Locals are seeing a boom in genealogy interest fueled by the Internet
By Patrick Smith
Jim Alexander spent hours poring over history books, drove to libraries throughout the Southeast and used the Internet to travel around the globe, but he can now trace his roots back to Lord Baltimore in the 1600s. While each method — books, physical trips and the Internet — are important to his research, Alexander is quick to point out how much broadband speeds up the discovery of his true lineage.
“With the technology available today, we can travel around the world to get information with the click of the mouse,” says Alexander. “People go to England, Ireland, France and Germany, and the people over there can look stuff up for us, and then you can check it and you don’t have to travel. It’s amazing.”
On a typical weekday, Alexander is joined by Bill and Birdie Foy in the Graves County Public Library genealogy section. They volunteer their time, surrounded by thousands and thousands of pages of thick-bound books. The genealogy books provide a window into the history of the thousands of people who at one time called Graves County home. But their research isn’t always held within the walls of the library.
“One of the things they did when they started was to go out and read the tombstones that they could find in the cemeteries,” says Bill Foy, speaking of the founders of the local Graves County Kentucky Genealogy Society. “Then they made books so everybody else could do research.”
The three volunteers are truly walking encyclopedias of local history. Need to know why there are no birth or death records before 1911? It turns out Graves County didn’t keep them. Need an explanation on why some records are hard to find? It turns out the Graves County Courthouse burned down three times. Curious about who is the most famous person from Graves County? They usually cite Alben W. Barkley, who was the 35th Vice President of the United States under President Harry S. Truman from 1949-53.
WHY GRAVES COUNTY?
When a new face walks into the library, Alexander and Bill and Birdie Foy are happy to help them discover their ancestry.
“We have a lot of people who come here from out of state, as far away as Oregon, Texas, Alaska, Florida, Missouri, New York, Iowa — the list goes on,” says Bill Foy. “They come in here to do their research. We think a lot of families stopped here when they were moving west.”
Most often, people have found out about Graves County and their unusually well-equipped library because of an Internet site, such as Ancestry.com. “They come to us to see if we can provide absolute proof of what they need,” says Alexander.
And the fact that visitors find such an immense database to work from is particularly noteworthy for such a small, volunteer-led effort. The hunt for local records was started by Don Simmons in the 1980s.
“He would go to the courthouse, write the information down by hand, then go back and type it up on a typewriter,” says Birdie Foy. “That’s one of the reasons we have such a large amount of information here.”
That was 30 short years ago. Today, technology has transformed genealogy and given it a heightened awareness among people of all ages. “It’s so much faster,” says Birdie Foy. “But sometimes you still want to dig in a book because maybe they made a mistake. It’s hard to refute the facts if you’ve got a paper copy.” That’s why many involved in genealogy recommend those interested do the initial work online, then try to go and see it for themselves, or have someone else double-check your findings.
“The people who started their journey online have created a lot of interest for genealogy,” says Bill Foy. “Even though they may not always have the correct information, a lot of times they come here and get the right information on paper. It has definitely expanded people’s interest in genealogy.”
The Internet has also greatly reduced the cost of doing genealogy research. Prior to the Internet, people were required to travel to find new information. Now they can find multiple pieces of information in a few clicks, or make one longer trip to several different locations to verify information.
And with each connection made by the genealogy team, whether within their own families or for visitors passing through Graves County, they find an undeniable feeling of satisfaction through helping locate long-lost relatives.
“It’s like putting a puzzle together,” says Birdie Foy. “Once you’ve put a piece in, it’s a great feeling because it may have taken you a year to find that one piece. You’re thrilled when you’ve found someone. It’s just amazing the different ways you connect with your relatives.”
Did you know?
The Graves County Kentucky Genealogy Society holds monthly meetings with about 30 people regularly attending and more than 80 members nationwide. For more information, visit: www.gravesgenealogy.org.