Time Travel

By David A. Fryxell Premium

Genealogy tour guide James Denheim and his clients, who were following their roots back to Germany, were expecting to stop in for coffee with some shirttail relatives and visit for an hour, no more. Instead, at 9:30 in the morning, they were greeted by the smell of roasting wild pig. The clients’ distant German cousin had shot the pig himself on the ancestral family lands. Quick morning coffee turned into a luncheon feast, where tourists and kin formed lifelong bonds spanning not only the Atlantic but genealogical gaps.

On another family history trip, Denheim recalls, the museum curator in a tiny German village suddenly became excited upon learning the client’s name. The curator led the group up to the museum’s second floor — where he proudly pointed out a baptismal font that had been carved by the client’s ancestor in 1707.

Whether it’s a wild-pig lunch, historical treasures or simply the thrill of walking in your ancestors’ footsteps, making family history part of your vacation can bring rewards far beyond mere souvenirs. You can focus your trip on genealogy or simply plan a side excursion to a courthouse with some records you need. And you don’t have to travel abroad — some of the answers to the puzzles of your past lie just down the interstate.

Not only can a family history vacation fill in the blanks in your family tree, it can give you a sense of where you came from. Even with the global reach of the Internet, there’s nothing quite like going in person.

For example, Ann Waigand, editor-publisher of “The Educated Traveler” newsletter, remembers a tour to Croatia that she organized for a small group of subscribers. One of the travelers had fled the Nazis in Croatia as a child. The woman’s father had died in the escape and been hurriedly buried in an unmarked grave in a hillside cemetery.

“She was in her 70s now, but remembered that they buried her father next to a headstone with a picture of a man in a military uniform,” says Waigand. “We climbed over a broken-down fence — the gate was rusted shut — and she spotted this picture of a soldier that was almost obliterated. She said, ‘that’s where my father was buried!’”

But you can’t count on luck, memory or last-minute revelations to make your trip a success. Planning and preparation are the keys to getting the most out of any family history vacation.

Denheim, who leads private tours as president of European Focus, a genealogy travel and photography company, says he spends a full year preparing and researching trips. “With a little advance planning,” he adds, “the whole world is open to you.”

Putting it on the map

Even if you just want to tap the genealogical treasures of a neighboring state, planning is the key to success. Preparing for your family history vacation starts, of course, with the choice of destination. Gather what you know about where your ancestors lived and how they migrated across the country. You might want to actually map your family tree to help plan your trip; the latest version, 7.0, of Family Tree Maker software <> will even do this for you.

Focus on what questions you want to answer and where those answers might be. First, make sure you’ve exhausted the resources available without leaving town: family records, Web sites and the local Family History Center (see <> for advice on getting started at your Family History Center). When you’re really ready to hit the road, organize your family tree “targets” by location and then by specific resource in each city or county. Try to group together everything you might want to research at the courthouse in your great-grandmother’s hometown, for example.

Next, advises Christine Rose, co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Genealogy (MacMillan), reduce everything to a single page. “Don’t try to go into a courthouse or other records location with a thick file of papers,” says Rose, who spends six months a year on the road doing genealogy research. “Focus on what exactly you’re trying to find — parents’ birth dates? A maiden name?”

Make sure the records you want are really where you expect them to be. As the United States grew westward and its population boomed, many large counties spun off new counties and redrew boundaries. If a county was created in 1850, say, records from before that date may be stored in the courthouse of the original, “parent” county. You can check before you go using references such as The Handybook for Genealogists (Everton) or Ancestry’s Red Book (Ancestry). Other useful resources for finding and using US records include the USGenWeb site <>, which has pages for every US state and most individual counties, and the Research Outlines for each state from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ (LDS) Family History Library (801-240-2331, <>).

Smart planning also means checking whether the courthouses and other places you want to visit will be open when you’re there — arriving at last only to find a “Sorry, Closed” sign is a sure way to wreck a family history trip. Don’t assume! Remember, for example, that some Southern states still celebrate Robert E. Lee’s birthday (Jan. 19) as a holiday. Many public offices have their own Web pages with information on hours, phone numbers and location. You can get phone numbers from any of the many phone directories online; a good starting place is <>. It’s also worth asking if you need an appointment or if you have to reserve equipment, such as microfilm readers, in advance.

Then make sure you can find that small town with the courthouse you want to visit, or the cemetery on the edge of town. Besides AAA and travel guides, take advantage of the mapping resources on the Web.

