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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Family Tree - December/January 2006
Being Careful About Discarding Old Items

One of our genealogy patrons recently discussed a situation she heard about at a yard sale up north. I have eliminated names and specific references to places in the interest of privacy issues. I think the circumstances and its implications for everyone, especially those interested in genealogy, speaks for itself. 
The yard sale was like most common sales. Items for sale included decorative plates, light fixtures, Christmas lights, old clothes, tools, and a variety of computer and automotive parts. As her friend was browsing, she noticed a slim, colored leather book, its border framed in gold. This was clearly something personal in nature that was likely discarded either by accident or by a family member cleaning up a home or apartment after the death of an elderly family member. This unfortunate occurrence often happens when the significance of an old treasure is not apparent to the person who is getting the house or apartment ready for a sale or new occupant. 
The frontispiece read: "In Memoriam." It was a funeral book for a gentlemen who was born, according to the information typed on the next page, on 1 March 1856 in Buffalo, New York, and passed away on 30 October 1943 in Peoria, Illinois. Other information in the book included the name of the woman who played the organ at the funeral, the name and address of the Presbyterian Church where the funeral was held, detailed descriptions of the various flower arrangements, and a register containing the signatures of the mourners that attended. 
The book also contained a variety of other important personal documents. Carefully folded inside the front section of the book were two copies of the deceased individual's death certificate. There was a letter dated 1881 from an employee of the Western Electric Company recommending that the deceased be admitted to Rutgers University. Other items included old 
photographs from a company-sponsored event on New Year's Day in 1930, a customs declaration for one of his sons, and a newspaper clipping for an award received by a daughter. The back section of the book held a folder containing a variety of personal correspondence and legal papers showing specific dates and places of residence, employment, churches and schools attended, and other family information. 
The gentlemen conducting the yard sale had no idea of how, when, or where the book had come from. Our shopper was just starting to get involved in genealogy. She was in the early stages of learning how to gather family information, organize data, and learning the importance of old documents. She appreciated how grateful she would have been to stumble across this type of information in her own research. The classes at the local genealogical society made her determined to try and find out as many clues as possible to find someone in the family and return the book to them. Using the skills developed in genealogy classes, and advice from the local genealogy society, our shopper searched online phone directories, census records for the state and counties mentioned, Googled the family names, posted messages on various message boards, and any other strategy she could think of. The process is now going on five years and counting. 
This story should make you think about all the items of genealogical value that may be sitting around your home or the home of a sibling who had no idea of their importance. The items could include: report cards, family heirlooms, class photos, old legal papers, yearbooks, diaries, tax returns, or various insurance papers. Thirty years from now someone might find these 
items interesting. Others may think they are trash and dispose of them without a second thought. 
Bryan L. Mulcahy 
Reference Librarian 
Fort Myers-Lee County Library

Return to December/January 2006 Index page


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