KANKAKEE, Ill. — Most of us can name our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Some can even trace their lineages back to the founding of Kankakee or earlier to the first arrival of Europeans in North America.

When the trail goes cold, it’s time to turn to the Kankakee Valley Genealogical Society.

Founded in 1968, the society pre-dates genealogy giant ancestry.com, a website which has more than 2.6 million paying users. Instead, these history detectives work the old-fashioned way, combing through church records, obituaries, graveyards and more to put the missing pieces of the past back together. The search never ends.

“When you find you have a question, as soon as you find one answer, you’re going to automatically have about 10 more questions. And it’s never-ending. You never can get to the end of those questions. Every answer piques your mind again, and you’ve got to get going,” said Nelda Ravens, treasurer, membership chair and a member of the society since nearly the beginning.

The society has a research room at the Kankakee Public Library, where those curious about their family histories can dig through records and use ancestry.com to begin the search. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 1 p.m. to about 5 p.m., there are volunteers on hand to answer questions and help with the search.

The real work happens in the home of Kankakee Valley Genealogical Society President Marcia Stang, where members painstakingly copy and compile historical records under the watchful eyes of Stang’s two cats, the society’s unofficial mascots.

The society has received research requests from as far away as Germany, England and South Africa, and has members across the country.

“Most people who really care about genealogy want to know the bad, as well as the good,” said Stang, who has been working in the field for 40 years and will be recognized by the Illinois State Genealogy Society at its fall conference in October. “They don’t want some phony genealogy. They want to know what happened to their ancestors.”

Some of the darker stories linger long after the research is complete. Stang thinks of the young mothers who died with their babies in childbirth, while longtime member and author Norma Meier recalls the story of a man who committed suicide during the great snowstorm of 1884, forcing his family to leave his body in a snowbank until the ground thawed.

All of the society’s publications are available for purchase online, from census records to lists of historical baptisms and marriages from local churches. Bit by bit, they hope to preserve these historical records. As the members of the society often say, online databases such as ancestry.com and Find A Grave only are as good as the people compiling the records.

“I think everyone has a story to tell, and we’ve got enough stories about politicians and movie stars,” Meier said. “We need stories about the ordinary people, about people like us.”

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Source: The (Kankakee) Daily Journal, http://bit.ly/2vLBOGi


Information from: The Daily Journal, http://www.daily-journal.com

This is an AP-Illinois Exchange story offered by The (Kankakee) Daily Journal.

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ALLISON SHAPIRO
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