Monday, September 14, 2020

Finding Our Roots

By Phyllis Ringelstetter Buskager

My sister Joann and I started a project a few years ago to learn more about a large collection of family photos that were from our mother’s childhood. Some were in an album that our mother had put together with interesting or funny captions, but not the names of those pictured nor the dates when they were taken. Others were studio portraits, again with no names or dates. And Mom’s relatives had also shared some photos with us.

Our mother passed away over 37 years ago, at a time when we were much younger and very busy with our work and family lives. We now regret that we never took the time to sit down with her to learn more about her childhood and those old family photos that she left us.

So, since we are both now retired and have more time, we decided we needed to spend some time with our aunts (our mother’s sisters). We always enjoy getting together with them and we knew they would be able to help us identify many of the relatives in the photos.

During the past three years, Joann organized several sessions where we spent the entire day going through all of those photos. And to our delight, not only were our aunts able to identify the people and places in many of the photos, but we also got to hear many fun and interesting stories about our mother’s family while she and her siblings were growing up on the family farm.

Our aunts provided us with lots of additional information about our family history including historical information about the farm where our grandfather grew up. The farm is only a few miles from the farm where our grandmother grew up. We learned that our grandfather worked as a farm laborer for our grandmother’s father. In the words of our aunt, “she married the hired man!”

We also learned that in the early years of their marriage, our grandparents rented a farm nearby, on which our mother and her two older siblings were born.  All three of those farms were located in the same Township in south central Wisconsin.  I mentioned above that our aunts told us many interesting stories about their childhood.   Our mother’s oldest sibling (now 92) has always had an excellent memory filled with stories and tidbits of family history.  For example, she was able to tell us that in the photograph that follows, our mother’s dress was white with little red polka dots and the dog’s name was Shep.  How fun to learn those little details! 

After the session with our aunts last summer, Joann and I decided we should try to locate the home farms. One of our aunts had given us information about our grandfather’s home farm that she received from her cousin, which included the location of the farm. And, after comparing old census records with old plat maps, I was able to narrow down the locations of our grandmother’s home farm and the farm that our grandparents rented after they married. Here’s a sample from a census taken in the year 1900.

Then my husband and I set out on a drive to the township where the farms are located. Armed with my research information and our trusty Wisconsin Gazetteer map, we located the farm our grandparents had rented early in their marriage. We also located our grandfather’s home farm, which has been in our family since 1858 and still is today.

I thought locating the farm where our grandmother grew up would be more of a challenge since we didn’t have an address. But when we arrived at the location that I believed was where our grandmother grew up, what a pleasant surprise! There was a Dairy Farm sign in the yard with the family’s name on it – and the name is our grandmother’s maiden name. So, this farm is still owned by family members, too!

After I had located them, Joann and I took a drive by the farms. Later, as we continued to work on the many unidentified photos we had, we realized that the photo we took of the house where our grandmother grew up matched an old photo with a farmhouse we still hadn’t identified! This is the same house as in the photo above, but it was taken from the back side of the house. One of our aunts had told us that our great grandmother’s house had a summer kitchen. We believe the small building on the right is that summer kitchen.

After our sessions last summer and with many old photos still unidentified, we made plans to meet this spring with our aunts to continue learning more about our family history. But the Covid-19 pandemic required us to put a hold on that due to the need to social distance. And sadly, we just lost one of our aunts from a recently diagnosed illness. Now we really cherish those wonderful days that we spent with our aunts and we dedicate this blog post to them. As soon as the pandemic is behind us, we hope to continue our in-person pursuit of family history with our aunts, and to introduce ourselves to extended family members who now own the family farms.

Take the time as soon as you can to talk to your parents and older relatives about your family history and then hit the backroads and explore your roots!

Happy Shunpiking!

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