Suitcase Full of Memories

Unpacking History One Discovery at a Time

Wading Through Microfilm: A survivor’s tale.

Friday morning Rachelle and I, our bags packed with laptops, iPads, iPhones, notebooks, pencils and a sort-of-kind-of research plan ascended the stairs into the Wisconsin Historical Society Reading Room
at the beautiful Wisconsin Historical Society library. It’s a gorgeous, old fashion space with banker’s lights in green and brass at every table. Plus free wireless.

How can you go wrong?

Wisconsin Historical Library Reading Room

Microfilm and I were not the best of friends at the start of this three-day hunt for an ancestral trail. 20 plus rolls of film later, and I have a knack for speed loading, finding my names and moving to the next roll.

Getting Organized

Once I found the newspaper index I was able to create a table with the newspaper name, the film reel, ID, the page number, the column number and the title of the article. Some of the index notes even included the page, column and location of the article. (Lucky me.)

With tired eyes and sore back from hunching over a microfilm reader, I am content. I got most of what I wanted and a few surprises I’m excited to share with my family.


So despite my lack of preparedness, this has been a great trip. I discovered that my great-great grandfather was the town clerk of the Town of Cumberland (not Cumberland), and he wrote out the 1885 Wisconsin census in his own hand.

C.S. G______ seems to have gone by his initials and not his first name. All the documents I’ve found, including casual mentions in the newspaper about his wife Hattie’s trip to Timberlake refers to C.S G_____.

cumbrlandI have discovered more children that we knew about, details of my great-great aunt’s wedding dress, and the married names of the 10 Henry B______ children and their spouses. Numerous gaps now have dates and locations and pieces of a bigger story — such as a Presbyterian minister married my great grandparents– are creating a picture of pioneer life in Wisconsin. . A few hours of turning the fragile pages of the 1880 Agricultural Census yielded an entry for my adopted father’s great-grandfather, Samuel Perkins Swartout. He raised cows. And pigs. And lots and lots of children.

The bigger parts of the story, such as the death of Queen Victoria, the sugar

Copy of Cumberland Advocate Insert on Barron County, Wisconsin

Copy of Cumberland Advocate Insert on Barron County, Wisconsin

rationing for the WWI war effort, the cost of a shoe, the retelling of Custer’s Last Stand — these are the other pieces of the story.

Creating the Story

When  the context of history, of the local, national and international events begin to give color to family event, I start to understand just a little bit about what my ancestors lives were like.

The newspaper inserted here claims Cumberland as a new modern city. Inserts showcase a new, $35,000 school building, the way to grow potatoes, and a new grist mill sure to bring commerce to the city.

I know there is more here to find. There is a library site in Stout, Wisconsin with Barron County probate, deed and voting records. So I’ll be back, hopefully with a research plan!

Lessons Learned

1. Create a research plan. A real one.
2. Go even if you do not have a research plan. It’s better than not going.
3. Cozy up to the librarians and archivists. One of the archivists suggested the Agricultural Census Records as a way to find out if certain of my relatives lived in Barron County during one of the “gaps”. I did not find whom I was looking for, but I found another relative I wasn’t expecting.
4. Read the newspaper while you’re scanning for your names. The content is a rich source of cultural norms, dress, prices, worries and news. I like to take screenshots of the front pages, the ads, and the person
5. Don’t leave your thumb drive at the library unless you’ve cozied up to the librarians. (Oops. I got it back, though.)
6. Say thank you. A simple word of appreciation sent a librarian on a quest for the Necromancy Books. Scary word, but a useful set of books with obituaries from local towns clipped and indexed. Besides, it’s just nice.
7. Keep track of the resources you have already used. Don’t waste time.
8. Drink water.
9. Go with a friend if you can.
10. Give your copy card to someone else when you’re done. They’ll appreciate it.

What are your research lessons learned? Do yo have a favorite template you use for planning and recording your research? Please share your methods.

Happy Hunting.


One comment on “Wading Through Microfilm: A survivor’s tale.

  1. Rachelle
    April 7, 2014

    What a great time we had – I love going on a research trip with you! And I love your list….all so true.

    I learned that even if the Historical/Genealogy Society is closed when you are visiting, send an e-mail to the Society or the contacts on the website – they are often incredibly helpful, do research for you from their records and meet you on a Sunday afternoon with a stack of info!

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