Burned Family History

[Editor’s note: Thomas MacEntee of GeneaBloggers.com shares a personal story of loss involving his family’s legacy due to fire and how you can act now to preserve your own family history.]


National Fire Prevention Week in the United States is usually the second week of October.  Oct 9 was also the anniversary of The Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Each year at this time my thoughts turn to fire, genealogy and the loss of family history. For me, all these elements are wrapped up in a personal story involving my great-grandparents, John Ralph Austin and Therese Rose McGinnes.

The House

As I’ve written many times in articles and on my personal genealogy blog, the home of my great-grandparents was located in the tiny, tiny town of Grahamsville, New York. The original structure dates back to the 1840s and with years of additions and changes, the house I remember had four large bedrooms on the second floor and some of the original beams and plank doors.

My great-grandparents purchased the house and the surrounding 30+ acres of farmland in 1945 and moved up from Manhattan soon thereafter. In the summer, my mother and her 11 siblings lived and played in this refuge from their life in The City. My grandfather took a job at the Rondout Reservoir which supplied water to New York City.

From the stories that have been handed down to me, life was simple, money was short but the memories created were priceless.

The Fire

I remember the day as if it happened just last week. It was 1979 and my great-grandfather had passed two years earlier. Grandma, as we called her, would spend the winters either with her niece in Florida or her son in California and close up the house during that time. She’d come back to upstate New York in April and stay with my family for a few weeks, during which time the Grahamsville house was re-opened, aired out and any necessary repairs and work was done.

The phone rang one afternoon shortly after I came home from school (it was my junior year of high school in case you are trying to do the math…). One of the neighbors asked if I knew where my great-grandmother was and continued with a series of odd questions. Finally, I asked what was going on and the woman told me, “The house is on fire.”

At that point I knew enough to move from the kitchen, where Grandma could hear, and take the call into one of the bedrooms. Grandma was not in the best health at this point and was prone to anxiety in stressful situations. This was one of those situations.

Over the next few hours the phone rang off the hook and I did my best to field the calls and to give the appearance that nothing was wrong. I made sure the first responders knew the house was unoccupied, that Grandma was safe with me, etc. I also tried to get a sense of the extent of the damage.

The Loss

Mom arrived home around 7:00 p.m., instead of her usual 5:30 p.m., and was with her father, which was unusual since they didn’t get along very well. So I knew it was bad and if I didn’t know it by the looks on their faces, then I could tell by the smell of smoke on their clothes. They tried to save whatever possessions that they could, but the house was a total loss.

I still remember the screams from Grandma as they broke the news to her. The house was more than just a structure—it was a place where generations were raised, where childhoods were enjoyed and experienced and where memories were made. It was a home.

So many things were lost that day including irreplaceable family mementos and artifacts as well as documents, photographs and more. Luckily, only months earlier, Grandma had stored two large suitcases filled with documents and photos at our house before her winter trip. Providence was with us and we were relatively lucky. This time.

Will Luck Be On Your Side?

The fire was over 30 years ago—before the time of personal computers and the ability to scan, digitize and preserve photos and other items so important to a family’s history and legacy. With today’s technology and tools such as the Flip-Pal mobile scanner, we have the ability to preserve these items, but only if we take action. Photos don’t scan themselves. Documents don’t get digitized automatically.

Why take a chance with your own family’s legacy? Put together an action plan today and make sure your family history doesn’t go up in smoke.

PhotoThe Austin residence on Low Road, Grahamsville, New York, circa 1976. Digital image, property of Thomas MacEntee.

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