Shedding Light on the Family Tree: The Library in a Railroad Bag


The 32nd in a series on my family tree

Prompt: At the Library

In my family the books we love have a permanent home with us, so you might say we are not the best candidates for a library card. We keep meaningful books and documents for decades because you never know when you might want to pick one up and look at it again through fresh eyes, or perhaps there’ll be something that answers a question at a later date.

Truth be told, it’s been longer than I can remember since I crossed the threshold of a bricks and mortar library for anything other than a writers’ group meeting, and the world has changed a lot since then. Fortunately, through the miracle of modern technology all kinds of reference materials can be accessed online. This falls short of the visceral experience of peeling back the pages of an old tome and breathing in a sense of history, of course, however having said that I can fall back on the aged books and records we have at home for that type of experience.

Family Archives

Great grandpa William George Stephen McDonall’s railroad bag

I often refer to our family archives in posts on our Irish and United Empire Loyalist ancestors, and for that blessing I can thank my maternal grandfather, Stanley Lewis McDonall (1909-1987). Though he wasn’t a particularly genial man, grandpa Stan loved his family history. In fact, as spartan as his living conditions were all his life he made sure to archive every documented scrap of family evidence in his possession in a well-used old railroad bag that had once belonged to his father. I recall my first look inside upon receiving it just before he died. I was mesmerized by all the yellowed papers stowed in scruffy manila envelopes covered in crackled clear tape or preserved in deteriorating plastic sleeves. Handwritten and typewritten documents, dog-eared, with notations in the margins. And, of course, the treasured family Bible into which births, marriages and deaths were carefully recorded was a welcome addendum too large to store in that weathered tote. These time-worn pieces proved to be the most valuable library from which to build a foundation for climbing the family tree. Over time further support documents and story lines gleaned through numerous searches at family history centres and, more recently, via a variety of well researched internet resources were (and continue to be) added to round out family stories and provide historical context.

Naturally, some ancestors’ lives are more thoroughly documented than others; many records have been lost. Still, what I’m able to glean from the weathered pages of what’s available regarding their lives helps to provide a framework and, perhaps, an enlightened perspective regarding my own life story. As I better understand their experiences and the beliefs, traditions, patterns passed down through the generations I gain greater insight into my own way of being and can make choices about what to keep, what to discard, and what to do instead. To be sure, I have a sense that my ancestors would want me to learn from their experiences, not repeat them.

The Final Word

The above items were among the many treasures found in the old railroad bag. The upper right photo is great grandpa Steve in his barber shop. The photo below features Mary Jane (Crouse) Belton, Steve’s mother-in-law, my second great grandmother. From the other side of his family, a document about Peter Sparling, Steve’s maternal great grandfather and my fourth great grandfather, is filled with meaty details that help establish the nature of our Sparling Palatine family. Through online research and perhaps later “at the library,” we’ll be able to expand this information and paint a more complete picture of these people, their related families, and how their lives have influenced our own.

The bottom line is that whether you end up at the bricks and mortar library or not the best research starts with an inquiring mind. And you don’t need a library card for that! ❦

©Dorothy E. Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2022 … Aimwell CreativeWorks


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