Ancestral Voices

CORSICANA, TX — For more than 30 years, local residents researching their family trees have been a hop, skip and historical jump away from the support of the Navarro County Genealogical Society (NCGS), a 150-member body, whose officers and volunteers maintain an archival treasure trove housed at the Corsicana Public Library. “People can call us or e-mail us and we’ll work our little hearts out for them,” said Verna Bonner, NCGS’s vice president. “We’re here to guide our visitors, and we are as thrilled with their discoveries as they are.”

At a recent meeting held in the library’s Liz Gillispie Genealogy Department, board members discussed the society’s growth since its 1978 inception. Ines Waggoner, a charter member and a department volunteer for 28 years, recalled several who warned such an organization wouldn’t last long. “Well, we have sure proven them wrong!” she laughed. Others pointed out that the group has benefited from the popularity of the reality TV show, Who Do You Think You Are? in which celebrities like Emmitt Smith and Brooke Shields traced their lineage. “It has created a lot of new traffic here,” Verna admitted, stressing the behind-the-scenes work of locating information on forebears is more in-depth than demonstrated in the TV series. “But the anticipation and excitement are the same,” she qualified. “In fact, you never know from day to day what we’ll find. Some days we have our own Who Do You Think You Are?”

The department over which NCGS’ energetic staffers preside is located in an annex of the Corsicana Public Library, a wing comprising more than 22,000 catalogued items, from bound volumes of periodicals and rare books to vertical files containing wills, deeds, photos and other documents. Much of the material

available for study has been donated by researchers. NCGS also received several boxes of unclaimed marriage records from the Navarro County Clerk’s office.

Many other collections have been bequeathed to the group by private individuals, a largesse much appreciated by its board. NCGS President Mary Lea Murray, who has studied her family history for 20 years and has just completed a 300-page account of it, underscored the importance of preserving history for the benefit of future generations. “Every family needs what we call a ‘gene-angel’ to pass along information and photos,” she said, adding that she recently performed the duty herself by presenting her grandson with a scrapbook of her own genealogical research. “Finding nuggets from the past is like touching history,” Mary Lea said with a catch in her throat, “and handing them down is special. My grandson said it was the best gift he’s ever gotten.”

Verna emphasized that Mary Lea’s emotion was shared by the society’s membership. “We are passionate about what we do. And we all believe in ‘gene- angels!’” said Dana Bell Stubbs, NCGS secretary, claiming the organization’s volunteer spirit was what inspired her to join. Now she gives back the aid she received when first starting her project, an odyssey that gave her renewed pride in her family and in her country. “I have cousins fighting now in Afghanistan,” Dana said. “So it broadened my perspective to find in my research that 14 ancestors fought in the Civil War, on both sides, and that I can trace my forefathers back to the American Revolution. Our fathers fought, our grandfathers fought, our great-grandfathers fought, and that gives me strength to face what may come.”

Although a busy homemaker, Dana enjoys her volunteerism. “Helping people find their roots is rewarding for us here. We can’t wait to let people know what we’ve found for them.” John C. Barron, editor of the society’s journal, Leaves and Branches, is also familiar with what he calls those “hallelujah” moments, when long- awaited research clues finally bear fruit. His own adventures in genealogy started when he helped his daughter with a high school project that took them both to the Texas State Library. “They told me it was open Saturdays,” he grinned. “Little did I know that every Saturday for the next 25 years I’d be going to that library.” Admittedly hooked, John said the experience also made an impression on his daughter who is now a librarian. Currently, John is completing research on the Corsicana Cotton Mill that operated from 1901 to 1968. So far, he has tracked down information on nearly 2,000 employees.

NCGS Communications Chair Barbara Shore had a similar unexpected encounter that inspired her to join the society and become a department volunteer at the library. A self-described “computer nerd” and “gadget person,” her research into her husband’s family tree led her to share her expertise as an officer and spokesperson for the organization. “With every project you learn a new tip, find a new source and gain a new contact. It’s exciting, and you just want to tell somebody about it. So guess what, that’s what I’ve been doing!”

Barbara and fellow officers are the team to beat in their enthusiasm for and knowledge of the collection that makes up the library’s Liz Gillispie Department (named for a prolific early advocate of NCGS). However, the nucleus of the archive originated in 1943 with one shelf of books from the Daughters of the American Revolution. The department was initially located in the library’s present computer lab, but in 1999 it was transferred to the Collin Street annex. “What many may not realize is that the city of Corsicana is the owner of the genealogy collection,” Verna specified. “And it has been a wonderful partnership. We’re very grateful for the support.”

In addition to local, regional and U.S. history indices, the archive includes family biographies and marriage certificates, as well as cemetery, probate, immigration and military records. There are even old Corsicana city directories, telephone directories and school annuals. Federal censuses from 1790 to 1930 are also on site, as are microfilm and Internet accessibility. Helpful Web sites free to library visitors include Ancestry.com, HeritageQuest.com and various online features available through the Texas State Library and Archives.

“We concentrate primarily on Navarro County,” Verna said, “but the collection is rich in state and national resources.” Among the most popular local avenues of research provided are the on-site archive of the Corsicana Daily Sun and microfilmed newspapers from smaller towns in the county, like Dawson. “We are happy to welcome visitors,” Verna continued. “We see 3,000 every year, in addition to phone and e-mail queries from all over the state and country.”

As NCGS’ self-styled “gene-angels” spread their research wings around library patrons, the collection continues to expand in size and reputation. “It’s what we love to do,” Verna said. “It’s a calling.”

Written by Randy Bigham.