Geneartistry on

Geneartistry on

Check out the segment that I just recorded with Fisher on It is a great story about how newspaper articles helped me crack a 104 year old cold-case in my hometown. It involves a jail break and mysterious murder. You won’t want to miss it!

Thank you to Fisher for having me on the show!

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Hello Genies! On this weeks show Dr. Joanna Mountain from answers an amazing listener question about…

Posted by Extreme Genes on Sunday, 13 September 2015

Savoring the Past

Savoring the Past

If you think of cooking as opening a cardboard box and microwaving a frozen Salisbury steak for three and a half minutes, peeling back the plastic and digging in, what I’m about to say may change the way you think of food.

Today’s modern conveniences like pre-packaged meats and canned vegetables have robbed us of our connection with the food we eat. The majority of us no longer raise, slaughter, butcher, harvest or preserve our foods. So what then happens to the skill and knowledge that our forbearers used to farm, hunt and feed themselves? What foods did they eat and what sacrifices did they make to enjoy them? And most importantly, how can we enrich our own lives and research by studying these skills and recipes?

Dining in the 18th, 19th and even early 20th centuries took more than rudimentary cooking skills. Our ancestors constantly focused on procuring, preserving and preparing food and what they had was never wasted. Scraps of muscle fat that we would toss in the trash without hesitation were used in the preparation of pastry, dried up bread and biscuits were grated and used to thicken soups, pigs hooves were saved to make gelatin and bones were saved to flavor stocks. They used suet, a hard fat found in the loins of beef and sheep for everything from baking to making soap, fueling lamps, making candles, treating leather and even making carbon paper.

While searching for an 18th century recipe for meat pies I stumbled upon the blog Savoring the Past by Jas Townsend and Son, an Indiana purveyor of 18th century style clothing, cookware and ingredients. This site is a goldmine of information about 18th century life, particularly baking. The following video demonstrating how to prepare a meat pie, a typical early American portable meal. All of the clothing and cookware used in the videos is available on the Jas Townsend and Son website and the recipe is available on their blog.

The way our ancestors experienced food depended primarily on their economic status. A look at any will or probate record from the 18th century will tell you how important cooking tools were. It is common to see a household inventory with each pot, cauldron and dutch oven accounted for. These tools were passed from generation to generation the way that crystal, silver or china would be today.

Trying recipes that our ancestors prepared and incorporating details about food, clothing, farming and hunting into family histories will help 21st century people relate to their ancestors and appreciate what life was like 300 years ago. Try using one of the recipes available on Savoring the Past at your next family reunion or holiday meal and it may just become a new old tradition.

Family Reunions IV: Just for Kids

Family Reunions IV: Just for Kids

This is the fourth installment of my multi-part article on planning the perfect family reunion. In this series I take you through all the things you will need to know to pull off a rewarding and fun family reunion.

One of the greatest services we perform as genealogists is preserving our ancestors’ memories for future generations. Engaging children in the details of their ancestry can be a challenge, however. Short of designing a video game where ancestors become reanimated to hunt down killer zombies, it’s hard to imagine what we can do to compete with all the distractions and immediate gratifications kids have before them.

The family reunion, however, offers the perfect opportunity to engage the youngest of your family members in their history in a way that is both educational and entertaining. Here are a set of activities that are informative, enjoyable and can help strengthen bonds across generations for your next reunion or family event.

Fun and Games

What better way to connect with a child than through fun and games? Have each adult bring a beloved game or toy from his or her childhood. Ideally, no batteries or electricity required. From marbles to pick-up sticks and Rock ‘em, Sock ‘em Robots to Battleship, the possibilities are endless.

Have the adult “gamer” demonstrate the game and play it with the kids. Organize a tournament if you can or hold a raffle where each kid wins one of the games to take home. Make sure you have enough games to go around.


Story Time

Even the crotchetiest of crotchety old uncles were children once. And no matter how billy-goat gruff they may be now, even they have stories and books that they loved as children and remember fondly. Tap into that wellspring of nostalgia and ask adults to bring a favorite book from their childhood.

Organize a story time so that children can enjoy timeless tales like Little Golden Books, Winnie the Pooh, Curious George and beyond. As the adult reads the tale, sprinkling in some commentary about their own childhood is a sure way to connect with the young ones in the audience. As with the toys and games, a friendly raffle so that each kid can “inherit”  a book with a personal message inscribed will create precious keepsakes.

