Solving history's mysteries: Genealogical society spurs, assists with family-based research

Posted: Sunday, May 15, 2011

Loretta Mattson stood last week in the bottom of the Kenai United Methodist Church in front of about 20 residents wearing a lavender shirt.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Loretta Mattson laughs as she talks about the people she has found in her family tree during a meeting of the Kenai Totem Tracers Genealogical Society last week. "A horse thief and a crazy person. Oh boy," she said.

She grasped at the bottom of her shirt, leaned over and excitedly motioned to a section of it.

"Look, I have more family now," she said to another resident with an enthusiastic smile.

Mattson, president of the Kenai Totem Tracers Genealogical Society, was motioning to the beginnings of her family tree. A section of that family tree -- more specifically a cluster of names -- was freshly inked.

"We got this from our last president," Mattson said. "It's a shirt where we can put our family on it and I have my Norwegian, but my Swedish one was blank. I wear my family."

On the back of her shirt are the names of those members of Mattson's heritage she is still looking for -- a most wanted list of sorts.

Both sides of Mattson's shirt represent the work of the Totem Tracers.

The 62-member club meets once per month during the winter, but takes the summers off for family reunion season, she said.

The members are dedicated to helping each other unearth their family trees and trace their heritage back as far as they can.

Shortly after Mattson finished explaining the contents of her shirt, she called the May meeting of the Totem Tracers to order. For about an hour, members in attendance shared stories of "personal victories" in research, new software they had discovered to help them in their search and talked about the status of the organization's various projects.

One of those in attendance was Betty Idleman, who said her research into her family started when she inherited a wooden Coca-Cola box filled with small notebooks.

It turned out those books, she said, were the diaries of her father's mother's father, and represented about 47 years of history. Such information sheds light on the way the world was many years ago and can open up a wealth of knowledge lost through the generations, she contends.

Mattson said she started researching her family's history in 1992 when her brother handed her a stack of information and said, "Here, take this."

"I knew that my Norwegian and Swedish family came here in the 1880s," she said. "So, I figured that wouldn't take long. Well the other side of my family came here in 1630 in Connecticut, Mass. So, I got kind of stuck."

Branches of her family tree reveal some history previous generations might have tried to forget about, she said.

"I have this one (relative) that I found through DNA that's a second cousin eight times removed that just married women and left them," Mattson said. "I got his pension records and there is like four wives and he claimed that he didn't have any children, but he had like six, seven children out of those wives.

"I imagine he stole horses, too. He was a real scoundrel and ended up in a pine box in Texas. I always say if you don't have at least a horse thief in the family, you are just nowhere -- got to have at least one bad guy."

Mattson said researching one's genealogy is much like starting down a rabbit hole.

"It gets pretty dark down there," she said with a laugh.

Idleman agreed, adding the group is happy to help residents who are just starting their search with little or no information.

"There was one woman two years ago that brought in a beer box full of papers and said, 'What do I do with this?'" she said. "She had original documents."

"She didn't even know what she had," Mattson added.

Tracey Earll, who has been a member of the Totem Tracers for a year, said she was able to get a box full of old photographs from her mother, who had them passed down from her grandfather when he died.

The photos detailed in black and white the early life of her family -- immigrants from Russia and Germany who settled in the Wisconsin area to work the area's logging industry.

"I have yet to be able to find records outside of (that)," Earll said. "I am still trying to figure out when they immigrated and things like that, but I've gotten a lot of stories."

One of those stories, as detailed through a newspaper article, tells of one of her great-grandfathers who, in 1904, started to drive a car for the first time, but didn't know how to stop it.

"So he ran into this brick building, it was like a school house I think," she said. "But, he just bounced back so ran and ran it until it was out of gas. So to me, I just look back and I think that is so hilarious, you know."

Earll said she has experience in genealogical research, but still learns new things when she comes to a Totem Tracers meeting.

"Obviously I am the youngest one in here," she said. "There's not a lot of younger people here but I look at as a wealth of information. They have done researching and I can ask questions and learn from them, but I just have always had that fascination with my ancestors, to be able to put a face with a name and maybe even a story."

The group works on a variety of other projects, including taking card files of area residents' obituaries and digitizing them, as well as compiling a book detailing who is buried in more than 60 cemeteries and memorials across the Peninsula.

"Our favorite place is the cemetery," Mattson said with a laugh.

She noted her weekend would include a trip to Homer to take photos of graves per the request of someone who had emailed her. But, that's part of being in the sisterhood of genealogical societies, she said.

"You get a feeling like you are complete if you know who you came from," Mattson said.

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