Fire is a genealogist’s worst nightmare. It is a constant threat — capable of quickly and mercilessly consuming the precious photographs and heirlooms that we hold so dear. In 1921, a fire in the basement of the Commerce Building in Washington D.C. robbed us of the 1890 Federal Census, creating a 20 year gap in one of our greatest research resources. Countless courthouses have been destroyed due to fire and natural disasters, forever eradicating birth, marriage, death and land records that are often the only surviving documentation of the people who lived in those communities. And yet, with the ugly truth staring us in the face, how many of us have stopped to consider how fire and its henchmen, smoke and water damage, can affect us today?

Photograph courtesy of Isanti County News.

Last year, Isanti County Historical Society burned to the ground. Isanti is a sleepy town just north of Minneapolis, and you probably haven’t heard of it, but for many people, including myself, Isanti is where our ancestors made their lives. Isanti County Historical Society once housed an important collection of records dating back 150 years that detailed the lives of Scandinavian immigrants, many from Hälsingland Province in Sweden, including my great great great grandfather, Olof Jonnson Svärd. The fire wasn’t caused by lightning or wildfire or even faulty wiring, it was deliberately set by an arsonist, and it has robbed Isanti County and all the descendents of the people who lived there of their history.

As Kathy McCully, executive director of the ISHS said in an interview at the time of the catastrophe, “It’s just devastating… It’s literally 150 years of archived collections, photos, archival donations…It’s all gone… It’s not just one family’s family photos that were lost; it is everyone’s family photos that were lost.” (Kyotonen, Rachel. “Isanti County Historical Society building destroyed by arson.” Isanti County News on the Web 8 Jul. 2011. 14 May 2012 <>.)

“The damage is very extensive. Much of what the fire didn’t consume was damaged by water from the fire hoses. Anything wooden, textile and most paper documents have been destroyed. The handles even melted off the file cabinets.” (Kyotonen, Rachel. “Minnesota Historical Society provides disaster assistance to Isanti County Historical Society.” Isanti County News on the Web 11 Jul. 2011. 14 May 2012 <>.)

There is a lesson for all of us in this devastating event. Many genealogists have donated their photographs and heirlooms to local historical societies in the hope that they will be preserved for future generations. However, if those collections have not been digitized and archived, those photographs and heirlooms are at risk of being lost, forever. Inquire whether local historical and genealogical societies important to your family history have digitized their collections. Many of these societies house incredibly important collections but do not have the funding or technology necessary to preserve them. You can help by donating your time or resources to the effort. If you are a skilled writer, you can help by writing grant proposals to obtain funding. You can also write to the editor of your local newspaper to bring attention to this need and rally the local community. Whatever your contribution, don’t wait until tomorrow, when it may be too late.

To donate to Isanti County Historical Society’s disaster relief, please visit