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Genealogical society preserving local history

November 19, 2012
Kylie Saari , Fairmont Sentinel

FAIRMONT - Carol Madsen's great-grandfather came to this area with his wife and five small children in the late 1800s. He was killed five months later.

"There is my German-speaking grandmother left with five little kids in a strange country," Madsen said, shaking her head at the thought.

Madsen found out this and many other stories from her ancestors' history after she began researching her family tree 12 years ago with the Martin County Genealogical Society. Now a member of the board, Madsen is involved in preserving not only her family's stories, but the stories of everyone on record in Martin County.

Article Photos

Carol Madsen looks in a binder at the Martin County Genealogical Society’s research room at the Pioneer Museum.

The group scours newspapers for stories on local residents, scanning and saving articles, along with birth announcements, marriage, divorce and death records. They accept donations of family scrapbooks and preserve them on their computer in an easily accessible format for anyone looking for information.

They do it because history is important.

Madsen began researching her family because of health concerns - she wanted to know how often a certain problem was passed down.

But her journey took her much farther than Martin County.

"I was one of the lucky ones," she said.

Madsen found family still living in Germany, and she took a trip to visit them and learn more.

For Dona Paris, a researcher with the genealogical society, learning about her family's past keeps the present in perspective.

"It makes the families come alive," she said. "You find out what their lives were like. We think we have it hard."

Dale Saxton, a genealogical society board member, said genealogy is different from simply knowing birth and death dates.

"There is a difference between the family record keeper and the family genealogist," she said. "The record keeper keeps the names and dates. The genealogist gets involved in the story. It is all those little stories. You get interested."

Indeed, listening to the histories the board has collected about their own families serves as a history lesson of the entire region.

"We all started out with our own families and then moved on to others," Madsen said.

With current vital records being downloaded from websites or scanned as the information is printed in the newspaper, genealogical society members have tackled the daunting task of scanning old records.

When the genealogical society, which was started in 1982, moved to its current location in the Pioneer Museum, there was an entire room filled with history to be scanned and uploaded.

"It was overwhelming when we started because there were so many binders," Madsen said. "But it is going down."

Madsen said a change in the way news is reported has made piecing together stories more difficult at times.

"You used to learn so much from the newspaper," she said. "The change in newspapers is kind of disappointing. You used to hear all about what the bride wore in wedding announcements. Now you don't even get their occupation."

Other changes have made recent information more difficult to obtain as well. Privacy laws mean births are difficult to pin down, and census information is held for more than 70 years.

"It is harder to get the recent information than historical," Madsen said.

"The 1940 census was just released," added Saxton.

With those challenges came significant advantages, however.

"The Internet has added so much to genealogy research and made it so much less expensive and more productive," said genealogical society member Wilma Bittinger.

Madsen said local research often begins with genealogy files - which are not available online - but the organization helps people use online resources.

The group has a membership to, which researchers can access from the Pioneer Museum.

"I love genealogy because it's like an on-going mystery story, my own personal mystery story," Bittinger said. "There is always a new discovery just around the corner."

The society meets monthly at the Pioneer Museum, and encourages anyone interested in learning more about their family's history to come and check out their database. They are also accepting new members. For more information, contact



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