Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Tribute to the "Genealogy Ladies"

I spent the last week redesigning both my website and my blog hoping to find the inspiration to restart my effort to tell my family's story not only through my website but with this blog.  It seems only fitting that I dedicate this effort to those who helped me along the way, those who I fondly call the "Genealogy Ladies." This group of women took the time to spark my interest, to endure my pestering questions, and to provide help and guidance along the way. 

The first Genealogy Lady was not really a genealogist but my Aunt Helen (Melat) Steffee who I credit with igniting that genealogy spark within me.  I don't remember the specific date, but I must have been about 11 or 12 years old--which would be around 1976.  During one of her visits to my Grandmother Melat's house, Aunt Helen began recounting this story about our family being connected to William Mallet who was with William the Conqueror when he invaded England in 1066.  She talked about a castle that belonged to William Mallett located along the English coast, crumbling into the ocean. I was hooked! (Of course I would eventually figure out that William Mallet and the castle had absolutely no connection to my family. For the record, Aunt Helen was only recounting what she had been told by cousin and family historian Benava (Melat) McAneny.  Speaking of Benava, it is a good time to give credit to her and another cousin Mabel (Melat) Manson for their efforts in gathering information on the Melat family decades before I started.  Their work provided a solid foundation for all the research I would do on this family--except, of course, for the story about William Mallet and the castle.)

With the spark ignited, I began talking with family members, particularly my grandmothers Kathryn (Hoffman) Melat and Ethel (Redmond) Reese, about what they knew about the family.  They endured my pesky questions with a lot of grace, even though most were not the least bit interested--in fact both had family stories they would rather not talk about (subjects for future posts).  Since my effort began before I could drive myself I had to rely heavily on the generosity of  my mother to take me to visit family, cemeteries, libraries, and courthouses.  (I should also take this opportunity to offer an apology to her for my relentless pursuit of genealogy--I am sure there were times when she took me to my destination just so I would stop asking!)

Oil City Library, Oil City, PA
After I had exhausted the knowledge from my family members, I needed help to figure out what to do next (remember this was long before the internet...). With the notes I had taken and other family paraphernalia that I had gathered packed neatly in an 8½ X 11 inch box, my mom dropped me off at the Oil City Library where I was told I could find the help I needed.  I ventured into a stark white room in the basement that had a couple bookshelves filled with old books along one wall and a long folding table at the opposite end.  At the table were three women: Jean Stormer, who was pouring over a bound volume of old copies of the local newspaper, abstracting anything that she deemed to have genealogical value; Margaret Ward, her sister and certainly the most intimidating of the three, sitting with her arms crossed, talking to the third woman; and Alice Morrison, a school teacher by day and professional genealogist on the weekends and during the summer.  I can't imagine what those three must have thought when this 13-year-old boy walked into that room with a box full of random notes and equally random, incoherent questions. But they answered all of my questions and introduced me to microfilm which opened up the world of old newspapers and census. On subsequent visits to the Oil City Library I met Barb Harvey, a local history enthusiast, who kept things running at the Venango County Genealogy Club for years.  I would also find my way to the second floor of the Franklin Library where I would meet an equally helpful and influential Genealogy Lady Helen Ray.  I spent endless hours, mostly on Saturday afternoons, at these two libraries being tutored by these five women in the proper ways of genealogical research for which I am forever grateful.

Franklin Library, Franklin, PA
There were countless others who would influence me over the years.  Those who quickly come to mind are: Helen (Campbell) Snyder, a kindergarten teacher, family historian and distant cousin, taught me how to tell a story; cousin Mary Sanford taught me to be truly excited by our family history; Joyce Neidich, another professional genealogist (a distant cousin by marriage), showed me additional intricacies of courthouse research (and only charged me the family rate); Karen Golden Rodgers, a family historian peer of mine (another distant cousin), showed me a passion for local history as a backdrop for the family history; and Sylvia Coast, who works in the Pennsylvania Room at the Franklin Library (with no known family connection to me), has always been extremely helpful when I go back after years of being away and don't know where anything is anymore, which is very much appreciated--and most important, being a familiar face after all these years. Oh and I can't forget Jennie Brandon and Sue Buchan, the Registrars at the courthouse (both cousins), for providing a friendly atmosphere for researchers--even when that researcher was a teenage boy!

Venango County Courthouse, Franklin, PA
I can't end this post before I make special mention of Alice Morrison, the single biggest influence on my development as a family historian (of course, a distant cousin of mine).  For a professional genealogist, time is money, but she never charged me a penny for all the help she gave me.  She never did any research for me, but she taught me and guided me to do my own research.  Mrs. Morrison was a very unique individual to say the least.  When she had raised her children and retired from teaching she left behind the comforts of home and family to live in very primitive circumstances in the woods outside of Titusville, Pennsylvania where she pursued her real passion which was for the outdoors, hiking, birdwatching, and studying the local flora and fauna. She had no telephone (nor electricity I believe), which meant that I could only get in touch with her when she happened to be in her office she kept in an office building in Titusville.  But when she was there she continued to make time to mentor me.  She taught me the ropes of doing research at the courthouse--skills I could use in any courthouse in Pennsylvania.  She showed me the importance of keeping track of my sources, documenting everything, a routine that would serve me well as I gathered more and more information.

It would be disingenuous of me not to mention that there were also "Genealogy Guys" who helped me along the way: Dennis Armstrong, a fellow family and local historian, taught me the importance of knowing the local history; Bill Poulter, a fellow researcher who volunteered with me on Saturdays in the Heritage Room at the Oil City Library; and Gary Edwards who has been a faithful volunteer at the Heritage Room over the years.

I will remember Mrs. Morrison and all of the Genealogy Ladies (and the Genealogy Guys) fondly and with great respect.  They all took the time to help, engage, mentor, and respect me despite my age.  And to that end I dedicate the Speaking of Family website and blog to all of them.


  1. Saw your blog listed at Geneabloggers, congratulations. I my self got started in genealogy thanks to my father and grandmother.

    Take care,

    Moises Garza
    We Are Cousins - My personal blog about South Texas and Northeastern Mexico Genealogy

    Mexican Genealogy - Blog where I help anyone with Mexican roots get started with their family history.

    1. Thanks Moises. There are a lot a great blogs out there--lot of great ideas for my own blogs.

  2. A very cool idea, to list your "mentors." I'm especially intrigued by Mrs. Morrison. She sounds like she would have been a wonderful inspiration!

    1. Thanks Heather! I thought this would be a good place to kick-start my blogging efforts. They all helped me along in there own ways so it only seems fitting.