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Fueled by Internet, Families Vacation to Research Ancestors

August 19, 2001

Fueled by Internet, Families Vacation to Research Ancestors


WOMELSDORF, Pa. -- This former cigar-making village in eastern Pennsylvania is hardly a tourist site, but it gets a steady stream of summer visitors. They stroll through the cemetery with its weather-pocked headstones, some inscribed in German and more than 200 years old. At the edge of the graveyard, the little Tulpehocken Settlement Historical Society is building an addition to accommodate the rush of callers like Wayne and Beth Ilger.

"We are looking for Jacob Ilger, my father's father's father's father," said Mr. Ilger, 45, a chemist on vacation from Abbott Laboratories, near Chicago. The day before, the Ilgers came up dry at the state archives in Harrisburg. Here, about 14 miles west of Reading, they were leafing through church records, immigration records, birth records, tax records, deeds and old newspaper files. "We know he moved to northeastern Ohio as part of the westward march," Mr. Ilger said.

After two hours of digging, the Ilgers had one of those eureka! moments of genealogical sleuths. In church marriage records, they discovered another Jacob Ilger, presumably the father of the Jacob Ilger from Ohio. He had married Catharine Weinel at the Trinity Tulpehocken Reformed Church in Womelsdorf on Aug. 12, 1812. Next the Ilgers plan to hunt down the forebears of the elder Jacob Ilger.

No one keeps track of the vacationing family archivists, toting cameras, satchels of notebooks and detailed family trees as big as gas station maps, who are prospecting for ancestors. But the nationwide boom in their numbers, fueled by the explosion of information on the Internet, shows no signs of abating.

Not only are people combing their family trees like never before, they are hitting the road to do it, particularly in the summer, in search of a physical, more personal connection to the past. Most of these visitors to local historical societies are researching their ancestry.

The Matrix Marketing Research Company near St. Louis reported last year that 60 percent of Americans were at least somewhat interested in tracing their origins, up from 45 percent in 1995; 30 percent of those surveyed said they had drawn family trees. The Learning Company in San Francisco says it sells 2,000 copies a week of its Broderbund Family Tree Maker software, a research tool introduced in 1997.

The Internet's message boards, family news groups and genealogical services are its second-busiest destinations after the sexually oriented sites. Searchers log onto ancestry .com, and the Mormon Church site, which reports that its database is approaching one billion names. It says it counts more than eight million hits a day.

Their research leads them to places like the Ipswich, Mass., Public Library, on Boston's North Shore, where each summer the traffic grows. "It's unbelievable," said Paula Grillo, a librarian there. Last month 83 people signed in to be escorted to the library's archives, where they searched birth, marriage and death records that dated to 1630.

In rural Sussex County, Va., Circuit Court Clerk Gary Williams, said, "We get one or two people a day and more every year."

In Bristol, R.I., the Rogers Free Library keeps ships' passenger lists of early immigrants, 1790 and 1850 census data and bound histories of eminent families. "It's mostly Midwestern people coming in," said Joan Prescott, the library's director. "They go away happy."

In Womelsdorf, population 2,559 and settled in 1723 by 15 German Protestant refugee families from the Palatinate, things are no different. "It's a big, big business, very big," said Earl W. Ibach, 70, the historical society's volunteer librarian. Visitors often spend $30 for genealogical essays and maps, meeting half the society's annual budget of $20,000.

Theodore and Mary Smith of Lakewood, Pa., were spending their 38th wedding anniversary in the research room of the Berks County Court House in Reading. Mrs. Smith is 70, her husband is 83.

"His Smith is all done," Mrs. Smith said, so they were looking into the records of her maternal grandmother, Anna Cronan, who lived on Ninth Street in Reading.

As Mrs. Smith read a tattered will, her mouth dropped.

