My Husband’s Project: Biographical Geneaology
What do retired people do all day long?
Stuart and I have been answering that question a little differently every year for the last eighteen years. Stuart retired from Goshen College in 2004. I left my last full-time position in 2010. For 28 years we both worked at Goshen College, changing jobs (I had nine offices in 28 years) but not institution. What is the through-line for us? Faith, family, and friends are our anchors. Reading and writing, learning and teaching are our callings, our gifts to give and receive.
Stuart started developing an interest in genealogy almost forty years ago. He knew that his mother’s mother was named Showalter which made it likely that his parents were related to each other. He consulted the one genealogy book in his family’s home, about the Brenneman family. He discovered that his parents were third cousins. Soon after we got our first home (floppy disc) computer, he created a numerical system for tracing ancestry. Then he transferred his data to two charts he purchased from the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society.
Of course, he found common family lines between the two of us, also. Like many Mennonites, we are distant cousins to each other and to the members of each other’s families. This is what happens when a religious group strongly encourages marriage from within the group (endogamy). (Endogamy led to many jokes about cousins on Mennonite college campuses at a time when almost all the students were Mennonite.)
From the beginning, Stuart was not just interested in the Showalter family. He also traced my family history — the Hersheys. He began to think about telling a story for our children that traced their roots as far back as possible. And, of course, although both sides of his family had lived in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia for more than two centuries, both had originally lived in Lancaster County, PA, where we now live and where most Swiss-German Mennonites settled first after arriving from Germany in the 18th century.
Over the years, Stuart spent much time in the historical libraries in Lancaster, PA; Goshen, IN, and Harrisonburg, VA. He also read and used many family histories. Generally speaking, these were focused on who “begat” whom. They seldom contained stories about personalities.
If we think about family history from a child’s perspective, what would they want to know? What kind of information would benefit them most?
Stories, of course.
Here’s where our interests began to converge and continue to converge — mine in stories and Stuart’s in systems and data. After I wrote my memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets the Glittering World, Stuart realized that the profiles of my parents in that book could be included in a special kind of gift for our grandchildren. I am now interested in writing an introduction to the Hershey family stories that will include some notable Hersheys in the colonial era and as much as we can learn of their origins in Switzerland, sojourn in Germany, and then the migration to America. Both the Hersheys and the Showalters go back to the Emmental region of Switzerland in the Canton of Bern, so Stuart and I are doing a trip with a family historian and some other Showalters next summer. We also have a well-researched historical novel on the bed stand, Furgge, written by a Swiss woman Katharina Zimmermann, which tells the story of the sufferings of the Anabaptists in the 17th century.
During the pandemic Stuart began to collect biographical information about four generations, starting with our parents, then grandparents, and great-grandparents. He used databases such as Ancestry.com, newspapers.com, and findagrave.com. He requested stories from siblings and cousins. He’s got a manuscript now of more than 40,000 words. He would love to have a finished product, text and photos, by Christmas. But if it takes longer, that’s okay too.
We’re retired. No one is breathing down our necks. This project will keep us absorbed for years to come. And we hope it will be a permanent legacy to leave to our families.
The name Stuart means steward. It fits my dear husband as does this description: “he always rises to the challenge.” He is our family steward.
Do you have a family steward or historian? What do you know about your family as a result? Is there anyone collecting stories about your ancestors? Have any advice for us as we finish this project?
Wonderful project for him. Precious to me is the beginning of a biography my grandmother wrote of her mother Astrid Faar who immigrated (straightforward 7 year indenture) from Norway in the late 1850’s. My mother typed it my daughter used it as the basis of her college thesis on a lineage of women.
How wonderful. I love the power of words and stories to live long after we are gone. And to inspire new understandings, hopes, and dreams. We sow the grains and future generations harvest them. Thanks for starting the conversation, Maren.
Obviously, Stuart’s project has profound effects for generations to come. My father was interested in our family’s genealogy too, and I remember him saying that the Longenecker family also came from the Emmental region of Switzerland in the Canton of Bern. Our son put together a display much like Stuart’s to give to family members back when he was a young college graduate. (Now, where is it? I hope it survived the move.) One of the themes in my next memoir is “Heritage” in which I explore the merging of both Cliff’s and my ancestry.
You may or may not know that your kind husband gifted me with a copy of Don Kraybill’s History of Eastern Mennonite University after your visit in December: A very gracious hostess gift, knowing I was pursuing heritage as part of my next book. Stuart has been both a steward of family history and a support beam for your entire married life. Great tribute to a pillar of strength in your family, Shirley,
Marian, those rugged Swiss ancestors have spread their DNA far and wide by now. All the more reason to tell their stories! My guess is that the suffering they did for their faith so many centuries ago still has an impact today on their descendants. We know more about trauma and epigenetics now. The impact can be both negative and positive. Combine it with endogamy, and it becomes a powerful force in a life.
I am sure you are discovering many things about Cliff as you examine his heritage also, and the heritage he is creating, with you, in your blogs and books. I have always recognized his strong contributions.
Thanks for your kind, and perceptive words about Stuart. He is indeed a rock, a pillar, and a support beam!
