Local historian uproots her past
By Crystal Dey
Before you could click an Ancestry.com leaf to peek into your past, Kathy Johnson was digging up the roots of her family tree the old fashioned way – through historical research.
“When I started my family research years ago, there was no Internet, so a majority of my research had to be done by writing letters, making phone calls, visiting historical societies and hiring researchers, which can become expensive,” Johnson said.
Johnson has always been fascinated with history and genealogy. She volunteered with the Douglas County Historical Society for six years. During her time there, she organized and maintained county cemetery records.
Johnson grew up on a farm two miles south of Holmes City. She and her husband of 49 years, Dennis, farmed for decades in Moe Township. The Johnsons officially retired from farming in 1988.
Kathy and Dennis have three children, two grandchildren, three step-grandchildren and one step-great-grandchild. In 2000, they sold the family farm to their daughter and her husband and moved to Alexandria. They summer at their cabin on Lobster Lake.
Johnson’s a Douglas County girl down to the dirt; she has already purchased her burial plot in Holmes City’s Van Loon Cemetery. She’ll be the fifth generation of her family to be laid to rest there.
When did you first become interested in history, genealogy and cemeteries?
I began researching my family history about 40 years ago. Interest in cemeteries goes along with family research. I’ve always been interested in the history of Douglas County, especially the Holmes City area.
Do you have any advice for people just getting started exploring their ancestry?
Record all the information about yourself and then work backwards to your parents, grandparents, etc., recording everything you know about them. Then search for birth, death, marriage, land and military records.
There is a tremendous amount of information on the Internet. Start there. Ancestry.com is an excellent research website, as is findagrave.com.
If you contact historical societies for information, be sure you state exactly what you are looking for and require they furnish you with documentation on the information they send you. Being exact with your questions eliminates being charged for research you may already have.
How far back in time have you traced your family line?
My maternal grandfather’s family is my real passion. They came from England in 1636. I have traced the family to the early 1500s in England.
My maternal grandmother’s parentage is Bohemian. I have documented their arrival in the U.S. but have not traced the family in the Czech Republic. My paternal ancestors came from Germany. I documented their arrival in the U.S. and traced the families from that time. I have not pursued research in Germany.
What is the farthest you have travelled to visit a cemetery?
Massachusetts. I have visited family gravesites in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Missouri. Many of my ancestors are buried in private family cemeteries, which are located on private property now belonging to someone outside the family. Landowners are usually very gracious and allow you access to the burial site across their land.
Do you have a favorite cemetery?
Arlington National Cemetery and Gettysburg Cemetery are both favorites. My favorite local cemetery is Van Loon Cemetery in Holmes City Township. This is where my final resting place will be. My favorite local church cemetery is St. John Nepomuk Cemetery near Lake Reno. A set of my great-grandparents are buried there The gravestones are especially beautiful; it’s a very picturesque setting.
Why do you think a lot of people find cemeteries scary?
Maybe because of stories told during the Halloween season. Personally, I dislike the association of Halloween and cemeteries. The yard decorations with the R.I.P. gravestones are very distasteful to me. For me, cemeteries are very peaceful.
The cemeteries in Douglas County are all very well maintained and each has its own special points of interest, with many reflecting ethnic traditions. There are 57 cemeteries in Douglas County; there are only five I haven’t visited. There are also 17 known family burial sites on private land in the county.
What are your other passions, hobbies or interests?
I am very interested in Civil War history because my great-grandfather and three of his brothers served from the state of New York. I have researched my great-grandfathers journey through the Civil War, leaving by train for Washington, D.C. where he camped and guarded the White House before participating in the First Battle of Bull Run and several other major battles before being discharged. I discovered he was reviewed at least three times by President Lincoln.
I also enjoy Native American history, especially the Lakota Sioux people.
I am in the process of entering my family members on findagrave.com. Anyone can contribute to this site, recording where people are buried, along with data such as obituaries. Family members can also be linked so this site can be very helpful for anyone doing genealogy.
I enjoy being outdoors, walking, gardening and spending time at the lake in the summer. I like the snowy Minnesota winter season also.
Kathy Johnson spends a lot of time in cemeteries researching her geneology. She is pictured next to her great-great-grandfather William Guile’s gravestone in Van Loon Cemetery near Holmes City. She has traced this line of her family back to the early 1500s in England.