Ten years ago, Christmas arrived in July, or at least it did in my life. A decades-long search for the keystone on one of my ancestral brick walls was found causing the wall to tumble. An obscure article in a rarely read city history book identified the location where my 3rd great grandmother, Mary Adrith Tirrill Farrar died and was buried.
The discovery in the Harold B. Lee Library at the Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah was a total fluke. My wife and I had gone to dinner warm Saturday night early in July that year, and as usual, the dessert tray proved to be my undoing. The carrot cake they make is the best in the area. I had to have a piece. The cake was great but I knew that I’d still be awake on Sunday morning if I didn’t do something to burn off at least part of our evening meal.
A walk on a beautiful summer evening under the red, gold, purple sky with its feathered clouds would do the tick and better yet, I’d get points for taking a romantic stroll across the south end of the the Brigham Young campus.
When we walked by the library, we decided to take advantage of our location and spend an hour browsing through books looking for information about our respective ancestors.
My wife was almost immediately rewarded when she found a history of her 3rd great grandfather that she hadn’t seen before. I wasn’t as successful, until I starting dragging my finger over the spines of the books wondering if one of them would ‘feel’ right. Not only did one feel right, it literally fell into my hands when I touched it.
Retreating to a comfortable chair, I settled next down to scan through its pages on the off-chance that there actually was something in it of worth in my ancestral quest.
I remember saying, “Watch this.” “This book fell in to my hands”. “I wonder if it will also fall open to a page that talks about my ancestors.” With her typical wry smile at my antics, my wife indicated the table in front of our feet and said, “Give it a try”.
I did and it did and the rest of the story is the basis for a lot of genealogy serendipity stories that have spun off my fingers since that summer night.
Mary Tirrill Farrar’s family was listed in the town history saying she had died in Walworth County, Wisconsin! Wisconsin? They were in New Hampshire! How, when, why did they move to Wisconsin? That is another story, but the clue opened the door to finding her husband, Thomas Farrar’s, lineage.
So what does all of this have to do with the Walworth County Genealogical Society? Here’s the rest of the story.
After two consecutive days in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City looking for the Farrar’s in Walworth, I’d found grandpa’s naturalization document and little else. I was out of time and out of energy after two opening to closing days of research. I abhorred walking out of the doors defeated, so decided to pull out the old ‘finger drag’ method once again.
Tick, tick, tick. My finger slipped across the spines of the books in the Wisconsin section on the main floor. No Joy. No Joy. No Joy. What did I think? That it would work twice? Why not? “It worked once buddy, don’t give up quite so fast”, so getting down on my knees, I started clicking through the books on the bottom shelf. If it was going to work, it had to be now or never. The library closing call was coming from the speakers.
Drag, drag, SNAG! One new paperbound book stopped my progress because it couldn’t be pushed father back onto the shelf. I pulled it out and chills ran up my back. It was titled, “Brick Church Cemetery : Walworth Township, Walworth County, Wisconsin” by the Walworth County Genealogical Society.
You know how the story goes from here on. Grandma Mary’s name was listed on its pages. She had died there along with her young son and her mother-in-law! Mother-in-law? Wow! That was a name beyond my ‘brick wall’. Elizabeth Shaw was born in Yorkshire, England where she grew up, met and married grandpa, Eli Farrar and eventually migrated to America where the couple joined with their two sons who had migrated a few years earlier.
The clue came from the inscription on Elizabeth’s tombstone, “Elizabeth, wife of Eli Farrar, Died July 18, 1857 aged 62 years.” In one moment, the inscription gave me the names I had searched for for so very long.
Serendipity? Was the publication of cemetery tombstone inscriptions by the Walworth County Genealogy Society the end of the story? No. Obviously no.
The book had arrived at the Family History Library as a new acquisition or donation the same week I was there researching. After photocopying the page about the Farrar burials, it easily slid back flush with the spines of the books adjacent to it. Other than its light cover, it didn’t stand out at all. In fact, being on the bottom shelf, I probably wouldn’t have bent down to read the title if it hadn’t stopped my finger dragging exercise. Serendipity.
Of course the story goes on from here. When I got home, I couldn’t put the photocopy down. It meant too much to quickly tuck away in a documents binder after it was transcribed into my genealogy records. I kept wishing that I could see the tombstones. I spend a lot of time taking photos of tombstones in my area and posting them on Find-a-grave so they are available for the families of the ‘names’ on the markers. Would anyone do something like that for me in Walworth County?
Enter the Walworth County Genealogical Society. I found their website and their phone number. The wonderful lady that answered that call that day said she was just leaving BUT if I would send her a minimal check for the purchase of gas, she would take the time out of her very busy mom-of-youngsters life and drive out to the Brick Church Cemetery and take photos of the headstones for me.
They arrived via email several days later. I probably only sent her three “Thank You” notes in the ensuing weeks.
Genealogy Societies, like the Walworth County Genealogical Society, provide services like this to researchers all of the time. They are uniquely positioned to help folks like you and I. They live where we are researching and have access to all of the records, histories, the location knowledge and the community ties to help researchers like us.
If you haven’t contacted or joined genealogical societies like the one in Walworth, do so. You’ll benefit more than you can imagine. I certainly have. Give it a try. Prove it to yourself.