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Genealogies a lifelong pursuit


Volunteer researcher Ruth Giffin offers help to those seeking their family's Mercer County roots. The Essley-Noble Museum in Aledo maintains records prized by genealogists and others who want to learn more about their families.

ALEDO -- One man lives in Massachusetts, the other in Washington. Neither has ever seen the Quad-Cities area.

Yet the distant cousins found each other through the small Aledo museum they both contacted in search of their Mercer County family roots. An Internet website and newsletter about the Essley-Noble Museum's expansive genealogy department caught their attention.

Now 80-year-old Larry West of Kirkland, Wash., and 30-year-old Chris Baer of Martha's Vineyard, Mass., correspond through letters. They have exchanged family-tree data with each other and the museum, hoping the information will help someone else searching, Mr. West said by telephone recently.

``When I retired, I got involved in genealogy,'' Mr. West said, ``which is a dangerous thing, let me tell you.

``It sort of becomes like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. You turn up a name here, and that throws you into another hole.''

Thousands of people like these have traced their Mercer County ancestors through the Aledo museum, which is well-known for holding exclusive records.

The genealogy department preserves obituaries from as far back as 1857, including the detailed burial records of all Mercer County cemeteries collected in the 1960s. Old census records and numerous plat books dating back to 1875, which include biographies and pictures, also are housed there.

Library and private donations have allowed the museum to acquire many original newspapers from long ago, which include marriage and death announcements. This information, vital to genealogy, became private except to the press after 1916, volunteer researcher Ruth Giffin said.

Museum staff painstakingly hand-write the newspaper information into files which will help future researchers link relatives. The group recently finished filing data from 1990 and is working on recording 1991, ``but we have the papers on microfilm through 1996,'' Mrs. Giffin said.

The department receives at least one genealogy inquiry a week, but often many more pour into the museum and Mrs. Giffin's home. She charges $7.50 an hour to hunt family lineage and many times has found living relatives. Fees by other volunteers vary.

``Ruth was a wonderful resource,'' said Mr. Baer of Massachusetts, who has researched genealogy since he was 12 but didn't know he had a cousin in Washington. ``That was a great find.''

Mrs. Giffin's long-held interest in history -- and her own rich memory as a founding museum board member -- contributes to the genealogy department's continued growth and success.

The 82-year-old was one of three women who volunteered to join the planning group that opened the museum around 1959. She also served as museum curator in 1971, 1972, and from 1974 to 1993.

``I think it's wonderful the records have been preserved as well as they have,'' Mr. West said, ``and enterprising people like Mrs. Giffin dig them out.''

The museum, which is accepting donations for a recent expansion, is open 1-5 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, April through October. For information, call 582-2280 or Mrs. Giffin at 582-7463.

Another popular genealogy source is the Rock Island County Historical Society Research Library in Moline. People from all over the country write letters or visit the library in search of their Rock Island County roots.

The library, at 822 11th Ave., holds family data reaching back to the 1830s, including marriage and death information. Many people have used the resource to trace their family trees or gather county history, volunteer Lucille Sampson said.

``If you just want genealogy, you look for the names and dates,'' Ms. Sampson said. ``If you want family history, you're trying to put some meat on the bones of these people. Why did they come here? What was life like for them?''

Mrs. Sampson began volunteering at the library -- which is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday -- in 1974, after using the facility to find her own genealogy. She still isn't finished with the task.

``You never get done,'' she said. ``The thing about this is, you either like it or you don't.''

-- By Kay Yadon (January 26, 1998)

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