Using History to Tell Your Family Story
Everybody loves a good story. Here is one experience where genealogy was brought to life by developing and understanding local history and culture of the time.
Everybody in my family – at least on my dad’s side – is a storyteller. Every event in their lives was and is a story. You never simply got up and went to school. Every day was a potential epic adventure. To hear my dad tell it, his life as a boy on the farm was one narrow escape after another, followed by record-breaking snowfalls, back-breaking labor, and hysterically funny pranks.
Not only do my relatives like to tell stories, they like to listen to them. Any piece of information, any fact or tidbit, is welcomed if it is served up as a story. It is from them that I learned the value of details.
Great-great-grandpa McConahy worked in a tin mill.
Try this instead:
Great-great-grandpa McConahy was a heater in a tin mill. His job was to keep the heated tin red-hot until it was ready to work. That meant he spent the day in an unventilated section of a long factory shed, standing in front of a furnace and rotating sheets of tin to keep them evenly heated. The heat was so intense that he wore wool long underwear under a long-sleeved wool shirt and wool trousers, with leather gloves, a wool cap, and heavy leather boots all designed to protect his skin from the sweltering heat. The tin factory was in western Pennsylvania where the summer temperatures can reach the mid-90s with a corresponding 90+ percent humidity. His work-week lasted six and a half days and sometimes he had to work 24-hour shifts….
Now you’re interested! You’re reading a story and the details have you hooked. You want to know more about this man and his life. Did he work in the tin mill his entire life? Was he ever hurt badly on the job? Why in the world would he want to work in such a miserable environment in the first place?
This story of Thomas Braden McConahy was the result of the 1910 U.S. Census which stated that Braden (as he was known) was a heater in a tin mill. It would have been easy to say “Heater. Hmmm, wonder what that is?” and move on to the next task, but by taking the time to do the research, I came up with a story about a man who worked a terrible job and died very young. This is a story that no one in my family knew but now will never forget.
One of my favorite sites for learning details about old occupations is Jane Hewitt’s Dictionary of Old Occupations: A-Z Index although sometimes simply using a dictionary or an online encyclopedia, like Wikipedia, is a another good way to gather information. In this case, I found my starting place in the Johnstown [Pennsylvania] Area Heritage Association’s Glossary of Common Occupations in 1900.
From there, I read a few articles about tin mills in America, including some congressional testimony about the rate of pay and working conditions of the heaters in tin, iron, and steel mills. By turning a fact into a factual story, I created something that the descendants of Braden McConahy, young and old alike, will remember and tell to their children.
Of course it is necessary to spend some time fleshing out the details of the “who, what, when, and where” that occupies so much of our time in genealogy. But keep going beyond that. Do some digging and find a good story or two to tell your family: pique their interest in and curiosity about their past with some tales of love or labor or loss. I suspect that they will ask you for more.
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