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Local work, worldly interest

Preservation of old Jefferson County records brings out-of-town couples on 18-month mission

October 28, 2012
Weirton Daily Times

WINTERSVILLE - Two out-of-town couples are doing local genealogy work with the likelihood of worldwide interest for family researchers.

Lynn and Albert Mooney of Charlotte, N.C., and Beverly and Bill Pace of American Fork, Utah, have been calling Wintersville their temporary home since late 2011, arriving here as missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to do what they believe to be important work.

The Mooneys came last October, the Paces last December, the four of them here as pay-their-own way volunteers on an 18-month commitment to preserve historical records from Jefferson County.

Article Photos

Flora VerStraten-Merrin, standing, president of the Jefferson County Chapter of the Ohio Genealogical Society, talks with missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, clockwise, Lynn and Albert Mooney of North Carolina and Bill and Beverly Pace of Utah who are in Jefferson County for an 18-month mission project to help prepare and digitize old county records for the free website FamilySearch.
-- Janice R. Kiaski

Specifically, that involves 17,000 probate files dating from 1797 to 1930 - files that faced an uncertain future, according to Flora VerStraten-Merrin, president of the Jefferson County Chapter of the Ohio Genealogical Society, who explained the files are being digitized and made available to Family Search, a nonprofit family history organization website.

For more than 100 years, Family Search and its predecessors have been actively gathering, preserving and sharing genealogical records worldwide. Formerly known as the Utah Genealogical Society, Family Search microfilmed during the 1930s but today is digitizing records from all over the world, according to VerStraten-Merrin.

The local preservation project, she said, was launched in October 2009 when she met with Samuel W. Kerr, Jefferson County's probate and juvenile judge. "They (these records) were just sitting in the basement, there was no access to them, and the records were in pretty bad shape," she said. "The earliest records are in really bad shape, so we knew that there was a need to preserve them, so I talked to Judge Kerr, and he agreed, and I told him about the project that the LDS church calls missionaries in to do, and they work through Family Search, which is the largest genealogy society in the world."

"One of the reasons that courthouse officials agreed to putting the county records on permanent loan to us (the genealogical society) was because they knew the reputation of the group, and I showed them the website - - where records have been filmed, from all over the world, not just here in Ohio," she said.

"This program is to locate records, from all over the world and negotiate with public and private individuals, the keeper of the records, to have their vital records digitized. The reason that there is such a great interest in this project is due to the fact that the No. 1 use of the Internet has not changed over the years, that is, for family history research. These records once completed will be put on the FamilySearch website and will be made accessible to anyone all over the world. Since Jefferson County - and the entire Tri-State Area - was such a large migration route, post Revolutionary War, it plays a strategic part, as well as a strategic location for assisting people who are interested in researching their family tree," VerStraten-Merrin said.

Once the records were relocated from the courthouse to the chapter's office on Fernwood Road, VerStraten-Merrin said she started applying for missionaries to come here through the LDS church.

Enter Lynn and Albert Mooney of North Carolina and Beverly and Bill Pace of Utah, the two out-of-town couples facilitating a process that most area residents probably don't even realize is in progress, according to VerStraten-Merrin.

For the Mooneys and Paces, it has meant leaving behind their homes and families for close to two years, dedicating themselves to a presence at the local OGS chapter office, where they typically spend five to six days a week, often more than eight hours a day.

The couples work in a two-phase system, picking up where local volunteers left off at the 6,000 mark of the 17,000 files.

The Mooneys are part of the document preparation phase. They sit at tables where they carefully open the files - everything from wills to military records - and remove what's in them, maybe a few pieces of paper, maybe hundreds.

As Lynn Mooney explained, "We take the packet, we open it, we pull the papers out without damaging them, and we try to flatten them and then go to the next one."

Before that, though, VerStratten-Merrin pointed out that the files, which were exposed to the likes of dirt, coal dust and heat in the courthouse basement, are for several days positioned above a mix of chlorox and water.

"They're not sitting in the water, they're sitting above it, but they're absorbing the moisture so we can flatten them out without breaking them. And then we can iron them without breaking them," VerStratten-Merrin said.

While the document preparation process can be tedious and a little boring, the Mooneys sometimes read a few here and there.

"They're really interesting," Lynn Mooney said. One that stands out in her mind, for instance, concerned an 1897 document of a 3-year-old indentured to a farmer. "He was supposed to be an apprentice. He was the property of a gentleman until he was 21. The dad gave him to a man to work and do an apprenticeship," she said.

When the couples were interviewed recently for their role in the records preservation project, they were beyond the halfway mark of the remaining documents.

"You really feel a sense that we're moving this forward," she said.

"We're doing the years of World War I now, and there are tons of juvenile delinquents," she said. "Before we had five or 10 every 500 packets, but now they're just everywhere," she said, speculating the increase was a result of the men being off to war.

Albert Mooney sits quietly at his table, not far from his wife. "I am the listener," he said with a smile of his role beyond the preparation, but added of the work, "It's interesting."

