Tag Archives: Genealogy

How museum experiences can help you have tough conversations about family history

It doesn’t matter if you’re a historian, a genealogist, or an armchair history buff: when it comes to digging into your own family’s history, all researchers eventually slam headfirst into the Wall of Family Silence.

The Wall of Family Silence is that almost impenetrable barrier our own family members put up when we start asking questions about the experiences of our own people. And that wall–as formidable as any concreted, razor-wired, electrified barrier–will shut you down when you ask questions.

“I really don’t want to talk about it.”

“Oh, there’s really nothing to tell. My life isn’t that interesting.”

“It’s not your business.”

“I don’t remember.”

The Wall of Family Silence.

Years ago, a professor acquaintance and I were discussing the challenges of gathering family stories from immigrant family members.

“I just don’t know much about what life was like for my grandparents or great-grandparents,” I remember saying.

“You have to remember,” this acquaintance said, “that most of our immigrant ancestors didn’t give up everything they had because life was good and they were happy. Some of those memories are hard to talk about.”

The Wall of Family Silence.

Fast forward to 15 years later, when I am working in a local history museum and we’re developing an exhibit on World War I.

Our museum’s exhibit featured real helmets and uniforms visitors could try on. That steel helmet is even heavier than it looks.

I was visiting my maternal grandparents while this exhibit was going up, and I was telling them about how small the uniforms were, and how we learned many men from our county were rejected from service because they were malnourished.

Now, my grandparents weren’t old enough to experience the Great War. But they were around for the drawn-out aftermath and World War II, and they were experiencing it from present-day Croatia.

I was telling them about all of this to pass the time, to tell them about what I’m doing. But what I didn’t know is that telling them about my experience with the World War I exhibit was like leaning a ladder over the Wall of Family Silence.

My grandparents began to tell me stories about what it was like for them to grow up in a country in the middle of the mess. They told me about how it impacted their education, their opportunities, and the potential dangers. They told me about my paternal grandmother’s husband, who was tortured to death.

They told me a lot of things I had never heard before.

They never saw the exhibit. But my talking about the hard things our local people experienced during World War I was like giving my grandparents permission to talk about the hard things they experienced before and during World War II.


This summer, we installed an exhibit on the Home Front experience during World War II. I was telling my dad about it over dinner one evening.

“There was a POW camp in Ottawa,” I said. “A lot of those guys worked on farms and built good relationships with people in Franklin County.”

“My grandfather was a POW during World War I,” my dad said. “He and my uncle and a bunch of guys from our village were there with Tito. But Tito was just another guy back then, not the president of Yugoslavia.”

Another rope tossed over the Wall of Family Silence.

The ordinary and extraordinary experiences of our ancestors shaped the people who shaped us. All of our families have stories to tell. Some of those stories are hard to tell, and some of those memories are buried deep. Sometimes it’s hard to get family members to open up about their lives.

And that’s where a museum or historic site can be a magical place. Artifacts, photographs, exhibits, buildings–they stir memories. They acknowledge those personal stories are important. They create context.

They offer a safe conduit for a parent or grandparent or aunt or uncle to say,

“I remember this.”

“When I was a little kid…”

“This happened to me, too.”

“My grandmother once told me about the time when…”

“Did you know that when your dad was a little boy, he…”

Any museum might have an artifact or exhibit that will create a spontaneous account of family history. There are also many Kansas museums that delve into tougher topics. Here are a few to consider:

Miners Hall Museum, Franklin, Kansas

This museum focuses on the history of coal mining, immigrant families, and the rights of laborers. I visited a few years ago and even though my own family never lived in southeast Kansas, I could see elements of my family in their stories.

Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, Topeka, Kansas

When you walk in the front doors, you’ll see a sign that says, “Where Hard Conversations Happen.” This site looks at both the history of school desegregation and the fight for equality. I keep trying to blog about my experiences there, but I realize I’m still processing my visit, which was emotional and inspiring.

Strawberry Hill Museum, Kansas City, Kansas

Housed in a former church-run orphanage, this museum explores the history of the orphanage (created to care for children orphaned during the 1918 flu epidemic) and the history of the immigrant communities in the Kansas City area.

POW Camp Concordia Museum, Concordia, Kansas

Once a POW camp for German prisoners captured during WWII, this camp is an opportunity to understand a different side of the war experience. It’s on my list of places to visit.

