Climbing down the family tree

Tri-State seminars aim to unlock family histories

Tri-State seminars aim to unlock family histories

February 28, 2003|by KEVIN CLAPP

Claire Pirrello used to be a fan of puzzles, locking jigsaw pieces into place to form pleasant images.

Then she stumbled into a generational mystery. She shelved the visual hobby to make room for a more personal pursuit.

"It's the ultimate puzzle," the 62-year-old Waynesboro, Pa., resident says of tracing her family's history. "It's a lot of fun, and it's amazing what you can find."

Unlocking Your Past, a three-day event beginning Thursday, March 6, aims to provide information and resources for novice and experienced genealogy researchers interested in preserving family history, while also introducing the wealth of local services with documents to search.

At the Fairview Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speakers, displays, videos and demonstrations will range from getting started to biblical roots of family history. Organizer Ron Williamson, administrator of the church's Family History Center, says it is one way to refocus on the importance of family.


Open to the public, the Family History Center, and several like it across the Tri-State region, is one place to go for assistance, with its extensive online and computerized records. Others are local libraries, genealogical libraries and historical societies.

"The word family is tied to the word familiar. It's people who are familiar with each other and can support each other, and too often we see people falling apart rather than fusing in purpose," Williamson says. "If they can understand family history, that's one great link in fusing them to purpose and direction."

Thinking her introduction to genealogy would be a short-term project, Pirrello's studies instead span 15 years and counting. She volunteers at the center, and has traced her family all the way back to 1490.

Peeling back years on her family tree, she is captivated by the trials her ancestors endured in their lifetimes. She has read about how different villages tried to combat the plague, but more resonant are the small details linking past with present: how many children a couple had, if they rented or owned their home, whether they had a mortgage.

In her Waynesboro home, copies of ancient records are tucked everywhere, from under the bed or in closets to in the basement. Once daily during the event, Pirrello will discuss research strategies.

One photo album from her great-grandmother prompted a desire to attend an Unlocking Your Past presentation by Washington County Historical Society Executive Director Mindy Marsden about dating photographs by using fashion as a guideline.

Everyone Marsden knows has a box of old photographs with nameless faces sporting a familiar resemblance. Like Pirrello's puzzle analogy, Marsden says this is one more method of unraveling the mystery of our past.

Besides, she says, genealogy makes the study of history a more personal experience, like an individual researching the Civil War who discovers a relative who fought in it.

"I think very few people are looking for famous ancestors," Marsden says. "I think they're looking for who they were, where they went, what kind of people were they. It just makes American history more immediate to us."

At first blush, the study of genealogy might seem a monotonous deluge of names and dates. Williamson says it often blossoms into something more.

Some researchers intently study their medical heritage. Others use family history to illuminate cultural differences.

"There are certain cosmic questions that everybody asks. Who am I, where did I come from, and where am I going," says presenter Bishop Douglas Parks. "Finding your family history does help answer 'Who am I?' That certainly does help people understand their background, understand who they are, where they came from, and instills an appreciation of their family and who they are."

Parks, 50, a former Family History Center director, hopes the event establishes its own roots, allowing organizers to revisit the idea every few years. He has established family ties as far back as 1505, and will discuss sacred family history experiences.

Williamson recalls a saying by the late author Alex Haley, a haunting quote about how "when someone dies, a library is lost."

Unlocking Your Past, Williamson hopes, will assist those interested in keeping those libraries open for posterity.

"When the names and dates become stories, that's when it gets exciting for people," he says. "I think everyone has felt, at one time or another, for more knowledge of their family ties, so I hope (this event) renews any sparks that they've had in the past."

If you go ...

Unlocking Your Past, a family history community event featuring presentations, demonstrations, videos and displays

Thursday, March 6, 1 to 9 p.m., and Friday, March 7, 1 to 9 p.m.; Saturday, March 8, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

11887 Mentzer Gap Road

(On the corner of Mentzer Gap and Old Forge roads)

Waynesboro, Pa.

Free admission

For information or a complete schedule of speakers and times, call 1-717-765-6847 or go to on the Web.

The Historical Society of Frederick County, Md., is offering the following genealogy workshops:

  • Workshop I, Getting Started, Thursday, March 6, 10 a.m. to noon, or Saturday, April 5, 8 to 10 a.m.;

  • Workshop II, Continuing Your Research, Thursday, March 13, 10 a.m. to noon, or Saturday, April 5, 10 a.m. to noon;

  • Workshop III, Organizing Your Research, Thursday, March 20, 10 a.m. to noon, or Saturday, April 5, 1 to 3 p.m.;

  • Workshop IV, Evaluating Records, Thursday, March 27, 10 a.m. to noon, or Saturday, April 5, 3 to 5 p.m.

Workshops are $12 each or $48 for all four. Historical society members receive a 10 percent discount. Advance registration is required. Pick up registration forms at the Historical Society of Frederick County, 24 E. Church St. or go to on the Web.

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