Sunday, July 1, 2018

Newspapers Shed Light on Grandpa's Life

Samuel Kirk - my great-grandfather - is a relatively new character in my family tree. His long-whispered relationship with my great-grandmother was only confirmed after DNA testing indicated he was my grandfather's father.

That was a fun shakeup to the pedigree.

Since that discovery, I've been able to stitch together a general understanding of his life from the tools available to genealogists: census enumerations, vital records, tax and land records, etc.

Sam was born in 1892 in Iowa, moved with his parents to Colorado in 1901, and worked a variety of odd jobs including a stint as an apiarist and a nightwatchman at a water reservoir (where he met my married great-grandmother). He enlisted in the Motor Transport Corps during World War I, and eventually married (although this relationship never produced any biological children). In 1963, he retired from the Colorado State Industrial School for Boys, which was established as a "humane and progressive rehabilitative school for incorrigible young men between the ages of 7 and 16." He passed away in 1970, a resident of Fort Lyon - a veterans hospital in Bent County, Colorado. A longtime member of the International Order of the Odd Fellows, Sam was buried in an IOOF section of the Golden Cemetery.

Samuel Kirk - World War I

That's a pretty expansive understanding of one man's life. But there's no one living - who I'm aware of - who can share family stories or anecdotes that add color and depth to those facts.

This is where historic newspapers play an important role.

Everything Fit To Print

The Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection has digitized dozens of newspapers covering decades of early Centennial State history.

Among the collection are early digitized copies of The Colorado Transcript. Operating today as the Golden Transcript, it was the second oldest newspaper in the state, and has provided coverage of the city of Golden and its environs since 1866.

A keyword search for Sam turned up two entries from that paper's society pages. Each snippet offered a window into Sam's life that wasn't available from traditional genealogical records.

February 5, 1931
With a moralistic lede that began, "There are still those among us who persist in getting that which doesn't belong to them," the society pages detailed how Sam Kirk - almost 39 years old - ventured into his backyard one evening and happened upon thieves siphoning gas from his car.

Sam was able to scare the perpetrators away, but the criminals weren't going quietly into the night.

The clipping adds that a short time later he looked out his window and "found that his car was on fire."

"He soon had the fire conquered and only the seat and front of the car burned, also a new inner tube which he had been carrying under the front seat of the car."

What's curious to me about this incident is that it occurred the same year Sam's son - my grandfather - was born (four months later in June).

There was no mention of the culprits having been identified or caught. Was it possible that the incident was a domestic dispute relating to my great-grandmother's pregnancy (she was married to someone else at the time) or Sam's lack of support? We'll never know unless, perhaps, police records from the time survive.

August 5, 1937
The next lede pulls you right in: "Sam Kirk, an employee of the State Industrial school, had a narrow escape from being struck by a large rattlesnake last Thursday while shocking oats in the school's oat field south of the Oasis Service station."

I had no idea what shocking oats entailed, but quickly learned that the term described the process of gathering the oats after they've been cut by a scythe and stacking them into a pile so the grain is upright and off the ground to dry.

The blurb adds that Sam was working with a bunch of the boys stacking the recently cut oats. "While reaching down to pick up a bundle Kirk saw the coiled reptile ready to strike. He gave one leap and as he did, the snake struck at him, only missing his foot by a few inches."

If that doesn't give you the heebie jeebies, I don't know what would!

Anecdotes Give Life

Both anecdotes paint a picture of incidents in Sam's life that I would not expect to find in traditional genealogy resources. Yet each incident makes Sam more real and enhances my family history.

That's the value of digitized newspapers, and underscores why genealogists must consult local papers (and advocate for more digitization!).

What family gems have you discovered in digitized newspapers?


  1. Great stories. I do love those newspaper databases. Without them, all we would have are the dry facts about those no one else alive knew.

    1. And as more and more are digitized it's like the gift that keeps on giving. Although it can be a bit exhausting continually having to check on each of your ancestors/locations to see if anything new is online. But, the great stories make it worth it.

  2. Sam's luck ran both hot and cold. I love those odd little things that can be found in newspapers. In answer to your question, I have traced one family preacher and I'm in the process of tracing another. TGFDN - Thank God for digitized newspapers!

    1. TGFDN indeed! :) Two family preachers?! Now there's a story there for sure.