Saturday, August 8, 2015

Why Write about Family History?

Some of us know a lot about where our families came from and what our great-grandparents did to keep food on the table during the Great Depression. Others have a Great Aunt Minnie wants to tell stories about what her parents did when the shoe factory in Massachusetts closed or the Ford plant in Detroit laid off one thousand people. But, we're busy, so we may nod politely or make sure the holiday eggnog is in a different room so we don't have to listen.

Her stories would be a lot to miss.

Growing up, I heard about my father's family of nine siblings and his mother's indomitable spirit as a widow whose youngest was an infant. Spread across the country, the nine of them stayed in regular touch in the days of snail mail, and periodically even the far-flung families met at an aunt's farm in Mount Vernon, Missouri. I knew which uncle was in which branch of the service during World War II, and was happy that my mother went from Kansas to DC to work during the war. If not, she would not have roomed with my father's sister and met my dad.

Built on Orr land, Ozark Prairie Presbyterian Church
I thought I knew a lot. I knew next to nothing. In the early 1990s, business trips took me to the Midwest, so I (who, with my sister, stayed home with our mom who had MS rather than take trips to Missouri in our teens) spent time with elderly aunts and uncles in Mount Vernon. The stories about how my dad refused to go to school at age six, beating his mother home three days in a row, were funny. Even better was learning why my ancestors ended up in the state in the 1830s and what they did to build a church community and town.

A group of extended family has met annually since 1937, the 100th anniversary of the first arrival of Paul Orr and Isabelle Boyd's descendants in southwest Missouri. The initial families had gone to Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Missouri. Several forward-thinking ancestors (Lettie Hickman Wilkes, assisted by Jessie Stemmons and Harold Campbell) had compiled stories and a list of known descendants in 1954. That year marked the 100th anniversary of the church the Missouri family helped found, Ozark Prairie Presbyterian Church.

Several of the family stalwarts were quite elderly, and within a short time of attending
Family tree roll-out. We add new births annually.
reunions, I was secretary-historian of the OrrReunion Association of Mount Vernon. With the job came a lot of articles, letters, and photos that predecessors, such as Eleanor Coffield of Carthage and Mary Frances (Orr) Schnake, had stored.

Since I knew nothing (and have more than an inclination toward OCD), it became important to sort and organize the materials and identify people in--literally--one hundred years of photos. It would not have been possible without the keen memory of Mary Isabel (Hill) Matteson and encouragement from a cousin's daughter, Kathy Seneker Fairchild, who had already written much about local Missouri history. Just this year, we received decades of files from the late Mary Beth (Hickman) Barger. In many families, a carload of photos and files would end up in the local landfill. Because of the Orr Reunion, her daughter, Barbara, had a place to take them. The sorting will take a while, but we'll all be enriched.

Why name all these people? Why not get to this article's purpose of why writing about family history is important? Because you can't write about it now unless earlier generations have collected the stories. Sure, you can look at Census data or find wills in county courthouses. You'll learn ancestors' occupations and assets, but not a lot more.

Family history is significant because you know how your family fits into a country's history. Why did so many Orrs go from Missouri to Oklahoma in the late 1800s? Because land was available -- largely to white people, at the expense of Native Americans. We also know that William J. Orr and wife Ella Cochran moved across the Oologah River at Sander's Ford. Ella was a teacher and taught the officers' children at Fort Gibson. She took her own children there to teach. Plus, several people married Native Americans, so now the Irish Orrs are kin to this nation's earliest settlers.

Writing about family history lets others link to their ancestors. While I've prepared (with much input, especially from Mary Ann Vincent, a Shirley descendant) a book on the Orr family of Aghadowey, Northern Ireland, and the U.S., it's the postings on Ancestry.com that reach the most people. I look at who downloads the material and can often tell where they live -- they are all over the North American map, some are from Australia, a few are from Ireland. There have been many notes from people saying that a photo that made its way from reunion files to the Internet has given them the first image of ancestors. More important, relatives who never heard of the Orr Reunion of Mount Vernon have learned of us and attended.

At past reunions, I've given talks on the family's immigration patterns, the many who operated grist mills, and the extent to which members worked in coal mines in the east and strip mines in the Midwest. This year, the project is military history. Longtime secretary Grace Shepherd compiled an Honor Roll of the fifty-seven men who served during World War II in U.S. or U.K. branches of the military. Some ancestors served as early as the Civil War, others were in World War I, Korea, or Vietnam, and some still serve. We also have at least one who performed service during World War II as a conscientious objector.

We'll seek input from the hundreds of relatives we know, and perhaps find more to ask. We'll also look for the roles women played in the past. Some were in the Red Cross or worked at munitions plants. My own mother (H. Rita Rooney Orr) worked as a 'spotter' one night a week at Andrews AFB near DC. The women who did this were looking for enemy planes that might attack Washington.

There is always more to write. It is getting harder to store the material. So we don't lose it, we're scanning a lot. Who knows, maybe a library will find us sufficiently interesting to keep some of it. It's probably time to look for one.
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