September 29, 2012

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the U.S. Census (but were afraid to ask), home of the 1940 U.S. Census Community Project, has released an interactive census graphic to celebrate the fact that the 1940 Census is now fully indexed and searchable, free to all, thanks to the contributions of thousands of volunteers. The graphic, called “The American Family Through Time” and set up like a board game, is fun to explore and informative to boot.

Clicking on one of the decades launches a descriptive page on that census, including population data from the U.S. Census Bureau displayed in colorful pie charts. Another click takes you to a handy list of questions asked on each census. Back on the main board, you can access graphics on occupations, housing, and education. There’s even a card pile of “Fun Census Facts” full of census trivia to keep you busy. It’s an entertaining way to illustrate what otherwise could be some rather dry material.

Progressing through the board really brings home the changes in census statistics over the years. Makes me wonder what the Americans of 1790 would think if they could see the country today. One thing's for sure: we’ve come a long way, baby.


September 26, 2012

Grandpa's Chris-Craft

The summer weekends of my childhood revolved around Buckeye Lake, a small lake east of Columbus, Ohio, that seemed like a world away. My Grandma and Grandpa, Nora and Lloyd Ballenger, had a cottage there, and the whole family—aunts, uncles, cousins—would go out every Saturday and stay together. I remember many a Saturday evening lying on the floor of the cottage watching The Lawrence Welk Show, My Three Sons, Get Smart, and my favorite, Petticoat Junction, on the big console TV.

One of the highlights of each weekend was going for a boat ride. Grandpa had a gleaming Chris-Craft Continental that he kept hoisted at the dock, which we called simply “the Chris Craft” (no fancy name on the stern for us). I loved standing on the dock with my life jacket on, watching the boat being lowered into the water. It fascinated and terrified me at the same time. As Grandpa turned the ignition, the engine would roar to life with a spew of exhaust, settling into a loud chug-chug-chug-chug. And Grandpa didn’t like to waste time or gas. Once the boat was running, he wanted everyone aboard that was going aboard, now. The boat was deep and, for a child’s legs, hard to get into. A side windshield prevented me from climbing into the front seat, so I either had to be lifted in or gather my courage and jump onto the rear seat. Once safely in, I could feel the big, trembling motor, which was enclosed under a covered case in the center of the boat. I usually perched on top of the case as we backed out of the dock. From there, I could see everything.

My favorite time on the boat was the first part of the ride, as we puttered through Maple Bay at slow speed. I had a plastic boat on a string, and sometimes I’d put it in the water and watch it trail behind me, riding alongside the big boat. Grandma was always afraid I’d lean out too far and fall in. But it wasn’t falling in that I was afraid of—it was going fast. Once we left the safety of the harbor and passed the No Wake buoy, I knew Grandpa would give her full throttle. I pulled my toy boat safely inside and looked for a more secure place to sit.

When it sped up, the bow of the Chris-Craft raised high out of the water, while the stern seemed to sink. It took each wave with a hard thump! and a downward lurch. I remember being told I should sit in the back where it was smoothest, but I didn’t like it there. It felt too open and too low. Instead I’d push forward, through a little gap and onto the front seat, which usually held three people. They’d shift over to make room. The two front lines of the boat, used to tie it up at the dock, draped over the front windshield like reins from a horse. And that’s exactly what I’d do: hold onto those lines for dear life, pretending I was riding a galloping horse (not that I’d actually been on a galloping horse, but I’d watched my share of Bonanza). Having something to hold onto helped, but I was always relieved when we slowed to idle speed again.

Of course when I got older I wasn’t scared any longer. Then it was fun to sit in the stern (it really was smoother back there) and stick my arm out as far as it would go to catch the waves on a hot summer day. The Chris-Craft had an impressive wake and threw a lot of spray to each side. As the water hit my arm, it splashed over everyone nearby. My brother was even better at soaking us than I was. Grandma was still afraid we’d fall out.

We only had a few destinations on the lake, primarily the Buckeye Lake Yacht Club, Sayre Brothers Marina, and the gas docks at Millersport, where we’d hop off and run into Weldon’s Ice Cream Factory. That was a real treat. Sometimes we’d take the boat to go see friends of Grandma and Grandpa’s, but a lot of times we’d just cruise around, poking into some of the old canals and cutting through masses of green lilypads. When the lake was smooth and the Chris-Craft planed out, she could zip down to Thornville in no time.

Learning to ski behind her took every ounce of determination I had, though. There was no swim platform in back, just the slippery teak hull that I had to thrust myself off of, with only a skinny foam life belt between me and that churning lake. First one wooden ski on, then the other, clutching the ski rope tightly as I assumed the position for take-off. The boat had so much momentum that even when it wasn’t in gear, it would still drag me along slowly, my skis out of whack, until Grandpa or Dad gave it the gas and it roared to life. Then up, up I’d will myself, only to pitch forward or be hit broadside by a wave. My nose full of water, I’d hastily raise one ski high in the air to avoid being run over by other speeding Sunday afternoon boaters. The Chris-Craft would circle around, almost swamping me with its wake, and we’d begin again, until finally I’d make it up, victorious. 

