Our first stop today was the Northern State University library, where summer session was just beginning. We found some microfilmed copies of the Groton Independent containing a couple of obituaries which whetted our appetites for more info.
In downtown Aberdeen the office of the Register of Deeds holds photocopies of grant deeds, tax deeds, plats, probate records, all neatly bound in big binders. The clerk showed us where things were and left us to work on our own. Imagine doing that in your town! Pretty soon we were finding records of land transfers dating back to the days of the Dakota Territory. With the aid of the plats we found out where the relatives lived and worked and were buried. Site of Aaron Bell's farm Our big success was finding the probate record for Elsa's great-great grandfather, Aaron Bell, who died in 1894, leaving his farm and $350 to his wife and seven children (three more children had died).
After a hot dog and milkshake for lunch we drove to Groton (pop. 1000) where we got even more help. The tiny Wage library doubled as the city hall of records, in the same building as all the city government and police. They conveniently had an alphabetical file of obituaries clipped from the paper and a cemetery record list! We got two more obituaries and then headed to the offices of the Groton Independent, a weekly newspaper dating back to 1893.
The Groton Independent offices turned out to be a gift and floral shop, doubling as a newspaper office. A little Sheltie dog ran around checking us out. So we're learning how tiny towns survive: by combining lots of part-time activities. The proprietess was just as helpful as the library / city hall staff, finding us a table to work and handing us ancient, cardboard bound files of browned and brittle nineteenth-century papers, full of news. John Wanamaker was purchasing land in Philadelphia; a young woman won her breach of promise suit against a congressman and had a nervous collapse right there in court (in Washington, D.C.); Coxey's army was protesting the lack of support for the unemployed veterans; lots of bargains could be bought for nineteen cents each.
Then we found Aaron Bell's obituary. It turned out Aaron and his wife Jane had moved to Dakota territory in 1887, to be near their son John, who had pioneered three years earlier. We made an extra photocopy for the library's obituary file. Forty-seven cents for the photocopies seemed like too little, so we managed to leave a little more, in hopes that the proprietess would still be in business for the next genealogy buff that comes to town. Aaron Bell's grave
The rest of our day was almost anticlimactic -- we headed off to the cemetery, where we walked directly to the gravesites of Aaron and his wife, along with several aunts and uncles and cousins, then drove directly to the old farmstead, which had been in her family for 52 years. The buildings are all new, and the current residents were evidently out of town, because everything was buttoned up. Finally we hurried back to the hotel where we typed all the information into our genealogy database and linked the pictures to the files.
How to account for such success? Well, first off, we think we're lucky. But secondly, South Dakota is a nice state, with nice people, who like to help. Before we left California, we did a lot of genealogy work online or by mail, using a lending library. But now we're learning how very much better it is to go to the area and do the work in person. We not only got the genealogists' basic dates and places straight, but we learned a lot about the kind of people our relatives were; what they did for a living, where they worshipped, how they moved about, even what their children did. As the day progressed we couldn't help grinning, enjoying the search and the unfolding family history.