Uncovering the past at the Sonoma County History and Genealogy Library

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RESOURCES

Sonoma County History & Genealogy Library: 725 Third St., Santa Rosa. sonomalibrary.org

Family History Center: LDS Church, 1725 Peterson Lane, Santa Rosa. 707-525-0399.

Sonoma County Genealogical Society: scgsonline.org

Denise Beeson: Teaches classes, seminars and workshops in genealogy. To check out upcoming classes call 707-694-6826.

Coming Up: ”Genealogy, DNA & Your Health,” one-hour seminar taught by Denise Beeson. 2 p.m. March 29 at Sonoma County Family YMCA, 1111 College Ave., Santa Rosa. “Beginning Genealogy” four week course beginning April 5. 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sebastopol Area Senior Center, 167 N. High St., Sebastopol. 707-829-2440.

I t’s a place where people come to uncover truths and dig into their roots.

Tucked behind the Central branch of the Sonoma County Library in downtown Santa Rosa is a smaller, freestanding library, a repository of records of every ilk — thousands of items from historical books and manuscripts to old newspapers, maps, photographs, tintypes and all manner of old ephemera.

The Sonoma County History and Genealogy Library is a place where the curious make like detectives, traveling through time to find out more about their family stories, sifting out fact from lore and occasionally unmasking unsavory secrets.

Take Bill Turner. A retired student services dean from Santa Rosa Junior College, he has been spending his retirement years steeped in the past, including some shaky branches on the family tree.

There is the matter of his great-great-great grandfather Gen. Landon McCoy, who back in the 1850s or 1860s tried to kill his ex-wife’s lawyer on the courthouse steps during a messy divorce. It got him eight years in San Quentin and a turn in Napa State Hospital.

“He was a legend,” said Turner, relishing what some might see as dirty laundry best left in the closet. “I love finding out about old Landon McCoy. Those are the kind of stories I love to put meat on the bones. It’s real life. Being connected to a king and queen is not my interest at all. People talk about ancestors like that and my eyes glaze over. But when they talk about what real life is all about, I find it interesting.”

The specialty library offers both high-tech and old-school research tools, from an antique stereo-opticon viewer to view 19th-century slides to computers with access to a world of digitized databases and websites like Ancestry.com that the public can use free of charge.

Genealogical research is the second most popular hobby in the U.S., outpaced only by gardening. So what has long been one of the county’s better-kept secrets behind the library since the 1990s, is getting discovered by more and more people, many of them hobbyists like Turner who love the thrill of the hunt and putting together puzzles from tiny threads of information. But people also use the library to unearth the history of their old homes, poring over city directories or peering with magnifying glasses over old Sanborn maps that documented property and buildings for insurance purposes going back 150 years.

New microfilm readers

The facility has recently undergone a notable upgrade, including a doubling in size, fresh paint, bright LED lights (the better to read old documents with), new public computers and an additional station, bringing the number up to five. There is now also a designated room for rare books, a meeting room where the library hopes to hold public classes in genealogical research and new state-of-the-art microfilm readers that are sharper and have embedded software for image enhancement and cropping options.

The $60,000 project was prompted by a pressing need to replace an absestos ceiling. It was made possible through Measure Y, the county library funding tax passed in 2016, that so far has allowed the library system to dramatically increase hours and hire more librarians. Between 2017 and 2018 the tax brought in $11.9 million for the county’s libraries, Spokesman Ray Holley said.

RESOURCES

Sonoma County History & Genealogy Library: 725 Third St., Santa Rosa. sonomalibrary.org

Family History Center: LDS Church, 1725 Peterson Lane, Santa Rosa. 707-525-0399.

Sonoma County Genealogical Society: scgsonline.org

Denise Beeson: Teaches classes, seminars and workshops in genealogy. To check out upcoming classes call 707-694-6826.

Coming Up: ”Genealogy, DNA & Your Health,” one-hour seminar taught by Denise Beeson. 2 p.m. March 29 at Sonoma County Family YMCA, 1111 College Ave., Santa Rosa. “Beginning Genealogy” four week course beginning April 5. 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sebastopol Area Senior Center, 167 N. High St., Sebastopol. 707-829-2440.

The staff has also been increased at the genealogical library to help the public with research and to maintain and more than 16,650 print items, including indexes to cemeteries and marriage, birth, death and military records and 130 genealogy-related periodicals.

Kate Deadder is one of the librarians recently assigned to the genealogy library. She said a couple of weeks ago a man who had been researching a family connection to the Mayflower for several years suddenly let out a shout. He had found the elusive tie.

“First he was in shock. He couldn’t believe it,” Deadder said. “He looked at it again. And then he said, ‘Can you look at this for me?’ It was a tremendous find. It was something he had always heard in his family but hadn’t been able to prove.”

Increasing digitization of records has allowed people to engage in sleuthing from their home computers and given rise to a new TV genre with shows like “Finding Your Roots,” “Relative Race,” “Ancestors in the Attic” and “Who Do You Think You Are.” Genealogical research has ballooned into a billion-dollar industry of commercial websites, books and over-the-counter DNA test kits that enable people to find lost or unknown relatives and to know with some accuracy, what part of the world their ancestors came from. The Helix test claims to even tell you what percentage of Neanderthal is in your DNA.

But for all the bedazzling technology, there is still a need for physical archives. And Sonoma County’s History & Genealogy Library, which began as a single room in the main branch, is now one of the largest genealogical collections on the West Coast conveniently located in a public building.

