Library An Annual Pilgrimage For Some

Finding Yourself

Hundreds of thousands of people interested in unearthing their personal histories are drawn to the library in Fort Wayne, Indiana

Kevin Woo | Meeting Professionals International


Ideally, the couple from Coos Bay, Oregon, hoped to find one they could do together. The former minister and forester, respectively, ran through the usual list of things to do and places to see, but nothing caught their fancy.

Oh, sure, they read about retirees hopping aboard cruise ships and seeing the world at a leisurely pace, and they heard of others who spent their time trekking through Europe. Neither held the allure that the Batdorffs sought.

After months of searching and considering their options, the couple decided to pursue an activity they had been dabbling in for years—genealogy. They decided to spend their golden years uncovering the stories of their ancestors and tracing their lineage as far back as possible.

To fulfill their dream, the Batdorffs packed up their Dodge pickup truck and headed east to a city that they would soon discover to be “Heaven on Earth”—Fort Wayne, Indiana.

“Fort Wayne, Indiana? Why there?” you might ask. Because Fort Wayne has something that can’t be found anywhere else—the Allen County Library.

Sure, the 2,400 miles between Coos Bay, Oregon, and Fort Wayne is a long way to go to visit a library, but this is no ordinary library. The Allen County Library is home to The Genealogy Center, the most extensive public genealogy collection in the country and one of the largest in the world.

“When I retired in 1997, I needed a hobby,” Jim said. “I had been working on my wife’s genealogy a little and thought I would work on that as well as my own. Since we were both interested in genealogy, we found it was something we could do together.”

For the past 16 years, the couple has made their sojourn to The Genealogy Center an annual event. The Batdorffs arrive in Fort Wayne in early April and stay through mid-July. They spend nearly every day at the library. Throughout those 16 years, Jim and Alfreda estimate that they’ve identified more than 3,000 relatives who are buried in more than 200 cemeteries in 16 states. One of the more notable names on Alfreda’s side of the family is Herbert Spencer, who she suspects might be related to Princess Diana and Prince William.

“A lot of people, when they get up into their mid-years and retirement age, think about their family and want to know where did we come from, and some others don’t want to know. But to us, it’s all interesting, and that’s why we do it,” Alfreda said.

Over the years, the Batdorffs have met relatives both in the U.S., Canada and in Europe. They also dedicated a majority of their home’s recreation room to the volumes of information they’ve collected through the years.

The Genealogy Center is popular among smallish travel groups. It hosts annual study trips for the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS), the Black Genealogy Summit, the Indiana Genealogical Society, Indiana Library Federation, the African-American Genealogical Society, the Historical Society of Chicago and the Wichita Genealogical Society. Overall, about 100,000 people visit the library each year.

Shirley Hodges is the organizer of the Genealogy Society, a small group from Eaton County, Michigan. Each year she coordinates a one-day trip to Fort Wayne for 56 local genealogists. She prepares her group well in advance to ensure that they’re able to maximize their time at the library and encourages her group to make notes outlining their goals and objectives. Hodges advises her group to utilize the library’s highly trained staff. Each of the seven full-time librarians is trained in genealogy and can help people who find themselves off track or overwhelmed by the vast amount of information that’s available.

Curt Witcher, director of The Genealogical Center, has been described as a rock star in genealogical circles. During a recent interview with Ancestry Magazine, Witcher said that conducting thorough research means more than accessing records that are indexed and viewable online for free or stopping when you’ve seen enough information that confirms a preconceived hypotheses.

“(Good research) involves digging to find every shred of evidence that might provide useful information about a person we are claiming as kin. The challenge of finding all of the evidence can be formidable,” Witcher said in an interview.

Witcher concurred with Hodges’ research strategies and added a few others. He advises aspiring genealogists to follow four general rules: follow or create a timeline (which can provide historical context) for an individual’s life; use information such as census, military or travel records to uncover more data; look through church records as they often provide a wealth of information; and be sure to look through school, hospital and business records as reams of information can be gleaned.

As for Fort Wayne’s own genealogy, it’s Indiana’s second-largest city, with a little more than a quarter-million residents, making it the 74th-largest city in the U.S. The fort for which the city is named was built at the intersection of three rivers—St. Joseph, St. Mary’s and Maumee. It evolved into a trading post for European settlers. The city was once an industrial town, but the local economy has diversified in recent years and now includes transportation, distribution and logistics services; healthcare; manufacturing; financial services; and hospitality.

Later this year, the FGS will hold its annual conference in Fort Wayne. The convention will be held at the Grand Wayne Convention Center, located a half-mile from The Genealogical Center. The convention center is connected to two hotels, the Hilton and Courtyard, which can also be used for breakout sessions and seminars.

While there, FGS attendees can check out the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, with a permanent collection made up of 1,400 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and photographs. The museum’s most important works include paintings by Janet Fish, William Forsyth, George Inness, Thomas Moran and Larry Rivers; sculptures by Mark di Suvero and George Rickey; and a collection of Indiana Amish quilts.

Those visitors who find live entertainment more to their liking have an array of options to chose from. The Historic Embassy Theatre sits at the heart of Fort Wayne’s cultural scene. The theatre, which seats 2,500, features a diverse array of live performances that range from Matchbox Twenty to the Fort Wayne Philharmonic.

For those who prefer to spend their time outdoors, the city is lined with biking and hiking trails. The botanical conservatory and the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo are located within three miles from the city center.

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