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Local History and Genealogy

Genealogy and the Law

Those of us who enjoy genealogical research know that it is often a complicated business. That is very likely what we love about it. We’re always looking for a little more information to lead us back another generation or to explain something that happened in our family long before we were born, and we don’t mind digging for it. For that reason, I’m always on the lookout for books that provide a new approach, or instruction on using resources that go a little further than the usual census and vital records we deal with regularly. Genealogy and the Law: A Guide to Legal Sources for the Family Historian is just that kind of book. It is a tool for finding and understanding the laws that governed our ancestors.

After reading Genealogy and the Law, I was inspired to see if the Michigan laws in 1870 could tell me anything about the circumstances related to an ancestor’s divorce I had recently discovered. The divorce record stated that my ancestor had filed for divorce on the grounds of desertion, but gave almost no other information. Fortunately for me we have historical Michigan documents, a law library, and fantastic law library staff to help me locate what I was looking for. After consulting Michigan Compiled Laws for 1857 (and Public Acts for the years 1858-1870 to see if there were any changes to the laws during that time) I discovered that in 1870 desertion was one of only a handful of valid grounds for divorce. However, it couldn’t be claimed unless the spouse had been gone for at least two years. So what I had considered to be a marriage of about four years, in reality lasted less than two years. While this wasn’t a major discovery, it did add to my understanding of events in my ancestor’s life. Looking through the early laws of Michigan was fascinating and now that I’ve done it, I know I will tackle them again to enhance my genealogy research.

Local History Online

Someone recently asked me how I get anything done when we have so many wonderful things to read and enjoy in the history room collection. It is true that it’s easy to get absorbed in the books, photos, maps, files and scrapbooks that make up the collection; but something that is even better is sharing it all with others who love local history.

But we know not everyone can come into the history room whenever they have a hankering to indulge their inner history buff, which is why we’ve spent years making KPL’s local history collection accessible from anywhere. This began all the way back in 1997 with digitization of the cataloged photographs. Since then, we have digitized newspapers, photo albums, pamphlets, books, journals, maps, films, and catalogs. We’ve also built up an impressive collection of videos of local history programs that were presented here at KPL.

All of these items have been linked in appropriate places throughout the website, but now they are also accessible from a single page that we call Local History Online: KPL Digital Archives. This is the place to connect to all of our digital offerings and easily keep up on what’s new. So whatever your interest – be it photos taken at the Michigan Asylum for the Insane in the early 20th century, Kalamazoo newspapers from more than a century ago, or a Henderson-Ames catalog of regalia for Odd Fellow lodges – you can start your exploration at Local History Online.

How to Archive Family Photos

You know how grateful you are to that long-departed relative when you come across an old photo album that they had carefully and completely organized, dated and captioned? We all want to be that conscientious when we’re documenting our lives with photos, but it’s so much more complicated now. Digital photos are extremely functional but create a whole extra layer of complexity when it comes to organization and identification. For those of us who have struggled with this problem there is a new book, How to Archive Family Photos by Denise May Levenick. In Part 1 of the book, readers learn how to safely store, organize, name, tag, and back-up their digital photo collections. Part 2 details digitizing heirloom photograph collections and Part 3 suggests projects for sharing and enjoying your digital images. Check out How to Archive Family Photos to get the most out of all those pictures you’ve been taking with your phone (and to be the most revered member of your family).


Neighborhood Focus – Westnedge Hill

We are celebrating Historic Preservation Month, May, with a series of programs that highlight elements of the Westnedge Hill Neighborhood. We got an early start on April 30 with a fantastic program on Crane Park by Natalie Patchell. But don’t worry if you missed it – we’ll have it on the website soon.

Crane Park program

On May 4th we will be learning about a Westnedge Hill gem with a fascinating history – Everyman’s House. Our presenter, Wendy Mutch, is a former owner of the home and will treat us to a lively and fact-filled program. But wait, there’s more! We are thrilled to be partnering with the Kalamazoo Valley Museum to display their model of Everyman’s House at the program! This will be the first time it has been available for public viewing since the history gallery was re-done nearly 5 years ago.

Crane home

Finally, Lynn Houghton will present the history and architecture of the neighborhood on May 14. Lynn has done many programs for us over the years and they are always excellent, but this happens to be her neighborhood so this might be the best one yet!

Both programs will take place in the VanDeusen Room at 7 pm, so be sure to get there early to get a good seat and have a chance to chat with Westnedge Hill residents and others with an interest in Kalamazoo’s unique neighborhoods.

Do You Recognize This Photo?

Not long ago, we received a donation of a photo depicting children and a few adults, presumably taken in front of a school. The donor thought that it was Vine Street School and from the early 1950s. Unfortunately, the building in the photo did not look like any images we have of Vine Street School, or any other Kalamazoo school that we have in our photo collection. So - was this even a Kalamazoo photo? The only obvious clue was the name of the photography studio stamped on the back – Central Studio. That did suggest at least the possibility of it being a local photo, since a Central Studio was in business in Kalamazoo from the 1930s until the late 1950s.

This is where local history really gets fun. I consulted with others to see if the building looked familiar to them. No one recognized it, but in talking it out we decided it looked like it could be a church instead of a school. Then the sharp eye of a colleague picked up something carved into a block behind the heads of several women on the left side of the photo. Examination with a magnifying glass determined that it said “Bethany.” Another colleague pulled up a picture of Bethany Reformed Church in Kalamazoo and, sure enough, we had our building.

However, we still have questions. City directory searches do not show Bethany operating a school. Could this be a photo of the Sunday school classes? It seems like a very large group for that. Another possibility that we considered was that these were the students of McKinley School, which stood just a block away, but we have no idea why they would need to use the church for a photo.

