Remembering Dad with a Family History Interview Video

Here’s how to make a family history interview video. We’ll walk you through an easy and quick process that will result in a professional quality video that you’ll be proud to share with your family and generations to come. 

My husband Bill does not  enjoy being on camera, and if I add an interview to the scenario, I have an even bigger challenge on my hands. Does that sound like anyone in your family?

Getting a family member to sit down and answer questions about their life or an ancestor they remember can be an uphill battle, but the climb is worth it. Each one of us has a very unique view of the world. Even though we may remember the same person, our memories and feelings will be distinctly individual, and therefore are worth capturing.

Father’s Day is just around the corner, and we  have a new granddaughter joining our family next month. Now seemed like the perfect time to quickly cobble together an interview video with Bill sharing his memories about his dad. I shared some old photos with him and captured his memories. Take a look:

Maybe you’ve been thinking to yourself, ‘Right now just isn’t a good time.’ But guess what! ‘Right now’ is always the ideal time to capture the memories of living relatives. Don’t wait for the opportune moment to present itself, because it might never come. Right now is the perfect time for you to ask questions and record memories that might otherwise have been lost forever.

If you’ve got a few extra minutes to prep for a more polished interview, follow my recipe for creating a video your family will savor for generations to come.

Even though we may remember the same person, our memories and feelings will be distinctly individual, and therefore are worth capturing.

Ingredients for a Family History Interview Video

ingredients for interview video(Note: I only endorse products that I love and that’s why I’ve accepted Animoto as a sponsor. That means I was compensated for this post. This post also contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links. Thank you, because they help support the free Genealogy Gems Podcast.)

To create a video like mine, which in total took me about 1 hour from start to finish to create, you’ll need:

  • a smart phone or tablet (I used my iPhone 7 Plus to capture video of Bill answering my questions. The iPhone has a terrific camera built in, but any mobile device with a camera will do.)
  • old family photos (I saved mine to a Dropbox folder that I could access on my iPad)
  • an Animoto slideshow subscription (test drive Animoto with a free trial if you want to get the feel of it before subscribing.)
  • a short list of questions pertaining to the photos
  • a willing interviewee (that was my hubby, although I use the term “willing” loosely here)

Pull together everything before you bring in your interviewee. That way, they won’t start off the interview bored or frustrated while you get things ready. We definitely want to get this off on the right foot!

Setting the Stage

Find a comfortable chair for your interviewee and then place it in front of an attractive background in the room. To get a feeling of depth and a nice focus on my subject, I placed my chair in the center of the room so that the background was in the distance. This setup puts the focus on the person you are interviewing and not the items right behind him.

Lighting can make a big difference in the feel of your video, but it doesn’t have to be fancy. Notice that I kept the background fairly unlit, and then turned on a nice soft lamp on one side of Bill. On the other side, out of camera view, I brought in a second light so that both sides of his face would be lit.

Set up a small, portable tripod on our coffee table in front of my subject and mounted my smartphone (I like this one, which was less than $12). If you don’t have a tripod, just stack up a couple of books on the table to get to the right height, and then use a book on either side of the camera to keep it stable.

family history interview video smartphone setup

The video viewer side facing you as the interviewer

family history interview video smartphone setup 02

The lens side facing your interviewee

Position a chair for yourself behind the camera, and off to one side. Stay within reaching distance of your camera so that you can turn it on and off between questions. You will want to be off to one side so that your subject is looking at you and not the camera when they answer your questions during filming.

‘Right now’ is always the ideal time
to capture the memories of living relatives.

Start the Interview

Bring your subject in, and get them comfortable in their chair. Have a glass of water nearby for them. Chat with them for a moment about how they are doing, the weather, or whatever else comes to mind (except family history – save that for the video) to sort of warm them up. Explain that they don’t need to worry about the camera, but instead should just focus on talking to you.

To ensure an easy to understand video, encourage them to repeat back the question in their answer because your audio won’t be part of the interview. For example:

You:  “What was your mom like when you were a child?” (showing a photo of them and their mom)

Them (OK) : “She took great pride in her home, and she insisted we take our shoes off before entering.”

Them (BETTER) : “When I was young, my mom took great pride in her home, and she insisted that we take our shoes off before entering.”

Folks usually get the hang of it after a couple of tries. Finally, ask them to wait just a beat before they begin talking and to avoid talking over you. Again, the goal is to only capture the audio of the interviewee.

Armed with your list of questions, bring out the first family photo (I did this on an iPad where I had the photos saved in my Dropbox app). On your phone, tap the Camera app to open it, set it to Video, and pressed the big round record button. Move back to your off camera position, and show the first photo and ask your question. Don’t worry about the beginning or the end of the Q&A being messy with getting situated because you will trim that off later in Animoto. After they complete their answer, press the button on the screen to stop recording. It is much easier to work with short video clips rather than one long continuous recording for a number of reasons:

  • It’s easier to move small video clips from your phone to your computer
  • Video clips up to 450 MB can be uploaded to Animoto (that’s typically just a little over 4 continuous minutes of video)
  • One question per clip makes it much easier to move them around in your project to get the exact order you want
  • It’s easier to interject photos between clips when the questions are individual video clips

Pull up the next photo, press Record, and ask your second question. Repeat for each question and answer. If you go longer than about 20 minutes total, it’s a good idea to stop and ask them how they are doing. Ask if they are agreeable to continuing. Be sensitive to their time and comfort. Remember, people before genealogy.

Post Production of Your Family History Interview Video

share to dropbox

Step 1: In the Camera app, tap Share and Save to Dropbox

As a podcaster, pre- and post-production takes up much more of my time than recording. But with Animoto, your post-production time will be really quick. Here are the steps to creating your finished video:

Step 1: In the Camera app, Share your videos to your computer via a cloud sharing service.

Step 2: On your computer go here to Animoto, sign in and click the Create button to start a new Slideshow video project. (For 10 seconds or shorter video clips you can create your video right on your phone in the Animoto app. But in the case of this type of interview, answers will be longer and you’ll want to use the website.)

Step 3: Select a Style and the Song that will play in the background.