“It’s a fallacy that everything is online. It’s actually less than 10 percent of the documentation you need for genealogy,” said Steve Lovejoy, president of the Sonoma County Genealogical Society. “The pace of digitization has increased but we still have to have archives and libraries that hold the original documents. And even if it’s online, the image may not be the best quality. You have to examine the original document yourself in order to do good research.”

Help with research

The Society sends volunteers out to the library every Wednesday afternoon to help people with their research.

“They can sit with someone at the computer and hold their hand and guide them through beginning genealogy. Or if you have a problem they can help you solve it,” said Lovejoy, who got the bug himself after retiring from a career as a research chemist for Lockheed Martin.

The archives and collection is not just useful to Sonoma County residents. It includes an eclectic array of materials from all over. A scan of the shelves shows such disparate materials as passenger and immigration lists from ships, records for the Presbyterian Church in California from 1849 to 1927, a history of Petaluma auto dealerships and a number of seemingly random family histories and county histories from Callaway County, Missouri to Wayne County, Iowa. The library has an original family record book for Santa Rosa’s McDonald Family and a whole shelf of old high school and Santa Rosa Junior College yearbooks going back to 1899. The new rare books room holds 1,100 volumes including first editions by Jack London, diaries, scrapbooks, letters and other documents associated with Sonoma County people and businesses going back to the 19th century. New items come in all the time, like a photo album that belonged to early winemaker Kanaye Nagasawa, who built the iconic Fountaingrove Round Barn.

“California being such a young state, more than a fifth of the people who come in do not have Sonoma County ancestors. They may have moved here or retired here. But their ancestors are elsewhere in the world,” Lovejoy said. “Yet they can still come into the library and get help.”

Katherine Rinehart, a historian who manages the specialty library, said it has value that goes well beyond any single item in the collection.

“Understanding our individual history through genealogy as well as that of the communities in which we live grounds us. History provides us with a sense of place and context that makes us better able to meet the challenges of today and the future which benefits not only the individual, but society at large,” she said. “The Sonoma County History and Genealogy Library is a place to discover that history.”

Rinehart’s many tasks include maintaining Sonoma County’s archives, which are kept in a 3,800-square-foot storage facility at the Los Guilicos complex in the Sonoma Valley. She makes a trip out there at least once a week, often bringing items back to the library for researchers. It’s a trove of priceless documents and records.

“We have several boxes of material about Sonoma County Hospital, including a telegram from President Roosevelt authorizing the use of the public works administration funding. There is information about the contractors hired and the materials used and the additions that were made.”

One of the biggest requests, Rinehart said, is for old road petitions, which can be valuable to surveyors and attorneys in property line disputes.

Free libraries

The Sonoma County History & Genealogy Library is actually one of two free genealogical libraries in Santa Rosa, giving local hobbyists options and a wide range of resources. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on Peterson Lane off Guerneville Road maintains a Family History Center with computers that offer free access to databases and records, everything from the main programs like Ancestry.com and the FamilySearch.org (maintained by the LDS church) to Fold3 for military records and Arkivdigital for Swedish heritage research and Paper-trail.org for western wagon trail pioneers. The LDS Church based in Salt Lake City maintains the largest genealogical library in the world with access to thousands of records, publications and microfilm. The center is open to the public free of charge four afternoons a week and Wednesday evenings.

“We have 10 computers and we try to help people one-on-one with their research questions. The only charge is if we make a photocopy. It’s 10 cents a copy,” said Director Kathy Payne, who has been volunteering in the center for almost 20 years. The center also hosts classes in genealogy for older adults through Santa Rosa Junior College, taught by Denise Beeson, who also teaches the classes in other locations. A new four-week course in Beginning Genealogy starts April 5 at the Sebastopol Senior Center for $40.

Payne said genealogical research has changed dramatically since she took it up in 1990. She said she remembers when the Family Search website was launched nearly 20 years ago; they had only one database. When they rolled it out it was a big media event.

“It was the 1880 census and it took 20 years to produce,” she said.

Since then all the census years from 1790 to 1940 have been digitized and indexed. When they released the 1940 census it had taken two to three months to digitize — compared to 20 years, she said.

So genealogical research librarians encourage people to keep on looking, checking back frequently since new information is going up all the time.

Eileen Memory is one of the regulars. In fact, it was genealogy that brought her to Sonoma County from Vermont. She was living in Vermont and doing research on her family, finding that her great- grandparents were buried in Petaluma. That led her to send away for their death certificates. And therein lay the clue to a family secret.

According to the family story, her great-grandfather died in a fire at the Petaluma Incubator Co. Memory said she assumed he died from the fire or smoke inhalation.

“There was a brief statement on the side of the coroner’s report that he died from a blow to the back of the head rendered by a person or persons unknown,” she said. “He was murdered.”

Drawn to Sonoma County

Memory felt so drawn to the area that when her son moved to Napa Valley she decided to move to Sonoma County, back to her family roots. She’s now a member of the Sonoma County Genealogical Society.

The firestorms also have brought people into the libraries looking for lost information or simply to fulfill some need to connect with family after becoming unmoored.

Rinehart said one woman who several years ago had brought in a trove of Sonoma County Fair family photos to the Genealogical Library to be digitized for their vast photo archives, wound up losing all the originals in the fires.

“In March I got a call from her. ‘Do you have those pictures I loaned to you to scan?’ She had lost everything,” Rinehart said. “But they were right here. That was pretty remarkable to be able to do that for her.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204.

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