WATERTOWN — Author T.S. Elliot once said, “Home is where one starts from.” It was true for Elliot when talking about his family’s roots and it’s true for many when starting to trace their family trees.
“Start with you and your parents, and you go from there,” said Helen Coughlin, librarian for the Dodge Jefferson Genealogical Society. “Talk to the relatives, especially the older ones, and write it all down.”
The dual-county genealogical society is housed in the basement of Heritage Hall, 504 S. Fourth St., and is home to hundreds of books, documents, records and newspapers dating back to the 1850s and cared for by members of the society.
Both Coughlin and Ken Riedl, president of the society, say writing down information and stories from family elders is a great place to start.
“There’s so much that’s lost, and I speak of my own family,” Riedl said. “There are certain things I wish I asked about. Family reunions, if you have them, that’s the occasion to compare notes.”
Coughlin agreed, stating that getting stories from older family members is imperative to piecing together a family history.
“There are questions you wish you could ask, but can’t once those people die. Those things go with them,” she said.
Before the society, founded in 1981, found its home in Heritage Hall, society members were just bringing boxes of information wherever they could hold a meeting.
“At the beginning, they didn’t have a home they were lugging boxes around and meeting at the library,” Riedl said. “I can’t imagine what was involved just getting tables and chairs and bookcases. The key was when the society learned that this space was available.
When doing genealogy research it’s best to bring in as much information as possible about a person or family so society members can know which books or documents to pull out.
“We’re going to want to know which area they’re from, the years, and any information they can give us to point us in a direction,” Coughlin said.
Members of the society work to digitize records as well as to translate records. One volunteer translated information from Watertown’s German language newspaper, Weltburger.
“Everyone is a volunteer; we do what we can and you get satisfaction from trying to help people,” Riedl said.
For Riedl, one of the most satisfying things about working in the society’s library is when people working independently of each other find they have something in common.
“You’ll actually see that here there will be people sitting at different tables and all the sudden they realize they’re almost going down the same road or close by and start comparing notes,” Riedl said. “That’s really incredible.”
Coughlin also enjoys witnessing moments when someone finds the one clue or person he or she has been looking for.
“When someone gets their ‘Aha’ moment, they’ve broke through their brick wall and they’ve found something they’re just so giddy and want to share it with everybody,” she said.
Since the society was founded by many people from Jefferson County, that is where a lot of the information is based, however Coughlin, a Dodge County resident, hopes that more people will come forward with information about her area.
“We’re trying to get more of that information in,” she said. “Any help we can get would be great.”
The society keeps a list of all of its records available to the public on a website,
“We would encourage, before anyone even comes that they check out the website if they can and have their list of items of interest they would like to look at here,” said Ken Riedl
The society’s library is open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. the second Monday of every month, Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to noon and Thursdays from 1 to 4 p.m. The cost for non-members to use the library is $2 per day and a yearly membership costs $18. For more information visit dodgejeffgen.com.