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?

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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!


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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.

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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.

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

 

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


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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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.

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Another article from the Ottawa Free Trader on the day of the eclipse, 7 August 1869. Image Source: Newspapers.com
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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?

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Snapshot of 1929 DeKalb County

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.

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

 

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

 

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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!

On this day: Edwin Drake

On this day, 97 years ago, my grandfather Edwin Drake was born. This precious photo is him as a baby with his mother, Emma (Medine) Drake.

Emma Drake holding her son Edwin
Emma holding Edwin as a baby. Source: Drake family photo.