People often ask if what I do as a personal historian is similar to what a genealogist does. I usually laugh and say, “A genealogist documents dead people. I bring them to life!”
Genealogy has become a popular pursuit as people are fascinated with discovering their family roots. Websites like ancestry.com are hugely popular as people search for clues to expand their family trees. As more people have a desire to know the stories, not just the names, the website now allows you to link stories to the people on your tree. The tool Family Tree Maker in ancestry.com has a feature called Smart Story which can expand the information included on your family tree based on facts and stories you unearth about a person in your search. You can attach documents, photos, or write a personal story about the person.
When I went to Iowa State in Ames years ago I had the added privilege of being near my Great- Grandmother Pauline who lived in Boone just 10 miles away. While I was preoccupied with school she was busy putting together a remarkable book full of family tree charts, maps of Sweden and Iowa, photos of my ancestors, homes where they lived, and churches where they attended. But the part I love the most are the stories of life in Sweden and Iowa in the 1800s. She had called all her relatives and asked them to send her their stories of parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, and uncles. She had no computer, no scanner or printer and painstakingly typed up the stories and organized her material for a local printer. But alas, as a 22-year-old I politely feigned more interest than I felt, threw that precious book down in our basement and didn’t fish it out for many years. I avidly read the stories and scrutinized the family trees, photos and maps. The yellow, water stained book is now one of my treasured possessions. Her efforts fueled my love for family history, and were the inspiration for my business Memory Echoes, LLC. This story is one of my favorites:
My great-great-great-grandmother Lena lived in southern Sweden in the early 1800s. She was an expert wooden shoe maker and taught her teenage son Sven how to make wooden shoes. She told him if his shoes reflected the quality she demanded, he could sell them and spend the profits on anything he desired. Sven was industrious and spent the long Swedish evenings making shoes. He sold over 400 pairs of shoes at 25 ore a pair, about 7 cents at the time, so he could buy what he wanted…passage to the New World.
He ended up in Fort Dodge, Iowa with only 2 accordions and 75 cents to his name and got a job helping to build a railroad. He worked with many Irishmen who helped him learn English, but they could not say his name Sven, so to please them he changed his name to Swan. He learned of a Swedish Mission Church at Swede Bend where a lot of Swedes had settled just 10 miles north of Pilot Mound, Iowa near Boone. He moved to Pilot Mound and partnered with another man building houses and barns. They prided themselves on doing their own cooking and living on just 15 cents per day. Swan eventually saved up enough to buy a cow, two horses, and a hand plow and rented a small farm 1 mile north of town. Later he bought an 80 acre farm which stayed in the family for over 100 years.
I love that story about my great-great-grandfather Sven and would not know it if Pauline had not taken the time to preserve her personal history stories in a book for her descendants. Your great- grandchildren will be so appreciative if you do the same for them!