Ancestor Mad Libs

Remember the countless hours whiled away in the back seat of the car on a family road trip playing Mad Libs? You can bring the same family friendly and easy entertainment to your next reunion. Simply take a short family story, remove key words and create a Mad Libs-style worksheet. The rest is up to the kids and if  years of experience is any measure the results maybe silly and they may be goofy, but they will definitely be funny.

Family History Dance-Off

The kids already think the adults are from another planet, so why not prove it. Show them what passed for dancing 100, 50, even 20 years ago. The Turkey Trot, the Polka, the Charleston, the Lucky Lindy, even the Watusi and the Hustle. Imagine the fun showing kids these dances, prepping them and pitting them against each other in a good ‘ol fashion dance-off.

Keep the competition good-natured, with points for style, improvisation and good humor. And make a special effort to put these dances in context. It’s an entertaining way for kids to learn what life was like in eras as different as the roaring 20s and the turbulent 60s.

And remember, should they have too much fun at the “old timers” expense, just rest easy knowing the glee future generations will have making fun of the Sponge Bob and the Dougie, crimping and jerking and the other crazy moves that this generation calls dancing.

Ancestry Theater

Imagine your nieces and nephews, adorned in costumes they made themselves, re-enacting an important piece of family lore. Organizing a family theater, with children as stage and costume designers, scriptwriters, and actors, is a sure way to fire their imagination and make learning about family history center stage.

At the beginning of your reunion, the play is “cast” and the troupe given its direction, with the big event occurring on the last evening so that the kids have time to prepare. An adult sponsor, essentially the director, can help guide the children and make sure they have the resources they need.

The trick is to keep things simple, and make sure that the children have the freedom to let their natural creativity take charge. A simple story line can start things off. For props and a set, a box of old clothes, scarves, hats along with construction paper and other arts supplies can be used to recreate practically any era.

Ask the actors to choose from a well-known family story—their great-grandparent’s decision to sell the farm and move to the big city; a great uncle’s travails in finding his way home after the Civil War; an aunt’s accomplishment of starting a successful business. That’s all it takes. Depending on the number of children at your reunion, you may have multiple “short and sweet” plays of 10 to 15 minutes each.

Stay tuned for Family Reunions – Part 5. Next time we will discuss the best way to wrap up your family reunion, be certain that you have gathered as much information as possible for your genealogical research, and make plans for your next family event.



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Family Reunions III: Collecting and creating heirlooms

Family Reunions III: Collecting and creating heirlooms

This is the third installment of my multi-part article on planning the perfect family reunion. In this series I take you through all the things you will need to know to pull off a rewarding and fun family reunion.

So you’ve picked the location and theme and sent out the invitations. Your relatives will be descending on your ancestral hometown in two weeks. You have lunch and dinner covered and a family portrait planned for the first day, but what on earth are you going to do with all those people for the rest of the weekend? Don’t panic, with some well planned activities, your guests will be entertained and you can gather important facts and photos for your family history research.

Ice breakers

A great way to get the conversation flowing is to begin with an ice breaker. One simple approach is to create flash cards with family trivia. One side of the card has a photograph of the subject and the trivia question, the other side has the answer.

What was Frank Smith’s occupation? Where was great grandma Ford born?

For children they could be about relatives still living that are familiar to them.

What farm animals live on Uncle John’s farm? Where does grandma Laura live? 

This is a useful tool for teaching family history in a fun and engaging way.

Oral history

Oral history recordings are a treasure like no other. More than any other media, capturing the memories of relatives through video and voice recording provides future generations with a personal connection and understanding of their ancestors. Tiny details such as the inflection in someone’s voice, or a slight hesitation before answering a question can tell a listener far more than reading the same words in print.

Family reunions are a perfect time to record oral histories. As your relatives mingle and reminisce about old times, they are reminded of events from their past and will provide richer, more colorful stories.

The most important step in planning an oral history is to prepare your questions carefully. If your relatives are uncomfortable and fidgety in front of a camera, it helps to give them questions in advance so they can develop a script. As they become more comfortable you can ask further questions to extract the information that you need.