Step 4:  On the project page, click Add pics & videos, and upload the video clips and photos. Adjust the length of each video clip as desired, eliminating unwanted portions.

Step 5: Arrange the content in the desired order. I chose to show the answer first, and follow it up with the photo.

Step 6: Add Text if desired. You can add text to photos, or individual ‘title cards’ at the beginning, middle, and end of your video.

Step 7: Click Preview to review your video and make any needed adjustments.

Step 7: Preview one last time and click Produce to render your finished video.

Step 8: Download a copy of the video to your computer, and make sure your computer is backed up! (I use Backblaze.) The ability to download HD quality videos from Animoto for archiving is a HUGE reason why I love it so much.

I’ve got three quick tutorial videos here for you to watch if you feel like you need some help with your first project.

Remember, people before genealogy.

Need more inspiration?

I’ve been having a blast creating Animoto videos about my husband’s family. It’s been a great way to get my non-genealogist husband involved and really interested in family history. Here are two more videos I created about his family:

You May Already Have the Makings of a Family History VideoWilliam H. Cooke’s Navy Years Video

Avoid the Eye Roll with New Video Creation Tool From the Journal of Raymond H. Cooke Video

Please share this post with your genie friends, thanks!

 

 

Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 223

Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 223

Click player below to listen:

 

Bit Players in Someone Else’s Show

If you happen to catch an old episode of the TV Series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you may be surprised to spot Ben Affleck dribbling down a basketball court in the not so highly acclaimed role of Basketball Player #10.

And you might need to set your popcorn down and rewind while watching Monk from 2006 on Amazon Prime Videos to confirm that indeed you did just see Jennifer Laurence from Hunger Games fame pull off a lion mascot head after a high school game in the infamous role of “Mascot Girl”.

Or how about funny man Jack Black of School of Rock fame in the walk-on part of “Taxi Driver” on the iconic 1980s comedy The Golden Girls.

Yep, at some point we are ALL bit players in somebody else’s show. And that is even more true with old home movies

Your friends, your neighbors and even perfect strangers have likely at some point captured you or someone in your family in one of their own old home movies. And the same is true for your ancestors. As long as film has been around, the chances of someone in your family tree appearing in someone else’s videos at some point in time is actually quite high.

And think about it, when film – or moving pictures – came into being right around 1895, it had the capability of capturing someone born as early as even 1800. That’s a lot of potential generations of your family!

David Haas MD knows this better than most folks. he has experienced first-hand that any one of us may find ourselves, quite by surprise, as the keeper or even the Archivist of film footage that connects to potentially hundreds if not thousands of other people and families. And there’s a very good possibility that yours is one of those families.

Your family could very well indeed be one that has been a bit player in somebody else’s film, and you didn’t even know it. But that’s OK, because thanks to technology, it’s never been easier to find the celluloid that once lay sleeping in a stranger’s attic.

The best place to start our story is how I came to know David Haas.

I’ve been encouraging you through this podcast, my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox (which includes an entire chapter devoted to YouTube) and my in-person lectures to turn to online video, and specifically YouTube in search of your family. Long time listener Debby Warner Anderson contacted me to let me know that she had followed my suggestion with dramatic results. She wrote:

“I had interviewed my Dad to get details of his memories and found the 2 YouTube links about the 1945 Macy’s Parade that my father went to and the video about W.C. Handy who my Dad remembered seeing. My Dad was so tickled to see the YouTube videos to go with his memories. It gave my family members and my son a real glimpse in to my Dad’s memories.  Thank-you for the suggestions!”

I clicked the link she shared to an article that she wrote on her blog called Debby’s Family Genealogy. The article called Recording a Family Thanksgiving Tradition described the find in detail and included the video, called Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – 1945.

David Haas MD had uploaded this video to YouTube, and it’s one of hundreds on his YouTube channel under his name David Haas MD. You need only click it and watch just a few moments to be mesmerized. The video, comprised of old home movies, is striking in its color quality, and you instantly feel yourself falling back in time, pulled there even further by the haunting music that serves as the backdrop to this silent film.

I was so taken by how this video, sitting out there for free on YouTube, fit so beautifully into Debby’s family history, helping to bring it just a bit more into focus.

I sat and watched the Macy’s Day parade video all the way through. It was so clear that it was carefully and thoughtfully restored and shared, and that it must have come from someone else’s personal home movie collection.

Clicking on the name of the person who uploaded any video on YouTube will bring you to their YouTube channel. Anyone can have a free YouTube channel by simply signing in with a free Google account and uploading a video. It’s called Creators Studio, and these days it sports an impressive collection of tools that anyone can use to create, enhance and share videos.

Many channels will have only one or maybe a handful of videos. This is not the case with David’s channel. It’s difficult to scroll down the page far enough to get to the end of the impressive video list. Where did all these home movies come from? What motivated him to invest the time to make the available on YouTube?

Literally hundreds of people appear in the 4 ½ minute Macy’s Parade (1945) film: the folks in the parade, the people lining the streets and even the people watching from the fire escapes of the surrounding buildings.

The film was created by William G Whitman Sr. A veteran of World War I, he made his way after the war as a bit of a jack of all trades, and the path eventually got the ball rolling that led to the home movies.

William G Whitman, Sr. was David’s grandfather on his mother’s side. William, his wife Catherine and their 10 year old daughter Catherine who is David’s mother can be found in the 1930 census living in Brooklyn. At that time William says he’s a manager of a store. By 1940 he has followed his passion and is proudly declaring he works in Photographic retail as a photo finisher.

But it was as far back as the year that the Great Depression hit, 1929 that William began capturing his growing family on film. In those early movies David’s mother, Catherine, was just 9 years old. David’s collection of films span from this time period all the way through the mid-1970s.

In the earliest of the home movies which you can see on David’s YouTube channel, William Whitman did what most of us do, take home movies of the people and things we love the most. In those films, David’s mom clearly relishes being in front of her father’s camera. She worshipped her father, who was a bit of a big kid himself.

“My mother always remembered things in a sunny way…it’s very much like the pictures we see on the internet, where people tend to post the most rosy possible pictures.  Often times, I think it’s the same with the home movies. You really have to dig deeper to kind of get the whole story.”