As document preparation work proceeds, the Paces have their part to do, the imaging phase that involves a camera and a computer. They photograph images of each side of the documents, recording what it is.

"It's not difficult. It's pretty basic stuff," Bill Pace said of getting the lights just right, making sure there's no motion.

As they have progressed, they have gone from doing 200 images an hour to 500. In a week's time, they estimate they do 18,000 pieces of documents.

"So far, we've sent almost a million pages to FamilySearch," Bill Pace said.

The process is somewhat technical, somewhat tedious and always scrutinized.

"The images have to be perfect because people need to blow them up in order to read them. They look at those images to see if there is blurring in them, so once in a while when we send them in, they will send them back and say please redo this folder because there is blurring," Beverly Pace said.

"We don't get too much back now, but at first we did," Bill Pace said.

The images are put on "a shuttle" which is akin to a hard drive and sent to Salt Lake City every Friday for review.

"They review them and make sure they're good and then they send the shuttle back, and we put more on it for the next week," Bill Pace explained.

The final phase will involve indexing, a project for other volunteers.

The Paces said the project gives them a sense of what life was like in the area's early days and gives them a greater sense of purpose in their present days.

"The interesting thing was when people found out where we were going and what we would be doing, neighbors and friends would say, 'I have relatives there, oh, thank you, thank you, and so they are anxious to get the information on their ancestors," she said.

"There actually are about 200 projects like this in over 45 countries that are going on right now, but doctrinally speaking, the church really believes that families can be together after this life, and so we feel like it's really important to be able to link our families together," Bill Pace said of his motivation to be involved.

"There's a big interest in genealogy all over the world, members and non members of course, and so it's a way to give back to the community, to be able to supply this information so people can research, so the two basic reasons for doing a project like this is to preserve the records that you can see - get it on a disc, digitally record it so it's preserved - and then to make the records available to everyone around the world who wants to research their family and tie their families together, find their roots," he added.

"We're anxious to get the project done before we go home," Beverly Pace said of the couple's volunteer hours that run as high as 55 hours a week. "We work so many hours so when we go home, we want to be able to say we're done."

During their extended stay here, they have acclimated themselves to the community, gone on some excursions, including to Amish country, and have connected with members at the local LDS church.

"We are wanting to go to the home of every member before we leave," she said.

While happy to be a part of this local project, they do miss their seven grown children and 26 grandchildren, not to mention some family milestones.

"We missed a graduation, we did go for the birth of a baby and have two now in college," Beverly Pace said. Their oldest granddaughter in school in Virginia came for a spring break visit, a chance for them to reconnect.

"FamilySearch is working with record custodians (city, county, state, country, religious) worldwide to digitally preserve and provide access to historic records of genealogical significance," explained Paul Nauta, FamilySearch member and public outreach. "Of our 200 camera teams in operation today, half of them are in the United States," he said, noting the Jefferson County undertaking constitutes one of those.

"How exciting for those with Ohio genealogical roots. I wish my New Jersey, New York and Louisiana roots were being addressed by similar projects in those states. We actually have active projects in most states, but there is down time for a few weeks or months where that may not be the case. We plan on adding additional cameras in the United States and elsewhere over the next five years. We are improving the digitalization process so that we can publish newly digitized images online within two weeks of field capture for online public viewing - a great boon for researchers. As soon as online volunteers index them, we'll publish the indexes, linked to the images, online for free access," Nauta said.

VerStraten-Merrin said the volunteers and chapter representatives received training on the process from a missionary couple from Cleveland. "We refined it and improved upon it and have seen better ways of doing it," she said. That tweeking that led to more efficiency in the process so impressed a visiting representative of Family Search, VerStraten-Merrin said, that the local project will be used as a pilot program.

"Jefferson County was the Northwest Territory covering from Lake Erie to south of where we are now and almost everybody you talk to in the United States had somebody who came through this area, the Ohio Valley, so they want these records available so they can research their ancestors," VerStraten-Merrin said.

She noted the chapter is planning an open house meeting next year on March 25 before the two missionary couples return to their homes so chapter members and the public can get a perspective on the project.

They'll be able to review the records project completed online, according to VerStraten-Merrin. "They will be able to actually see the images that the Paces have been digitizing for the past 18 months, while serving on their mission," she said.

The event will be held at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Powells Lane, Wintersville, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. There will be free handouts, workshops on how to use the FamilySearch website and refreshments.

"We will have several computers set up to 'show' the actual records that have been digitized and how to access them for those interested in pursuing their family history research," VerStraten-Merrin said.

"We will provide a complete list of all items that have been digitized as well as a complete inventory list of all of our original records that are housed at our chapter office. This meeting will consist of walking attendees through the FamilySearch website and learning how to use it to access all records, from Jefferson County to all over the world. We will share 'helps' and 'how to's' that will make it easy for a beginner or a novice researcher," she said.

VerStraten-Merrin emphasized that is a free website and offers a free family tree program "where anyone can download it, than enter their own family tree in a printable, savable format that can be shared with other family members, via computer Internet. It is referred to as Personal Ancestral File or PAF."

(Kiaski can be contacted at

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