Louise’s first grade class


“Mamma (Louise Nahrstaedt Mueller) 1st Grade in Germany 1885” Source: Mueller family photo

Autumn is in full swing already, and school is well underway. I recently re-discovered this old class photo amongst my scanned family photos. My 2nd great-grandmother, Louise Marie Nahrstaedt, was born in Sandau, Germany, in 1879. As far as I know, her family lived there until 1891 when they emigrated to the United States, settling in Chicago, Illinois. This image is a class photo from 1885, when Louise was in first grade. She is the girl circled in the front row. She seems to be very good friends with the other three girls in the front row, because they are all sitting close to each other, holding hands or linking arms. I wonder if she was still friends with them when she was 12, leaving for the United States, and if they were, did they ever have a chance to write to each other and remain friends? Would she find close school friends here in the United States? Only time will tell!


Solar eclipses in my ancestors’ time

Today, August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse will roll across North America. For many, this will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In Illinois, some people remember the partial eclipse experienced here in 1970 and 1979, but the last time Illinois residents experienced a full total solar eclipse was in 1869. This eclipse was the only time in the history of the state (established in 1818) that a total eclipse had ever been observed! As this Daily Herald article discusses, Illinoisans were building the State Capital building at the time, and attempted to commemorate the occasion with a monument at the capital. Since solar eclipses are such relatively rare occurrences, I wondered, which of my ancestors experienced a solar eclipse during their lifetimes?

The path of the Aug. 21, 2017 Solar Eclipse. Image Source: NASA

It turns out, some of my ancestors would have been able to see a complete solar eclipse from their homes, and even a few more who would have seen a partial solar eclipse sometime in their lives. Unfortunately, none of my ancestors recorded their solar eclipse experiences, but I can imagine what they would have seen and done.

7 March 1970: 

My mother remembers this partial eclipse from her home in Northern Illinois. In her area, the sun was about 70% covered by the moon. She remembers standing on her back porch, watching the eclipse with her homemade cardboard box eclipse viewer. Local newspaper reports indicate that clouds and rain were threatening to block out the view, but apparently my mom attempted to see it anyway!

Headline from the Sycamore True Republican, 24 January 1925. Image Source: Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections

24 January 1925:

A 95% total eclipse would have been observed in DeKalb County, Illinois, but it was apparently overcast that morning, and the eclipse was not entirely visible. Six of my great-grandparents lived with their families in DeKalb County or Chicago, and would have missed out on this eclipse because of weather. Perhaps they paused their daily lives to try to peek out at the partial eclipse through the clouds.

An illustration showing how the eclipse would darken New York City. Kingston, New York is just north of NYC. Image Source: USC Digital Library

My paternal great-grandparents would have had a much better view of this eclipse. George and Pauline Weil lived in Kingston, New York at the time and would have been able to view the total eclipse. George worked as a teacher at Emmanuel Lutheran School. He and Pauline had four young boys at home. George may have used the solar eclipse as a teaching opportunity and taken his oldest boys, ages 7 and 5, outside in the frigid cold to view the eclipse. According to the evening issue of The Kingston Daily Freeman from that day, the weather was brutally cold but the sky was wonderfully clear to watch the eclipse. Daily business came to a standstill during the moments when the moon was completely covering the sun. (Read the full fascinating account here on Newspapers.com.) I imagine that George and his family would have also viewed this moment with wonder.

Pauline (nee Gardner) Weil and one of her children outside on a chilly day. Taken about 1925 or after. Image Source: Weil family photo


Headline about the eclipse in the Kingston Daily Freeman, Saturday January 24, 1925. Image Source: Newspapers.com









Excerpt of an article in the Sycamore True Republican Newspaper, 1 June 1918. Image Source: Illinois Digital Newspaper Collection

8 June 1918: 

During this eclipse, the moon covered about 70% of the sun in Northern Illinois. Unlike the 1925 eclipse, the weather that day was clear, and the eclipse was clearly visible. My Illinois ancestors who didn’t get to see the eclipse in 1925 likely caught a glimpse of this partial solar eclipse. My great-grandparents, Charles and Emma Drake, may have simply been working on the farm that morning as usual and paused to look up at the sky. Emma would have been 8 months pregnant with her first son. In some cultures, it is unlucky for pregnant women to view the solar eclipse, so I wonder if she was slightly superstitious and stayed inside, or if she was curious and glanced at it. My other great-grandparents, Glenn and Mildred (Lawrence) Kaiser, and Erwin and Dorothy (Mueller) Wischmeyer were not yet married, and were living with their families in DeKalb and Chicago, respectively. Glenn Kaiser would have missed the eclipse entirely because he was serving in the military in France. Perhaps he heard about the eclipse from family members who wrote to him while he was away.