This phenomenon of capturing and sharing the rosiest version of ourselves is nothing new. And as genealogists, we are in the perfect position to leverage old movies like these and dig deeper for the rest of the story. Story is a running theme through William Whitman’s films. You only need to watch a few to see what a keen eye for composition and telling stories that he had. He developed his skill while shooting weddings professionally.

William got his whole family into the act of shooting, developing and editing his films. After his daughter Catherine (image below) married David’s father, he too joined in. William passed his skills and knowledge onto his son-in-law. He soon started shooting film of his own further adding to the collection of home movies.

Catherine Anna Haas
 

Lawrence W. Haas

As with so many genealogical tales, great treasure troves like these films are often found with three part deep digging and one part luck. In David’s case, the path to the treasure starts with the family’s refrigerator. His father used to project the movies onto the white kitchen refrigerator. Many years later, after his parents passed away, he found his father’s movies. But it wasn’t until his Aunt Markie mentioned that there were much older 16mm movies in existence dating back to the 1920s that the rest of the collection was discovered in the basement. David set to work getting them digitized.

David not only discovered that these movies were a priceless find for his own family, he soon realized that they held a vast amount of treasure for many other families in a wide variety of locations. “It really was about the people…they needed to be shared!” He felt a moral obligation to do so, and it soon turned into an obsession.

The Gold Waiting to be Found

And that’s the gold here! If we are all bit players in everybody else’s show, and this show was happening in so many different locations, then there are a lot of bit players out there waiting to be found by their families too, right there in David’s films. While the films of course covered Brooklyn where David’s family lived, they branch out to Queens NY, Ventner NJ, and as far away as San Francisco.

The genealogical value in old home movies is immense. If as researchers we can occasionally shift our focus from ancestors’ names to locations, we could very possibly hit pay dirt and find old films online that include our family.

It was in the town of Suffern, NY that David’s father shot quite a bit of footage, but there’s plenty to be had in many different locations. Once he posted them on YouTube the response was swift.

“Our Suffern – A Remembrance Through Home Movies”.

(This compilation of footage was created to commemorate the 40th Reunion of the Suffern High School Class of 1975. It is 41 minutes in length and premiered on October 3, 2015 at the historic Lafayette Theatre in downtown Suffern, NY.)

The color video Haas family, Mickey Mantle’s 500th Home Run, Yankee Stadium 1967 on David’s YouTube channel garnered dozens of comments from grateful viewers.

His father filmed elements of the game that the news didn’t which viewers appreciated. And some had been at that very game.

We’re Not Getting Any Younger

David stresses that timeliness is important when it comes to sharing old home movies like these. “People aren’t getting any younger” he says, and “Others may have insights you may miss.”

One connection made through sharing the movies on YouTube, that just barely missed making a personal connection, revolved around David’s mother’s younger sister, his aunt Margaret Whitman. She lived in Brooklyn in the 1930-1940s, and there are movies of “Markie” with her friends. One film from the 1930s included her good friend Charlie Russell. (Watch below starting at about the 30 second mark.) A few years ago, David received a message from a Charlie after he saw one of the videos! Sadly, he made the connection literally a week after Markie passed away at the age of 89. “If I could have made this connection 6 months earlier it would have been so wonderful for both of them. By then all their other friends had passed away.”

Another viewer who was touched by the films was a woman who saw herself walking around the Suffern swimming pool with her mother. It was priceless to her since her parents later died in an airplane crash and she had few photos of them. That was one of many stories.

“There was a little league game that my father filmed in Suffern, and there was a young boy who struck out, and as he was walking off and one of the coaches kind of patted him on the butt, sort of saying “good try, good job”, and then the game was over and they were all kind of hugging each other because they won the game. And this young boy ended up seeing the film now, I guess 50 years later. His father had passed away not long after that little league game, and here he was seeing his father who was his coach, encouraging him after he struck out. And again, he said he couldn’t speak for hours. It was just amazing.”

Another woman even found her parents in one of the videos on Coney Island where they ran a pony ride with her grandfather!

David’s willingness to share his family’s treasure trove of home movies put him in a unique and unexpected position to touch many people’s lives in truly meaningful ways. The only difference between him and many others who have even just a few spools of film is that he took action to share them. And along the way, he learned some important lessons about what makes film so distinct in its value. It’s those unique characteristic that told him more about his own family. “What I’ve learned is that photographs are powerful, but there’s nothing like moving images”.

David’s father had captured the moments of other people’s lives while filming his own. David didn’t use to be interested in genealogy. His father, however, was obsessed with it. But now, David finds that he is grateful to be able to pull the genealogy back out and reconstruct who the people are in the movies.

It’s a word so often associated with genealogy – obsessed. David’s father became obsessed with it and now David has become obsessed with processing and making available his cache of his father’s and grandfather’s home movies. This has in turn gloriously ensnared him in the world of genealogy.

David hopes by sharing his story of how these videos have impacted and continue to impact the lives of strangers from around the world, it will inspire all of us who have a few reels of old family movies to make it a priority to get them digitized and make them available. Our families and other unknown families are counting on us.

“One thing that I’m really passionate about is that people  who have home movies, if they can, they should really do their best to get them digitized” David continues, “Having gone through the experience, and it’s really been transformative, I feel very passionate about getting my wife’s movies, her family’s movies or her father when he was arrived, getting these converted and sharing these with my wife’s family. So that they can really forever see these movies and share them with their children, so that they can be passed down for generations.”

The Process: Digitize, Enhance and Share

We’ve all seen the commercial where they peer into the camera and aske “what’s in your wallet”. Our question today is “what’s in your closet”. I’ve looked through my closets and I have several home movies my grandmother shot on 8mm film. I also have a box full of VHS tapes from back when Bill and I got our first video camera right after we got married in the 1980s.

The process for digitizing and sharing your home movies can appear daunting at first glance. That’s why I asked David Haas MD to share some specifics about his project so that you can learn what you need to consider and some tips from somebody who’s already been through this in a big way.