Pawnee Indian Museum, Republic County, Kansas

This museum offers the story of the lives of the Pawnee. It’s an opportunity to learn how the Pawnee lived and how settlers of European descent altered their futures. It is one of my favorite Kansas museums.

Share your story! What museum or historic site experiences inspired your family members to share personal history?

Turning 38: A Birthday in Five Generations

Can't you just see the potential in my three-year-old self? Side note: I still have the bunny. His name is Zeko (Croatian for bunny.)

My three-year-old self. I still have Zeko, my bunny.

Today I turn 38. I’ve been particularly introspective this year. Maybe it’s because my high school class is celebrating its 20th reunion this summer. Or maybe it’s because I’m watching some of my friends in the throes of minor midlife crisis meltdowns on their own birthdays. Or maybe it’s because friends and family and coworkers keep asking me how I feel about turning 38.

I recently rediscovered a folder from my high school days. In a senior year history class, we were tasked with exploring our own genealogy, and I found an old paper I wrote about the history of my family, at least the history I could gather from a bunch of family members who didn’t really want to talk about family history.

Today, as I turn 38, I look at that old history paper (printed out on fan-fold paper on an old dot matrix printer, no less) and it’s like I’m seeing it for the first time. I’m not seeing the dates and names, but the stories. The hardship. The loss. The sadness. And as I turn 38, I look at the stories of the line of women who made me possible and wondered where they were when they were 38.

Bara, maternal great-great-grandmother, 18??-19??

Though I’m not quite sure of her birthdate, I know my great-great-grandmother Bara had experienced much loss by the time she turned 38.

Bara Dolinar and the man she would marry, Stjepan Makar, were born in what is now Croatia, but what would have been the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time. They married and, hoping for a new a better life, left behind their family and friends and set sail for the New World. They made a go of it in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where Stjepan worked in the coal mines. Somewhere along the way, they had three sons, but only one, little Stjepan, would survive early childhood.

Coal mining was dangerous work. In 1905, Bara’s husband died in a mining accident. Alone in a foreign land, she buried her husband in an unmarked grave before returning to the Old County with her son.

Ana, maternal great-grandmother, 1904-1970

Ana Blažević married the now-grown up Stjepan Makar at the little church in Lipnik in 1922. Ana gave birth to her first child, my grandmother, in 1925.

After World War I, the former Austro-Hungarian Empire was disassembled, carved into what was perceived to be logical clumps of kingdoms. A sort of Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was formed, and it would become Yugoslavia in 1929. As these changes were occurring, life was hard, and Stjepan, a native-born citizen of the United States, wanted something better for his family. In 1926, when my great-grandmother was pregnant with their second child, he left them to travel to the land of his birth. But the world came crashing down on America at the end of the 1920s, and then America was at war again, and Yugoslavia would become a Communist country, and the distance between the two continents grew far larger than any ocean could ever be. Ana and her two children would never see Stjepan again.

When my great-grandmother was 38, she was trying to raise two children alone in a European country in the middle of World War II.

My great-grandfather would die on a turkey farm in Indiana in 1969.

Ana, maternal grandmother, 1925-

The only photo I have of my grandfather's simple grave. Ivica Mikan died in 1959.

The only photo I have of my grandfather’s simple grave. Ivica Mikan died in 1959.

My grandmother Ana Makar and her brother Stjepan grew up without a father. My grandmother once told me she only finished five years of school before the war, but she was functionally literate in her language and could manage a household. She was 29 when she married Ivan Mikan of Karlovac, and they would have their first child, my mother, in 1955, and a second daughter, my aunt, in 1957.

In December 1959, Ana’s husband drowned in a river near their home.

When my grandmother was 38, she was alone in a post-World War II Communist country trying to raise two little girls in a tiny house in Karlovac. She took any job she could find–scrubbing floors, tending the cemetery–to try to make ends meet. But my grandmother had the courage to dream big and wanted to bring her girls to the United States, where they were eligible to become citizens through her father, who was born in Pennsylvania all those years ago. And when a very nice man moved in near her home and began to help around her house and take care her kids, she married him, and the four of them started a new life together in Kansas.

Mary, mother, 1955-2004

My mom, in the years after a tough childhood and the years before a tougher adulthood.

