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'Detective' uncovers family histories

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WHO: Lawrence R. Corbett, Watertown, is corresponding secretary for the Jefferson County Genealogical Society. Part historian, part detective, Mr. Corbett helps people trace their family trees at no cost.

WHAT DO YOU DO? "I try to answer specific questions relating to people's family histories without taking the fun away by doing all of their research for them. I try to give them suggestions of places they can do research long distance; by mail, online or through public libraries."

HOW DO YOU DO IT? "My first resource will be the genealogy department at the Flower Memorial Library. They have clippings files, mostly from the newspaper. They have published family histories, unpublished family histories, maps and censuses.
"Another important resource is the Jefferson County clerk's office, which has land records, naturalization and citizenship records, and census indexes for the New York state censuses, which were done on odd years. County Surrogate Court has records from whenever wills are probated; a lot of these have interesting information.
"I also have the resources of the genealogical society and all of the people there. They have online and other resources as well."

HOW DID YOU GET STARTED? "In 1976, during the Bicentennial, my mom put together a spiral-bound notebook of all the family history she knew of; grandparents, cousins' names, that kind of thing. My wife took off from there, doing her side of the family. I still have the notebook.
"We've gone a long way since that. It didn't take too many years to run out of easy things to find out about the family. At that point, because I was still eager to do the research, I talked about it a lot and I talked to people about how to get started.
"It's a hobby young people can do, old people can do. It can be done on a home computer or, if you want, you can travel, go to the source, travel to the country where your ancestors lived."

HAVE YOU EVER UNEARTHED AN INTERESTING TIDBIT? "Other than the occasional embarrassing kind of thing, it's more the funny, everyday-life kind of things that are interesting, like a story about my great-grandmother's little brother.
"There was a lady, Sophronia Leasure, who used to pick up garbage in this thing like a shopping cart. This was between 1900 and 1915.
"She was heading to her home, and the kids were throwing stuff at her and she was cursing and swearing, which didn't usually happen. My uncle climbed a power pole to get a better look, grabbed ahold of a wire, which was wet, and gets shocked. He's hanging there, can't release the grip.
"Someone says, 'We'd better call the power plant to have the power shut off to the whole city.'
"He wasn't that high off the ground. They could reach him, but nobody wanted to touch him. They turned off the power, and he fell to the ground, no worse for the wear. That was a cute story.
"His brother went to reform school for two years for stealing a bicycle. He was trying to impress a girl, so he took it down the street like it was his bicycle. The kid who owned it reported it missing. (The police) came and dragged him out of his house at 10 or 11 at night."

HOW HAS THE INTERNET AFFECTED YOUR RESEARCH? "It helps me because I'm able to do genealogy in my pajamas. Some days you just don't feel like going out.
"Things like Civil War records are on the Internet. You can put in someone's name and find out what unit they are. You can do the groundwork, too, travel to do more research, but once you get there, you don't have to go to 28 cemeteries to find what you're looking for because you've done the research ahead of time.
"With more and more records online, you can narrow your search down and make more efficient use of your time. Prior to that, I spent days just picking through microfilm. It got so much easier after I didn't have to do that."

WHAT MAKES IT REWARDING FOR YOU? "When there's that 'ah-ha' moment. I've seen it myself.
"When someone sees, for instance, the name of a great-grandparent. We send it out and a person is going to open that letter or e-mail and go, 'Wow,' that's the name. That one name will lead to another name.
"I wouldn't want to take that fun away from anyone. It's like collecting coins or stamps; it's real rare stuff. If it wasn't that rare, it would be out there everywhere.
"But unlike coin or stamp collecting, you're never going to have a complete collection of your ancestors. It's a never-ending hobby."

If you would like to recommend someone for a Times Q&A feature, contact reporter Brian Kelly at bkelly@wdt.net

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