Although David’s collection of film runs about 10 hours, has several hundred videos because he kept them short – about 4 minutes long each. This is a smart strategy because of the attention span of YouTube viewers. It’s also about the length of a song, which makes setting them to music easier.

David went the extra mile and created a website where he makes available indexes of all the videos which can be searched by location, year and person. David really thought about the potential value of these films and set up a system for making it easier for visitors to find what they are looking for. In a case like his where he has such a volume of these 3-5 minute videos, this is a huge help to other researchers. But don’t worry if having your own website isn’t in your wheelhouse. YouTube has a powerful search engine, and it’s called Google. You can make your videos very easily searchable by simply including the details that pertain to a particular video in the video description that appears below the video on YouTube.

Since your videos will be on your YouTube channel, researchers be able to simply go to your channel’s home page and type a name, place event or some other set of keywords in your channel’s search box. Google will search just your channel and retrieve only the videos that match the search terms. If you want to see this in action, go to my YouTube channel at youtube.com/genealogygems  or David’s channel and try a search.

Digitizing Your Home Movies

The first step is to get the movies digitized. It can be a pretty scary thought to send your precious movies off to some stranger. David considers his videos his “most priceless possession.”

Through a bit of trial and error, David landed with a company who could do the job. He first tried a local place but ultimately went with Video Conversion Experts in Chandler AZ. They did an excellent job and cleaned them up and optimized the film. He recommends overnighting your films so that you can control when they arrive. You can receive both hard drives and DVDs of the digitized movies.

Watch this video from Video Conversion Experts. It explains the difference in quality that they provide. The difference between a company like this and the big box stores conversion is dramatic!

 

Sharing Your Home Movies on YouTube

At first, David thought he would take the movies to the local library. His daughter Anna convinced him to try editing them with iMovie and then uploading them to YouTube. The first film he edited was called A Drive through Suffern.

Free video editing tools:

(Mac) iMovie – https://www.apple.com/imovie/

(PC) Movie Maker – https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/p/movie-maker-10-tell-your-story/9mvfq4lmz6c9?activetab=pivot:overviewtab

Thank goodness for David’s daughter Anna Haas! Just think if these videos had only landed in one physical location like a library versus online. Now another generation of the Haas family has entered the picture to preserve the family’s legacy and touch the lives of so many others. And it’s Anna’s inspiring music that provides the backdrop for the Macy’s Day Parade and several others.

Get the song Find Your Home here on her album Crazy Is.

Visit Anna Haas’ website: http://annahaas.com

Anna’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/annahaasmusic

Anna Haas Music Video: Find Your Home (watch below)

When you love people, you just can’t justify keeping old home movies to yourself. You can’t in good conscience leave them in dusty boxes stuffed away in the back of closets in risk of deteriorating to dust. For the woman who saw her parents again in the swimming pool video, to the man who felt the affection from a father long gone, and for countless unnamed others the action that David has taken to digitize, preserve and share his home movies has been valuable beyond words.

“Don’t be afraid to do it, don’t hesitate to do it. even if you don’t have the skill set to do it, there are other people who are more than happy to kind of walk you through it and help make it happen. I would be extremely encouraging of everyone to convert their old movies and share them as widely as possible.” – David Haas MD

Resources

Collection of articles on the topic of video at the Genealogy Gems website

Browse his phenomenal collection of home movies at David’s website

You’ll find inspiration and you might just find an ancestor captured on film. Because we are all bit players in everybody else’s show.

Production Credits

Lisa Louise Cooke, Host and Producer
Hannah Fullerton, Audio Editor

My deepest thanks to David and Anna Haas for sharing their family photos, videos and music with me for this episode.

Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate, Genealogy Gems earns from qualifying purchases you make when clicking from the links we provide. It doesn’t cost you anything extra but it helps support our free blog and podcast. Thank you!

Front Page News! New York Tribune Archive on Flickr

Women of President Taft’s New Official Family at Washington, New York Tribune, March 7, 1909. Cover, illustrated supplement. Library of Congress image, posted at Flickr. Click to visit webpage.

The Library of Congress has a Flickr album that’s front page news–literally! It’s a New York Tribune archive with newspaper covers dating back more than a century.

“This set of cover pages from the New York Tribune illustrated supplements begins with the year 1909,” explains the album. “The pages are derived from the Chronicling America newspaper resource at the Library of Congress. To read the small text letters, just click the persistent URL to reach a zoomable version of the page.”

“Daily newspapers began to feature pictorial sections in the late 1800s when they competed for readers by offering more investigative exposés, illustrations, and cartoons. In the 1890s, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer tapped into new photoengraving techniques to publish halftone photographs, and other newspapers soon adopted the practice. The heavily illustrated supplement sections became the most widely read sections of the papers and provided a great opportunity to attract new customers. The daily life, art, entertainment, politics, and world events displayed in their pages captured the imagination of a curious public.”

How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers

Available at http://genealogygems.com

We don’t often find our ancestors splashed across front-page news. But we can read over their shoulders, as it were, to see what was going on in their world and what others around them thought about these events. Newspaper articles and ads reveal fashions and fads, prices on everyday items, attitudes about social issues and more. Read all about using old newspapers for family history in How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers by Lisa Louise Cooke.

What Was it Like to Land at Ellis Island?

Chalked  full of a rich history, Ellis Island was the leading port of arrival for the United States for sixty years. Read more about this historic place and the inspirational stories of immigrants past.

Ellis Island immigrants

[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Ellis Island, in Upper New York Bay, was the gateway for over 12 million immigrants coming to the United States from January 1, 1892 until 1954 when it closed. In our Genealogy Gems Podcast #199, Lisa shared a blurb from Profile America, regarding Ellis Island in which a few key facts were shared.

Ellis Island: What was it like?

Many of our ancestors first stepped ashore at Ellis Island when they came to America seeking a new life. I can only imagine their first thought might have been, “Get me off this boat!” But then, perhaps there was worry and trepidation. Would they be sent home because they were sick? Would they find work, a place to live, or food to eat?

Ellis Island immigration day

Immigration Day at Half Day School, Lincolnshire, Illinois. 2010. Courtesy of the author.