7 August 1869:

My great-great grandmother Jennie Holbrook was nine years old and lived with four siblings and her parents on a farm near a small town named Manlius, Bureau County, Illinois. They were just a tad too far north to see a complete eclipse, but at over 90% coverage of the sun, the sky would have still been noticeably dark. On this particular Saturday, I’d imagine that they also paused their daily routine to admire the nearly full eclipse. They may have read about the eclipse in the Ottawa Free Trader or another local newspaper. This eclipse was the first eclipse in the United States to have a clear photograph taken of it. The center of the eclipse passed right through Springfield, IL as they were building the Capital. This was the last time that Illinoisans experienced a total eclipse.

Another article from the Ottawa Free Trader on the day of the eclipse, 7 August 1869. Image Source: Newspapers.com
Scientists had predicted the solar eclipse on August 7, 1869, which actually began on August 8 in Asia! This witty newspaper clipping about the upcoming eclipse comes from the Ottawa Free Trader, 17 July 1869, page 5. Image Source: Newspapers.com








Later today, I will try to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view a total solar eclipse from my home. I wonder, will the weather cooperate? Will it be cloudy, like the eclipses my relatives experienced in 1925 and 1970? Or will I get lucky, like George and Pauline Weil, and be able to view the total eclipse under clear skies? And will it be memorable, so that I can someday tell my children about it? Time will soon tell!

Did any of your relatives experience any cool eclipses in the past?

Watermelon-eating Contest

Wordless Wednesday: Little Boy enjoying a Big Watermelon

Little boy eating a large watermelon
“Blondie” enjoying a watermelon at the Watermelon Eating Contest at the Hampton County Watermelon Festival, 1974. (Image Source: Family Photo)

Snapshot of 1929 DeKalb County

My map starts with a view of the whole county.

At the recent ALA library conference, I learned the basics of GIS from a Map and Geospatial information Librarian from the University of Minnesota. I was so excited to try it out for myself, using some historic maps related to my family’s history! I tested it out by making this composite map of DeKalb County. All of the maps that I used to create this map were from the 1929 Atlas and plat book of De Kalb County, Illinois : compiled from surveys and the public records of De Kalb County, Illinois, digitized by the Library of Congress. (See the whole atlas here!)

I started with the county map, matching up points on the county map with points on a present-day digital map using MapWarper. Then, I did the same thing for all the townships and main towns and villages in the county. I linked them together using ArcGIS. The result is a complete snapshot of 1929 DeKalb County! The finished map is best viewed in the web app here. Zoom out to see the whole county, and zoom in a little to see the individual townships and see the property owners in the country. Zoom in even further into a town, and see all of the streets and city lots! You can look at the different layers (or parts) of the map, and adjust the transparency of each layer to view the present-day map underneath it.

If you zoom in a little, you can view the township maps side by side.


Zoom all the way into a town to see the details in each town!


By putting these two township maps next to each other, I can see just how close Gust Medine lived to his brother Peter!

This map is cool, but why is a map like this useful? For me, it is a powerful tool for putting my ancestors within the context of their neighbors and their communities. For example, several of my ancestors lived on the edge of their townships, such as Gustaf Medine in northeast Mayfield township, and Charles Drake on the west side of Genoa township. This map quickly allows me to view their communities and their neighbors. A quick glance can tell me that although they lived in different townships, Gustaf lived very close to his brother Peter (see the image on the right). By using the slider to make the historic map more transparent, I can also compare it to present-day roads and landmarks, and quickly determine how the property has changed over the years. Combining historic maps with GIS technology can definitely produce some wonderful local history resources! Please explore my 1929 DeKalb County map and let me know what you think!

Genealogy at the ALA conference



This week I attended the annual conference of the American Library Association (ALA) in Chicago. It was such a great experience! It is the largest conference for libraries of all kinds in the United States. I learned a lot about today’s librarianship, including lots of cool tidbits about how libraries are helping genealogists!

ALA selfie
ALA Selfie!

