Sunday, April 29, 2001

Again and again, a small core of local resources help people get the genealogical and historical information they need.

If you're not familiar with these books, make their acquaintance as soon as you can. Whether you live here in Wyoming Valley or take just the occasional trip to do research, these sources are indispensable.

Let's take a look at some letters that came in recently.

First, from Joseph Gregory. ``Does anyone have any knowledge, namely the dates of operation, of the A.T. Sturdevant Photographic Studio?''

Gregory is trying to get an approximate date for an old photo.

Now, since Sturdevant was a businessman, he likely sought to put his name in front of the public by advertising. Joseph, your starting point for a question like this ought to be the Luzerne County Historical Society's collection of Wilkes-Barre City Directories.

Sure enough, the directories (which begin in 1870) list an Alton T. Sturdevant, photographer, with studios in various places including Public Square from the 1880s to the early 20th century.

By the 1908 directory, Carrie L. Sturdevant is listed as his widow at the family home on Carey Avenue.

We can be still more precise. Knowing that he died shortly before 1908, you can go to copies of the Wilkes-Barre Record Almanac, which in those years listed all deaths in the Wilkes-Barre area, and look for his name in the alphabetized lists.

With the death date in hand you can go to local newspaper back files in the Times Leader's newsroom library and look for Alton T. Sturdevant's obituary.

Since he was a substantial businessman, his death would likely have merited a solid obit in the full range of local dailies of the era - the Times, the Leader (which around this time combined into one paper), the Evening News and the Record. Hopefully you will find good biography and some precise dates for his business.

Good luck with your quest.

The paper's library is open to the public 10 a.m. to noon Wednesday through Friday, but call the librarian at (570) 829-7220 to reserve some microfilm time.

Here's another letter, and more proof that we have plenty of good resources locally.

Patricia Hillon of Harveys Lake is researching ancestor L(emuel) A(gusta) Barber, whom she believes helped construct the Osterhout Building in the late 19th century.

Writes Hillon, ``Would anyone know if the old Osterhout building is the same building which is the Osterhout Library today and can anyone tell me what other buildings Lemuel may have constructed?''

This problem is a bit tougher, because it requires more historical background.

From reading in readily available local history sources, I know that there were two buildings bearing the name of Osterhout a century ago. One, of course, was the Osterhout Free Library on South Franklin Street - then as now the area's premiere public library.

The other was a four-story commercial building on Public Square at East Market Street. It was known as the Osterhout Building, and is apparently the one that you are interested in, Patricia.

This Osterhout Building housed shops, offices and living quarters. Looking it up in the Times Leader's oldest files, I find that it burned down on February 24, 1899.

With the date in hand, we can once again go to the newspaper's microfilm back files - which, by the way, stretch all the way back to the 1790s - and find stories about the fire, including some background on the building.

The fire story in the Record tells us that the Osterhout Building was barely a decade old when it burned, so now we have some idea when L.A. Barber the builder was active. But the three other local daily papers of the time covered the fire as well, and hopefully they can help you pin down the exact date the building opened for business.

If you can get that date, you can look for articles on the grand opening and try to find references to your ancestor. The man who designed the building was the renowned local architect M.B. Houpt. He could have employed Barber as a contractor.

Since you have the date of Barber's death (Dec. 3, 1908), don't forget to check microfilms of all the Wilkes-Barre newspapers - by that year they were the Times Leader, Evening News and Record. Perhaps an obituary would mention specific buildings he worked on.

Wondering what the Osterhout Building looked like? The 1890 edition of the Wilkes-Barre Record Almanac contains a drawing of it.

Check out two more local sources, Patricia. One is the book ``Wilkes-Barre Architecture,'' published by the Luzerne County Historical Society, which gives background on many of the architects and builders of times past. Also check the society's Phillips collection of basic data, which lists many local professionals of the 19th and early-20th centuries.

Queries: James Gugenheim of Florida wonders if the Monsignor John J. Curran who compiled the Curran Collection of area church data is the priest who ``was at St. Mary's when I went there as a little boy.''

James, if you attended Mass at St. Mary's of the Immaculate Conception in Wilkes-Barre in the 1920s and early 1930s you certainly would have seen this beloved priest-historian.

Curran was pastor there in his later years, right up to his death Dec. 7, 1936. The monsignor is credited with bringing President Theodore Roosevelt to Wyoming Valley to settle a coal miners strike in the early 20th century, and popular lore has it that he helped rename the city's old Five Points section ``East End.''

Curran was injured earlier in 1936 when a mail bomb exploded in his rectory, part of the infamous ``Good Friday Bombings'' that left three people dead and several others injured.

Local History Moment: Ever wish you could spend just one day living like the rich and famous? One Wilkes-Barre man of modest means did just that in 1914. John Jay ``Butch'' McDevitt was already well known as a practical joker and local eccentric when he took a thinly disguised $10,000 bribe to get out of an election race (which is a story in itself), rented a train and chugged to New York City. There he rented a magnificent hotel room, dined on tables full of delicacies and relaxed in a milk bath, all under the eyes of reporters and friends he had brought with him. For decades afterward McDevitt was a popular local speaker, regaling banquet audiences with his tale of being ``a millionaire for a day.''

News Notes: If you are a member of the Brobst family, Barbara Brobst Williams of the National Brobst Registry would like to hear from you.

``We are taking info from sources such as Social Security Index, obituaries, etc. and trying to follow up to either include the information or to connect it to information and families we already have listed,'' she writes. Contact Williams at

Here's a chance to explore the resources of the Luzerne County Historical Society. The society will hold an open house at its Bishop Memorial Library next Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. The library is at 49 S. Franklin St., Wilkes-Barre, directly across from Boscov's Department Store. Knowledgeable guides will be available for tours.

Then, on May 9, Jim Smith will offer a talk on ``Starting Your Family Tree in Luzerne County.'' The presentation is set for 7 p.m. at St. Stephen's Church auditorium, right next to the Bishop Library. The next time you visit the society, be sure to pick up a copy of its schedule of offerings for the month.

Remember, this column is now accessible through your computer 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. Email is