Anna Cronan, she discovered, was the daughter of Joseph Spuhler, a German. "So I'm not 100 percent Irish, as I was always told," Mrs. Smith said. Mrs. Cronan married an Irish plasterer, Thomas Cronan. Mr. Cronan, another document showed, died at home of dropsy at 52 in 1904. Mrs. Cronan died the next year, of multiple carcinoma at 54. They left 11 children.

The inventory of Mrs. Cronan's estate, made up mostly of seven two- story brick rental houses, showed a value of $12,332.27, or more than $200,000 in today's dollars. "She was rich!" Mrs. Smith declared.

Counties and towns in some colonial states like Massachusetts, Connecticut, Virginia and Pennsylvania have been more diligent than others in collecting and preserving records.

Few clerks and librarians complain about the visitors. For many of these offices, genealogical record- keeping pays for itself. The Berks County County Court House collects $1 a page for documents sought by mail and $10 to conduct a limited search for a name.

There, Larry Medaglia, the register of wills, has put millions of birth, marriage and death records on a Web page he launched in November 1997. Last year, Mr. Medaglia said, he received $35,000 in copying fees, twice as much as three years ago. "That pays the salary and benefits" of an aide who searches the documents, he said.

Settled in the 18th century primarily by Germans, then by the Irish, by Scottish and Eastern European factory workers and lately by Hispanic immigrants, Berks County keeps one of the nation's deepest troves of ancestral records. Besides the court house, documents can be found at the 3,000-member Berks County Historical Society, at the 1,100-member Genealogical Society of Berks County and in the collections of private genealogists like David Adams, descended not from the Massachusetts Adamses but from Johannes Heinrich Adam, born in 1410 in the German duchy of East Friesland.

Two years ago, Mr. Adams moved to Reading from San Francisco and bought the 28-room Queen Anne house of William Luden, the cough drop titan. Now 67, Mr. Adams has packed the first floor with the histories of 300 families. He has also collected family Bibles, many inscribed with accounts of births and deaths; marriage and baptismal certificates; more than 200 years of newspaper clippings; and original land deeds. Mr. Adams, the former president of the California Genealogical Society, charges clients $10 to come in and work for up to four hours.

One client, Florence Heydt, has filled her family tree back more than 200 years. Mrs. Heydt, 77, is a Kline on her father's side and a Rothermerl on her mother's. On trips to Germany she uncovered the first of each line to come to America. Records included the 1792 confirmation record of Conrad Andreas Klein. "I've been to the church," she said. "I've seen where he was baptized."

Hooked by the success of her quest, she is now tracking down friends' lines. At Mr. Adams's house she was searching for birth records of the German-American forebears of a house guest from France. "His mother is French," she said. "His father was my husband's uncle."

But there are many dead ends.Mr. Adams cited a Lutheran pastor who wrote in 1746, "I hereby baptize these 36 children whose names I can't remember." And it is not just the forgotten names, it is the changed ones, too -- the Brauns who have become Browns and the Schneiders who have evolved into Snyders.

But the amateur genealogists keep digging, to find some story behind the mere dates of births and deaths -- revelations of a slaveholding past, hidden criminal records, genetic diseases, out-of-wedlock births.

At the historical society in Reading, where 90 percent of the visitors research families, Traci Brough of Mechanicsburg in Dauphin County is investigating her father's family, the Potteigers, the first of whom came from Germany in the 1770's.

Since Ms. Brough began her work, she has discovered Potteiger men marrying sisters of wives who died in childbirth. She learned that her mother and father are third cousins. On a birth certificate, she found the mother recorded as "single." Along with many distinguished Potteigers, she found Harry Potteiger, who died weighing 456 pounds and was laid out for viewing in his yard because he could not be lugged inside. And she uncovered several Potteigers who died in a Harrisburg lunatic asylum.

"I have members of my family who don't want to talk about any of this," Ms. Brough said. "They say it's private." But energized by the Internet, she is plunging on.

"There must be 20 Potteigers who are researching on the Net," she said, "and most of us find leads to Berks County. It has become an obsession to see how many I can find. I've got almost 4,000."

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