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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2014 New Year’s Resolution: Find All My Ancestors’ Obituaries

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott shows how he is putting his New Year’s genealogy resolution into action: using historical newspapers to find obituaries for all his American ancestors.

Happy New Year! It is always a terrific feeling to start a whole New Year with a clean slate that holds untold potential! Nowhere do I feel this potential more than in working on my genealogy, ancestry, and family history.

Each year at this time, like most of you I am sure, I spend a few minutes making my New Year’s resolutions. I make my personal resolutions and then I also make a few genealogy-related resolutions. Among others this year I included the following:

I resolve to find an obituary for every one of my ancestors in America!

A tall genealogical order you say? I agree, but if I am going to take the time to make a New Year’s resolution I want it to be something that I can really sink my teeth into and enjoy all year long. Plus having just renewed my GenealogyBank.com subscription, I feel as though I already have a head start on my resolution because this collection of more than 6,500 online newspapers contains over 220 million obituaries and death records.

Here is how I am going to achieve success with this resolution in 2014: one person in our family tree at a time. I will start by moving back in time from my own entry on our tree. Just as a note, I created—and continue to build—our family tree using Family Tree Builder software, and I maintain it on a site through MyHeritage.com so that it is quite easy for me to review each document, photo, etc., which has been attached to our family members. These include any obituaries that I have already discovered. A quick review of some entries was all it took for me to realize that I was missing quite a few obituaries in order to make my family tree more complete.

Sadly, I have the obituaries for both my mother and father because I was asked to write them, so I moved back one more generation and found that I did not have an obituary for my maternal grandfather, Allan Vincent Evenden. While I was surprised that I had overlooked getting this entry for our family tree, once I thought about it I realized that I had fallen into the trap of having received firsthand knowledge of the event without following up and documenting it for future generations! You see, my mom lost her dad when she was only 13 and I had heard the story of his passing during the depths of the Great Depression not only from my mom, but also from my grandmother.

Let the ancestor obituary search begin!

And so I decided to put my New Year’s resolution in action, and began searching GenealogyBank’s newspapers.

It didn’t take me long to find a notice in a 1933 Ohio newspaper announcing the funeral for my grandfather and requesting his Masonic brethren to attend and “Please bring your auto.”

funeral notice for Allan Evenden, Plain Dealer newspaper article 21 August 1933

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 21 August 1933, page 17

This newspaper funeral notice rang a bell in my memory and led me to my jewelry box. There I pulled out the only heirloom passed down to me by my grandmother: my grandfather’s pocket watch. As you can see in this photo, there on the fob is a Masonic symbol which, after reading the above notice, gained new importance to me. By the way, the photo attached to the fob is the only photo we have of my grandfather, so this heirloom is quite a gem to me!

photo of the pocket watch and fob once belonging to Allan Vincent Evenden

Photo: watch and fob of Allan Vincent Evenden. Credit: Scott Phillips.

Genealogy Tip: Get the whole story

Then as I looked further for more information on my grandfather I was given a fun little genealogy lesson. My next discovery was again in the Plain Dealer, from 1942. It announced the marriage engagement of my mother, Laverne, the daughter of Mrs. Allan V. Evenden, on Christmas Day 1942 to Mr. Lincoln Nels Christensen. Whoops! While that is my mom and this engagement did occur, for some reason the marriage didn’t. So remember to always do that “reasonably exhaustive search” when you are working on your genealogy. It is important that we make sure to get the whole story from beginning to end.

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

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

Finding the obituaries of Grandma & Aunt Em

Then my New Year’s resolution dealt me my second genealogy lesson of the day. You see, one of my pet peeves has always been that up until college, all my history teachers ended their history lessons just before the timeframe they lived. Well, I discovered with my next family tree review that I was guilty of the same error! After attaching my grandfather’s funeral notice to our family tree, I clicked on my grandmother’s record and discovered I had made that same mistake—I had ended too soon. I was with my grandmother when she passed away and I had not documented the history I had lived. I was able to quickly correct my oversight when I found my grandmother’s obituary in the Plain Dealer from 1970. As an added genealogy bonus, there on the same page of search results was an obituary for my Aunt Em, another one that I had missed!

obituary for Mae Anne Evenden, Plain Dealer newspaper article 14 August 1970

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 14 August 1970, page 23

obituary for Emily Vanek, Plain Dealer newspaper article 11 June 1980

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 June 1980, page 83

I couldn’t be more thrilled with how my 2014 New Year’s resolution is working out, and it is only the first week of January. While it might take me all year to find all of my American ancestors’ obituaries, I already know that it is one of the best genealogy resolutions I have ever made!

What has been the best genealogy New Year’s resolution you have ever made? Add your comment here and let me know.