Thursday, October 2, 2014

Annie's Ghosts


The author of Annie's Ghosts, Steve Luxenberg will be giving a presentation on Tuesday, Oct. 7 at 7 p.m. at the Intermediate School District, Lawrence, MI.  Come and hear about his search for an aunt that he never knew.

Monday, July 28, 2014

County Museums

County Museums

Remember your county museums.  Even if they don't have your family information there, you can find out what was happening when  they were living.  It puts flesh on your ancestor.

Van Buren County Historical Museum/County Poorhouse is a treasure trove for such information.  The rooms are used to show off the collections that they have received.  These include a carriage room, the doctor's office, dentist's room, a kitchen, laundry, wedding room, baby clothes, shop, a schoolroom, just to name a few.  Many people have donated items and their names are added to the donations.

In the Van Buren County Poorhouse, the building was divided into two parts – one side for the men and the other for the women.   The second and third floors were where the hired staff lived and the able-bodied inmates (as they were called).  Eventually a sunroom was built where the men and women could be together for a period of time.  The poorhouse was a farm where those that were able worked.  It was nearly self-supporting.

It is possible that at some point in time, one of your ancestors might have lived in a poorhouse.  If there is one near you, please consider going to see what they can offer you, if not your own family, at least the see what was happening at the time the place was open.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Birth/Death Date Calculators

So you want to find your ancestor's birth date.  You head out to the cemetery and the only thing is the death date.  But, they have listed how old the person is in years, months, and days.  There are a few things that must be taken into account when trying to figure out the birth date - leap years, which calendar was being used at the time your ancestor was living, and if you have Quakers which calendar they were using.  The Julian and Gregorian calendars are the main two calendars in use.  Great Britain and its colonies changed in 1752, dropping 11 days from the month of September.  That should confuse us all.  Remember not everyone might have followed the new calendar.  Also, if you have Jewish ancestry the calendar might be the Jewish calendar used for births and deaths.

Here is are a few sites for a calculator but certainly there are many, many more.  Just be sure that they list that they take into consideration things like the leap years, etc.

Good luck in your search.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Toni I. Benson Remembered

October 25, 1962 - July 5, 2013

Toni Benson was the first Local History Librarian at the Van Buren District Library.  She was appointed in 1995 and continued in that capacity until her death on July 5, 2013.  It was a job that she dearly loved and shared her enthusiasm with everyone.  Because of her passion for genealogy, she became a charter member of the Van Buren Regional Genealogical Society in 1987.  She wore many hats as part of the society, including president.

We will miss Toni and the way that she encouraged us.  But because of that encouragement, I will be picking up the blog.  I hope to help and inform you in your genealogical research.  Please check back to see what is in this "new" blog.   Pam Pender, Local History Librarian


Thursday, June 20, 2013

Researching Your Civil War Ancestor, June 24

The Van Buren Regional Genealogical Society (VBRGS) welcomes guest speaker Patsy Miller on Monday, June 25th at 7:00 p.m., in the Community Room of the Webster Memorial Library in Decatur, MI.  She will be honoring those who served in the war between the states with her presentation entitled “Researching Your Civil War Ancestor”.    
A power point presentation will provide tips on how to find relatives that served in the Civil War and how to
obtain information on their service including unit summaries, service records, and pension files. A handout containing valuable information about additional resources and state websites where Civil War records can be found will be available. A question and answer period will follow the presentation.
Ms. Miller is currently the president of the Berrien County Genealogical Society and a member of the VBRGS.  She is a life-long resident of Berrien County and has been working on her family genealogy for the past 20 years.

The VBRGS provides monthly meetings of genealogical and historical interest to further their mission to “preserve and share the history of the people and places of the counties of Allegan, Berrien, Cass, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties in southwest Michigan”. This program is free to the public and will include time for refreshments that will be served by our hosts for the evening.
Nameless Picture of the Day
 unknown man (soldier?)
photographer - Theo Cook, Hartford
Can you identify the man in this cabinet card?  The jacket he is wearing could be a uniform, perhaps Civil War?  Please contact us if you any information and we will publish it in a future blog.  Please include the photo's catalog number with your e-mail. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Genealogy Society Makes Large Donation to Library

The Van Buren Regional Genealogical Society (VBRGS) has recently announced that it has donated the bulk of their book collection to the Local History Collection of the Van Buren District Library. 

VBRGS, organized in 1987, is a regional genealogical & local history interest group with a focus on the counties of Southwest Michigan including Allegan, Berrien, Cass, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph and Van Buren. 

Although the society's books and those of the library have been housed together in the Local History Collection in Decatur, up until now both had maintained separate ownership and cataloging. 