The very first immigrant was processed in 1892. Her name was Annie Moore and she was a 15-year-old Irish girl. [1] Can you imagine?

One elementary school in Lincolnshire, Illinois recreates this event with their yearly “Immigration Day.” Immigration Day is for all 3rd and 4th students to participate in what it’s like to come to this country for the first time. They dress up, pack up a few belongings, receive little tickets and passports, and experience in a small way the history of many of their ancestors.

Arriving on land again must have been quite the relief to passengers. Especially those in steerage. Steerage or third class passengers traveled in crowded and often unsanitary conditions near the bottom of the ship. Upon arrival in New York City, ships would dock at the Hudson or East River piers. First and second class passengers would disembark, and pass easily through Customs. They were free to enter the United States. The steerage and third class passengers, however, were transported from the pier by ferry or barge to Ellis Island where everyone would undergo a medical and legal inspection. [2]

If the immigrant’s papers were in order and they were in reasonably good health, the Ellis Island inspection process would last approximately three to five hours. The inspections took place in the Registry Room (or Great Hall). Here, doctors would quickly look over every immigrant for obvious physical ailments.

If the immigrant was found with a minor ailment, broken bone, or found to be pregnant, they would be sent to the “Island Hospital, built to restore the health of people suffering minor injuries [and] broken bones.” [3]

An Ellis Island Myth

The ship’s manifest log, that had been filled out back at the port of embarkation, contained the immigrant’s name and his/her answers to twenty-nine questions. This document was used by the legal inspectors at Ellis Island to cross-examine the immigrant during the legal (or primary) inspection. [4]

There are some genealogical myths regarding Ellis Island. Many believe that their ancestors surnames were changed when they arrived. Some even believe the name change was due to the lack of native speakers of different languages and an overall lack of communication. This is not the case.

Vincent J. Cannato’s book American Passage: The History of Ellis Island explains why this did not happen:

Nearly all […] name change stories are false. Names were not changed at Ellis Island. The proof is found when one considers that inspectors never wrote down the names of incoming immigrants. The only list of names came from the manifests of steamships, filled out by ship officials in Europe. In the era before visas, there was no official record of entering immigrants except those manifests. When immigrants reached the end of the line in the Great Hall, they stood before an immigration clerk with the huge manifest opened in front of him. The clerk then proceeded, usually through interpreters, to ask questions based on those found in the manifests. Their goal was to make sure that the answers matched. (p.402)

A First-hand Look at Ellis Island

The official, award-winning documentary shown today at Ellis Island (more about that here) is available to watch online below. It is a wonderful way to get a first-hand look at what it felt like to land at Ellis Island and the a land of liberty.

The Genealogy Gems Podcast (get our app) helps you make the most of your family history research time by providing quick and easy-to-use research techniques. Producer and host Lisa Louise Cooke brings you the best websites, best practices, and best resources available! Listen to all of Lisa’s podcast episodes on iTunes for free!
Sources:
[1] “The First Immigrant Landed on Ellis Island,” America’s Library, article online, accessed 30 Jan 2017.
[2] “Ellis Island: Journeying By Ship to the Land of Liberty,” Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation, online article, accessed 30 Jan 2017.
[3] Aaron Cooper, “Inside Ellis Island’s Abandoned Hospitals,” article online, 27 Jan 2016, CNN, accessed 30 Jan 2017.
[4] Ibid.

Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 230

with Lisa Louise Cooke
June 2019

Listen now, click player below:

Download the episode (mp3)

In this episode:

  • The story of Roy Thran
  • Writing your story with author Karen Dustman
  • Lisa’s adventures in England

Please take our quick PODCAST SURVEY which will take less than 1 minute.  Thank you!

GEM: The Story of Roy Thran

Have you thought about telling the story of your personal history? Most of us have at some point, but it can seem easier to research the stories of our ancestors than to weave together our own. I’ve spoken to a lot of genealogists through the years and I often hear comments like “My story isn’t all that interesting or important.” But nothing could be farther from the truth.

When we don’t tell our own story, we not only take a big risk that the memory of our life will be lost down the generations, but we rob our family and our community of an important piece of their history.

Karen Dustman is the author of the book Writing a Memoir, from Stuck to Finished! She’s been helping folks capture and record their stories for several years in her community in the Sierra Nevada, which spans Central and Eastern California into Western Nevada. She’s known widely there as a local historian, writing on her blog and in the local newspaper about the history of the area.

  Writing a Memoir from Stuck to Finished! by Karen Dustman

It was actually Karen’s story of the history an old house in the Carson Valley that shed light on the fact that one of its inhabitants was at risk of being forgotten. And no one wants to be forgotten.

In this episode, we travel back to 1925 to a sparsely populated ranching community to hear the story of 10-year-old Roy Thran. We’ll hear about his life and death, and how his story tentatively made its way through the generations of the family in one simple box all the way to the hands of his great grand-niece Krista Jenkins.

It was Krista who connected the all-important dots, eventually culminating in a museum exhibit that is now telling an important part of the Carson Valley history and touching the lives of its residents. In addition to Karen Dustman, you’ll hear from Krista Jenkins herself and Carson Valley Museum trustee Frank Dressel. My hope is that Roy’s story will transform your thinking about sharing your own story.

PART ONE: The Missing Boy

Last Fall, Krista Jenkins stumbled upon an article featuring a house she knew well. It was the home her grandmother grew up in, a beautiful white two-story home nestled on a ranch in Gardnerville, about an hour south of her home in Reno, Nevada.

The blog post called The Tale of the Thran House – and an Old Trunk was written by Karen Dustman, a local area historian and author.

It featured the story of Dick and Marie Thran, German immigrants who came to the Carson Valley in the late 19th century, and the four children they raised there, including Krista’s grandmother, Marie.

What jumps out at many readers about the blog post is the photograph of the beautifully restored German steamer trunk complete with heavy black ornate hardware, very likely the trunk that Krista’s great-grandmother had traveled with from the old country. The trunk had been discovered by the current owners in an old shed on the property, dirty and filled with auto parts.

But for Krista Jenkins, what jumped out was what was missing from the story: a little boy named Roy, the 5th and surviving Thran child.

