Local residents go digging for family histories

2011-08-14T00:00:00Z Local residents go digging for family historiesBy Phil Wieland phil.wieland@nwi.com, (219) 548-4352 nwitimes.com

VALPARAISO | A family reunion that has been held annually since 1940 and a box of names are what got Ilaine Church interested in genealogy.

"My grandfather lived in Porter County, and he and my mother always went to the reunion in Knox," Church said. "We had a box of names of the people that we sent invitations to the reunion each year. I asked how we were related to these people."

That was in 1986. Someone gave her some genealogy sheets for tracing the branches of the family tree back through time, and Church said she sent those out to people whose names were in the box.

"In those days nothing was indexed through all the microfilm of records," she said. "Eventually, I figured out who all these people were."

Her tree-tracking knowledge led to her helping others. She's active with the First Baptist Church, which was established in 1837, and sometimes gets calls from people looking for information about ancestors who attended the church.

She traced the family of her husband, Royal, back to 1631 Massachusetts, and the couple have traveled to places such as Mount Vernon, Ohio, and Fargo, N.D., to research their families.

While visiting Lookout Mountain, Tenn., they found a cemetery containing two graves of ancestors of each of them. The graves were side by side and both were killed in the Civil War.

Website provides grave details

VALPARAISO | The website findagrave.com lists hundreds of thousands of headstones from all over the world, and it's not just a place for people looking for the final resting places of the famous. Headstones also are a good source of information for amateur genealogists digging up family roots.

Larry Benner, of Valparaiso, is among those who has contributed information and pictures of grave markers to the site, more than 2,000 so far.

"I got interested when I saw someone had entered my parents' and grandparents' graves," Benner said.

Benner said his main interest is finding connections that tie different graves together.

"I might see they've got 25 graves with the same name, and I want to see who is related to whom. You can do that at the library. One thing I find interesting is I might find a child that died at birth, but you need to find the parents. A lot of times some are buried in one cemetery and others are buried somewhere else."

Usually the headstones he adds to findagrave.com are people he knows or is interested in. Some headstones have more than just the names and the dates of the person's birth and death. Some include other names that can be helpful in tracking down relatives.

The past is very much in her present

CROWN POINT | Like many people, Marlene Polster's interest in her ancestors started with the tales her grandmother told her while growing up.

When she started doing the research on her family's history in 1994, Polster discovered many of those tales were more fiction than fact, such as the claim she was descended from Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen's twin brother, Ira.

Polster now is recognized by the Indiana State Genealogical Society as the official genealogist for Lake and Porter counties. She works in the genealogy departments of the Lake County and Valparaiso public libraries, is an officer in several genealogical societies and does a little genealogical consulting on the side.

"It's been a lot of fun," Polster said. "I worked on my husband's side, and now I'm doing my mother's side. I am hooked. I work on it almost every day. It's like being a detective, and the thrill is seeking out information on how people lived way back when and who they knew.

"You enjoy it when you find something whether it's good or bad. You go back to seek more. You get an obituary to find out who the children are or the parents you didn't know in order to go back another generation. For myself, I've found at least one Civil War person. I haven't made it back to the Revolution yet."

Many of her clients are people from other areas who hire her to retrieve court records for them, marriage licenses, death certificates, deeds and such. She also is helping develop an index of Lake County marriages from the county's founding in 1836 and to 1957.

Porter Co. Courthouse a treasure trove

VALPARAISO | Row after row of huge, heavy books fill the shelves of the tiny room off the Porter County clerk's office, the official records dating back more than 160 years of county legal history.

County Clerk Karen Martin has been bringing the books out of storage, where many were deteriorating, and placing them in what used to be the employees' break room to make them more accessible to the public, although most of the documents have been scanned and are available on computer.

For most years, that information was mainly of interest to lawyers and legal types, but in the past couple of decades it has found a growing audience of people researching the various limbs of their family tree.

The leather-bound books, most of them handwritten, contain records of arrests, marriages, medical licenses, wills and anything that happened in the courts dating back to 1843. Martin said her office sees at least two or three people a week checking their family records.

Martin also has a box of wills from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. Some are handwritten and others are typed, but all of them are in excellent shape despite being more than 100 years old.

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