Eventually my parents bought their own boat, and my trips in the Chris-Craft grew less frequent. It was still fun to gather everyone on board and head out for a ride, but whole weekends would go by without Grandpa uncovering it. Wooden boats require a lot of maintenance as they age, and I guess it got to be too much for him. He sold the Chris-Craft around the time I graduated from college, and never bought another boat. But to be honest, it wouldn’t have been the same even if he had. That boat and I grew up together, like summer pals, and somehow it seems fitting that we went our separate ways at childhood’s close. But what sweet memories we share.


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September 23, 2012

Buckingham Palace, Leonardo da Vinci, and a Lesson for Us All

I recently returned from a two-week vacation in Europe and Great Britain, leaving my daughter behind in London for a semester abroad. While there, I had the chance to tour Buckingham Palace, parts of which are open to the public a few weeks each summer while the Queen is at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. The state rooms of Buckingham Palace are fittingly ornate and impressive. I particularly enjoyed walking up the Grand Staircase to the Ballroom, then into the State Dining Room, where Queen Elizabeth II is said to personally supervise the details of the place-settings and menu for each occasion. I felt an undeniable sense of history touring the Palace during Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year (that’s an amazing 60 years on the throne).

Buckingham Palace (author's photo)

As part of my Royal Day Out ticket, I also got to tour The Queen’s Gallery, which currently is featuring an exhibit on Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist. And it was there that I received an unexpected, yet very powerful, lesson that I think relates directly to all of us engaged in tracing our family history.

Before my visit, I didn’t know that da Vinci, painter of The Last Supper and Mona Lisa, also studied anatomy. He made copious notes and fabulously detailed drawings of animal and human anatomy in the late 1400’s and early 1500’s, keeping them in various notebooks over the years. By the time he died in 1519, he had made discoveries and drawn sketches that could have transformed the study of anatomy for generations to come—if only other scientists had known about it.

But therein lies the rub. You see, da Vinci never published his ground-breaking work. It remained in loose, uncollected form upon his death. Even worse, da Vinci wrote his notes using “mirror writing”—a left-to-right hand style that is extremely difficult to decipher. Odd notebooks full of strange drawings and unreadable script that fellow artists and scientists didn’t even realize existed? Sad but true. Da Vinci’s work disappeared into oblivion. The sketches and notes were eventually collected into an album and acquired by King Charles II, but they were not interpreted and their significance recognized until the early 1900’s—roughly 400 years after they were first written. By then, other scientists had made even greater strides in anatomical studies, and da Vinci’s discoveries had lost their impact.

 Da Vinci's anatomical study of the arm
Da Vinci's drawing of a fetus in the womb

So what does all this have to do with family history? In the end, I think it comes down to two words: publish and preserve.

Now I’m the first to admit I get caught up with the thrill of the hunt. It’s hard to take time out to write my thoughts and conclusions up when it seems like more ancestors are waiting to be discovered around every corner. If only I branch out more widely, or reach back another generation, or break through that elusive brick wall—then I’ll write it up, I tell myself. It’s not finished yet, and besides, there’s always tomorrow.

But the sad truth is, there’s not always tomorrow. The recent death of John Humphrey, one of the world’s foremost genealogists and a wonderfully generous instructor and author, has driven home that point. Our time here is not unlimited. And if we want our work to survive us and be beneficial to those who follow, we need to make sure it’s preserved in useable, accessible form.

The lessons I hope to learn from da Vinci are:

1. Write in a format that will be universally readable and understandable for ages to come.
The fact that others couldn’t read what da Vinci had written was a big part of the problem. How do we make sure future generations can read our findings? Personally, I think this means we need to produce material in print rather than rely on computer files. Two hundred years from now, I’m pretty certain someone will be able to pick up a piece of paper written in English and read it. I’m not so sure that they will be able to access a DVD, flash drive, or GEDCOM file. And the “cloud” is still brand new territory. Technological changes are hard to predict, and today's Word file might be mumbo-jumbo tomorrow. Saving things electronically for current use is fine, but for the long haul, go with the hard copy.

2. Compile your findings into some organized, cohesive form—a report, article, book, lineage application, chart, or anthology.
Da Vinci’s lesson here is straightforward: don’t leave your hard-won research languishing in a stack of files or notebooks that no one else will make the effort to compile. Realistically, will your descendents, or even your favorite genealogical society, be willing to sift through piles of documents or layers of computer files? And will they know the conclusions you intended to draw? I don’t see anyone in my family raising a hand for that job. Along with this comes the responsibility of letting those who read your work know where you got the information. That doesn’t mean your source citations have to be perfect, as long as they contain enough detail for others to find and evaluate what you looked at.