Author Karen Dustman explains how the two women connected.

Karen: “I had mentioned the names of the four surviving children of this couple who lived in this house. But this relative reached out to me and said, ‘Did you know that there was this other child that they had named Roy?’

I was really curious, so we got in touch. She told me not only about Roy and his life, but that she had this amazing box. The family had kept this little boy’s possessions all these years after he died, and she had become the custodian of this box. So, she asked if I wanted to see it and of course I wanted to see it!”

The box contained the young Roy Thran’s childhood, a time capsule of sorts filled with the books, toys, and trinkets representing his interests and activities. In a sense, it was a boy in a box.

The Boy in the Box Roy Thran Story

PART TWO: The Birth of Roy Thran

Roy Thran was born Wednesday, June 10, 1925.

The folks in the Carsen Valley of Nevada were flocking to the new Tom Mix movie North of Hudson Bay playing at the Rex theater in town.

Tom Mix movie - Roy Thran Story

And everyone was looking forward to the big Carsen Valley Day Dance to be held that Saturday night at the CVIC Hall in Minden. Everyone, that is, except Anna Sophia Marie Thran, simply known as Marie. (Photo below)

Anna Maria Sophia Dieckhoff

A native of Hannover, Germany, Marie was in the last weeks of her pregnancy and was happy to deliver before the hot summer weather was in full swing.

She had reason to be apprehensive about this birth for several reasons. A 48-year-old mother of four, she was on borrowed maternity time with this late arrival. Her last surviving child was born in 1901 and since then she had suffered the loss of three more children, including little Katie Frieda who lived just three months.

Marie’s husband Diedrich Herman Thran (photo below), known around town as Dick, was 14 years her senior. Also a Hannover native, according to the 1900 census, Dick had immigrated in 1881 and became a naturalized citizen.Diedrich Herman Richard Dick Thran

Dick saved the money he earned working for ranchers in the area and at the age of 30 returned to Germany to find himself a wife.

In 1895 he returned with seven other Germans and most importantly, the beautiful Anna Sophia Marie Dieckhoff, his fiancé, on his arm. Within the month they exchanged vows at the home of Dietrich’s brother Herman. That was back on another lovely June day, the 29th of June 1895 on which the hard-working Dick presented her with a lavish wedding gift: a beautiful horse and buggy.

Lying there in her bed in the enchanting white two-story home on Dressler Lane fashioned after the grand homes of their native land, Marie gave birth to their son in 1925.

Author and local Carsen Valley historian Karen Dustman: “Roy’s birth must have been quite a surprise for Marie, especially after losing three children in the intervening years. I’m guessing it was a very happy surprise this late in life, and he was certainly welcomed into the family. They had a christening ceremony for him at the local Lutheran church on June 21, 1925, so eleven days after he was born.”

Thran descendant Krista Jenkins: “Because Roy was a late baby, my great-grandmother coveted this little guy. It was the joy of their life at this point.”

Roy with his mother, Marie Thran, c summer 1927

Roy’s childhood 

Roy grew up like many sons in the Carsen Valley at that time, likely carrying some responsibilities around the ranch, but also living a fairly free-range life. Historian Karen Dustman explains:

“Roy was born and grew up in the late 1920s and early 1930s, so he would have been part of a wonderful rural farming community here. And of course, he would have lived in the beautiful Thran house on his parents’ dairy ranch. And both of his parents were German as we talked about from the old country, so I imagine they were a little bit strict. And I would imagine he would have had chores to do on the ranch. But as the baby of the family, I’m picturing him doing less than the other kids in terms of chores. He went to the elementary school in Minden nearby where he would have gotten to know all the other ranchers’ kids.”

In the Thran family a few handed-down stories confirm this.

Krista: “It was your typical ranching family in the early 1900s where everybody pitched in and worked. And little Roy came along, and he was handed down the little toys that somebody else had in the family. And from descriptions that we’ve been told as far as my generation, is that he was just a happy-go-lucky little kid, liked to pitch in and work, and just very kind of a jolly good little guy.

He got relatively good grades in school and was conscientious, and just kind of the love of my great-grandmother and grandfather’s life at that point.”

But it’s really the box of Roy’s possessions that tell us a more complete story of his childhood.

“He had those classic metal toy trucks to play with and watercolor paints. We know that he played Tiddledy Winks with his friends, and marbles. One of the other things that he had as an item in his box was a homemade sling shot that somebody had carved out of a fork branch, so I can picture him out there trying to hit things with the sling shot.

Roy Thran Box Toy Car

We know that he played baseball, and someone had hand-carved a wooden baseball bat for him, if you can imagine. It wasn’t even perfectly round. It had these flat sides on the baseball bat so you can imagine it must have been really hard to hit the ball in a straight line.

Roy Thran bat and sling shot

And then one of his sweetest possessions that I really like is he had a stuffed toy rabbit that he must have carried around as a toddler. And it looks like one of those homemade things. Women back then used to buy a printed pattern that was on cotton cloth, and they’d cut it out and stuff it. The moms would sew around the edges and put stuffing inside. And this was a really stained and well-worn toy, so I just picture him carrying around this little stuffed rabbit as a child.”

Roy was also enamored with the great aviators of the day. He joined the Jimmy Allen Flying Club for kids, which came with an official acceptance letter, a bronze pin featuring “flying cadet” wings, and a silver pilot’s bracelet.

Jimmie Allen Flying Ace 1930

Jimmie Allen Book

In the box was also a treasured pint-sized version of the aviator cap that Charles Lindbergh wore on his history-making solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927.

The Premonition

One day in 1935, ten-year-old Roy entered the kitchen where his mother was working. But this was no ordinary day.

Roy Thran at school 1931

Krista: “Well, the story in the family is that my great grandmother was in the kitchen with my grandmother (her daughter), and little Roy walked in and my great-grandmother kind of shrieked a little bit, and written across his forehead was something in the order of ‘I won’t be here much longer.’”

