Good stories are hidden in plain sight

Shelby Niehaus, Columnist

On Monday, I walked to the Effingham County Courthouse and asked for original copies of the 1890 census.

The official census of 1890 was lost to time, of course. It burned in an archival fire in the early 1920s. And before this week, I would not have been able to tell you that, reader.

I spent a few days reading shelves in Effingham Public Library’s genealogy room, making sure items were properly filed, labeled and indexed. Each outlying county has a section for census materials and in every section, the 1890 census book is a black binder with one article inside.

This binder tells the story of a poorly stored major document with no backup. It tells of how a fire ate some volumes and how water ate others and how nobody thought to recover anything until months later.

I sat down to discuss the article with one of the historians who spends her mornings in the genealogy room. As a paranoid millennial, I told her I would not feel comfortable with only one copy of anything, much less the census for the entire country.

She was about to correct my anachronistic thinking when she paused. Did the census not, she said, come from numbers at the county level?

Twenty minutes later, she sent me to the courthouse to see if an original Effingham census existed in some forgotten basement.

So far, I have yet to find an original copy of the local 1890 census, but we still have other routes to pursue. I am very excited to potentially re-discover a piece of history lost to time.

The 1890 census was not even the first fascinating story I found in the genealogy room at the library. Between stacks of plat books and family histories for people I have not met, there are records of newsworthy hospital fires, WWI veteran groups who met yearly to watch their numbers dwindle and old letters from people who left their ancestral homes. Unexpectedly, I found myself interested in other people’s little stories.

When I go into the genealogy room to read shelves or research a name, I only ever find older folks. There are always the same two ladies preparing the Nave history or the latest estate box for the collection and sometimes an older man who likes to read local history. Sometimes, another local will be looking for their family name, fumbling with the microfilm reader. But I never see anyone else remotely near my age.

I think that other people my age would be good additions to genealogy research. We are finely attuned to research and digging for information in ways that older folks may not be. While young people do not often find ourselves interested in our family stories, we are often fascinated by odd circumstances. Local histories are full of strange happenings.

If you like old stories, strange people and stumbling across your grandfather’s name, visit a genealogy room or your local historical society. Good stories are everywhere, and you might even find the prologue to your own story.

Shelby Niehaus is a senior English language arts major. She can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected].