In these days of point-and-click genealogy (think sites like Ancestry.com or familysearch.org), local and regional history centers of the brick-and-mortar variety are sometimes unjustly overlooked. Some, like the New England Historic Genealogical Society, have online resources and an impressive web presence themselves. Others, especially those dedicated to smaller cities or even towns, have wonderful resources that are woefully under-appreciated or even unknown to the genealogical community.
Like other genealogists, I’ve been excited to follow one of Ancestry’s most recent projects – the ongoing digitization of US school yearbooks. Given the vast number of schools issuing yearbooks in the United States, this is a pretty tall order and this project is still in its infancy. Lawrence, Massachusetts, for example, has no high school yearbooks loaded into Ancestry’s database. Ancestry does have two high school yearbooks for Lowell, Massachusetts, for the years 1950 and 1951.
Yearbooks are typically overlooked in genealogy as they fall outside of a “research comfort zone” that includes federal census records, city directories, and military/immigration records, to name a few. All of these are wonderful, reliable resources. Yearbooks are . . . a little hit or miss. In large cities, or with families that moved around a lot, some extra legwork (city directories are good here) might be needed to determine which high school your ancestor graduated from. Figuring out the year of graduation can be tricky too – there’s more variation in age at high school graduation as you progress further back into the twentieth century and into the nineteenth. And then, there are a whole score of reasons why your ancestors may not have graduated from high school at all – or may have graduated from the high school’s evening session, which may or may not be included in the yearbooks.
I’ve been lucky in that my families have pretty much stayed put and predictable. This past weekend, I travelled to Lawrence, Massachusetts to the Lawrence History Center and looked through their Lawrence High School history collection. The Lawrence History Center operates today on the grounds and in the buildings formerly held by the Essex Company, which planned and built the city in the mid-19th century. They specialize in all things Lawrence: records of the Essex Company, photographs and oral histories of Lawrence, and records that have been donated to the center over the years. Their staff, which graciously accommodated my request for a Saturday morning appointment, were very helpful and knowledgeable about their collection. When I told them that I was hoping to view high school records from 1915-1930, I quickly found myself surrounded by boxes of well-organized and well-kept records.
The most compelling and complete component of this collection is undoubtedly the Lawrence High School Bulletins, which are essentially newsletters that had been written by the students. These are kept in chronological order – starting from the 1890’s and ending sometime in the 1970’s. I poured through the period I was researching – the 1915-1930 years that my grandfather and his siblings would have attended the high school. The bulletins are fairly concise – 10 or 15 pages each – about half of which contain advertisements from local business that seem to be a blend of the yearbook and city directory styles. These are interesting from an artistic perspective and to give some insight into some of the businesses that were in existence when my grandfather was attending high school.
The real value in the bulletins is the photographs of the students, some candid, most posed, as well as fiction and non-fiction pieces and reflections on high school. Some bulletins even had alumni notes updating readers on members of earlier graduating classes. After an hour or so, I found what I had been seeking – a photograph of my grandfather.
My grandfather died a few weeks after I was born. Although I never knew him, I had heard the stories of how he had played baseball for the Lawrence Independents, a semipro baseball team that counted former Olympian Jim Thorpe among its members. Legend has it that my grandfather played alongside Thorpe during the 1924 season. Family stories also recount how my grandfather had tried out for the Braves baseball organization, when it was still located in Boston. Lawrence has had many sports teams through the years, and I wasn’t able to find anything directly related to the Lawrence Independents, but I did find a team photograph among the pages of a 1916 Lawrence High School bulletin showing my grandfather – then a high school freshman with his baseball team.
An earlier post on this blog spoke about the impact of Spanish Influenza on Lawrence during what was my grandfather’s senior year in high school. The writer of the class history, a high school junior during the outbreak, recounted how her junior year felt like it had started twice – once on schedule in September and again after the outbreak – and a five-week suspension of classes. It was during that five-week suspension that my grandfather must have seen the wagons descending his street for the bodies of flu victims, another memory of his that has lived on in our family stories.
Just when I thought I would call it a day, I mentioned to the staff of the Lawrence History Center that my grandfather came from the Prospect Hill section of Lawrence and that he had attended the Rollins School there. They informed me that the Rollins School had issued a centennial yearbook as part of its one-hundredth anniversary celebration in 1992. And that book contained class photographs of most of the eighth-grade graduating classes since the school’s inception. It turned out that the eighth grade class photographs of my grandfather (from 1915), and his siblings (1919, 1921, and 1923) were all included. His older brother, graduating in 1913, was not pictured, but a program from his graduation ceremony was included in its place.
My first visit to the Lawrence History Center won’t be my last. The staff was wonderfully informative and welcoming. I even got a tour of the Center’s main building, including the Essex Company’s vault and boardroom, dating from 1883. My “finds”, greatly facilitated by their staff, contributed significantly to my own family history holdings. After all, who wouldn’t want to see a never-before-seen photograph of a grandparent, at 15 years old? One last note – the center also offers off-street parking on their grounds, which is no small mercy if you’re concerned about finding parking on Lawrence’s busy downtown streets.
3 thoughts on “Most Likely to . . . Visit a Local History Center? High School Yearbooks and their Value to Genealogists”
How wonderful that your trip was so successful and that you found all of this information about your grandfather, Ryan! That’s such a great feeling.
I’m confused though– why does his yearbook photo’s caption say it was from 1925 when he graduated in 1919? Am I missing something– it’s early in the morning, so I probably am…
Good Morning Karen – it was a successful trip. I’ve still got to go through some of the things I brought back. Good catch on the photo – Ed was actually my grandfather’s younger brother and did graduate in the Lawrence High class of 1925. I couldn’t find a traditional yearbook profile photo of my grandfather, so I used this photo from my personal collection. I’ll clarify in the caption tonight.
Ah, okay, that makes sense. Hope you post more of your findings when you get them organized!