Some genealogical highlights from the conference:

  • My professor Nicole Wedemeyer Miller (who taught Genealogy and Library Services last semester at Univ. of Illinois, and who just published a book about Family History services at the library) spoke about conducting a successful genealogy reference interview, emphasizing the need for patience and organization. Not every family historian who walks into the library will know what they are looking for!
Nicole W. Miller giving presentation
Nicole W. Miller giving a presentation to librarians about performing a successful genealogy reference interview.
  • Genealogist Tina Beaird reminded us about some great free genealogy websites to suggest to patrons (or use for our own research!). These included Digital Public Library of America, Linkpendium, FamilySearch, Google News Archive, and local or state Digital Memory Projects like Montana Memory.
  • This year is the 100th anniversary of the US’s entry into WWI. Representatives from FindMyPast and FamilySearch highlighted some great resources for locating your ancestor who participated in WWI. FamilySearch has a huge variety of WWI resources at all levels, including local, state and international records! FindMyPast (free subscription through many public libraries!) offers a British perspective of the war, including most WWI British military records. Missouri also has a wonderful project for Missourians who fought in WWI called Missouri Over There. The project is bringing together all kinds of digitized photos, 3D artifacts, and a service database that has a listing for every WWI service member from Missouri.
  • We heard an overview of the project to find the Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument time capsule. A librarian had stumbled upon a historic newspaper article about the erection of the monument that described a time capsule that was buried underneath the cornerstone of the monument. That discovery started a project to uncover the time capsule. With the help of an archeologist, they worked to uncover it, but did not end up finding it. The librarian is continuing her search for the remarkable time capsule!
  • A librarian from the Fountaindale Public Library (the library has a great genealogy blog by the way!) hosted a panel of historians from various ethnic historical societies, who can be very helpful with regional and ethnic research. The panel consisted of representatives from the Swedish American Museum, the Polish Genealogical Society of America, and the Chicago Scots Genealogy Group.
  • A session called “Mapping the Generations” was a great overview of how libraries can help genealogists use maps to find their ancestors.
    • If you have Chicago ancestors and you haven’t used ChicagoAncestors.org, it’s such a great resource! Find out what the neighborhood where your ancestor lived was like, or find out which churches were nearby. Bonus: you can send them your own photos and information to add to their site!
    • New York Public Library has a bunch of digitized maps for New York City, and has some crowdsourcing projects going on that use Fire Insurance maps, modern maps, tourist maps, and information from city directories to eventually create a great genealogy resource! (These can be found at NYPL Map Warper and Building Inspector.) In the end, you’ll be able to zoom in to the map, see the footprint of the building where your ancestor lived, and see a listing of all the people in that household! It’s still a work in progress, but it will eventually be an amazing resource for New York City genealogy!
    • A rep from FindMyPast also expressed how important maps are to family historians, and the importance of looking at all kinds of maps. Topographical maps, historic weather maps, religious data maps and other informative maps can help shed light on your ancestors’ decisions!
  • First slide to presentationOne of the BEST sessions that I went to was “How to put your family history on the map: Georeferencing and geocoding historical information” by Ryan Mattke from the University of Minnesota. I loved this session because I’ve always wanted to learn more about geospatial technology, and this tutorial gave me the basic tools to make my own interactive maps! He showed us how to use this for genealogical research, but it has a lot of applications, like creating walking tours of your town, or create your own interactive map like ChicagoAncestors.org! He showed us how to overlay a digitized historic map over a modern map (like Google maps), link them, and then add your own interactive points to the map! You’ll be seeing my own interactive map here soon!
  • I also attended a short debate about preserving analog audiovisual materials in libraries, museums and archives. The question was, “Is the preservation of analog audiovisual media the single most important preservation issue facing libraries (and archives and museums) in 2017?” However, the panel and audience did not reach a full consensus. Although the discussion was primarily among professional archivists and preservationists, it did raise some important questions that are also important for family historians. If you do happen to have old audiovisual materials in your family history collection, such as old home movies on VHS or film reels, or cassette tapes of interviews with relatives, what do you do with them? Especially for degrading formats like magnetic tape (VHS or cassette), there is immediate need to preserve the content by digitizing them. However, once you digitize them, you need to actively migrate them to stable file formats in order to preserve the digital files. I learned that digital and analog audiovisual materials can both be easily lost (very soon!) to time and obsolescence if we do not actively work to preserve them! As for me, I’m ready to dig out my grandmother’s old film reels and get them digitized!

I went to a lot of sessions pertaining to genealogy, but they weren’t the only ones I attended! I got a bunch of free books and swag at the exhibit hall, I met the Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, and was just barely missed meeting Representative John Lewis! I went to several other events, including a speech from Reshma Saujani (CEO of Girls Who Code) and Hillary Rodham Clinton at the closing ceremony! I’m both excited and exhausted from the experience!