By Franklin T. Wike, Jr.
A trend started during the 1940s and 1950s where people from smaller towns left their birthplace, usually because of money or marriage, and spent a good portion of their life in foreign lands. Those foreign lands turned out to be the bigger cities throughout this country where higher paying jobs were available.
Over the last few years, I have noticed another trend where many seniors seem to be returning to the towns where they grew up. Some of those trips are simply visits so they can see family and childhood friends one last time, while others seem to be making the move a more permanent act, so they can spend their remaining years remembering the joys of their youth.
Last month I took a long overdue vacation and ended up making a trip back to Lebanon, Pennsylvania, the area where I was born. When deciding where I wanted to go, there were three main reasons I choose to return to the area where I grew up. Those reasons were food, family and information.
Every part of the country and every ethnic culture seem to have their own special foods that are hard to locate elsewhere. Some of those foods are available commercially in certain parts of the country, while others have to be prepared in private kitchens.
Since I grew up in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, there were many special foods that I wanted to find such as PA Dutch Birch beer, (a unique type of root beer that is extremely hard to find in other areas of the country), Lebanon bologna, (a smoked treat made only in Lebanon County, PA) and TastyKakes, (a commercial snack cake made in Pennsylvania).
In addition to the commercial foods, I also had my taste buds set to find a variety of local eating establishments. Every day, I would try out a different restaurant in order to enjoy their specialties. I made sure each one was local and privately owned instead of the large chain restaurants. That way, I would be assured they would be serving local dishes. One day, I got lucky and found a small cafe in Cleona that served fresh Shoofly Pie, a traditional PA Dutch desert along with many other local dishes that were all made from scratch by a local woman in her 80s. I also made it a point to eat at a local diner. To anyone that is NOT from the east coast or New England states, back in the 1950s metal dining cars similar to the ones used on the railroad, were common in many communities. I don’t know who owned them in other parts of the country but in eastern Pennsylvania, many of them were owned by men of Italian or Greek heritage that specialized in serving great hoagies, (submarine sandwiches), Philly Cheese steak sandwiches, veal Parmesan and many other delicacies.
I am not sure what it is about the foods we grew up on, but I know that I am not alone in wanting to recapture the memories and good times of my childhood and somehow being able to see, smell and taste a special dish after 40 or 50 years of abstinence, seems to help recapture those memories of days past, when we were surrounded by our grandparents and so many other members of our extended family.
Another goal during my trip back to my home town, was to meet and visit with family members that I have not seen in many years. These visits were extremely productive for a variety of reasons. In addition to being able to spend time talking about family events and things that happened during our childhood, I also viewed and collected copies of OLD family photographs. It seems like every branch of the family tree has their own separate collection of photographs and by viewing these images, I was able to obtain photographs that we can post on our website and in our magazine in order to share with other family members.
I also spent a certain amount of time visiting local cemeteries in order to pay my respects to family members that have departed, plus record the names and dates from tombstones.
My vacation also encompassed spending many hours in local historical societies and even conducting genealogy research at the state archives. That research turned out to be extremely productive, uncovering the fact that Elias Wike, my great-great-grandfather was a civil war veteran and even spent almost a year as a POW during the civil war.
As thrilled as I was at discovering this new information about my family history, as a genealogy researcher, one of my major complaints in recent years is the difficulty in locating certain information.
I appreciate and respect all the great work that local historical societies and state archive libraries perform by preserving information for future generations. However in this day of computers and the Internet, I find it surprising that many organizations still expect people to travel from all corners of the world to every town and/or county in order to have access to local information.
In many cases, if you have a family member that was born, got married or died in the neighboring county, you may not be able to access their records without traveling to that county. That trip may not be to difficult if you live 20 or 50 miles away from the county containing the records, but if you live 1,000 miles away, it can become very expensive to locate those records.
In order to make it easier for individuals to locate family information, I would like to encourage every reader and volunteer to help us organize a nationwide helping hand program. This will work hand in hand with our Chapters that I wrote about in the September 2004 issue.
Once we have enough helping hands around the country, I will be able to ask a volunteer that lives in Lebanon county, Pennsylvania, to visit their local library or historical society and see if they can find an obituary or birth record for a certain person, on a certain date. In return, they can ask another volunteer from Alabama to find some records for them and the volunteer in Alabama may want me to find some records in Indiana.
This network of volunteers will be able to gain access to their family information without having to travel all over the country. In essence, we will be helping others and at the same time, we will have contact with other volunteers from across the country that will help us. That sounds like a good match to me. If you like this idea and would be interested in volunteering to conduct research in your county, please drop us a line and send us your postal mailing address, your email address, if you have one, and be sure to let us know what county you live in. You can also let us know what state and county your family records are located in. This will allow us to know what area we need volunteers in.
Franklin T. Wike, Jr.
U S Legacies Magazine, November 2004