My mom, in the years after a tough childhood and the years before a tougher adulthood.

My mother was born in Karlavac in 1955. She was only four years old when her father drowned in the Rjeka Kupa, and she and her mother and sister lived a hard life in their little house in Karlovac. Yet they had a television that would occasionally get translated American shows, and one of her most prized possessions was a autographed photo of Michael Landon, one of the good guys on Bonanza. When it was time to pack for their move to America, the four of them–my mother, my aunt, my grandmother, and my new step-grandfather–were each allowed one suitcase. Michael Landon made the final cut and came to America with my mother.

My mother and aunt found themselves thrust into the public school system without a word of English between them.

My mother married my father in 1974, and I came along two years later. My mother once told me that she wasn’t supposed to be able to have children, so I was a surprise.

Two years later, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Two years after that, she had my brother.

When my mother was 38, she spent several months in a hospital. Her MS went into a tailspin and there were numerous complications from her medication. Her oldest child–me–graduated from high school while she was lying in a hospital bed. A few days before my mother turned 39, she had a stroke.

Me, 1976-

Me, doing stuff I really, really love to do. Life is good.

As I examine the lives of the women before me I am realizing that I came from some tough stock. These women were determined and strong and kept pushing forward even as life threw obstacle after obstacle in their paths.

I was lucky enough to grow up in the U.S. in a good home at a time when opportunities were truly improving for women. I never once worried about whether or not there would be food on the table or shoes that fit or a safe place to play. Access to education or medical care was never once in question.

When I gave my speech at our high school graduation–a speech my mother never got to hear–I sagely told my classmates that our lives might change paths, that we might not become what we thought we wanted to be, and that that was okay. It turned out my speech was prophetic. I did not grow up to be an engineer. I did not stay as far away from Kansas as I could possibly get. But I became something so much better for me: a true Kansan who writes and learns and is amazed by a world that grows bigger and bigger as I explore it.

Every morning I get up and stand on my own two feet and know my world is full of possibilities. I have a great husband, a safe and cozy home, happy pets, and dreams to pursue.

I have the luxury to think about the things I want to do, not just the things I have to do.

But the very best part is that all of this wonder is only part of my story. Because today, I’m only 38.

Finding branches of your family tree in someone else’s murder trial

During the two years I spent researching the story of Florence Knoblock’s murder and the subsequent investigation and criminal trials, I was astonished by the number of names I encountered. I expected to find details about Florence and her family, but I hadn’t really appreciated just how well I would get to know the people living in Pleasant Township, the city of Burlington, and the various people working for the courts and the law. One of the great advantages of researching a major historic murder case in a small town: because they don’t happen often, when they do, they’re big news. The local paper may add extra sheets to cover the details if the editor thinks he can make enough sales. As Sherwood Anderson wrote in his book, Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small Town Life, “The paper…had one policy. It strove to mention by name in each issue as many as possible of the inhabitants of the village.”

Let’s look at what this might mean for someone researching family history during a time period that coincides with the Florence Knoblock murder investigation.

Statements from possible witnesses

The Daily Republican included some early statements from various witnesses who might have seen a potential suspect. In addition to learning about what she saw, we learned that Mrs. E. E. Liggett worked at the Katy Store on West Neosho Street in Burlington and that she worked on Saturday mornings.

E. E. Liggett's statement, from "Deacon Stevens Claims He Was in Independence at the Time of the Murder," Daily Republican, June 2, 1925.

E. E. Liggett’s statement, from “Deacon Stevens Claims He Was in Independence at the Time of the Murder,” Daily Republican, June 2, 1925.

Law enforcement, medical personnel, and other officials

Sometimes when researching family members, we might find names and dates of major life events, but we don’t always know much about what those ancestors actually did for a living. Newspaper articles tell us the roles played by various official personnel. Imagine being able to understand exactly where your great-uncle-so-and-so was the afternoon of May 30, 1925. Here, we learn the names and roles of the sheriff, the coroner, the county attorney, the marshal, and a doctor.

From "Skull Crushed and Throat Cut--Mrs. Knoblock is Found by Her Husband Saturday Afternoon," Daily Republican, June 1, 1925.

From “Skull Crushed and Throat Cut–Mrs. Knoblock is Found by Her Husband Saturday Afternoon,” Daily Republican, June 1, 1925.

