You always have a tight schedule on a research trip, so use your checklists and the information in Genealogy: Your Family's Hometown and Mapping Your Strategy for a Research Trip to make a tentative work plan for each day. Courthouses usually open and close early, but libraries often have evening hours. Small museums and historical societies may have very limited hours; to visit them, you have to plan around their schedules.
Most research facilities are closed on Sundays. Use that day to visit the cemeteries, attend the church services at your ancestors' churches, find the old home place of your ancestors, and visit with distant relatives you may find. Reflect on your feelings as you gaze at the same mountains your ancestors saw, walk the creek bank where they fished, or sit in the church pews they once occupied.
Remember that the details of your family history usually interest only you and your relatives. Simply mention the purpose of your trip and ask if there is anything you've overlooked.
Talk to the individuals providing services for you: staff members at the courthouse, the libraries, and the Chamber of Commerce; the volunteers at the museum; and tour guides. They may know of a source, record, or individuals that you would not find on your own. In one courthouse a clerk produced an interim report of the survey of the county's historic properties. This working document with its detailed maps, photographs, and historic background of the county's communities was an outstanding research aid, one that I would not have found in the normal course of quiet research.
Old-Timers Can Tell It All
Often, there are individuals in town who knew your ancestors. They were their neighbors or their fathers were in business with them. Their mothers were in the same church groups. These old-timers are delighted to reminisce with someone who has not heard their stories dozens of times. They may also tell you things that the family won't: “Your grandpa was quite handsome, and he got around some.”
The old-timers may have photographs of your family. Ask if you may get them copied while you are in town. Or if you have a digital camera, photograph them on the spot.
Check the telephone books for surnames you are researching. There may be descendants still living in the area. If you can't contact them on this trip, you may be able to reach them when you return home.
Small towns and rural communities may have an unofficial historian—someone who seems to know all the old stories about the area. That individual can be eager to show you where the old tavern stood or tell you that your aunts and uncles and other children from the farms were picked up in a covered wagon and driven into town for school.
While You're in Town
Buy the local newspaper. You may get an idea for another source of information from something you see in the paper. Perhaps there is a farm auction or an estate sale; old books, such as county histories and old photographs often turn up at these sales. It may be worth your while to inquire.
Check the bulletin boards at the library. Local genealogical societies often have no office; to reach them you must know the officers. Meeting announcements or flyers about their services are often posted in public places. Even if you don't contact them now, you may want to engage someone from the society to follow up on something when you get home.
Pick up any brochures on local historic sights. The information in them will add flavor to your family history, making your ancestors more “real” to you.
If you have determined your ancestor's religion, try to locate the meeting place. Your ancestors usually did not venture too far for religious services. Check city directories and old maps to help locate places of worship closest to your ancestor's residence.
Investigate the possibility that the religion is still active in the local area. Call the church or synagogue offices to locate the old records. There may be membership lists, participants in ceremonies, or a history mentioning your ancestor as a founding member. More often, the structure is gone and the archives, if they survive, have been transferred to the library or a central repository.
Many cities renamed or renumbered streets and houses as the city expanded. Before hunting for your ancestor's house try to ascertain if that particular area had changes. Sources for this information may be the county assessor's office, the city planning office, or the local historical society.
Being a Tourist
Absorb the atmosphere. Read the historic plaques. Buildings that your ancestors saw every day will help you visualize their times. When was the courthouse built? Your ancestors may have walked up these very steps to get their marriage license. Take a walking tour of town. Look for monuments inscribed with names; your ancestors' names may be on a war memorial.
Does your ancestor's house still stand? Perhaps you'll have time to drive by. Check first to see if the neighborhood is a safe one, as neighborhoods change. Use caution if you want to photograph the house. The current residents may not understand a stranger's intent when they see a camera pointed at their home.
Drive the country roads. Imagine the days of times long gone, preserved in such serene scenes as the one in the following figure. Visit the old home place if it still exists. There may be a McDonald's on the spot now, but let your imagination replace that with the pictures you saw at the museum. Visit the cemeteries. Information and ambiance await you there.
Before taking off on this trip, immerse yourself in the names of your ancestors and their associates. You want the names of associates in your subconscious so that they jump out at you if they are mentioned—they may lead you to your ancestors. You don't know what you will find when you get to the county, so anything you have tucked away in a corner of your mind may be useful.