This article ran in the Feb. 17, 2015, issue of the Herald-Star.
By JANICE R. KIASKI
Herald-Star community editor
WINTERSVILLE — Members of the Jefferson County Chapter of the Ohio Genealogical Society are celebrating unexpected good news - "branching" out big time in the world of family-researching enthusiasts.
The chapter has been featured recently on the home page of www.Ancestry.com, one of if not the largest genealogy website in the world, according to Flora VerStraten-Merrin, chapter president.
"That is a pretty big deal and a pretty big accomplishment, too," said VerStraten-Merrin, who was caught off guard yet excited when she made the discovery in recent days.
"I was pleasantly surprised when researchers of Jefferson County started texting, e-mailing and calling me to inform me that they saw our county and county records and reference to my name on Ancestry.com," she said.
"This is a first for Jefferson County, Ohio, and to be a 'featured' source on the www.Ancestry.com homepage is even bigger," VerStraten-Merrin explained. The local connection is accessible and available through a "place search," she said, noting people with a membership to Ancestry.com can go to their homepage and search for Jefferson County, Ohio, records.
And that means they can locate more than 1 million images from original records that are now housed at the chapter's office at 100 Fernwood Road, Wintersville.
"From www.FamilySearch.org the records also can be accessed," VerStraten-Merrin said. "This LDS (Latter-day Saints) website is free and now is connected to www.Ancestry.com and is the largest genealogy website in the world," she said. "To locate the Master Index to Probate/Estate Files and Wills, they can be found for free from our chapter website at www.jeffcochapter.com. The Master Indexes are in a pdf and searchable. You can search 'find' a surname by clicking on the find button from the PDF," she added.
The local spotlight on Ancestry.com might be featured a week or two, she speculated, but to see Jefferson County featured for a "even a day is big news."
The development is not, however, an overnight one by any means, according to the longtime local chapter president, but instead involved many, many months of volunteer work undertaken in part by couples from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who came to Jefferson County to fulfill missionary projects.
"They were here preparing the wills and estate/probate files for digitizing and completing more than 1 million images, which are all available to researchers all over the world now," she said of Bill and Beverly Pace of Utah and Albert and Lynn Mooney of Charlotte, N.C.
"The Paces did the digitizing, and the Mooneys and many chapter volunteers prepared the records to be digitized," she said, pointing out, however, that the effort dates back to 2009 and would not have been possible without the help and approval of now retired Judge Samuel Kerr.
"He and I began the process of accessing the courthouse records that were stored in the basement. The records were in deplorable condition, due merely to the age of the papers and journals, dating from 1797 to the 1930s," she said.
"Once Judge Kerr and I, as chapter president, agreed on the process of digitizing, our chapter had to seek out a location to set up shop. We didn't even have an office or a place to hang our hat let alone take on such a large preservation project," VerStraten-Merrin said.
The chapter needed an affordable office in a central location for convenience and large enough to house the records for the project to come to fruition, she explained, noting an e-mail appeal to the chapter's more than 300 members resulted in a reply from Judy Schmidt, a chapter member, that led to the office setup in the fall of 2009 at 100 Fernwood Road in Wintersville.
Next came moving all the old documents from the courthouse basement to the office, followed by a time-consuming part of the project.
"Every piece of paper needed unfolded, hydrated, and pressed/ironed flat," she said. "At that point, everything that came in contact with these pieces of paper and journals had to be archival quality, which wasn't cheap."
All of the loose papers and journals had to be prepared to be digitized before the process of imaging could even begin, according to VerStraten-Merrin. "That was the job of Albert and Lynn Mooney and a small handful of our chapter volunteers for the next couple of years from 2009 until it was completed in May of 2013. We had to stay one step ahead of Bill and Beverly Pace, who were imaging much faster then we were preparing documents," she said.
"It honestly was a massive undertaking and in a sincerity, I really didn't think it could or even would be completed in my lifetime," VerStraten-Merrin said. "When I saw all of the loose pieces of papers and journal pages that needed to be prepared, I had an overwhelming feeling come upon me."
But the preservation project had a happy ending.
"The oldest and most fragile records in Jefferson County have been digitized. When the papers crumble and fade -- which many are and have already done -- we will have the digital images, preserving the past for future generations to find their ancestors," said VerStraten-Merrin, who is in her 13th year of serving as the chapter's president.
"When my leadership comes to an end, I will retire with a feeling of great accomplishment due to this one project and its completion," she said, expressing appreciation to the many volunteers who have donated their time to the project since 2009.
"Our office is open for business today due to volunteers donating their time. Our records are preserved due to LDS missionaries donating their own time and means to come here and prepare and digitize our county records when they aren't even from this area," she said.
"From our chapter website at www.jeffcochapter.com anyone in the world can view the Master Index -- in alphabetical order in a searchable PDF -- the Probate/Estate Files and the Wills. Once they locate a record(s) for their ancestor, they can go to www.Ancestry.com and view the digitized records or they can request a copy of the original record(s) from our office," she said.
Family history research remains the No. 1 hobby in the world, not just the United States, according to VerStraten-Merrin. "We are all longing to tie into our family tree and dig deep into our roots. The young, middle aged and elderly have a desire to connect to their past, and one of the best ways to do this is through researching our family history."
The Jefferson County Chapter, OGS is sponsoring "A Day with a Genealogist" from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on May 17, involving a $10 pre-registration fee per 30-minute "One on One" appointment with a genealogist.
Registration forms will be available at the chapter office and on the chapter's website. Individuals can register for the event at (740) 346-2820 or visit the website at www.jeffcochapter.com and print/mail the application.
"You can also access PayPal from our website and complete the application and submit it electronically. The applications will be available from April 1 at our office and our website. The cutoff date for registration will be May 10," VerStraten-Merrin said.
(Kiaski can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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