Sometime after this unusual event, early on the afternoon of August 6, 1935 Roy headed over to his friend Henry Cordes’ home to pick up some Sunday school papers that he had left in the car. While visiting, Roy and Henry’s older brother, twelve-year-old Roy Cordes decided to head out on horseback for a ride. Around 4:00 they stopped to eat lunch and then, even though by all accounts from the family Roy hated water, they decided to make their way to the dam on the Carson River to go swimming.

According to Roy Cordes’s account of the event to the local newspaper, “After undressing Roy Cordes admonished his chum to be careful because the water near the dam was deep. The words were hardly out of his mouth when his chum stepped into deep water and disappeared. Neither of the boys could swim, but young Cordes made a heroic attempt to save his companion and came within an ace of losing his own life as he frantically grabbed for his chum.”

Record Courier Roy Thran Drowning headline

Realizing that he was helpless to save his friend, young Cordes hurriedly dressed, mounted his horse and rode at top speed into the home of his father and notified him of the tragic event. Mr. Cordes drove to the Thran ranch, telling the parents of the boy what had happened.

Krista: “Subsequently my Uncle, which would be Roy’s brother Carl, jumped in and he’s the one who found Roy’s body. And they pulled it out on the bank and tried CPR for quite a while, and it wasn’t working. So, he passed away there. But Roy’s brother Carl is the one who drug him out.”

(Image below: Roy Thran’s death certificate)

roy thran death certificate

PART THREE: A Life in a Box

After Roy’s tragic death, Roy’s mother Marie carefully collected not only his prized possessions like the aviator’s cap, but also some of the last things he would have personally used like his school slate and a small collection of books. They were placed in a box, and by all family accounts, Roy wasn’t spoken of again. That is, until years and generations later.

Krista: “When my Grandmother Marie’s brother died, who was Carl, who was also the brother of Roy, he died in the early 80s I believe, my grandmother was in the family house, and they were cleaning out the belongings in this house. And that was where she was raised, and of course Carl was also, and Roy. (Photo: Roy’s sister and Krista’s grandmother Marie Thran Cordes)

Roy Thran's Sister Marie

In the back portion of my great-grandmother’s closet was this box. My mom was there along with my aunt. And my grandmother came out of this closet area, and we don’t know why, gave this box to my mother with the instructions ‘make sure Krista gets this box.’ And so, they went on about their business. My mom, whenever we got together shortly after that, my mom said, ‘Oh, I have something for you from Grandma.’ So, it was this box, and we started going through it. And at that time, I didn’t know that little Roy had ever existed.”

In such a short period of time, one leaf on the family tree had grown dangerously close to being forgotten. And Krista learned very quickly how important it was to gather the stories of her elders.

Krista: “We started going through all of his belongings, and we kind of pieced together this story, and that’s when we kind of started figuring out ‘Oh my God!’ My mom remembered because she was told the story as a little girl growing up that these were Roy’s belongings.

You know, as time went on, the funny thing, and maybe this is what happened in these prior generations, is nobody really talked about Roy. In fact, I just read an article that my grandmother was interviewed in a long time ago, and she spoke of growing up and working on the ranch and such, and she didn’t even mention Roy. So it’s just maybe that generation was, you know, ‘He passed away,’ and they just parked him. Or again, speculation, maybe that was such a traumatic event for the family that they just decided to park it. That could be a generational thing that long ago. But it’s not like, you know, ‘Talk about Roy!’ It was just never really brought up.”

(Click here to read the article about Marie Thran Cordes.)

Over the years Krista kept the box and gathered the remaining family stories about Roy, really restoring him to the family tree. So, on the day that she came across Karen Dustman’s article about the Thran house, she seized the opportunity to restore him to the community’s history.

Karen: “She was wanting to know if I’d be willing to write a story about Roy and his box. And also, whether our local museum would be interested in maybe doing an exhibit of his things. So, we arranged to meet up at the museum with the museum curator, and thankfully Gail is wonderful. She was as excited and thrilled as I was about the box. And I said I would of course love to do a follow up story about Roy and his box. Gail welcomed the idea of an exhibit at the museum and made the arrangements and space for it to happen.”

Taking items on loan rather than as a donation was a rare occurrence for the Carson Valley Museum. But Museum Curator Gail Allen felt it was worth a closer look, and Douglas County Historical Society Trustee Frank Dressel whole-heartedly agreed.

Frank Dressel: “Krista brought the box in and they kind of analyzed the different things, the different artifacts of Roy’s, as far as with his childhood, the stuff that was in the box that they found in the attic. It’s a local story. It’s a great story. The box has all kinds of treasures as far as this life of Roy Thran.”

Krista: “And as I started bringing stuff out of this box, everybody was enamored. They were just like “Oh, my God!” And it just sort of fell into place.”

Frank: “And they weren’t ready to donate it to the museum. And the big thing about the museum is that we don’t like to take things on loan because of the responsibility and everything else. But with this being a local exhibit, what we decided to do was to have it on exhibit at the museum for a year.”

Karen: “Krista and her aunt Lois Thran worked together to assemble the exhibit and physically put it in place. There was also a curator who was really, really helpful and she involved an exhibit’s coordinator to help get the display cases arranged and do what he could. But really it was the two family members who put the display together and did a beautiful job. They have two tall glass cases devoted just to his exhibit, which is really a tremendous amount of space. And it’s this little snapshot in time of just amazing things. The people who have come to look at it have just been so impressed with the exhibit. They did a beautiful job of it.”

Krista: “My aunt, who’s my mother’s sister, her name is Lois Thran, she had a florist business for a long time. In fact, it’s still in the family. Her granddaughter is running it now.  And so, my aunt is just really good at putting things together. I mean, I can put stuff on a shelf, but my aunt kind of has that ability to design. My mom lives in Reno, and I asked my aunt, and she’s like ‘Yeah, I’ll help you!’ So, we put stuff there, and she’d go behind and she’d rearrange it, and she’d look at it and rearrange it. So, we didn’t just put stuff on a shelf. My aunt just kept moving things around and moving things around, and it just had some continuity. And that’s why we kind of drug her along. That and the fact that this was her uncle, really, and she got to participate in his story too.”

