Mary Hollowell was excited when the boxes from Oklahoma arrived in the mail. Like any 11 year old, the mysteries hidden within them intrigued her. When her father opened the packages and found old scrapbooks, diaries and letters, she was even more excited.
Most children would be disappointed that the reveal hadn’t produced a toy or something more fun but not her. The thousands of stories encased inside those pages excited her more than any toy ever could.
Soon after the boxes’ arrival, she found a magazine called Everton's Genealogical Helper and ordered a variety of charts and forms from it. As she filled them out, she became increasingly interested in her family’s history.
Forty-four years later, Hollowell is a marketing director for the Grand Island, Neb., YMCA, but she still carries a fascination for the surprises that surround stories. Her home office has two bookshelves groaning with the weight of family history binders, history books, photo albums and writing how-to books. Her spare desk is covered with papers, BBC television DVDs and more historical biographies.
“I love history, and trying to find out more about your ancestors is sort of like being a detective,” Hollowell said. “You have mysteries that you need to solve.”
Hollowell knows that most people wouldn’t be thrilled to find out simple information like a name or occupation, but for her, one word’s discovery can make hours of hunting worthwhile.
“When you find the answer, why, you’re really happy,” she said. “You do the genealogical happy dance, which I will not demonstrate for you.”
As a genealogist, Hollowell admires her great aunt on her grandfather’s side, Agnes Russell. Russell was interested in family history too, and she kept notes of oral traditions. Though she was the oldest in her family, Russell was the last to die. She used her time to gather as much family information as possible.
Russell’s cloth-covered diaries are filled with descriptions of rural Nebraska life in the late 1800s. In the first diary, Russell was 13 years old. She wrote three lines a day on topics like her neighbors, her family’s work, her religion and her sister’s death. Because Russell kept diaries throughout her life, Hollowell feels as though she knew her personally.
“I like people’s stories, and I love nothing more than to come across a memoir or diary that someone has written about their life,” Hollowell said. “The world seems so much different in their time than it does in ours.”
Hollowell enjoys learning through people like Russell and the many knowledgeable bloggers she follows.
Every year, she tries to inspire others to dig into the past by teaching a Family History class at the YMCA. She begins with the basics.
“To do a family history, start with yourself; write down everything about yourself,” Hollowell explained. “Then move on to your parents, then grandparents.”
Hollowell said that interviewing older relatives for information and checking courthouses and newspapers is the best place to start. She also said to keep track of births, deaths, marriages and occupations, many of which can also be found online with the use of websites like ancestry.com.
Through her numerous years as a genealogist, Hollowell has come across many tales, so it was hard for her to choose which discovery excited her the most.
After thinking, she settled on Dan Davis, a relative whose story she finds humorous. Davis and his wife were born in Wales and eventually settled in Missouri. In Davis’ will, he made special arrangements for his horse. After Davis died, the horse was to be left to his wife. In the case of his wife’s death, the horse would transfer to his grandson, William.
“Well, his wife lived another 16 years, so I’m fairly certain the horse didn’t make it,” Hollowell said.
Her favorite ancestor, however, is Luther Kallam. At the age of 16, he joined the army during the Revolutionary War. And although he wasn’t at Valley Forge, he crossed the Delaware with George Washington.
Hollowell is very modest and sometimes hesitates to tell Kallam’s story.
“It’s not always safe to say, because some people think that when you’re talking about your ancestors who were in a certain place with certain people, you’re bragging,” she said. “But I had nothing to do with it!”
Since her introduction to family history came from her father’s boxes, she tends to favor his side over her mother’s.
“I was always a daddy’s girl,” Hollowell said. “When I was a toddler, he would rub my back as I fell asleep.”
As Hollowell continued to talk about her family, her blue eyes sparkled from behind her wire-framed glasses, either with joy at past memories or the tears left over from past heartbreaks.
Though Hollowell said her family tree could be seen as boring, she’s loves it.
“In shows like Genealogy Roadshow, all these people are looking for to prove or disprove a story about a famous ancestor,” Hollowell said. “I don’t have those. I have famers and preachers, and that’s all right. It’s not terribly exciting for most people, but it is for me.”