You can learn more by sharing knowledge

September 12, 1999

Genealogists, unlike generals, tend to win battles when everybody learns their plans.

Relatives who are made aware that you're researching family history often turn out to have information that opens doors and saves you years of searching.

A cousin you haven't seen in years might have just spoken to an aunt who told her the names of the old Austro-Hungarian province and town from which a key ancestor emigrated back at the turn of the century. An uncle might remember that in a bureau drawer he has an envelope full of yellowed newspaper obituaries filled with names and family relationships of your grandparents' brothers and sisters.

With good channels of communication opened, the data will soon be yours.

I'm a strong believer in writing an occasional family history letter and mailing it out to everybody in the line you are researching. That's the best way I know to get the whole extended family involved in the genealogical quest.

You're not a writer? A family genealogy letter doesn't have to be elaborate. You don't even need a computer. Here's how to do it.

As the year goes on, collect information. It doesn't matter whether you use a pasteboard folder, a computer disc or a scrapbook. But get it all together.

Then sit down at your desk or dining room table with a notepad and pen, and make a list of everything you've learned this past year. Did great-grandmother Susan outlive a first husband and bring some children to her marriage with great-grandfather Bill? Did second-cousin Pete work 50 years for the D&H Railroad and then move to the West Coast? You'll be surprised by the size of your list.

Now type up a letter to your relatives telling them all of this. Start it out "Dear folks," and write it the way you would write to any one relative. If you're in the habit of circulating a holiday-time bulletin with your Christmas cards, you already know exactly what to do. Make sure your return address, phone number and (if you have one) e-mail address are clear.

If you want, proofread it and retype it. Make a list of names and addresses of relatives you want to send it to.

Now take your letter to one of the stores with a copy machine that you can use yourself for five cents or 10 cents a page. Put your copies in envelopes and mail them off to every name on the list. You might want to use colorful, festive-looking envelopes to make your mailing stand out.

Fall is a good time to send out your letter. But don't let things run into the Christmas season, when most people are extra-busy.

My experience has been that after I send out a letter, I always get phone calls and mailings from relatives offering additional information.

One relative recently sent me a family group sheet for my great-grandfather's family, answering many questions. Another sent me a copy of the only photo of my great-great-uncle, a Civil War veteran, that I've ever seen.

In time, you will find, relatives will send copies of your family letters to other relatives, and soon you will develop correspondences with them. So the mailing list will keep growing.

Try a family history letter this year. It will be a nice holiday gift for your relatives, and the benefits will come back to you many times over.


Update: An expanded list of Luzerne County place names will soon be available on the county Genweb computer site, thanks to the continuing efforts of New Jersey resident Graham Van Slyke, whose work was profiled here recently. As the list expands, it should become increasingly helpful to genealogists trying to cope with the numerous and sometimes confusing or forgotten names for communities and sections of communities as they research their Luzerne County ancestors.

Genweb is an online collection of vital information about the area. The site may be accessed at Webmaster is Tammy Lamb, former president of the Northeast Pennsylvania Genealogical Society.

Here's how the place name list works. Go to Genweb, open up the place names and look through the list to find the place name you want. There you will be told if historical information is available on the site and where to find it. You will also be given coordinates so that you can find the community or area on a Luzerne County map conveniently located right on the site.

Let us say an old document tells you that an ancestor lived near Brahl's Corner -- a place you won't find on any modern map. Look into the Genweb list and you will learn that Brahl's Corner was the area of the old Flatiron Building in downtown Wilkes-Barre, actually just a sub-section of the city. The building has been gone since the 1960s, and even the configuration of streets there has changed completely. But the information is preserved on Genweb.

Did someone in your family have a farm at Scanlin? Again, the average county map will be no help with this old name. But find the coordinates Van Slyke gives you and learn exactly where this rural area was in Hollenback Township.

Incidentally, the map also gives polar coordinates -- degrees of longitude and latitude. Transfer them to a larger map and you will have an even more precise view of the spot you're looking for. Mr. Van Slyke thinks of everything.


Searching: T.R. Lazorishak of Colorado is looking for information on his grandmother, Anna RIFGON (possibly HRIVKO or HRYWKO), b. Sept. 19, 1900, in "Breslau borough." Presumably he means Hanover Township, of which Breslau is a section. Contact T. R. Lazorishak by postal mail at 30 Boulder Crescent, #300, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80903; or by phone at (719) 635-0127.


Local History Moment: Imagine packages and cans of food sliding down chutes right into your hands as you are doing your grocery shopping. In the post-World-War II era, the Grand Union company operated just such a store on Wyoming Avenue in Kingston. The section with chutes was called a Food-O-Mat. Grand Union promoted the store as a place where shoppers could push carts through extra-wide aisles while workers stood out of sight, dropping boxes of cereal, cans of beans and jars of applesauce into the chutes. The store opened in 1948 and closed just five years later.


News Notes: You'll be able to look through a window into the past at the Swetland Homestead Harvest Festival Saturday and Sunday. There will be craftsmen doing blacksmithing and carving of farm tool implements as well as a Civil War encampment, with infantry and artillery demonstrations. The events run 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Swetland Homestead is along Route 11 in Wyoming, near the Midway Shopping Center.

  • All over America genealogical groups are working their way through cemeteries, recording the data on tombstones. One very active group in this endeavor is the Capital Area Genealogical Society, of Harrisburg, profiled recently in the Sunday Patriot-News. Its work is part of the Pennsylvania Tombstone Transcription Project, available at

    • Have you solved some tough genealogical problems in your research? Do you have some tips you'd like to share with others? Would you like to report a success story? Drop me a line here at the paper. I'll get in touch with you and help you bring the benefits of your experience to others.

      Tom Mooney, The Times Leader, 15 N. Main St., Wilkes-Barre, Pa. 18711