Locals catch genealogy bug

Geneva, IL

Bill Park’s grandmother was born in a time when people primarily used horses and carriages to get around and she lived to see men walk on the moon.

His grandmother’s forbearers arrived in America from England shortly after the Mayflower in 1636. Park, a Geneva resident, describes his ancestors as rustics and is proud to proclaim that his family members have served in every major American conflict, from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War.
Park knows this because of his genealogical research.

The genealogy bug was planted in the 79-year-old Geneva resident when he was a child and his grandmother Elsa Topfer would tell stories to him about what life was like in the past.

“I guess that’s what peaked my interest in genealogy,” Park said.

But it’s more than just finding who his family members were and where they came from.

“For me, at least, and for my kids, it brings history to life,” Park said.

Growing popularity
Genealogists say the field seems to be growing in popularity because of web sites, such as Ancestry.com, and TV shows, such as “Who Do You Think You Are,” which highlights family histories of celebrities.

“Family history appears to be more easily researched with many resources available on the Internet,” said Susan Lye, president of the Kane County Genealogical Society. “... I think that the combination of information availability and change in marketing of family history has spurred the increased interest in genealogy.”

KCGS was formed in 1978 and currently has about 100 members locally and nationwide. The group helped the Kane County Clerk’s Office arrange marriage licenses in the early 1980s and currently organizes and indexes national records and sorts probate records. Members also have worked with the Kane County Coroner’s Office and the Geneva History Center and have been recognized by local entities for their research and work, Lye said.

“A lot of people come to our organization because we have been somebody that can get things done,” she said.

Lye said Ancestry.com has done a fabulous job of marketing the benefits of genealogical research, but added it’s also important to be part of a group such as the KCGS. Ancestry.com runs commercials showing people discovering remarkable and historical facts about their family line.

Lye said genealogical research is typically done individually, but periodic group interaction can help spur new ideas about other resources.

“You don’t know what you’re missing,” Lye said. “Our newsletter provides information you don’t readily find online, such as newspaper extracts, personal histories or a grandparents’ diary.”

KCGS also holds monthly meetings open to the public at the Geneva History Center featuring different discussion topics. Last month, the topic was about Irish emigration and in May, local historian Craig Pfannkuche talked about how to deal with “bad apples” in a family tree.

Lye, for example, has an ancestor that was accused of murder.

“I don’t think that it reflects on me,” Lye said. “We have no control over our family’s past.”

Geneva resident Jean Mallory attended the May presentation and later found one of her ancestors had been indicted for murder in Rockford around the Depression Era while she was searching through Chicago Tribune archives at the Elgin Library.

“I had to laugh out loud when I found it because I wasn’t looking for a black sheep,” Mallory said.

But researchers also might find other surprises in their family tree. Mallory said she might be related to movie star Nancy Walker, who was popular in the 1970s.

“We all have the good, the bad and the ugly (in family histories),” Mallory said.

Preserving the past
Park said he has hundreds of photos and other records he’d like to digitize and preserve online. Digitally preserving old records is a task Park and other genealogists spend much of their time doing.

Mallory said there is a growing effort to combine the genealogy world with the technology world which is evident with the first large RootsTech conference about the subject held earlier this year in Salt Lake City.

And genealogists also hope to get young people more involved. Lye said most of the 100 members in KCGS tend to be older adults.

Lye’s daughter, Kelsey Davis, 19, said she likes genealogy but doesn’t like all the work and research that comes with it.

“It’s cool to know where I come from,” Davis said.

Lye said most people tend to become more interested in genealogy when they have families of their own or have the time to research later in life.

But both Park and Mallory agree that young people should spend time and try to learn about their family past from their grandparents and even great grandparents while they still can.

“I wish I started (genealogical research) when I was much younger,” Mallory said who’s in her late 50s. “(My grandparents) had stories to tell. Now they’re long gone.”

Park is doing his part and has told his two children several stories about his past and his service during the Korean War.

“It brings history alive and gives them a sense a place,” Park said.

Top Genealogy research sites, databases
Ancestry.com: Costs $155.40 per year
Genealogy.com: Costs $79.99 per year
Deathindexes.com: Some fees, which range based on services
Rootsweb.com: Free
Familysearch.org: Free
Lostcousins.com: Free

Suburban Life reporter Marissa Bruno contributed to this story.