When I was growing up, neither side of my family spoke too much about our family history. Sure, there was the occasional story told and names were mentioned, but no real connections were made to past generations that would have been “before our time.” I grew up knowing who my grandparents were, but not much beyond them. People would come up to me and say we were cousins, but I would have no idea how we were related (and this included some folks who I shared a last name with). Now I am not blaming my family or holding them solely responsible for not passing down that knowledge; it was just that the topics never came up and as a youth, I never asked.
I recently made a personal resolution to learn more about my family history and connect the dots for names I had heard growing up. I started to build my family tree through Ancestry.com, but the details they gave on my family were very vague and rarely more than just a name and/or year of birth. I even tried to Google their names to see if anything would come up, but to no avail. So while I started to learn the names of my great-grandparents, I knew absolutely nothing about who they were or what they did.
In an effort to gain more knowledge, I appealed to a national historical organization to gain some answers as to who my ancestors were. The head genealogist for this organization called me and after giving him all the information I had on my family for several generations, he said he would call back when he found out more about my family connections. After several weeks, the head genealogist called back and said he could not locate any information about my family on his national databases.
I shared my frustrations with the lack of information I had with my friend Andy Doss. Andy is a local historian and genealogist, and he suggested that I continue my research at the Bassett Historical Center (BHC). Being that the center is in Bassett and most of my family (including myself) is from Pittsylvania County, I was a bit skeptical as to how much they would have about my family. I finally decided to go check it out though, and I was absolutely blown away with the amount of information that is stored within the walls of that place. After just an hour and a half of researching, I was able to find out more about my family from the books and compiled records they had than myself and others had been able to find out through months of surfing the web. Who knew that the brick building on the corner that I had driven by countless times held the key to my family’s past?
I have since visited several more times and every time I go, I leave with tons of answers and tons more new questions which prompts me to keep going back. Andy said that research there is like pulling a thread: you pull one thread and it leads to another and another. The remarkable part about the Bassett Historical Center though, apart from its wonderful staff and volunteers, is that almost all of the information that people use to research is in a book or on paper. They do have computers for some technological aspects of research, but the majority of the research that people like myself do is located in their troves of books and notebooks that people have donated and compiled over the years. These are books that cannot be found anywhere else but the BHC, Amazon included. There’s just something special about the nostalgic feeling that comes with pulling a book off the shelf and thumbing through it to find what you need that typing away on a computer keyboard can never bring. And the moment when you’re skimming a page and come across the thing you’re looking for is pure bliss. You can have as many moments like that that you desire at the Bassett Historical Center.
So, whether you’re like me and are just curious about your family roots or you have a curiosity about any aspect of local history, the folks down at the BHC can point you in the right direction and show you the books that have the answers you need. In a fast-paced world where seemingly all of the information we will ever need is at our fingertips, some questions we have can’t be answered by a Google search or looking on Ancestry.com. For those times, there’s the Bassett Historical Center; a place that’s still embracing the past and thriving in it.
(Jarred Marlowe is the president of the Col. George Waller Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution and on the board of directors for the Martinsville-Henry County Historical Society.)