Mar 10, 2011

Unusual Sources for Family History

My great-grandfather, Charles Lagergren, was one of the last blacksmiths in central Minnesota. I've known that ever since I can remember, though he died many years before I was born. Although I have photos of him, I wish I could find one of him working in his shop. (There is a painting, hanging in my parents' house, that my grandfather commissioned. [right]) The blacksmith trade died out long ago. It was doomed as soon as automobiles became popular. True, there are still metalworkers and machine shops who perform the same basic services, but they're usually tucked away in industrial areas. Blacksmith shops, along with livery stables, used to be downtown, in the middle of everything. Now I'm no Luddite, lamenting the loss of the olden days, or confused by all this newfangled technology. I just wish I could see how people lived back then. Modern conveniences make life so easy, we take a lot for granted.

The reason I bring all this up is a fortuitous find I made on a visit to the county history museum where he, and several of my ancestors, lived. I knew they had surname files, tax and probate records, and the typical sources county historical societies archive. But in the Lagergren surname file, besides clipped obituaries and other miscellanea, were three invoices. Not something your average genealogist would get excited about, but interesting to me regardless. The only reason they were archived is they were for work performed on behalf of the town cemetery. I imagine at some point the cemetery got rid of years worth of old business correspondence and other minutiae piling up. Then somebody, somehow had the foresight to deposit it with the historical society. Luckily, his shop name was on the invoice, and it got filed where I was able to find it.

Again, there's not really any significant information for genealogists on the invoices. I already knew his name, and that he was living and working there during that time period. I have countless records with that and more relevant information. One invoice is undated, the others are from 1938 and 1939. They each detail the services rendered: sharpening mower blades, sharpening picks, etc. I'll include just one example, from 1938. It's dated March 3, and appears to be an invoice for the entire previous year's work. It only cost 20¢ then to sharpen a pick, and the entire bill for the year was a whopping $6.45! My how things have changed.

One reason I called this blog Family Historian, vice Genealogist, was a distinction I've seen others make before, and becoming increasingly more common. Some people researching their family trees don't seem to be interested in the actual people. They're merely trying to extend their pedigree as far back as possible or to connect their lineage with somebody famous, often with little evidence. Genealogy is part of what I do, but there's a whole lot more to it than pedigree charts and family group sheets. I've found myself reading more history books in areas I might not have otherwise, based on new finds in my research. It's all part of an effort to understand my relatives, and not just my direct ancestors.

I love the title one of the current stars of the genealogy world, Megan Smolenyak, gave ger website: Honoring Our Ancestors. We should always remember our ancestors used to be living, breathing human beings. Unfortunately, some genealogists only seem to be collecting them, like stamps or butterflies. I believe it's a disservice to our families if we don't also learn the context in which they lived, and tell their whole stories, as best we can.

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