On vacation is not the time to first try skills you may need. Don’t wait until you’re standing in front of great-grandpa’s farm to learn how to use that new camera, for instance. Or if you’ve never done a tombstone rubbing, practice before you get to the ancestral resting place.

Fact-finding destinations

All planned and packed? Here are key stops for your family history vacation, and how to get the most out of your visit at each:

Courthouses: Keep in mind that helping traveling genealogists is not the primary duty of courthouse clerks. “Never tell clerks you’re there for genealogical purposes,” advises Rose. “They’re busy, and as soon as a genealogist comes in the door they may become antagonistic, thinking they’re going to encounter some long-winded story.”

Start by asking for the indexes to the records for the period you’re researching. Be pleasant and professional and respect the clerk’s time. “Sometimes later on the clerk gets curious and comes to ask me what I’m doing,” says Rose. Then you might make an ally. If so, come armed with self-addressed stamped envelopes (SASEs) to leave behind, in case a clerk comes across something useful to you after you’ve gone home.

Don’t limit your courthouse search to deeds and wills. The person you’re seeking might be named in old civil case records, perhaps suing (or being sued by) someone. Witnesses on real-estate transactions often included other family members — scour these records for names.

Newspapers: Preparation is a must here — don’t assume you can stroll in and help yourself to a newspaper’s “morgue.” These files are primarily for the paper’s staff, after all; policies on public access vary, so call first. The old newspapers you need may not even be archived at the newspaper any more, but may be at local libraries or historical societies. Again, go beyond the obvious births and obits and also look for your ancestors’ names in news stories, business updates and (especially in small-town papers) chatty reports of trips taken and parties hosted.

But these resources are only the beginning of what you can tap on a research trip. Try school records and college alumni files (as much as privacy regulations allow), local veterans’ and service clubs and places your ancestors may have worked. Think of yourself as a detective out solving a case — the mystery of your past.

Local genealogical societies and libraries with genealogy collections: The USGen Web site is a good starting point for finding these; you can also try asking at the courthouse. Many libraries have searchable online catalogs, so you can arrive prepared with a list of books and documents you want to see. (For links to online library catalogs, see <>.) At the library, go beyond obvious genealogical archives: City directories, for example, can be an essential tool for finding your relatives.

Cemeteries and funeral homes: You may have to find the right cemetery with other research such as death records in the courthouse or obituaries in old newspapers. Once you do, don’t just eye the old tombstones — visit the cemetery office, if there is one. There and at the funeral home, investigate who bought the burial plot and paid for the funeral; chances are, they’re your relatives, too.

Churches: Before you visit the old family church, find out if that’s where records are kept — what you need may be stored instead at a denominational office or in a diocesan archive. Besides baptismal, marriage and funeral records, check old church newsletters, Sunday school rosters, even church committee minutes.

If your ancestors fought in the Civil War or Revolutionary War, visiting battlefields and other war-related sites can be a fascinating and moving experience. The Civil War Preservation Trust (800-CW-TRUST or <>) can help lead you to more than 600 historic sites in 28 states, ranging from famous battlefields such as Gettysburg to cemeteries and even lighthouses. A new program of the Trust organizes these sites into thematic tours, so you can, for example, explore women’s roles in the Civil War through an itinerary of sites. The Trust also co-sponsors tours of battlefields and steamboat excursions.

When you visit a battlefield, start at the visitors center, advises Carole C. Mahoney, director of heritage tourism for the Trust. Take advantage of the National Park Service guides there who are trained in history, and pick up maps and brochures to orient yourself.

When touring the actual site, Mahoney says, “be respectful of the place. You’re on hallowed ground. Often soldiers who fell there are buried there or nearby.” Don’t get too caught up in the military details, she adds: “It’s a nice spot for quiet reflection. Close your eyes, stand quietly and try to imagine what it was like.”

Don’t be an innocent abroad

What if your family history trail leads overseas? Both for filling in gaps in your genealogy and for exploring your heritage, visiting your ancestors’ native lands can be invaluable and unforgettable. But you’ll get more out of the trip if (you guessed it) you plan ahead.

Exhaust the US and Internet resources available to you first. Then make sure you know two things, advises Miriam Weiner, who leads genealogy tours of Eastern Europe as president of Routes to Roots: your family’s original last name in the old country and the exact ancestral town name. “Seventy percent of the people who call me don’t have those,” she says.

You might say Ralph and Marge Kroehler of Peoria, Ill., spent 20 years getting ready for their European Focus tour to Germany — that’s how long they’d been doing genealogy. “When we couldn’t get any more materials here that were microfilmed by the LDS, it was time to go there,” says Marge. They had such a great trip that they’ve already booked another for 2001.