Possible suspects

Several different men are arrested during the investigation of the murder of Florence Knoblock. Because there was no apparent motive and no obvious suspects, anyone who was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time was likely to be arrested and questioned. For example, a man named Vance Fox cut through a farm field of William Strawn to shorten his walk home. After a manhunt involving a hundred people, he was taken into custody. A genealogist learned a lot about Vance Fox; where he lived, the fact that he was probably poor because he walked from Emporia to Strawn instead of taking the train or a car, and that he was healthy enough to make a 35-mile walk.

"Crowd Gathers in Response to Alarm Vance Fox Held," Daily Republican, June 6, 1925.

From “Crowd Gathers in Response to Alarm Vance Fox Held,” Daily Republican, June 6, 1925.

Subpoenaed witnesses

Both the Daily Republican and the Emporia Gazette printed lists of subpoenaed witnesses. In the case of State of Kansas v. John Knoblock, the number of witnesses would ultimately clear one hundred. Here is an excerpt from the list printed for the preliminary hearing. The genealogist will see names, family connections, and lots of people who lived in the same neighborhood.

Some of the witnesses subpoenaed for the preliminary hearing. From "Are Preparing for Hard Fight at Preliminary," Daily Republican, November 7, 1925.

From “Are Preparing for Hard Fight at Preliminary,” Daily Republican, November 7, 1925.

Prospective jurors

My favorite newspaper articles involved the jury selection process. Reporters John Redmond and Bill White listed every juror and every excuse they used to try to get out of jury duty. The genealogist might learn where their relatives live and work. They might learn that their ancestor was hard of hearing or was recovering from the flu, or that they can’t afford the financial burden of sitting on a trial instead of earning a living.

A sampling of the juror selection process from the first trial. From "Making Good Progress Toward Securing Jury to Try John Knoblock," January 12, 1926.

A sampling of the juror selection process from the first trial. From “Making Good Progress Toward Securing Jury to Try John Knoblock,” January 12, 1926.

A sampling of prospective jurors from the second trial. From "Accept Two Jurors," Emporia Gazette, May 6, 1926.

A sampling of prospective jurors from the second trial. From “Accept Two Jurors,” Emporia Gazette, May 6, 1926.

Reporting on other reporters

To emphasize how important the trial might be, reporters might take the time to mention other reporters and important citizens who are attending the trial as spectators. For example, John Redmond mentions a newspaper reporter and a magazine reporter present at the trial.

From "Notes on the Trial," Daily Republican, January 13, 1926.

From “Notes on the Trial,” Daily Republican, January 13, 1926.

Trial witnesses

We expect to see information about testimony from witnesses in newspaper articles about murder trials. Genealogists may also learn details about the witness: where he/she works, lives, who he/she associates with, and even what he/she looks like. Although the local reporter might not go into great detail about local folks, an out-of-town reporter will make the extra effort to describe how witnesses appear on the witness stand. For example, here are two descriptions of Coffey County woman Stella Menard, a witness called by the prosecution, as written by Emporia Gazette reporter Bill White:

From "Trial Slowing Up," Emporia Gazette, January 14, 1926.

From “Trial Slowing Up,” Emporia Gazette, January 14, 1926.

From "State Rests Tonight," Emporia Gazette, January 15, 1926.

From “State Rests Tonight,” Emporia Gazette, January 15, 1926.

As I read through the newspaper articles about the Florence Knoblock murder, investigation and trials, I was overwhelmed by the hundreds of names that appeared connected just to this story. The tough part for the genealogist is learning about the major trials that might have happened in an area where his or her ancestors lived, and then accessing those newspapers if they’re not already available online.

As part of my research, I created a giant spreadsheet of all of the names I encountered in just the newspaper articles. Although they don’t all turn up in Shadow on the Hill, I wanted to make the information easily available for anyone who might be researching family who lived in Coffey County and Lyon County between 1925 and 1926. It’s also a handy way to keep track of the several hundred people who do turn up in Shadow on the Hill. As you explore the database, think not only of the trial, but what it was like to be on that witness stand, or hoping to avoid jury duty, or being interviewed by the paper for something you saw. It’s an enlightening way to think about your ancestors–as regular human beings experiencing a moment in time.

For Readers and Genealogists: Names connected to the Knoblock murder investigation and trial