One of my favorite tricks for drawing memories out of a person who is uncomfortable or unsure what to say is to show them a photograph from some period of their life, and ask them to talk about that day. You can ask about others in the photograph, where and when it was taken, who the photographer was. Visual clues can play an especially important role in interviewing elderly people who tend to recall events much more clearly when they have a photograph to jog their memory. Don’t worry if the photograph doesn’t produce helpful results, you can always edit the interview later.

For more information about how to conduct oral history interviews, see the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage’s Interviewing Guide.

Photo and document scanning

Photos and documents have a short half-life. They fade, get damaged, and are sometimes lost. An easy, efficient way to gather and digitize them is to ask all of your guests to bring their photographs and documents to the reunion.

Designate a tech-savvy guest to handle the scanning while the older relatives identify the subjects of photographs. If you are expecting a large number of guests, it helps to have multiple scanners and laptops to make this a quick operation. It is important that you decide on a system for how documents and photographs are to be labeled and categorized so they are sortable by date, subject, location or source.

After you scan the photos and documents, you can choose a few of the best and present them in a slide show or craft a beautiful photo album to send to your guests. If you have created a family reunion website, sharing them online allows everyone in the family to view and download the photographs.

Recipe book

Food plays such an important role in our lives that it’s no wonder family recipes are so treasured. But family recipes have a way of getting passed down to one person, leaving the rest of the family empty-handed. Reunions are a great time to gather up all the handwritten recipe cards from family members and create an heirloom cookbook.

There are several sites that offer book design and printing services. My favorite is where you can create a professional looking, colorful cookbook and have it printed in hard or soft cover. They even print book jackets so your family cookbook will be as impressive as your time and creativity allows. Blurb will also stock your book in their online inventory so relatives can easily order their own copy directly from them.

Photo booth

Borrowing from a popular trend among wedding planners, photo booths are an easy and inexpensive way to entertain guests and capture a fun-loving, playful side of your family. They require little work to set up and are an entertaining activity for kids and adults alike.

Your photo booth can be as simple as a single chair with a colorful backdrop and a camera on a tripod. The fun and variation come with the props that you choose. I created the props used in the photos below from free printables by the pretty blog and Oh Happy Day.  Stick-on mustaches make for a charming photograph and are available at most toy stores and costume shops.


Sasha Souza Events created an elaborate wall backdrop for one of their events, with photo frames that guests can look through. If you are handy with a hammer, this makes an appropriate and fun family photograph. A backdrop like this is easy to personalize by including details like an ancestor’s photo on the wall, a family bible or a doily made by your grandmother sitting on a small table just in front of the backdrop.

Sasha Souza Events – photo credit to Elizabeth Messina


Stay tuned for Family Reunions – Part 4. Next time we will explore children’s games to keep all of your younger guests entertained.



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The Hatfields and McCoys are at it again

The Hatfields and McCoys are at it again

The famous Hatfields – 1897

The Hatfields and McCoys are feuding again, this time in a History Channel movie airing on May 31, 2012, starring Kevin Costner. The infamous Kentucky and West Virginia clans known for their bloody discord lasting from 1882 to 1888 have captured the imaginations of millions of Americans and have now been revived in what will no doubt be an appropriately violent rendition of their 1880s scuffle.

On August 15, 1946, 58 years after the famous fracas ended, Walt Disney released a charming animated film called Make Mine Music which contained ten short clips, including The Martins and the Coys, based on the Ted Weems and Al Cameron song of the same name. This short film portrayed two families (the Martins and Coys), engaged in a fatal gun fight that ends when each family has one survivor left. This gentle caricature, based on the Hatfields and McCoys, is what most people born between 1940 and today picture when they think of a feud.

For those of you that read yesterday’s post, Family Reunions – Part 1: Location, location, location, and worried that a reunion would stir up old family quarrels, you’ll be comforted to hear that the Hatfields and McCoys have made peace and for the past 13 years have held annual family reunions. According to a CBS News story, “Official End of Legendary Feud” by Rome Neal, on Saturday, June 14, 2003 the acrimony officially ended when representatives from both families signed a truce. I suspect that a Hatfield/McCoy family reunion has a fairly low bar for success – as long as no one dies, everyone leaves happy. For those of you with higher expectations, check back for my continuing series on how to pull off the perfect family reunion.