Shirley — I think the project that Stuart’s working on is cool. My sister is the genealogist in our family. So I know second-hand (from observing her) just how difficult and time-consuming it is. And I love the photo of your shared office!
Hi Laurie. Hats off to your sister! Every family benefits from having a steward of the names, places, and stories from the past. You would enjoy seeing us in our natural habitat. I have a pair of bluetooth headphones on my desk so that my videos or play lists don’t disturb Stuart. Only occasionally do we clear out for the other one. Usually for a Zoom meeting or a podcast interview. That’s what the microphone is for.
My brother has my mother’s Lefever family traced back to France in the 1400’s! He found out that the only reason we are on this earth is that one of our Huguenot ancestors was the only member of his family to survive the murders of his entire family. He escaped into Bavaria with the family Bible baked inside a loaf of bread! That Bible is displayed somewhere in Lancaster County. He has also done my father’s family back to the early 1800’s as well as my late husband’s family. I was fascinated to find that there was an Adam R. Landis born on May 1st in the early 1800’s and our son Adam R. Landis was born on May 1st. We had no way of knowing this when we named him!
Wow, Roxanne, what a goodly heritage (Psalms 16:6 KJV) you have. Huguenots on one side and Mennonites on the other. Your son has a double portion of heritage with that birthdate and name! I love the idea of escaping with a Bible in a cake. I hope you find where that Bible is displayed. If you do, come back and tell me. I would like to see it too.
“A boy of sixteen who prized his father’s Bible above everything else to save from his wrecked home. LeFevres are not ashamed of.”
– George Newton LeFevre
This French bible was printed in 1608 in Geneva, Switzerland. It originally belonged to Abraham LeFevre, a French Huguenot who was martyred, together with his wife and six of his children, after the Edict of Nantes in 1685. How the bible came into his possession is not known but likely acquired at great risk. During that time in France, caught owning a bible could bring instant death.
Abraham’s son, Isaac LeFevre, was able to escape. He rescued the bible and fled to Bavaria. Tradition has it, he smuggled the bible out of France hidden in a loaf of bread. Isaac joined up with the Ferree family in their journey, became their adopted son, and later married their daughter, Catherine. Strong in his Huguenot faith, Isaac Lefevre continued to use this bible until his death in 1751. After being passed down through several generations, it now has a permanent home at the Lancaster County Historical Society where it can be viewed only by special request and appointment.
Is my memory correct that Stuart’s mother would admonish her teenage children … “just remember who you are and where you came from” …in their “running around” years? Could be an impetus for genealogy.
Thanks for the reminder of that phrase, Henry. It has to go into the book somewhere. Maybe at the very beginning!
Stuart is commenting here: Yes, thanks for the reminder, Henry. We Showalter boys heard many times “remember who you are.” Especially as we were heading out to be with high school friends, especially those of the opposite sex. Not so much, “remember where you came from.” But I’ve discovered through my genealogical research that we cannot know, truly, who we are unless we do have some understanding of our deep past. Onward!
Family history is still one of my main occupations, and writing that ‘memoir’ of the little Mennonite church community that I grew up in (in northwest Illinois). Thank you to Stuart for sharing that history of his childhood Virginia church with me. Because there are so many family records kept by Mennonites I used to wonder what I had to add to the histories. Now I realize it’s time to add in the ways traumas and strengths of the ancestors have been passed on and to wonder how or if the ancestral overlooking of the injustices being done to native and enslaved people could be un-done.
When I first married Dave I wondered if his reformed ancestors had anything to do with persecuting my anabaptist ancestors in Switzerland. We discovered later that his ancestors hid mine from the anabaptist hunters. Dave and I were blessed to travel to the region (also in the Emmental) where both our ancestors once called home, and as we hiked around there we felt we belonged.
Yes, Dolores. Your story should be told! No one is exactly like another, and the formation and de-formation of character and community take so many shapes! To your point about trying to undo the injustices of the past. I have a friend who is making reparations with her inherited farmland in Illinois. She is giving it to the community foundation before it is sold. From there she will help direct it to non-profit organizations run by Native-Americans for the benefit of Native-Americans. She is well aware that this is a small gesture compared to the great losses of the past. Yet she believes, and I believe, that one voluntary gift of inheritance will have positive radiation.
How wonderful that you and Dave could discover shared landscape in Switzerland. I think you might want to read Furgge also. There were definitely Anabaptist sympathizers among the Reformed.
Yes, I read Furgge, and I love how the author portrays the Anabaptists as anything but “quiet in the land.” I want to read it again….
Having occasionally heard Stuart speak of his plans for retirement, it is especially nice to see him in such a conducive setting with his partner arguably “on the same page.” When we became business partners Art and I had a setting similar to yours. As you both know, our extended family’s steward was/is brother John L. Ruth. We’re so grateful for his gift/passion which benefits us.
You hit the family steward jackpot long ago, Lois, with your brother’s calling to write and speak on behalf of thousands of us Anabaptist descendents. We have his books on our shelves and were able to hear him speak at Landis Homes recently. What a treasure!
