Sunday, February 18, 2001

Was great-granddaddy a ragman?

Did mom and her high school buddies chatter about their beaux over chocolate Cokes at the neighborhood drugstore's soda fountain on the way home?

You can't realize how language - and life - change until you use an old-time word around a younger person and draw a blank stare.

A few hoary expressions hang on. Say ``bargain basement'' and most people know what you are talking about, even though department stores no longer have these lower levels with cheaper merchandise.

But ``ice box''? No, it's not the Jenkins Township hockey rink.

As you do your genealogical research and pile up the paperwork (or computer files), it's a good idea to define your terms.

If you know what a ragman did (collect old clothes for resale as rags), write it down next to your ancestor's name. Most people today don't know, and hardly anyone will 50 years from now.

The soda fountain, long a staple of drugstores, vanished decades ago. So when you pull mom's recollection of her teen years out of your files for yet another rereading, add a page of your own to tell people exactly what she was talking about.

After all, you want all the relatives to benefit fully from the genealogy you're doing. Even today, a lot of us could use some help with terms. If your material is being read by descendants a couple of generations from now, they will need a humongous amount of help.

Don't ignore geographic or topical references. If your family once lived in the Kingston ``flats,'' somewhere you ought to write that this is the area near the river. Do you realize it will soon be 30 years since ``Agnes'' hit? To your grandchildren, the great flood of '72 will be ancient history - unless you tell them about the disaster, verbally, in writing or by packing a flood picture book with your files.

Our ancestors had justification for not telling us some vital things. They worked long hours, managed large families and often struggled to learn enough English to be able to read a newspaper.

So when we are puzzled we must turn to research. Histories of all kinds as well as dictionaries of old words are readily available in libraries and in the catalogues of genealogical publishing companies.

Then, in your turn, be alert for needful definitions and explanations as you prepare and file away information on your forebears. What kind of store was that ``five and dime'' where you shopped for toys as a child? What did Aunt Maisie do as a ``floor lady'' in the dress factory? Why was granddaddy so proud of his ``Packard''?

Oh, the ice box. That big wooden, metal-lined chest on legs was the latest thing in refrigeration a century ago. Some homes had them until the 1940s. You would hang out the ``ice'' sign on your front porch, and an ``iceman'' who came by with a wagon or truck would pick up a big block with tongs and carry it into the house for you.

Then he'd put it into one side of the wooden chest, and the apparatus would (supposedly) keep your milk and meats cold for a day or two.

The icemen are long gone. Genealogically speaking, it's your turn to deliver.

Mailbag: ``Is there any future plan for the Times Leader to make the past obituaries available online for more than a week? Many newspapers are already doing it, and it is a great help for genealogy.'' Andrew Strauss, North Augusta, S.C.

Times Leader obituaries since 1992 are available online at the paper's Web site of Because they are online, you can do a search for the name you are looking for. There is a charge for accessing them. Instructions will be found on the Web site. Earlier obituaries, of course, are available on microfilm copies of the newspaper, but there is no general index for them.

``I'm having a difficult time finding information on the Wyoming High School Class of 1930. Wyoming Free Library only has yearbooks from 1945. I'm looking for a graduate with the initials of H.M.B.'' Maria,

Maria, stories about high school graduations - with listings of all the graduates - are a staple of newspapers. Wilkes-Barre had three daily papers in 1930 (the Times Leader, the Evening News and the Record).

Check the Osterhout Free Library and Luzerne County Historical Society, both in Wilkes-Barre, to see if they have microfilms of the papers going back that far. If they don't, stop by the Times Leader's second-floor newsroom library from 10 a.m. to noon Wednesday through Friday. Call the librarian first at (570) 829-7220 for an appointment. You'll probably find your H.M.B. Remember, though, that years ago high schools tended to graduate as late as the third week of June, several weeks later than is customary today.

Local History Moment: A Communist running for Wilkes-Barre City Council? It almost happened. In September 1939, Luzerne County Judge Thomas F. Farrell invalidated a nomination petition filed by Harold Spencer, an avowed Communist who wanted to run for a seat on council in the November election. The judge ruled that some of Spencer's nomination papers were improperly prepared and that he could not run. He also ruled against including the Communist Party on the November ballot. Spencer was listed in 1930s newspaper stories as an organizer for the Workers Alliance.

News Notes: About 30 people attended my introduction to genealogy at Boscov's Department Store last Sunday. The presentation will be repeated at 1 p.m. next Sunday. There's no registration or charge. If you're a beginner, you will find it a general introduction to genealogy. If you've been researching for some time, you'll have the chance to meet some local genealogists and get your questions answered. It's in the fourth-floor auditorium. Stop by.

The Northeast Pennsylvania Genealogical Society will meet at 7 p.m. Feb. 27. in the second-floor meeting room of the Department of Veterans Affair Medical Center, near Wyoming Valley Mall. Speaker Jim Smith of FolkFinders will talk about the impact of technology on genealogy. You don't have to be a member to attend, and questions are always welcome.

The Luzerne County Historical Society has been awarded $5,000 in state money for its historic signage project. The grant was part of $25 million handed out for projects throughout Pennsylvania, according to a press release from the Office of Community and Economic Development.

Pennsylvania's libraries could get more state funding this year, Gov. Tom Ridge's office announced recently. Said the Associated Press, ``The amount of direct state aid will increase from $62.3 million to $75.3 million, part of $94 million Ridge is setting aside for libraries.'' The proposal first has to win approval of the Legislature.

The new National Civil War Museum opened in Harrisburg Monday. And museum officials say that it's more than just a Yankee celebration.

``The operators of the 66,000-square-foot museum are presenting it as the only one that tells about the entire Civil War and presents both sides in balance,'' the Associated Press reports.

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