3. Share your information with others by publishing or distributing it.
While publishing a family history book may be the ultimate goal for many of us, it can also be intimidating. But publishing doesn’t have to be a huge, one-time proposition. If you have a blog or family history website, you can publish some findings there. You could also write an article for your local or state genealogical society publication. Perhaps you could send copies of a report you write for yourself to others researching the family. There’s no right or wrong way to get the word out. Even the simple step of making multiple copies of a family summary and giving them to a number of people (say, all of your siblings and first cousins) is valuable. I inherited significant information on two family lines that way. Online family trees and wikis make it easy to collaborate with other researchers, as long as caution is used when merging material. And that book you’ve always wanted to write someday? Maybe a series of mini-books would be a more approachable goal. 

I realize that this is easy advice to give, but tougher to follow. If I intend to take it, I’ll need to make compiling and writing up my research more of a priority. But walking through that elegant gallery admiring what should have been ground-breaking work, only to discover that it completely lost its impact because it was never communicated effectively, was a powerful lesson. And it’s one I think has real significance for all family historians. Who better to learn it from than a master, and what better place than a royal palace?


(Images of pages from da Vinci’s notebooks, illustrating his mirror writing, are from Wikipedia Commons and are in the public domain in the U.S. The photo of the embryo studies page, taken by Luc Viatour,, is considered one of the finest images in Wikipedia Commons.)

Copyright 2012, Shelley Bishop

September 19, 2012

Harold Eberhard, Sports Car Driver

“Harold in sports car” is scrawled on the back of this photograph in my grandmother’s distinctive handwriting. Harold Llewellyn Eberhard, her older brother, was born May 15, 1896. The photo was probably taken at the family farm near Galena in Delaware County, Ohio, judging by the barn behind him. It looks like maybe he had just wheeled the car out of the open barn door, doesn't it?

I don’t know whether Harold owned the car or not, but he sure looks like a proud young man sitting up there in the driver’s seat. I’d like to use the car to help date the photo, but I’m woefully unfamiliar with early vehicles. Any antique car enthusiasts out there want to take a guess as to the make and model of his “sports car"?

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September 14, 2012

Follow Friday: Ohio Genealogy Bloggers

I’ve created a new page here at A Sense of Family that I hope will become a good resource for people searching for genealogy blogs written in and about Ohio. You’ll find it under the “Ohio Blogs” tab at the top of the page. I’ve compiled a list of many of the blogs I know about, but it’s still very much a work in progress. So if you write or know of a family history blog that focuses on Ohio ancestors, localities, records and/or repositories, please let me know in a comment or email so I can add it to the list. I’d like to include blogs by Ohio genealogical and historical societies and organizations, too. With your help, I hope to build a useful directory to all the talented bloggers writing about Ohio genealogy.

As always, thanks for reading!

September 1, 2012

Time for a Happy Dance

If you’re like me, it’s not often that you find something genuinely exciting in your email inbox. But yesterday I received a real gem, and I’m eager to share it with you. So I hope you’ll join me for a moment in a little cyberspace happy dance.

The email was from Diana Chrisman Smith. The first line grabbed my attention right away: “Congratulations! You are one of the winners in the ISFHWE Excellence-in-Writing competition for 2012.”

Did I read that right? I quickly read the rest and downloaded the attached list of winners, and sure enough, under the “Columns” category, there was my name. Not once, but twice. I had won first and second place in the category!

Woo-hoo! After re-reading it a few times to let it soak in, I had to jump up and tell somebody. My daughter was the only one home, and to her credit, she was genuinely happy for me. She even put the list on the refrigerator door with a magnet. And if that’s not a sure sign of a Very Important Paper, I don’t know what is.

So now I’m proud to share the news with you, too. My winning entries are:

This story is one of my personal favorites. It tells the tale of my grandparents’ elopement on the day of the OSU-Michigan football game in 1935, some of it in my grandmother’s own words. It was published on November 1, 2011 for the Carnival of Genealogy, and you can read it here.

This post has received more views than any other I’ve written. It recaps the experiences of my great-great-great grandfather in the Civil War, as pieced together from a numerous records and historical accounts. It was published on April 10, 2011 for Bill West’s Civil War Challenge, and you can read it here.

All of this had its start at the NGS Family History Conference in Cincinnati in May. I’ve been a member of the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors for about a year, so I stopped by the booth to pick up the ribbon for my badge. There were a few other people there too, and Diana, who was staffing the booth, encouraged us all to enter the Excellence-in-Writing contest. The deadline was fast approaching, and I mentioned that I didn’t have time to write a new article specifically for the contest. But she told me that individual blog posts are eligible for entry under “Columns,” and I could use anything published in 2011. Hmmm. Something to think about.

So a week later, I looked through my posts from last year and found two that I felt did a good job of telling a family history story. I thought if I submitted them, it would be valuable to get the judge’s remarks back. I sent the entries in and pretty much put the whole thing out of my mind, until the email arrived yesterday.

I’d like to say thank you to ISFHWE for this honor, and for the support they offer to family history writers. I’d also like to thank my family, who doesn’t think it too terribly strange that I like to spend my days digging up clues to our family’s past (or if they do, they hide it well). And most of all I’d like to thank you, my much-appreciated readers, for your time and the comments you leave that show you’re interested and engaged. More than anything else, that encourages me to keep writing.



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