Can you help us solve this mystery?

The New HeritageQuest

If you haven’t logged into HeritageQuest lately, you’re in for a big surprise! The database that KPL and other libraries have been providing for years for genealogical research has gone through a major change. Through a partnership with Ancestry, HeritageQuest is now able to provide more advanced search functionality (very similar to searching in Ancestry) and increased content.


The U.S. Federal Census 1790-1940 is now complete with an every-name index. There is a new image viewer with improved image resolution as well as simple save and share capabilities. They have also increased their book collection to include thousands of city directories. Research aids full of great information and tips are available – but don’t be surprised when they refer you to searches in Ancestry. One of the wonderful things that HeritageQuest has always had, but you may have overlooked because it was completely buried on their old site, is the Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920. I love those maps and now they are prominently linked right at the top of the home page. Of course, the best thing about HeritageQuest is something that is exactly the same as it has always been – it is accessible from home by logging in with your library card number!


If you can’t remember how to get to HeritageQuest and the other great databases that KPL provides for genealogical research, just go to the Genealogy Topic Guide and scroll down to the Databases section.



The Art of Memory

It is no secret that I am particularly fond of cemeteries. Unlike many people, I don’t find them to be sad or spooky places. I love them for their park-like beauty, art, and architecture; and of course their history. After reading The Art of Memory: Historic Cemeteries of Grand Rapids, Michigan, I have to believe that its author, Thomas R. Dilley, feels the same way. The book is filled with beautiful photos of cemeteries, tombstones and mausoleums throughout Grand Rapids.

Dilley could have stopped there – many authors of cemetery books do - but the photos are just the beginning. The book deals mainly with the garden or park cemeteries of Grand Rapids, which first began to be established in the late nineteenth century. But this development is all put into perspective with an excellent history of burial and burial places going all the way back to the beginning of civilization. It goes on to tell the histories of the specific cemeteries and then further to explain the monuments themselves. For example, popular architectural styles of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries - such as Greek Revival, Romanesque, Egyptian Revival, and Art Deco - are all represented in the tombstones and mausoleums of Grand Rapids, and Dilley explains their popularity and significance.

While the book includes a great deal of interesting Grand Rapids history, the insight provided into the evolution of cemetery design and tombstone architecture and symbolism will give you an understanding and appreciation for cemeteries anywhere in the country. You may find yourself picking up The Art of Memory for the beautiful images, but I guarantee you’ll keep reading for the fascinating details.

Your Genealogy Place

With the holidays behind us, it’s time to get serious about your genealogy research, and the local history room is full of resources to help you do just that! Whether you’re just getting started, or have been at it for years, you can certainly benefit from a trip to the history room.

You can’t find a better place to dig up information on your Kalamazoo ancestors than our local information database. It includes more than four decades of full name and subject indexing of the Kalamazoo Gazette and well over 100 years of obituary/death story citations. But that’s just the beginning – the database also includes indexing of local magazines and select Kalamazoo County newspapers, as well as citations for history room files and specific items in books in the history room collection. This includes portraits in many of the high school and college yearbooks.

You don’t need to have Kalamazoo roots to benefit from KPL’s resources, either. We have hundreds of genealogy books, from instructional to vital records to compilations of ship passenger lists. In addition to Michigan, geographically our collection includes research volumes for Indiana and Ohio, New England, and the Mid-Atlantic States. We even have printed volumes for Canadian and European research. When you also consider our genealogy databases - Ancestry Library Edition, America’s Genealogy Bank, Heritage Quest, and American Ancestors – KPL provides access to records from all over the world!

Of course, there are many, many records that will never make it to a printed book or be included in a database, but billions of them have been microfilmed by Family Search. That is why KPL is a Family Search Affiliate Library. For a small fee, reels of microfilm can be borrowed from Family Search and sent here for viewing and printing or scanning with our digital microfilm readers. So what are you waiting for? Come on down to the history room and start researching!

Second Chance for Programs

If you read our Link newsletter or peruse the website from time to time, you probably know that KPL has hosted many wonderful local history programs in recent years. We’ve covered topics related to architecture, neighborhoods, women’s history, shipwrecks, and even the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. All the local history programs have a Kalamazoo or Michigan focus. What you may not know is that most of these programs are recorded and the videos are made available on our website. Of course, nothing beats being at a program and having the opportunity to ask questions and interact with the presenter, but if you miss one, it’s not too late to enjoy it. 

Take a look at the recently posted video of WMU professor Brian Wilson presenting on the topic of his new book, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the Religion of Biologic Living. I promise you will be fascinated (and then you’ll want to go back and view any of the other programs that you missed)!

An Idyllic Summer Day

It’s been a while since we posted an unidentified photo so this one has a bonus – an extra related photo. Both feature what appears to be at least three generations of a family posed in front of a house. One is taken from a distance, making the house fully visible. The house is brick and it is clearly in a rural setting. The family of nine adults and four children are spaced out across the photo. It appears to be a warm summer day with leaves fully out on trees and bushes, and windows open on the house. The children are posed with croquet mallets and balls as if they had just interrupted their game to have their photo taken.


The second photo gives a much clearer view of the family. They are tightly spaced in front of a porch on the right side of the house. Several of the women and children are wearing flowers pinned to their clothes. Styles indicate a date in the early 1890s.


Help us! Our local history photograph collection is a wonderful resource, but unfortunately not every photo comes to us with full details of the place, people, or date associated with it. For that reason, we are enlisting your help. If you have any idea who this family is, or if you recognize the house, let us know. But even if you don’t, be sure to take a minute to enjoy these interesting old photos.

View all photos in the “unidentified” series