I’m glad you enjoyed seeing us working together. You and Art had a similar compatibility. I am sure you miss him. Hugs.
I’m so in awe of people who love to go the minutest detail in researching and recording their ancestry!. My older brother and my sister just after me are the detail and recording people in the family. I’m the creative writer, the story teller and poet. When I need detailed information, I ask them to help me out! My family is of Russian Mennonite background, but I married someone whose ancestors remained in Poland, a “Danziger” Mennonite (also known as “dancing” Mennonites because of their more liberal attitudes). Our three daughters each married a Mennonite of a different orientation (one is Mennonite Brethren, one is Swiss Mennonite and another Evangelical Mennonite). We all get along just fine!
It’s awesome that you and Stuart share an office. Hardy and I each have our own. That works best for us!
Wow, Elfrieda, you and your family are ecumenical endogamists. 🙂 I think you covered most of the Anabaptist bases! What a fascinating opportunity to observe similarities and differences. You are going to love reading The White Mosque by Sofia Samatar, coming out October 25. I just reviewed it for Anabaptist World. Sofia is Swiss Mennonite on her mother’s side and Somali Muslim on her father’s side. She took at Mennonite/Uzbekistan history tour in 2016 following the Great Trek from Russia to Central Asia 1880-1884. The book is a masterpiece.
Your projects sound so interesting! And isn’t it wonderful that there’s so much to learn and write and share that you’ll never run out of paths to explore? I am just at the beginning of seriously starting a family history/ genealogical project. I have letters my dad wrote his sister when he was in the Army during WWII, as well as notebooks where he wrote down his life stories in the 1990s at my request. I want to explore his stories and history more deeply and hopefully learn more about him. From my mother, I have her recipe boxes and memories of her love of cooking. I didn’t have an easy relationship with her, and I hope to learn more about her and the things that shaped her life. Genealogical research will be interwoven in all this, and pictures and stories and poetry and music. I love researching, love the details, and love writing. I’m not retired yet, but I can still do a lot of “my own” work now.
Tina, it’s always good to see your name here. Yes, the letters from soldiers during the war are a treasure. And any documents our elders create for us are a legacy that lasts. I love the fact that you are hoping to create a post-humous relationship with your mother based on the recipe boxes she left behind. That idea could be the basis of a personal essay or even a memoir. Keep writing, collecting, and planning. You are going to have a wonderful retirement some day!
Good report. I did a similar project for about a decade after I retired in 2009.
Thanks, Levi. You made a permanent contribution to your family and community.
Love the background on the family trees. Having been into this kind of family research myself, know how compelling and addictive it can be! He’s happily engaged!
Thanks for stopping by, Linda. I didn’t mention this in the post, but I should have. Like you, I have given collections to archives. Your gift to the Newberry Library will continue to contribute your family stories to scholars and writers for generations to come.
I guess I’ve wondered at times what your Stuart could be up to.. Genealogy research attracts many I know.
Eight hours a day sounds a lot like work! I probably spend 2-4 hours at my computer, more if there’s a specific writing project I’m working on. But if I were living in a retirement village instead of on 7 acres that require some upkeep–that is part of my daily work! But not too much. We go 3-5 times a week to the VMRC wellness center which takes up a lot of the morning! I do like doing a mix of things in any given day! Blessings to you both!
Yes, Melodie. We are with you in mixing things up on a given day. We don’t spend 8 consecutive hours in those chairs! But we do break up the day into 2-hour activity blocks (approximately). There are 16 hours when we aren’t in bed, so we are doing lots of things in any given day. I can’t work more than 2 hours at a time at a computer without getting tendonitis or tennis elbow, so I have to be careful. Blessings to you also!
I went to Switzerland in 2005 with the George Fox Men’s Soccer team. Our coach was from Switzerland and knew the area very well in the Emmental Valley, where my ancestors came from. One day we went to a little village about 20 miles from Bern, called Eggiville and there in that little church cemetery were many of my ancestors: Shenck, Schenck, Shenk, and many familiar Mennonite names, including: Burkhalter, Berkholder, Showalters, hersheys, Zimmermans, etc. It was a very moving experience for me.
Thanks, Byron, for sharing your own experiences with informal Mennonite genealogical research through travel. I can believe it was a moving, memorable, experience, as it was for me in two previous trips to Germany and Switzerland. I hope our trip to Switzerland next year will uncover even more layers of discovery, appreciation, and reflection.
How wonderful that you have a family steward who is researching your family’s history, Shirley. I enjoy watching the PBS series called ‘Finding Your Roots’ with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. I find all the info that his colleagues are able to uncover about the ancestry of celebrities he has as his guests fascinating.
My sister said she read a good book about the 1500s Anabaptists’ struggle in Switzerland called “Not Regina” by Christmas Carol Kauffman. Are you familiar with that resource on Anabaptist history?
Thanks, Linda. I am a fan of Finding Your Roots, also. I have only watched a few shows, but I found them very enjoyable.
Thanks for reminding me of the CCK book. I think I probably read it as a teenager, but I will revisit it before we go to Switzerland. I wonder how she did her research so long ago, before all these resources were available?