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  • Stephen D'Agostino

Reading Historical Society Learns About Genealogy

I saw my first sign of spring last Saturday. It wasn’t a robin or a crocus, which, of course, would need less or no snow to either be working the grass or popping up from the soil. It was Jason Dow, my neighbor, attaching his tank to the ends of his maple tapping lines. In places where maple sugar is tapped, this has to mean more than the robin or crocus that I took for sure signs of spring growing up in Massachusetts.

Though I still know very little about sugaring, I assume the expected highs of the mid-60s on Wednesday (when this hits the paper, we’ll know if expectations became reality) have lots of sugarers scrambling. I know for certain that the warm weather will mean “entertaining rides” on my dirt/mud road this week.

Also last Saturday, Reading Historical Society held its annual meeting. Members put together a great potluck, which included sesame noodles, lasagna, pasta salad, sliced turkey, and delicious desserts. Oh, and those meatballs! If the cook is reading this, we need to talk.

As part of the pre-meeting publicity, society president Esther Allen said that she would present the Swain family tree, a project that Oliver Swain worked on for seven years in the 1980s. In my head, the tree was an apple tree. In reality, it was a sequoia. The entire thing must have been five feet tall and three feet across. From a distance, its branches looked like an intricate pattern. When you got up close, you saw 340 years of the Swain family history in the names on the tree.

Before I saw this massive undertaking, I thought that since it was done in the 1980s, most of the research—if not all of it—had to have been done without a computer. I didn’t exactly know what all the digging entailed. What I learned when Jonathan W. Stevens, president of the Genealogical Society of Vermont, spoke is that if the tree were to be constructed today, most of the research would still be done without the aid of a computer.

Jonathan talked about the usual records one would think you’d need to do genealogical research: birth, death, and marriage certificates. He delved into the problems these records present (people moving, incorrect dates, failure to record such events). He then went into all the other records available: probate court records, wills, newspapers, and legal documents. Though the old style handwriting, some dating back to the 1700s, was difficult to read, it was easy to understand the complexities of genealogical research.

One record stuck out to me. It was for a man who died without a will. To distribute his estate, all of his belongings needed to be cataloged. His worldly possessions included two cows, worth $40; a shoat, which his family ate and was removed from the settlement; two Bibles; a history of New England; a bed; and some cooking utensils. All of his belongings down to a black silk handkerchief. All in all, his possessions totaled less than $200 in 1831. Sure that would be a lot more today, but still not a grand sum. However, the list painted a picture of the life he led. He owned little, but he had what he needed to survive. Most of our lists, if someone did genealogical research on us 270 years in the future, would be a lot longer. And probably digitized, or whatever technology is used in the year 2288.

Thank you to Jonathan for a great talk. For me, it resonated because the people he highlighted through the records he presented were not George Washington (happy birthday, by the way) or perhaps a governor of Vermont. They were regular residents of Vermont. They lived here. They married. Worked. Had families. Died. They are part of history. Our history.

Though Jonathan Stevens mentioned the payment of poll taxes as a potential source for research, he didn’t talk about voting roles. Are you on the current Reading voting role? Then here’s your chance to make a tiny bit of history. Town Meeting, our very New England form of governance, is on March 3 at 9:30 at the school. Three days later, on March 6, we will vote on the school budget for the Windsor Central MUUD or Modified Unified Union District. This is sometimes referred to as the Modified Unified Union School District. I’m not sure which is correct, but I would vote for something shorter than either if that were on the ballot!

If you want to learn more about the budget before the vote, there will be a general information meeting on Tuesday, February 27, at 7pm at the—get ready for it—WUHSMS, the Woodstock Union High School and Middle School. Also, the Reading School Board’s meeting is on February 28 at 6pm at our school.

Finally, if you are away on March 6, but want to vote, be sure to get an absentee ballot from Town Hall. Be a part of history and be sure to vote!

Happy Birthday to Curt Allen (February 23), Mercedes Tremblay (February 24), Miles von Unwerth (February 25), and Cyrus Harkins (February 27).

This column was originally published in the Vermont Standard on February 22, 2018

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