I am not a genealogist or family historian, however, I am married to one. Which is how I found myself at the National Genealogy Society 2018 Family History Conference in Grand Rapids, MI celebrating our 11th wedding anniversary in the absolute nerdiest way I could ever possibly imagine. It was glorious.
It was not only our first convention, it was also my first trip to Grand Rapids – a beautiful city I have every intention of visiting again as soon as the opportunity presents itself. As our anniversary treat, and thanks to the discount granted to conventioneers, we stayed at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel which hosted the conference. When I say that it is a nice place, what I mean is that it is a gorgeous fairy tale of a hotel experience complete with an amazing view of the Grand River.
The food in this town was unbelievable. We enjoyed dining at Wolfgang Puck’s Kitchen and Cygnus 27, as well as Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, all without leaving the comforts of the hotel. The absolute jewel of the trip, however, was a few blocks away at San Chez, where we enjoyed one of the best meals that I have ever eaten in a fun, casual atmosphere. My only regret was not going back for every remaining meal on our trip
Wrapped within these hedonistic delights was the meat of the trip: a dizzying selection of content ranging from DNA analysis to the history of beer as seen from a genealogical perspective. When initially presented with the conference schedule I focused on sessions that appealed to my inner history buff; local color and random historical tidbits always tickle my fancy, so these seemed to be safe choices. I envisioned plenty of free time at the pool while my genealogy geek was off consuming vast quantities of methodology, research, and analysis.
I never made it to the pool. After the opening session with John Philip Coletta’s delightful talk on the Erie Canal’s impact on local family and work life, and my first breakout session Yeast, Grain, Hops, and Water: The Impact of Beer in American History, I was overcome by the spirit of the event. My schedule, initially sprinkled with just a handful of sessions, was loaded with such delights as British Miners, Riding the Rails, Native American DNA, Social Lives of our Ancestors, Problem-Solving with “Trivial Details”, and so many more.
Some sessions were more than simply informative, there were more than a few that were truly eye-opening. In Bringing Your Ancestors to Life with Archival Resources with Jo Ellyn Clarey & Julie Tabberer, I learned about thousands of missing records, registration cards for the Women’s Committee of the of the Council of National Defense, which contain valuable details on the lives, skills, and interests of female WWI volunteers. These records have been discovered in boxes collecting dust and filling decorative cabinetry in local libraries – perhaps we have ancestors lying among them. The Native DNA and Researching Indigenous Peoples lectures were particularly enlightening, each addressing topics of a sensitive nature – such as questions not to ask, terms not to use, and what it means to be Native American as opposed to simply possessing a percentage of DNA – with honesty, tact, and cold, hard facts.
With so many talks, speakers, and topics to choose from, you would think that one or two would be a bust, but that was not at all the case. The speakers were all knowledgeable and well-versed in their topics, and quite clearly enthusiastic about their work. For such a seemingly dry topic as genealogy there was an undercurrent of excitement and energy throughout the week that added a spark to all of the sessions. Every speaker was willing, most were even eager, to open the floor to questions – and if they didn’t have an answer, it was not uncommon for another audience member to chime in with information based on their own experiences.
As noted in the opening session, genealogists truly are a friendly bunch, and being surrounded by so many enthusiastic knowledge-seekers was a heady and (dare I say) nerd-tastic experience. The genealogy bug was viral and I am happy to say that I did not resist infection. In addition to the trivia and tidbits I hoped to pick up, I have also acquired an itch for historical research. Goals have been set, a plan is forming, and next year when the conference hits the shores of the Mississippi River, I hope to be there with a slew of methodology questions, an appetite for the local gastronomical delights, and a pair of comfy shoes.
My Session List:
Wednesday, May 2, 2018:
- Coming Along the Towpath: The Erie Canal and the Peopling of the Great Lakes States, John Philip Colletta
- Yeast, Grain, Hops, and Water: The Impact of Beer in American History, Jen Baldwin
- English Occupation and Guild Records, Paul Milner
- Digging for Gold: Locating British Miners and their Records, Paul Milner
Thursday, May 3, 2018:
- From Nails to Plows: Blacksmiths and their Contribution to Midwestern Development, Annette Burke Lyttle
- Grinding out a Living: Millers & Millwrights, Lori Thornton
- Reconstructing the Lives of Your Farming Ancestors, Annette Burke Lyttle
- Riding the Rails with Railroad Men, Patricia Walls Stamm
- Native American DNA: Separating Fact from Fiction, Blaine Bettinger
Friday, May 4, 2018:
- Save the Last Dance for Me: Discovering the Social Lives of Our Ancestors, Mary M. Tedesco
- Native, First Nations, Indian: Researching Indigenous Peoples, Judy Nimer Muhn
Saturday, May 5, 2018:
- Menus, Housekeepers, and First Ladies: Discovering Unique Michigan Manuscript Collections, Deborah Ann Abbott
- Trousers, Beds, Tacks & Household Bills: Problem-solving with ‘Trivial Details’, Elizabeth Shown Mills
- Bringing Your Ancestors to Life with Archival Resources, Jo Ellyn Clarey & Julie Tabberer
- Michigan Homesteaders!, Shelley Viola Murphy