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Published September 21st, 2016
The Family History Project Society
From left, Lynn Trowbridge, Tish Harwood, Helen Hasselman, Evans Wyro and Joan White. Photo Pete Hasselman

Ever think about publishing your family's history? If so, you're not alone.
Three and a half years ago a group of Orinda women with a passion for history and how their family's roots contributed to the American experience formed the Family History Project Society and have been working on their personal family history projects. One of them, Tish Harwood, will participate in a panel discussion about family history research and publication, alongside Linda Harms Okazaki, president of the California Genealogical Society, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6 at Orinda Books.
Harwood - who recently published the book "A Year Apart," which features a collection of letters her parents exchanged and is the completion of years of research - began the Family History Project Society after noticing that several of her friends were dealing with family archives at various levels of expertise.
She invited Evans Wyro, Helen Hasselman, Lynn Trowbridge, Joan White and the late Jane Buchanan, who supported her when she published her first book featuring a collection of her grandfather's letters, to form a support group.
Buchanan was an inspiration to the entire group; she organized material for different family history projects for her children and her own mother, and was able to complete her work while in chemotherapy.
The key to the success of any family history project, Harwood says, is the initial organizational work.
Sifting through a Sea of Information
Trowbridge received boxes of photos, letters and clippings that her mother gathered, and inherited some 70 letters from the Civil War era that were transcribed over a 20- year period, organized in archival sleeves and ordered chronologically.
She is now in the middle of researching her and her husband's ancestry, the genealogy and stories going back to the late 1700s, including a Nova Scotia sea captain on her husband's side, and an ancestor fighting in the Revolutionary War. She is giving the original documents to the New England Historic Genealogical Society for preservation, along with a nursing medal her great-grandmother received during the 1853 yellow fever epidemic in Louisiana. Trowbridge contracted with the Newbury Street Press to publish the family book.
Wyro was given five boxes with photos, some of them from the Civil War era. She also has a purple box filled with the correspondence her mother and her best friend wrote to each other during a 10-year period, when Wyro was a child. The group inspired her to go through the box with her sister and make sense of it, and she says that the group's knowledge and support is helping her work on putting a book together.
Uncovering Mysteries
Sometimes while going through family archives, mysteries are uncovered. One day White was going through crumbling family photos that the group suggested she restore, and discovered a crumbling photo of four brothers with her grandmother - one more brother than she had always been told her grandmother had.
White did some research on ancestry.com and found records from the late 1880s of that forgotten great-uncle who was the first born, but was retarded and placed in an institution where he lived until his early 30s. Her objective is to consolidate the hundreds of photos, the oldest from the 1860s, add letters, postcards, and personal tidbits that will show who these people were, and put it all in a book format.
Hasselman had already published a book about her great-grandmother when the society was formed, but was interested in following the work of her friends. Her genealogy work also uncovered a mystery. She was told that her great-grandmother, Sophie, was born at sea and she wanted to learn more.
When she started 30 years ago, there was no ancestry.com, so she went first to the Mormon archives for data, then the San Francisco main library to search for when Danish ships came in, and she went to Copenhagen to do research there.
With the help of another Danish-American she found that her great-grandmother was in fact born in Denmark. She learned that her great-great-grandmother was not married when the children were born; the father had gone to the U.S. to dig for gold. It wasn't until 10 years later that the family was united and the parents were finally married.
It took Hasselman over 10 years to gather the data, write the story and publish the book, "Sophie's Secret."
Opening Windows to the Past
For Harwood, finding the letters her parents exchanged over a yearlong period when her father was in residency away from home gave her a picture into their souls.
Harwood's mother got Alzheimer's about eight years after the letters were written, and for Harwood's six younger siblings, she says the letters were a revelation of who their mother really was and has provided healing in the family. After her father died, while at her parents' historic Ohio farm, she found 350 letters written in 1954 when her father was away while his wife was home with six kids. It tells the story of two people who shared themselves in writing more than their children ever witnessed.
The five women believe that it is important for the younger generation to get a feel of not only their place of origin, but also what times were like when their ancestors lived. They also believe of the importance of putting documents in archives that people can now access through the Internet.
The group meets once a month and shares updates on their work as well as resources and techniques they use.
The friends say that if people are interested in working on their own memorabilia, they should start their own small group. They add that they are happy to help. For more information about the Orinda Books Family History Month Q&A presentation, go to orindabooks.com.

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