Photos by Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette Cheryn Whitehurst researches land history at the Genealogy Center.
Nancy Richwine gets help with her research by using one of the many genealogical online sites provided for free to library members.
Thursday, June 15, 2017 1:00 am
Genealogy Center 'hub' for family researchers
BRIAN FRANCISCO | The Journal Gazette
Many visitors to Fort Wayne are in search of buried treasure – their dead ancestors.
People spend a day, a week or even months poring over clues gathered by the Genealogy Center at the downtown Allen County Public Library.
Spread across 42,000 square feet on the second floor of the library are nearly 1.2 million printed materials and spools of microfilm containing census information, family histories, military records, church documents, passenger lists, newspapers and more. The library boasts the largest collection of city directories in the nation, and its catalogs from the British Isles go back 1,000 years.
“Any work that puts people in a place at a time doing something is eligible for inclusion,” said Curt Witcher, manager of the Genealogy Center.
Opened in 1961, the center is considered among the nation's premier genealogical research sites, often mentioned along with the Mormon Church's Family History Library in Salt Lake City and the National Archives and the Library of Congress, both in Washington, D.C.
“All of the online material that we license, plus our physical collection, plus the expertise of the staff – that's the trifecta of our success, that's what draws people here,” said Witcher, a 38-year employee of the library.
The Fort Wayne center attracts about 65,000 visitors a year for what Witcher calls “family pilgrimages.” Three-quarters of them come from outside Allen County and from as far away as Australia.
In May, a Kentucky genealogy group brought more than 20 people to town for three days and two nights. A Michigan group charters a bus twice a year to Fort Wayne for overnight stays. In 2009, more than 400 people attended a three-day conference for African-American genealogical organizations.
The national Federation of Genealogical Societies has conducted three major conferences in Fort Wayne. The most recent, in 2013, lured more than 1,500 people to the library and Grand Wayne Center for four days. The federation will return to the Summit City in 2018.
Jim and Alfreda Batdorff, retirees in Coos Bay, Oregon, discovered the Genealogy Center more than 20 years ago while visiting a son, Jonathan, who lives in Fort Wayne. The Batdorffs have returned every year since.
“We use this as a hub,” Jim Batdorff, 75, said about the library. “We spend about 21/2 months here. As we get information, we go to wherever we find our relatives, buried and living. They're scattered all over. Every year we drive out here and we stop in cemeteries on the way – Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa. That determines the route we take.”
Batdorff, a retired forester for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and Alfreda, 80, a former school teacher, said they spend about six hours a day at the center. This spring, they were joined by two cousins from Arizona.
The Batdorffs' findings have included that their surname has been spelled dozens of ways by family branches; that an ancestor in Ohio shot his son in an argument over liquor; and that a forefather who invented a large coin-counting contraption died when it fell on him as he was hauling it in a wagon to a patent office.
The Genealogy Center and other Fort Wayne tourist destinations benefit one another, Witcher said. “Genealogical widows” visit other attractions, shop or play golf while their spouses devote a day or two to family research, he said, and the library tends to pick up traffic from people in town for sports tournaments. Alfreda Batdorff said she likes to tour the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo when she's not at the library.
In-person searches continue to be popular despite an explosion in online genealogical sites and the advent of affordable DNA tests. Those resources point users down a path, Witcher said, and the further they take it, the more navigational help they seek.
“In this field, someone picks up a map and says, 'OK, how do I decode this map to get me to the next generation, the next piece of information.' And I think that's what we're particularly good at,” he said.
The center's seven-person staff has more than 200 years of combined experience in research. Some are regional genealogical specialists – early colonial New England in one instance, the Great Plains in another. Witcher said staff members spent at least a half-hour with more than 100 visitors in April, “walking them through” their ancestry searches.
Witcher has traced his own family roots from southern Indiana to Virginia to Germany. Genealogical searches seem to have universal appeal, he said.
“People just get so excited about finding their story, their past, their ancestors – what they did, where they came from, how they contributed, what kind of challenges they had, what kind of triumphs they had,” he said.