family roots: Start at a library in your own backyard, genealogists say

McHenry County Genealogical Society member Ruth Rooney of Woodstock writes down birth and death dates as she catalogs inquest records at the McHenry County's Coroner Office in Woodstock.
McHenry County Genealogical Society member Ruth Rooney of Woodstock writes down birth and death dates as she catalogs inquest records at the McHenry County's Coroner Office in Woodstock.

Craig Pfannkuche has been retired for years.

As a youth, long before he became a history teacher at Crystal Lake South High School, Pfannkuche remembered the stories his grandfather used to tell about his great-grandfather, who was a hero in Texas.

Only years later did Pfannkuche discover the extent to which his grandfather’s tall tales were false.

“He did live in Austin, but he was no hero,” Pfannkuche said. “He was a nasty drunk. One of his sons went off to Bisbee, Ariz. He killed four folks and served life in Yuma prison. My grandfather wanted to get away from his father, so he came to Chicago. And that was the real story.”

Pfannkuche learned the truth as he got older and started checking the sources for the stories. Now he teaches others how to uncover information that makes up family histories.

“I teach a beginning genealogy course at Woodstock Public Library,” Pfannkuche said. “And I tell people: Never trust your parents. I think that Ronald Reagan gave the best advice possible – trust but verify.”

That’s the goal of the McHenry County’s genealogists. What Pfannkuche and other genealogists, such as those from the McHenry County Genealogical Society and the British Interest Group of Wisconsin and Illinois, known at BIGWILL, tell new genealogists is that their local public library is one of the best places to start research.

BIGWILL focuses its studies on the British Isles and will celebrate its 20th anniversary in September. The group houses a collection of books at the McHenry Public Library.

“The resources in McHenry County are just great for getting people what they need,” group President Sandra Michaels said.

The McHenry County Genealogical Society has been assisting those who need a little more guidance for 30 years.

The society’s goal is to provide something for everybody, said President Ann Wells. It features speakers from different cultures and heritages and also educates researchers so they’re more familiar with different types of historical documents.

“We teach people to think outside the box,” Wells said. “Your ancestry is part of history. I love the hunt, and I really think everybody should do it because it explains a lot about yourself. It makes history more relatable. If you have ancestors in the Civil War or World War II, for example, knowing your past makes it more than dates and comments in a book.”

Wells said that participating in a local genealogical society is the easiest way to learn.

“As long as I’ve been doing this, I continue to learn or have my memory jogged,” she said. “It gives you somebody else to talk to.”

Wells, who also runs her own genealogy business called Wells Genealogical Research, said a lot of people pursue genealogy for medical reasons, particularly if they have an inherited disease, to help doctors know what they’re up against.

The great thing about genealogy, however, is how one man’s history can quickly blend into a larger picture. Ultimately, good genealogical research evolves into family history, Pfannkuche said. They want to know where family members lived, what they did for a living, who they were. Learning this information brings American history to life.

“History and genealogy – it’s like sunshine and moonlight,” Pfannkuche said. “They just go together.”

America is a nation of immigrants, but it’s becoming rarer Americans to know their heritage.

When Pfannkuche was teaching high school, he infused his courses with local history, urging students to explore the history around them. Later in his career, in the 1990s, he was chided for this, asked by administrators to stop distracting students with items that wouldn’t be included on state standardized tests.

“What’s happening in education is they’re taking us, the people, out of history, by saying kids have to know only so much and only certain things,” Pfannkuche said. “It’s taking us away from our history. I am so proud of what my family did. I can see these things. When you take the personal out of history, what good is it?”

Fortunately for enthusiastic McHenry County residents, a number of resources exist locally and online.

Genealogists frequently use websites such as and Many records exist online through state websites. For example, Illinois has indexes online of marriages up to 1900 and deaths up to 1916.

To search print records, a local library or a more extensive research library, such as the Newberry Library in Chicago, is a good starting point, Wells said. She said she has made use of archived newspaper stories and other records found in the library.

For researchers who are having a hard time getting their search off the ground, local genealogical societies always welcome new members.

Interested in joining?

• The McHenry County Genealogical Society meets at 6:45 p.m. on the second Thursday of April and May at the McHenry Public Library. In January and February, they will meet 9:45 a.m. on the second Saturday. Find more information at

• BIGWILL meets from 10 a.m. to noon on the third Saturday of January, March, May, July, September and November. For information, visit

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