Marge’s advice? “Unless you just want to go for the atmosphere, first of all do your homework at home. That’s the biggie.”

Denheim of European Focus offers these tips for doing your homework before a foreign family history trip:

Use the Internet. Search for the name of your ancestral town and you may be amazed by what you’ll find, from hotels to historic sites.

Find contacts in your destination town. Again, the Internet can help: Online phone books now cover most of the wired world, so you can find addresses of town halls and churches, phone numbers and sometimes even specific names of village officials or church pastors. A little working knowledge of a foreign language helps here: “Americans sometimes complain, ‘But the telephone book is in German!’” says Denheim, chuckling.

Write letters in the native language. “This is absolutely important,” he says. “You’re writing people who may be secretaries, who may not read English. If your letter requires any extra effort, it may go right into the ‘round file.’” Don’t know the language? Find someone who can translate for you for a fee — ask a language teacher at your local school, or search the Web for translation services. Web sites devoted to your heritage may even have form letters in the language that you can use.

Denheim suggests sending a copy of your letter in English, too, in hopes that may inspire a response in kind. Include return postage — not US stamps and not even US money, which requires a trip to the bank, but rather International Reply Coupons, which you can buy at your post office. If you don’t receive an answer in a month, write again.

In your letter, explain your genealogical interests and when you plan to visit. If you want to view church record books, for example, ask when the church is open and whether anyone might be able to help you read and translate them. Find out if there’s a photocopier and if you’ll be allowed to use it.

Get help from the town hall. The town hall is the center of life in many European villages. A carefully crafted letter or fax sent here can help you get a list of local hotels, find the town museum if there is one and perhaps hook up with area historians.

Prepare to drive. You’ll probably need to get behind the wheel to get to your ancestors’ old stomping grounds. Your auto club can help you with maps (but Denheim says your first stop abroad should be a gas station, where you can get maps far more detailed and accurate than are available in the US), a booklet on foreign highway signs and an international driver’s license. Book your rental car through a US travel agent, Denheim advises, and pay in advance; the prepaid voucher you’ll receive will let you rent a car for as little as one-third the rate Europeans pay.

If you’re planning to research your roots in the former Eastern Bloc, be aware that most car-rental companies don’t allow their vehicles to cross what once was the Iron Curtain, out of fear of theft and black marketeers. Denheim says the only exception he knows of is Budget (“Budget/Sixt” in Germany). Check before you go and avoid a nasty surprise.

How to be a VIP

When you arrive in your ancestral homeland, your first stop (after the gas station for local maps!) should be the town hall, which presumably you’ve already been corresponding with. Ask for a map of the town and a list of all the town offices. Find out if there’s a printed town history; even tiny villages in Europe often have these, since their history, unlike US towns, may go back 500 or 1,000 years. Many villages also have a town museum — in Germany, for example, this would be the Heimatmuseum — that someone in the town hall can point you to.

Don’t worry about pestering strangers in a foreign town. “They think it’s kinda neat,” says Denheim. “These aren’t typical tourist questions, and people — no matter where — are proud of their town.”

In fact, be prepared to take advantage of locals’ enthusiasm and unexpected discoveries. As important as it is to plan your trip, once you get there you need to be flexible, to be able to follow your ancestral trail wherever it leads.

“You have to be open to the experience,” Denheim says. “Many Americans want to structure their day from 8 to 6 and have every hour filled. They think they can walk in, have all the answers written down, and walk out.”

Instead, he says, some of the greatest finds come from serendipity. He recalls a visit to a German village to take photos for a client (European Focus actually started to shoot pictures of ancestral villages, not lead tours, though today the travel business is overtaking the photography). A local man came up to him: “Are you the American photographer?” The man led Denheim to his house, where his basement held a collection of more than 5,000 hand-made red clay roof tiles dating to the 1600s. Among the tiles were 100 crafted, signed and dated by the client’s great-great-grandfather in 1750. Denheim carefully carried one of the eight-pound tiles back to Ohio as a gift for his client, who since has gone to Germany herself to visit the collector and his family. They turned out to be distant relatives of the client, too.

“Be prepared to be treated like visiting royalty, invited into people’s homes and treated to meals,” Denheim adds. After all, your family history vacation, if you do your homework, can be an exciting experience for your distant relatives as well.

Just in case, you might want to start developing a taste for roasted wild pig.

From the June 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine