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Retracing My Roots

Discovering my family history at the Midwest Genealogy Center in Independence, MO

There’s a certain feeling inside your bones when you touch something with history. For me, old objects hold a tangible energy of all the people who came in contact with them. But this is especially true of heirlooms that are significant to one’s own family history. Sometimes it’s a grandmother’s wedding ring. Or a great-grandfather’s military jacket. Or a great-aunt’s diary. Grasping the same object my loved one once held shows me that there’s history in everyday items. Sometimes, even discovering an important document can provide this feeling.

“If you don't know where you've come from, you don't know where you're going.”
—Maya Angelou

I am in my mid-20s—a time when I’m growing into my own person and exploring the world as an adult. And I recently realized I don’t know much about my family history.

As the great Maya Angelou once said, “If you don't know where you've come from, you don't know where you're going.” I am in the sweet spot for a quarter-life crisis. And in order to know where I’m headed in my life, I decided it was time to discover where I’ve been. And there’s no place better equipped to help me uncover my past than the Midwest Genealogy Center—the largest free-standing public family history library in the US—in Independence, Missouri.

Starting genealogy research

On a recent visit to Independence, I visited the Midwest Genealogy Center (MGC), which boasts more than 750,000 resources across two stories and 52,000 square feet. A branch of the Mid-Continent Public Library and just 20 minutes from downtown Kansas City, MGC offers history books, address directories, databases, oral-history recording kits, microform readers, and more. Tens of thousands of people from all over the world visit MGC each year. It doesn’t matter where your family is from—“Midwest” refers to MGC’s location, but the resources can help anyone trace their family tree, no matter their background. 

When I walked in, I strolled past several glass cabinets showing off family heirlooms that had been loaned to the library. Continuing through the entryway, I saw the front desk ahead and the grand staircase to the left. On the first floor, visitors can access computers for research, capture family stories in a recording studio, and thumb through thousands of microfiches containing books, newspapers, and more printed resources—many of which can’t be found anywhere else due to copyright restrictions. Upstairs, shelves upon shelves contain more printed resources. Staff are available to help you follow a lead when you get stuck and locate books to check out. They are happy to help with roadblocks, but remember—the digging is up to the visitor.

Glenn Norris, my great-grandfather on my mom’s side

As someone who loves to play detective (at least when it comes to true crime documentaries), I felt excited to dive in and start my research. Before arriving at MGC, I spent many hours poring over the family history documents that my parents shared with me and filling out forms that MGC provides. I was lucky to have a solid foundation—my uncle on my dad’s side compiled a six-generation family tree, including details about our ancestors’ lives. On my mom’s side, my great-grandmother journaled for more than 40 years. Before starting your exploration, it’s important to put together as much information as you can and determine your goal.

A near-death experience & a criminal past

I had never thought to ask my parents much about their families. I’m glad I did because now I know details that have helped me feel closer to these parts of me. My mother’s grandmother Edna’s journal was a highlight. I read the words of a woman I didn’t have a chance to meet yet for years had admired her still-life paintings that hung throughout my childhood home.

 Painting of mountains in Colorado by Walter Glenn Norris
A painting by my great-grandfather on my mom’s side

I had a huge revelation after finding out Edna came down with the Spanish flu in 1918. She writes, “We tried to get a doctor to no avail. I asked Charlotte to phone Mother and tell her that if Christian Science could heal as a friend had assured her, now was an opportunity to prove it. She and the friend came over. The friend prayed and read to me from Science and Health, and when I awakened the next morning, I was well.” If Edna hadn’t recovered, I wouldn’t be writing this story, and I feel very lucky to be here.

If Edna hadn’t recovered, I wouldn’t be writing this story, and I feel very lucky to be here.
Photograph of Ralph and Kathryn Wilhelm
My grandparents on my dad’s side

Edna also wrote about my great-grandfather Glenn securing a position as head designer at Meeker Advertising in Joplin, MO. Eventually they decided to return to their hometown of Ithaca to start their own advertising business. Another link tying me to the past—I work in advertising myself with clients all throughout Missouri. This commonality between us made me smile. They went on to build a cottage on Cayuga Lake, and my mom told me that Glenn painted the view on the ceiling of their porch overhang. I wish I could have seen it!

Photograph of the construction of a home on Cayuga Lake in New York
The construction of my great-grandparents’ home on Cayuga Lake

At MGC, I accessed Ancestry’s database, ready to learn more. I was surprised to find that my great-great-grandpa was sentenced to more than five years at Auburn Prison in Upstate New York for a first-degree grand larceny charge in 1902. The record also included interesting details such as his occupation (railroad car inspector), age (32), and height (5’8”). As I continued searching, I found additional court documents that showed his sentence was later reduced to less than two years. I have yet to find out what he was convicted of stealing, but that’s part of the fun of genealogy research—I can keep digging.

 Painting of mountains in Colorado by Walter Glenn Norris
A painting by my great-grandfather on my mom’s side
Photograph of Ralph and Kathryn Wilhelm
My grandparents on my dad’s side
Photograph of the construction of a home on Cayuga Lake in New York
The construction of my great-grandparents’ home on Cayuga Lake

Two mayors & a president

I didn’t have many gaps to fill in on my dad’s side, thanks to the hard work my uncle put in compiling our family tree. I did, however, want to know more about the political past that I read about and our ties to two mayors of Muncie, Indiana, and President William McKinley, whom my dad had always claimed was a distant relative.

Edward M. Tuhey, my great-great-grandfather, was a teacher, builder, steel worker, canning company owner, and postmaster before he was twice elected mayor of Muncie in 1898 and 1910.

An MGC staff member recommended looking up the county where my ancestors lived as a starting point, so I checked the catalog for information on Delaware County. I found a microfiche available for History of Delaware County, Indiana. While skimming through, I found a page dedicated to Edward M. Tuhey, my great-great-grandfather. He was a teacher, builder, steel worker, canning company owner, and postmaster before he was twice elected mayor of Muncie in 1898 and 1910. According to the book, he was “a worthy representative of that type of American character and of that progressive spirit which promote public good in advancing individual prosperity and conserving popular interests.” His son, H. Arthur Tuhey, also served as mayor for two terms starting in 1955. Maybe that’s where I get my interest in politics!

Photograph of Edward M. Tuhey, former mayor of Muncie, Indiana

I spent hours upon hours tracing the family tree of President McKinley—including reviewing census records, books, and military documents—in search of a tie to Joseph W. McKinley, my great-great-great-grandfather. I found a page in the same history book about Arthur D. McKinley, the former president’s second cousin, and researched his family history, as well. But whatever our fabled link is, it remains hidden. But I’ll keep looking — I’m determined to find it eventually.

Plant the seed for your family tree

Visiting MGC in person was an incredible opportunity, but that’s not the only option. You can start online today, and then plan your trip when you’re ready to travel again. If you live or work within the boundaries of the Mid-Continent Public Library system—Clay, Jackson, and Platte counties in Missouri—you can apply online for a library card and access the center’s online and in-person resources. Several other Missouri counties are part of a reciprocal program that allows residents to apply for a library card even if they don’t live within the MCPL system. Those who live outside of these areas can access certain resources online, including the library catalog, but the best way to experience everything MGC has to offer is by visiting in person and signing up for a guest pass.

While DNA kits have skyrocketed in popularity, they come at a cost of nearly $100—and that’s just for the basic options. If you want to search for family records, it costs $99 for six months of access to Ancestry.com’s US records. On the other hand, MGC offers an accessible, affordable way to research your lineage—it’s only $35 for a six-month guest pass to access MGC’s online and in-person resources, including access to the Ancestry Library Edition through June 2021. And it’s free if you live within the library system boundaries!

Soon, MGC will open a state-of-the-art conference center for genealogy-focused events, meetings, and seminars, holding up to 400 people. And for those who can’t visit in person, MGC hosts free online events and seminars covering a variety of genealogy topics.

After visiting the Midwest Genealogy Center and researching my family history, I feel more connected to my past than ever before—it’s the tree that led to me. The hardest part was getting started, but from there, each nugget of information I found gave me a rush of excitement to learn about these people who, in many ways, have made me who I am. And there’s so much more to discover.

Now it’s your turn to start digging.

Trace your family tree at the Midwest Genealogy Center