Profile Piece: Some Riches Do Grow on Trees

[This was a paper I wrote for my Eng. 101 class Sept. 2013. We were asked to write a profile piece about a person or place in our area. I chose the local family history center.]

Mark Twain once said, “Why waste your money looking up your family tree? Just go into politics and your opponents will do it for you.” Fortunately and unfortunately, many people believe that engaging in politics would have an adverse affect on their health and/or wellbeing. I asked myself if their only option then was to spend plenty money researching their genealogy, and concluded that it should not be, considering all the resources available to them.

In an effort to capture all the help these genealogists have in my area, I got into contact with my sister’s father-in-law, who is the director of the local Family History Center. I’ve known for years that if help of a genealogical nature was needed, Gene Cheney was the man to turn to. So I packed up and headed out to that location, which is inside a meeting-house for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

I have been to the building many times, since I am a member of this church. It is a brown building with a sloping roof that brings to my mind Gothic times, and a steeple reaching upwards like a slim finger pointing at heaven. The family history room faces west over the back parking lot, with a wide stretch of green lawn to look at through the glass door of the center, which is placed rather inconspicuously between two low hedges. An old weathered sign hangs above the door.

My first impression of the FHC was that the walls were made of books. The smell of them was musty and calming, and it filled me when I entered, but it soon faded as my brain began to disregard it. My second thought was how pleasantly cool it was, after the sweltering summer heat outside. Mr. Cheney was on the phone when I arrived, so I stepped forward to get a closer look at the books. As I expected, they were thick and old, with titles like Norway Census Film Register 1667-1900 and Wisconsin 1910 Census Index. The shelves extended down the room, and I felt like I was gazing into the distance as I examined the far wall. A middle bookshelf jutted into the room, and there was a picture of Jesus on the end of it, a reminder of where I was. Below it were a few pamphlets that said things like “Some Riches Do Grow On Trees”.

Mr. Cheney was not the only FHC worker there. I chatted briefly with another man about his family history while I waited for my interviewee’s phone call to end. He had, it appeared, found thousands of his ancestors’ names without leaving town, by going onto websites such as familysearch.org and ancestry.com.

After a short wait, I was finally able to sit down with the center’s director in one of the mulberry-colored revolving chairs. Though he is an older man–in his sixties, I believe–his hair is still mostly dark, and his eyes and smile were bright as he told me of the help available at the center. There are one hundred million people in this room, he told me, in the books and in the microfilm rolls that sit in cabinets under the shelves. There are census records for every state in the Union. He showed me a few of the books that sat next to the census records, ones that helped the genealogists themselves: Black’s Law Book, which is, appropriately, black and filled to the brim with law terms; The Redbook, also aptly named, which lists every mortuary in America: “They know where the bodies are buried,” Mr. Cheney said jokingly; also, a book of post offices, for finding family members in smaller towns. There were French, German, Polish phrase books made specifically for genealogists, with common words, names, and abbreviations. Magazines and maps rested a little further on.

Mr. Cheney was obviously thrilled with the whole setup. I almost felt like he was showing off one of his children as he took me around, which would make sense; he helped to found the Family History Center in the 1980s. He was a little less talkative about the city’s genealogical society, which he is also a member of, but he mentioned a heritage center in the local public library and other history centers in the surrounding area.

My favorite part of the interview was when he got out the thousand-paged book that the genealogical society wrote about our city. I recognized a few faces and names in there. Looking for “Tibbitts,” I found it in the Cheney section, since my sister is married to Mr. Cheney’s youngest son, and later there was a mention of my grandfather, talking about when he worked for one of the original J.C. Penney’s.

So, is it easier to go into politics rather than heading out to a family history center or one of the genealogy websites? Of course not! Even to say politics would be more entertaining might not be the truth. Mr. Cheney had plenty of fascinating stories to tell, like the time a grateful patron placed a bottle of wine into his car on a hot day, and it exploded all over the upholstery. Or there is the story about the Cheney ancestor that, having lost his helmet during a battle, simply went and killed an ox and used its skull. Or what about my own great-great-grandfather, who stated simply in his memoirs about his Danish parents’ journey across the Great Plains: “Father shot a skunk near the camp so the whole company had to move.” My mother lived in Africa and my father did roofing in Washington, D.C.; I would be interested in my family history just for the stories I could hear.

When I left, I was given pamphlets to read and a magnet to put on my fridge, to aid me in writing this paper. The pamphlets spoke of why this work is done, how to get started, what websites are helpful, and even had a pedigree chart to write down my ancestors, which I later used. I felt that, though it seems like the kind of work that would be difficult to be passionate about, here were people that truly cared and loved what they did. I found this interesting, since I have heard that dwelling on the past is not a good life-practice, but I came to the conclusion that there is a difference between someone who dwells on the past and forgets to live, and someone who learns about the past so their lives may be bettered by this knowledge.

With its natural resources, involved workers, and friendly atmosphere, the family history center in my area could be useful to anyone searching for their family. My impression was that while genealogy work can seem, and also be, boring, there was so much love and hard work poured into the center it was hard to notice that while I was there. These names are found for such higher reasons than just typing them into a genealogy sheet; our ancestors who have gone before us have stories to tell that teach lessons and enrich our lives, proving that some riches do, in fact, grow on trees.

[Note: Mr. Cheney passed away about two years after I wrote this paper.]

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