Writer and Photographer / Frieda Dowler
A friend commented once, “When you and the generation that knew you are gone from this life, no one will know you ever existed.” That may not be true in Johnson County if you were born, died or married here, had children, did any land transactions, had trouble with the law or registered a will.
Volunteers at the Johnson County Museum of History in the Genealogy Department are dedicated to preserving historical documents filled with this information. They painstakingly research, index, store and guard the personal history of many people of Johnson County, allowing successive generations to know about them, their business affairs, the buildings and the culture of those who have passed through here.
Tracing Your Roots
Genealogy, or family history, is the study of families and the tracing of their lineages. Confucius first used the methodology almost 2,500 years ago to preserve his family history, and the Guinness World Records lists his as the largest family tree. In the previous couple of centuries, tracing your roots was used to secure social standing, power or inheritance.
But the Johnson County Museum of History records and makes available to anyone with curiosity the personal passage of many previous county residents, whether the interest is personal, family, friends, history of homes and businesses or research for writing from novels to memoirs.
Linda Talley, Research Librarian and head of the Genealogy Department, came to the museum 22 years ago with her own curiosity. As an only child with two sons who didn’t get a chance to know their grandparents, she came to find photos or information on her parents that she could share with her sons. As her interest in ancestry grew, so did the time she spent at the museum, and she began to volunteer. Eventually her curiosity led to a paid position, and now she directs a group of 10 volunteers.
Those volunteers are responsible for helping anyone who comes seeking information on their ancestors or other persons of interest. They will also do a full research for you upon request for a fee. During a typical month, the department will welcome between 60 and 80 people who come seeking answers.
One project the volunteers completed took five years; they read and recorded all the headstones in the cemeteries in Johnson County. Since then, volunteer Ruth Dorrel, archivist at Franklin College, keeps those records current by cutting obituaries from newspapers, recording and indexing deaths and burials.
Tracing the Museum’s Roots
The Genealogy Department is organized by subject and patterned after the Daughters of the American Revolution Library (DAR) in Washington, D.C., although much smaller. Internet genealogy research thrives, but there is something special about handling the physical documentation on the shelves at the Johnson County Museum such as old books, maps, deeds, abstracts, military records, marriage records, death records, estate records, inventory lists, deeds, family scrapbooks and photos. Many of the Internet software programs are too expensive for personal use, so the museum has the Ancestry Library Edition available free for anyone to use for research.
The Johnson County Historical Society owns the collection of genealogy material at the museum, many of which are original documents. Several years ago, Joan Woodhull, who remains a volunteer, began putting the current collection together before the museum moved into its permanent location at 135 N. Main Street, Franklin, in the former Masonic Temple.
The Daughters of the American Revolution started the museum in 1931 by organizing historic artifacts and photos that were on display in store windows.
The local chapter of the DAR gathered these items together and began the official museum in a room at the county courthouse, moved it in 1963 to the Suckow home and again in 1989 into its current building where the Historical Society is now its guardian.
The county budget pays for the operating expenses of the Johnson County Museum of History, including maintenance, utilities and the salaries of two full-time and four part-time employees. The museum is largely maintained by a group of dedicated volunteers. Other expenses are paid with donations and endowments.
Although anyone is welcomed to visit Genealogy Department and use the documents free of charge, you’ll notice a donation box in the Genealogy Department thanking you in advance as you leave a monetary expression of appreciation for the remarkable collection that has been preserved for all.
For Linda Talley and her group of volunteers, the mission is simple: “Take care of what we have and collect new.” With this as their motto, they have accumulated one of the best collections in the state.
If inquiring minds want to know who’s in their family tree, this may be the perfect warm winter adventure, poking around in the past, at the Johnson County Museum of History’s Genealogy Department.