Roy’s story was quickly becoming the family’s – and the community’s – story. His childhood possessions are transforming how people think about the importance of the story of every life, even one that spanned only a decade.

The exhibit drives home the idea that everyone’s story is important, and really connected to everyone else’s story. You can just hear the enthusiasm in Frank Dressel’s voice as he describes and connects with the items that were so precious to Roy Thran.

Frank: “Well you know the big thing that caught me was the hand-written letter to a friend, looking forward to him visiting over the summer vacation and such. It’s just, that‘s how they communicated back then. And you can just tell how excited he was about his friend coming to visit for the summertime.

You know, the way kids are raised today with cell phones and everything like that, this boy didn’t have any of that back then. You know, it just shows the lifestyle here in the Carson Valley.”

Krista: “This is such a small community and you know life as we know it is changing on a daily basis. The old timers are leaving us, and it’s important, I think, that we don’t lose sight of history of our own families, or the history of the area that you’re living in.”

Karen: “I was really touched that the family wanted Roy’s story to be told and I was just really pleased that I was able to share his story and put that up on the blog. But the really big contribution was by the family coming forward and sharing his story. I just thought it was neat that this tragic event ultimately had a really positive outcome.”

Resources:

The Douglas County Historical Society,
1477 Old US 395 N Suite B
Gardnerville, NV 89410
http://historicnv.org

The free podcast is sponsored by:

 

GEM: Writing Family Stories with Author Karen Dustman

Karen Dustman

Why she wrote the book and what she hoped hope people would get out of it:
As a way to share her experience in sharing oral histories. After her mother’s unexpected death, she regretted not collecting more of her mother’s stories.
“It’s important, don’t wait. Get it done while you can” Karen Dustman

Everyone has great stories to tell. How do you help people find them?
Your family wants to the know the simple stories of how things happened, like how you met your spouse.

Involve a second person, someone who can ask you questions. Ask them what they would like to know about her life.

Why do you think stories are so healing?
You have a chance to look back and put things in perspective, which can be very freeing. As time passes the sweetness comes out. Remember, it’s not just one tragic event, but it’s a whole lifetime of events.

It can also be a way to take the monsters out of the closet. In Roy’s case, the family was able to go from sorrow and bitter grief (literally, all kept in a box!) to finding a way to celebrate and share his life. It was so good. Like they hadn’t known what to do with this sad tale, and now everyone finally could breathe a sigh of relief. They were able to come together and make the exhibit happen.

For 20 DOLLARS off, visit storyworth.com/gems when you subscribe!

What are some of the most common stumbling blocks that people face in telling their own stories?
Often it is “Where do I start telling my story?”

Find one single story you are excited about, hopefully a happy one, to get you started and make the scope a little smaller. Finish that one story and then keep on going.

There are also the practical issues: what if you don’t type well? What are the mechanical difficulties?

Karen recommends:

“It’s so important to capture those stories while we still have family who can tell them.”

Karen recommends that you “picture the words flowing freely for themselves and seeing it happening.”

In the first chapter of her book she discusses getting your mental game in gear. Realize it is possible. Rehearse it in your mind, and picture it happening and the words flowing freely. Imagine that you’re going to have a good time!

Reach out for help and encouragement. If you can share a little piece of your writing, you will get tremendous feedback from people, which can give you motivation.

“Do it now because there’s really no legacy you can leave that’s more important than that.” 

Why did you create Clairitage Press?
My mom was the motivating reason. I tell her story in my Memoir book — how my one real sadness is that I never got her full story, because she died suddenly and quite unexpectedly. But then I did find 12 handwritten pages later that she had left among her papers, talking about her life, which are so precious.

Here is her story on Karen’s blog, and a photo of her as a child. Interestingly, she was about age 7 in this photo and she was born in December 1927, so this would have been taken roughly about the time that Roy Thran died!

The author of 10 local history books and many family histories, Karen says “I’m all about preserving history and honoring family.”

Visit Karen Dustman at Clairitage.com > Blog

Click here to order a copy of Karen’s book Writing a Memoir from Stuck to Finished!

 

The free podcast is sponsored by:

Rootsmagic

GEM: Lisa’s Recent Adventures in England

This month I keynoted at a brand new genealogy conference called THE Genealogy Show. It was held at the NEC in Birmingham, England, the same location where the Who Do You Think You Are? Live conference was held before it folded.

It was a success with hundreds of genealogists attending and Kirsty Gray and her board members including DearMYRTLE here in America are already planning the next conference for June 26 & 27 of 2020 in Birmingham

Mentioned in this Gem:

Nathan Dylan Goodwin Interviews and books

Nathan Dylan Goodwin and Lisa Louise Cooke

Michelle and Jennie
These two ladies were waiting for me at the entrance of my first session, Time Travel with Google Earth. (Also available on video with Premium membership.)

Podcast listeners in England 2019 The Genealogy Show

“My friend Jennie and I are addicted to your website, podcasts and all you teach. As we said [at] the show we are postgraduate Diploma Students at Strath and whenever we get stuck we say “what would Lisa do….” We are thrilled you came over to the UK and any chance we get we spread the word.”

Lorna Moloney
Owner of Merriman Research and producer and host of The Genealogy Radio show aired from Kilkee, Ireland on a weekly basis on Thursdays at 4 PM in Ireland and it’s available as a recorded podcast.

Lorna Moloney

Bill and I celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary at these lovely locations in England:

  • Blenheim Palace – Birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill.
  • Chatsworth – Jane Austen’s inspiration for Mr. Darcy’s house in Pride and Prejudice.
  • Lyme Park – Used for the exterior shots of Mr. Darcy’s home, Pemberly, in the 1995 A&E Pride and Prejudice mini-series.
  • Sudbury Hall – Used for the interior shots of Pemberly.
  • Haddon Hall – Wonderful example of Tudor living. The Princess Bride and Pride and Prejudice filming location.
  • Kedleston Hall
  • Calke House –I’ll talk more about in the next Premium Podcast episode

We stayed at Dannah Farm Country House in Shottle, Derbyshire. Say “hi” to Joanne and Martin for me!

You can see photos and videos from my trip on my Instagram page.

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