Destination: ‘A Little County Seat’

Genealogy, one of the fastest growing hobbies in the nation, eventually leads to research in a small town. Some rural communities know their own past and are prepared to share it.

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“Our ancestors were probably neighbors, and now 125 years later, we’re trying to find each other,” said T.J. Slansky. He was speaking to about 50 Praseks, Kovars, Jandas and Matochas at the Fayette County (Texas) Public Library. Turning the lights down, he stepped into the projection of a family tree, its twigs laden with names and birthdates, casting an intricate tattoo across his face.

Slansky and the others had come to explore a trans-rural heritage. Their foreparents came to the U.S. from a cluster of tiny farming villages near the Czech-Slovak border, and after crossing the Atlantic, they settled in likewise-tiny communities of Central and South Texas. This is the third year the descendents have held a Hovezi-Huslensky Village Reunion, sharing genealogical information and discovering how their families are entwined.

Most of the old Texas-Czech communities like Plum, Halletsville, Moravia, and Praha, have declined – or vanished — after decades of outmigration. Plum, where Slansky’s family once farmed, had two churches, two blacksmiths shops, two cotton gins, and several stores in the early 20th century, but by the 2000 census, population had dwindled to 95. (T.J. himself lives in San Antonio now.)

As in much of the rest of rural America, young people left and are still leaving for higher education, jobs, and urban amenities. But the one thing no one can take from small towns is their history. Often led by passionate genealogists, some rural communities are plowing their energies into documenting family histories,  reclaiming the past, and shoring up local strengths.

Tina Martinson Ordone, now living in Rayne, Louisiana, has created a world-class genealogical website for Stephentown, New York, where five generations of her mother’s family lived.

“To know a person’s history, is to appreciate it. The same goes for a town,” Ordone writes. Her Internet library of all-things-Stephentown includes Census records dating back to the 1830s, many family genealogies, bios of the area’s early physicians, and much more – even a recounting of the notorious “Kittle Double Murder.”

“I can’t begin to tell you the number of people over the course of the last seven years…who have found family and friends because of information on my site,” she writes. “Contributors from literally all over the world have sent me photos and stories, genealogies and little twigs of their family tree, and in return have found the answers to long held questions, because of the contributions of others.”

Ordone believes that this information does more than satisfy personal curiosity. “Genealogical research tends to bring small communities together, in that the discovery of mutual ties will bond people.” She credits the Stephentown Historical Society with hard work, and success, in preservation. The group has saved an abandoned Methodist Episcopal church (c. 1870), which now holds its library, and has restored several old cemeteries in the region.

Genealogy buff Judy Owens of Lexington, KY, contends, “If you get serious about this kind of work, at some point you’re going to have to go to a little county seat.”

But aside from court documents (assuming the local courthouse never burned), what will researchers find once they go? Could rural communities stand to benefit from building local genealogical archives?

Jean Davis of Dime Box Texas – a participant in the Hovezi-Huslensky Village reunion – says that creating a reliable archive is both fascinating and demanding work. “Most people can tell their own story,” she says, “but a genealogy goes back much further than that. It takes somebody dedicated and with blinders on. You eat, sleep and breathe this.” Jean’s late brother, Albert Blaha, was such a person. Among Texas-Czechs, he was one of the first to undertake serious genealogical research.

After leaving the family farm and graduating from University of Texas, Blaha worked as a project engineer overseas. In 1962, their father died and Albert “didn’t make it home in time for the funeral,” Davis says. “That shook him up really bad. I’m sure that’s what drove him” – to trace the family’s history all the way to the Old Country and understand his heritage.

Bill Bishop
At the Hovezi-Huslensky Village reunion, held in LaGrange, Texas, people combed through the family scrapbook of Lucille Skarpa Rohan.

Called back stateside to work in Houston, Blaha stopped in what was then Czechoslovakia, on his journey home. According to sister Jean Davis, he “prowled for like a month,” through the mountainous Hovezi-Huslensky region. “He was in the same area so much that the Communists stopped him, wanting to know what he was doing.”

Blaha located the very house where their ancestors had lived in Huslenky, a village of Bretheran Church Protestants on the Czech/Slovakian border. Through ships records, church membership lists, and cemetery transcriptions, he began building an archive of Czech immigration to Texas, publishing his findings and training others in genealogical research. In 1982 he founded the Czech Heritage Society of Texas. The organization now has 1600 members and 15 chapters, a third of them rural. Bringing together Blaha’s research collections with the work of many others, the Texas Czech Heritage Center opened last year in a new facility just east of LaGrange.

Jean Davis and her husband, after living in Dallas and Houston for many years, moved back to Dime Box just a few miles from where her parents had once farmed. In their “retirement,” the Davises have worked to sustain a small historical museum and genealogical collection in Dime Box, too. “We’re just a little pimple,” she says, “but even as small as we are — we’re probably 250 people — people come here and find this genealogy, a lot of them from other states.” How do people discover their history center? A big mailbox stationed on a pole “sitting on Highway 21, points people to town,” Davis says. “That pulls in a lot.”

One of the nation’s genealogical hot spots is Middlesboro, Kentucky; it lies at the Western edge of the Cumberland Gap, where many pioneers (including Daniel Boone) ventured through the Appalachian Mountains.

Marsha Bratton, regent of the Daughters of American Revolution (D.A.R.) Kentucky Path chapter there, notes that “genealogy has been one of the fastest growing hobbies for about 10 years.” She believes in the educational benefits of genealogy to inspire young people’s interest and capacity for learning.

Middlesboro (KY) Daily News
Members of the Kentucky Path Chapter, of the  Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.), 17 students and several teachers from the J. White Academy, and members of the local Elks Club placed 300 flags on the graves of veterans at the Middlesboro and the Hurst Cemeteries Nov. 7, 2010. Marsha Bratton, D.A.R. regent, believes that genealogy is a vivid way to teach history and geography.

She advises parents, “If you know that your great-great-great grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War, tell your children that.” American history will be much more interesting to them at school. Learning places and dates makes more sense with a direct tie to the past, rather than “this is what happened way off when.” Likewise, Bratton says, young people can discover a wider world through the family’s genealogy. “They’ll say ‘Oh, my grandparents came from Germany. I know where that’s at.’”

Most recently, Bratton brought together DAR and Elks Club members, 17 high school students, and three of their teachers to put flags on the graves of 300 veterans for Veterans Day, a living tribute to local history.

A recent study by the Economic Research Service examining rural outmigration notes that except for areas with dramatic natural attractions, “without a hometown or family connection, people generally are not going to be drawn to rural areas.”

But without rural genealogy expertise and local centers for its dissemination,  those “family connections” will likely become more and more tenuous as time passes. Every small town needs its Tina Ordone, T.J. Slansky, Jean Davis, or Marsha Bratton. Albert Blahas Wanted!


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