VBRGS executive board spokesmen indicated that there were several reasons for this gift.
  1. All item records will now be accessible through one online catalog (, allowing search by title, author, subject and keyword.
  2. Items added to the library catalog are also automatically added to the Michigan Electronic Library Online Catalog (MELCAT), where similar searches may be made on a statewide level. 
  3. The books will be under the protection and care of the library system allowing for continuity in acquisitions, maintenance, and oversight.  
Over the years, the society has spent thousands of dollars in the acquisition of books, microfilm and manuscripts to compliment the department's collection policy guidelines which includes not only Southwest Michigan.  Other featured areas include:
  1. New England
  2. Midwest
  3. Western Europe
  4. Canada
  5. General Reference & Guides
VBRGS has played a key role in the growth and success of the Local History Collection and plans to continue its support with gifts of additional acquisitions, money for special projects/equipment, and with volunteer staffing.  They will maintain ownership of their massive yearbook collection (over 1,500 volumes), select special collections, photographs, and their manuscripts - all currently housed as part of the Local History Collection.

"The Van Buren District Library is very pleased to have received this wonderful collection," says Debby Stassek, the library's Assistant Director, "and we will be working the next several months to add them all into our catalog at"

 One of the biggest perks of this merger is the availability of online cataloging in one place.  Many of the items within the Local History Collection are rare or one-of-a-kind, and although it may not be possible to request one of these items on inter-library loan, a search on MELCAT will point to you to the facility that houses that item, allowing follow-up with that library.

When was the last time you made a genealogical-related search for something in an online catalog?  Have you searched by subject using the hometown of interest?  Or, have you simply tried searching the Keyword option for some of your less common surnames?  New records are being added to MELCAT on a regular basis, so be sure to make this site part of your online research checklist.

The merger of the VBRGS book collection with that of the library will be concluded in the coming months.  In the meantime, all items remain accessible for viewing within the Local History department.  For any questions about the merger or the collection in general, contact the Local History Librarian.

Nameless Picture of the Day
 unknown residence
real photo postcard, postmarked October 1910, Covert
addressed to Mrs. William Young of Canton, Ohio, from "Aunt Minnie"

Can you identify the location of this two-story frame residence located in Covert?  Please contact us if you any information and we will publish it in a future blog.  Please include the photo's catalog number with your e-mail.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Southwest Michigan Fire Insurance Maps Collection Complete at Library

Map lovers will be happy to learn that there is now a complete set of Southwest Michigan Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps housed in the Local History Collection of the Van Buren District Library. 

What are fire insurance maps and how are they important to family & local history?  Named for D. A. Sanborn, a civil engineer from Sommerville, Massachusetts, these maps and others like them were designed to "detail the structural characteristics and functions of buildings and their environs as they pertain to fire hazards or prevention." [Fire Insurance Maps : their history and applications, by Diane L. Oswald]

For each community, there are typically a handful of single or multi-page maps representing the 1890 thru 1935 time period.  Streets are identified by name and each structure is hand-drawn, showing such elements as dimensions, how many floors, stairways, windows, and doors. 

Marcellus, 1899
In this portion from the Marcellus map of 1899, we see a wonderful snapshot of a portion of Main Street, detailing the location of the grocery, three barber shops, hotel, meat market, clothing store and variety store, among others. 

The residential areas within the boundaries of the drawn map are similarly diagrammed, however (and this is the negative part of these maps), there are no names of owners.  Some businesses are named, but usually, with some exceptions, there is only a broad category description such as those listed above. 

Fire insurance maps should be a mainstay for those researching historical structures, with businesses in particular.  Larger multi-building companies have some amazing detail including uses of each building, like Martin Manufacturing Company, Berrien Springs, a manufacturer of cue tips & chalk in 1932, shown here. 

Martin Manufacturing Co., Berrien Springs, 1932
Even in the case of a residence, although the name of the owner is absent, these maps can give insight as to the structure of a house.  Using maps over a period of years, it is possible to plot out the addition of rooms or the change of a building altogether.

Maps were not drawn for all communities, but for Southwest Michigan a good majority of them were:
  • Augusta
  • Bangor
  • Benton Harbor
  • Berrien Springs
  • Buchanan
  • Burr Oak
  • Cassopolis
  • Centreville
  • Coloma
  • Colon
  • Constantine
  • Decatur
  • Dowagiac
  • Fennville
  • Galesburg
  • Hartford
  • Hopkins
  • Kalamazoo
  • Lawton
  • Leonidas
  • Marcellus
  • Mendon
  • Niles
  • Otsego
  • Paw Paw
  • Plainwell
  • Richland
  • St. Joseph
  • Saugatuck
  • Schoolcraft
  • South Haven
  • Sturgis
  • Three Oaks
  • Three Rivers
  • Vicksburg
  • Watervliet
  • Wayland
  • White Pigeon
Through an anonymous $1,600.00 gift, the 15 reels of microfilm have been purchased to round out the library's collection of surviving Sanborn maps for the Michigan counties of Allegan, Berrien, Cass, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph and Van Buren.  These reels also include many other communities outside the SW Michigan area.  For a complete list, see the library's Microfilm Listings, or contact us with any questions.

The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps are the most recent addition to the Local History Collection in support of the library's Historic Sites Inventory (HSI) project.  For more information about how to access the HSI or to inquire about donating information, contact the library at

Nameless Picture of the Day
 Barnes School students
Lawrence Township, Fractional District #6

Can you identify the students and teacher in this photo of Barnes School in Lawrence Township?  Please contact us if you any information and we will publish it in a future blog.  Please include the photo's catalog number with your e-mail.