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Research: Community Columns in Local Papers

Yates Past - July 2005

I prefer to describe myself as a “family historian” rather than a “genealogist”. Oh, I DO genealogy because that is the starting point. One does have to know the relationships, meaningful dates (birth, death, marriage, etc.), and the other basic facts concerning the people in your family tree. Some people stop there. They have cross referenced everything, they can cite their sources, they refer to children as “issue”, and put the date as “10 October 1915 “. It’s not enough for me to know the genealogical facts about the people in my family tree. I want to know as much as possible about what kind of people they were. That’s why I like to read the community columns of old newspapers.

Community columns got me started on this hobby in the first place. I had always had a casual interest in family history but never enough to do actual research. That changed one rainy summer day when we were renting a cottage on Keuka Lake. I had an old family photo of my grandfather as a young man standing outside a grocery store with three other men. The name of the store was “Cornell & McAlpine”. All that was written on the back was “Corning”. My wife and I decided to head to the library in Corning and see what I could find out about that photo. I estimated my grandfather’s age at the time of the photograph and looked in Corning city directories from the early 1900s. Sure the 1902 directory....there it was. ....Cornell & McAlpine, grocers, 26 Market Street . I asked for the 1902 microfilm roll for the Corning Evening Leader and started to read through the column marked “City News”. In April of 1902 I found this: “Cornell & McAlpine’s grocery is taking on a most inviting appearance and these popular, hustling young men are enjoying a patronage that is good encouragement for their progressiveness”. I wondered how long the business had lasted because I knew my grandfather moved on to other places. I read every issue until I found the answer in April of 1903: “The grocery firm of Cornell & McAlpine was dissolved yesterday by Mr. Cornell purchasing the interest of Mr. McAlpine.” In those issues that I looked at, I found several somewhat creative advertisements for their business. An unrelated headline caught my eye as I was going through the microfilm.....”Four Inch Lizard Found in Harry Lee’s Stomach” Under it was a story about a guy who drank water out of a spring on a hot summer day and later became sick with a condition that baffled his doctors. He complained to them about having a sensation in bed at night of something trying to crawl up his throat. Eventually, after three years, he “ejected” the lizard (dead). What a GREAT STORY! At any rate I was hooked on this kind of research. I found out all I wanted to know (and more) about my grandfather’s grocery store and that photo. The information was there. All I had to do was go looking for it. On top of that, I was entertained in the process.

My McAlpine family had a farm on the hill above Glenora in the Town of Starkey for many years. I spent many days over the course of three summers going to the library in Dundee and looking through the community columns of the Dundee Observer from 1878 to 1926...looking for anything I could find about those family members. What I found in those columns helped me define them as people. I found that they were active in the temperance movement through an organization that was popular throughout Yates County, the International Order of Good Templars. I even found descriptions of their meetings. I found that my grandfather and his father were accomplished musicians and belonged to several bands in the area. I found that they ran a fruit evaporator business and were quite successful at it for a number of years. I discovered their political affiliation (Democrat, Prohibition). My Great great grandfather (Ezra McAlpine) was a preacher. I knew that but had no specific information. The community columns told me where he was educated and ordained (Starkey Seminary), where he preached, and the fact that he OWNED his own church for a while. I even found eye witness descriptions of his sermons. I ran across a great story of a winter night in 1895 when he hosted 150 people in his small farm house above Glenora for a church fundraiser called a “donation supper”. A bad snowstorm blew up during the event and everyone was snowed in overnight! Mention was made of how the McAlpines were able to put on breakfast for all those people the next morning. And that’s just a part of what I learned about my ancestors in those community columns. Much of what I found steered me toward research in other sources and places.

Fifty years of the Dundee Observer sounds like a sizable task, but it wasn’t as daunting as it sounds. It was a weekly paper and only four pages for most of the time period. Community columns were always on the third page. Sometimes I was quite disciplined and just looked for the specific columns I was interested in and quickly scanned for family names. Other times (MOST times), I wasn’t as disciplined and was easily sidetracked. I loved to read old advertising. At times I would forget about how far back in time I was reading about....until I would run across a story of a Dundee boy in the cavalry being killed in an ambush by the Sioux in Montana Territory (1879) or a story about Charles Guiteau, James Garfield’s assassin. I ran across a great story in 1898 of the 200-foot steamer Onondaga being blown up in Seneca Lake off Geneva to recreate the sinking of the battleship Maine in Cuba. There was a story in 1915 of a “sea serpent” being spotted in Keuka Lake. It was time well spent.

I learned a bit about doing this kind of research. I would run across periods of time when someone in my family was mentioned almost every week. I also hit time periods when they weren’t mentioned at all. I think it made a difference as to how well they knew the correspondent writing the column. I learned that I had to scan all communities in the area. I found family news in Rock Stream, Eddytown (later Lakemont), Starkey, Glenora, and Dundee columns. The rural area where their farm was located was known as “Beartown” in the mid-19th Century and “Glenora Heights” in the early 20th century. I had to be careful and make sure to check all of the possibilities.

There are many opportunities for people to do this kind of research. In the Oliver House, we have most Penn Yan area newspapers in bound editions. The Penn Yan Public Library has them available on microfilm. The County Historian’s Office has most county newspapers from 1823 to the present available on microfilm or as original copies. The Dundee Library has the Dundee Observer available both in bound editions and on microfilm (from 1878). The Dundee Historical Society has original copies of the Dundee Record (1848-1878) as well as the Dundee Observer from 1878 to the 1980s. It’s much easier to read these papers in print format. Spending long periods of time at a microfilm reader blurs the eyes and numbs the mind. However, you can make copies on a microfilm reader. The Penn Yan and Dundee libraries have excellent microfilm readers with printers. I found it best to do my research with real newspapers. If I saw something that I wanted copied, then I would locate it on microfilm and print a copy.

Finally, I should mention the New York State Newspaper Project sponsored by the New York State Library in Albany. Most newspapers ever published in New York are available on microfilm. If you have internet access, the URL is The collection is searchable either by county or by city/village. You copy down the information for the newspapers you are interested in. Take it to one of our public libraries and they can get it for you through interlibrary loan. You can then use the microfilm reader at that library to look through the films. I did this with the Hammondsport Herald when I was researching a branch of my family that lived in Pulteney. Yep.... I read through another fifty years on that one.

Community Columns in the June, 1925 issues of the Penn Yan Express
(just to illustrate what is available)

Penn Yan Dresden Bellona Benton Center
2nd Milo May's Mill Yatesville Crosby
Milo Center Hall Keuka Park Lakemont
Rock Stream Himrod Wayne Barrington
Branchport Bluff Point Pulteney Starkey
Italy Hill Crystal Springs Italy Valley West Italy
West Jerusalem Friend Grove Springs Potter
Guyanoga Gorham Middlesex Rushville

Community Columns in the February, 1904 issues of the
Dundee Observer

Dundee Bradford Crystal Springs Lakemont
Glenora Barrington Himrod Rock Stream
Keuka Starkey Dresden Tyrone
Weston North Reading Southwestern Reading Altay
Grove Springs Beaver Dams North Urbana  


by Rich MacAlpine

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