Teaching basic genealogy to adults all over the Midwest and researching her own family history have kept a Brownstown woman busy for several decades.
Nancy Burge’s interest in the subject goes back to 1950, when she and her father began talking to family members and visiting cemeteries to obtain information they needed.
In a span of about 40 years, while living in different states, she passed on her passion by helping people look through birth, marriage and death records of family members to assemble their family tree.
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She’s now in her fifth year of assisting fourth-graders in Amy Hartley’s class at Brownstown Elementary School with their genealogy projects.
“Up until this time, I had never taught kids, so this was new to me,” Burge said. “I can’t get over the enthusiasm of these children.”
For the first three weeks, Burge visited Hartley’s class for an hour once a week. She started by talking to the 28 students about ancestors and descendants and why it’s important to know where you came from.
The focus then shifted to documentation.
“Many students know they can name who their parents and grandparents are,” Hartley said. “She stresses that you have to prove who they are, meaning you have to have correct documentation — birth certificates, marriage certificates.”
Then on the fourth and final week, students spent a day at the Jackson County History Center’s genealogical library to finish up their research, looking through books and binders and using computers to access ancestry websites. Burge and other history center volunteers, including Sharon Guthrie, Margo Brewer, Jan Sipes and Debbie Holle, were available to assist them.
Within the next few weeks, Burge will make one final visit to Hartley’s classroom to see the students’ finished products.
Burge said it’s great the amount of resources people have today for genealogy research.
“If I had had some of these books and resources, it would have been so much easier,” she said. “My father would have loved it.”
While Hartley appreciates the students having access to technology, she said she prefers they start by talking to family members to get as much information as possible.
She said many of the students thought they should begin their research online. But with genealogy, some of the information online only goes back to a certain point.
“The interesting thing is so many kids have asked their grandparents and got things,” she said. “They learned things they never knew, and I think their grandparents have enjoyed telling them things. That’s what has been really good. It has become a whole family project.”
Fourth-grader Haley Bowman said she enjoyed talking to her parents and grandparents while working on her project.
“I like to learn about my family, and I thought it was cool learning about their birth and death, and I thought it was cool to learn that they were in the military for a certain amount of years,” she said.
Haley learned a lot of her family is from Jackson and Jennings counties.
“I didn’t know about when they died and when they were born and where they lived and their occupation,” she said. “I’ll be able to tell people about my family and know what has been happening with my family.”
Some students also spent time researching outside the classroom, including visiting the genealogical library on Thursday nights. Resources there include more than 1,000 binders of family histories that have been donated by Jackson County families.
“If they are from the county, they have found documentation on so many more people because (the genealogical library) has the cemetery records and funeral home records and the birth records and marriage records,” Hartley said. “A place like this is definitely the place to come.”
Fourth-grader Parker Hehman was among the students who went to the genealogical library on his own time. He liked the one-on-one attention he received from the center’s volunteers.
“They helped out a lot because I was actually the only one here, so if you tell them what you need, they’ll find it pretty soon,” he said.
Along with finding documentation at the genealogical library, Parker talked to family members to fill out his family tree. He learned most of his family is from Jackson County and the Madison area.
“Most of us have found out that we didn’t even know half of the people that we are related to, so we are figuring out stuff that we didn’t know,” he said. “I figured out that my great-grandparents, some of them didn’t even have middle names.”
Hartley said she has liked having Burge assist her students with their genealogy projects. Fourth-graders learn about Indiana history and visit the history center for Pioneer Days, so genealogy ties in well with the curriculum.
“It goes right along with Indiana history,” Hartley said. “This is their history. They all have at least some Indiana ties. Even those that have moved here have at least two generations here.”
This year, the class also is studying about the bicentennial of Indiana and the centennial of Indiana State Parks. Those tie in with the genealogy project because some students’ lineage goes back to the 1800s.
“To me, it just gives a timeline,” Hartley said. “To them, 200 years ago sounds like an enormous amount of time, and it’s not that many generations. I think it starts to give them a perspective.”
Some students also will be able to turn their assignment into a 4-H project for the county fair.
“If you look at the fair, you’re going to see some of these actual binders at the fair,” Hartley said.
Burge said one good thing about genealogy is it’s something the students can continue to work on beyond the classroom. She is still gathering information about her family.
“I’m continuously looking and finding things,” she said. “I’ve got my mother’s side of the family back to 1580, and I’ve got one line of my husband’s side back to about the middle of the 1500s back in Germany. But my own father’s side, 1797 is as far back as I can get. One side of my mother’s family has just come to light because of some research that we’ve been doing in Pennsylvania.”
Burge said she hopes having the students learn about genealogy at their age will spark their interest in history.
“They may not touch genealogy again for 20, 30 years,” she said. “But someday, when they are parents and grandparents, they may say, ‘I want to pass on some information to my grandchildren,’ and they may take it up.”
Hartley said Burge has helped plant the seed for the students. If they wish to continue their research, they know what to do.
“Just a sense of belonging, a sense of knowing that they not only belong to this community, but they also belong to something much bigger,” Hartley said of the takeaway of the project. “Many of them, four or five generations goes back to Germany already. The world is becoming smaller and smaller, and I just want them to have that feeling of belonging and know how important that background is.”
The Jackson County History Center is at the corner of Walnut and Sugar streets in Brownstown.
The office and genealogical library are open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Friday and from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday.
The Frederick Keach Heller Memorial Museum is open from 9 to 11 a.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.
Tours can be arranged at other hours by appointment by calling 812-358-2118.