and even stories of surviving when the ship they were on was torpedoed by a U-Boat!

I have even found stories that amazed me. One of my favorite family stories was this discovery in a 1915 Ohio newspaper titled “I Fed Her; I Petted Her; I Trusted Her; But Never Again!” This wonderful newspaper article that covered the story, complete with a pen and ink image of my ancestor, Joseph Kapl, (and “Minnie” the elephant too), related how he, as a zookeeper, was almost trampled to death by Minnie the circus elephant!

article about zookeeper Joseph Kapl and Minnie the elephant, Plain Dealer newspaper 23 March 1915

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

I constantly work to weave what I call the tapestry of our family history. I attempt to find and join the threads of our family’s cultures, values, and histories together into a tapestry that will represent all we are and all we have been, for the future generations. I couldn’t do that without the wonderful stories I find in newspapers thanks to GenealogyBank.com.

Congratulations again on being named one of the “101 Best Websites for Genealogy in 2013.” To me you will always be my #1!