HONESDALE - Tracing one’s roots- the subject of genealogy has expanded exponentially in recent years, not unlike the realization of how many ways we as a human family are interconnected, with millions of distant, “shirt-tail” cousins if one could look deep enough. On top of that search at the Wayne County Historical Society in Honesdale is Kay Stephenson, who plans to retire no later than the end of 2018.

Kay is the chief Research Librarian at the 100-year old non-profit Society. Although she plans to step down from her paid position by that time, her plan is to continue as a volunteer, and be busy conducting projects in the library that otherwise aren’t getting done.

She adds that in the event that a successor is found to fill her shoes before the end of next year, she plans to step down at that time. Kay says she will be there to train the new person to lead the Research Library.

It’s more than looking up someone’s family tree, although that is the primary use of the library. The Wayne County Historical Society is home to a vast trove of information on local history, and is the center of an ongoing mining expedition by any number of historians and others who want to piece together the puzzle of the past. Kay and her staff work on that as well, and assist others who are researching.

The tools that they use in the search for information include many shelves packed with reference books, historic maps, files of newspaper clippings, letters and other documents categorized by a whole range of subjects, microfilmed marriage, birth and death records, thousands of microfilm reels of newspapers, nearly 10,000 photographs, and more.

Working with Kay are her assistant, Bart Brooks, who is also on staff; a regular volunteer, Sue Houck who is also editor of the Society’s quarterly newsletter, and numerous periodic volunteers that include interns and high school students.

Long history

The Society’s main museum at 810 Main St., Honesdale, has contained a reference library and served as a repository for historic books and documents, since soon after the former D&H Canal Company offices became the headquarters for the newly formed Society, in 1917. Long-time secretary and newspaper editor, Edwin Calloway led the charge for the library. Some of those who have served in the library in the past also include Myrtle Newton, Grace Bentley and Charles and Alma Haines.

Credit is given to the late Dr. Richard Eldred, former Wayne County Historian, for helping to build the library and promote it as a modern research library.

The late Gloria McCullough was the first paid Research Librarian, and she served 20 years until her death in 2013.

The library was later named in her memory.  Kay Stephenson started in the library as a volunteer, in 2004. Following Gloria’s death, Ann O’Hara was filling in, and Alice Scott served as the librarian for a brief time. Kay then took over the role.

When she started, she also helped Ron Barillo in the Gift Shop, and eventually became the paid shop manager, in about 2008 (Jane Brooks currently fills that role, with assistance from Rachel Ingram)

Natural fit

Being active at the Historical Society was a natural fit for Kay. She has had a long love of history and skills she nurtured working in accounting and personnel, for the Army and Air Force. She says she left her federal employment so she could be active as a volunteer. “I loved libraries, books and history,” she said.

In addition to the Historical Society, she has been active helping at the Wayne County Library, on an intermittent basis. 

Her father was in the Pennsylvania State Police, which caused the family to move around a lot, in northeast Pennsylvania. She graduated from Honesdale High School in 1959, and currently makes Hawley her home, where she lives near her son.

In her role as Research Librarian, she does a great many things, although she stressed it is team work.

Among her tasks, along with helping with the research, is managing the office, correspondence, helping Executive Director Carol Henry Dunn on certain projects, and running the monthly Wayne County Genealogy Group. 

The Genealogy Group meets at the main museum on the fourth Thursday of the month at 4:30 p.m., (January through October) and is open to anyone interested in learning and sharing about genealogy research. The group was formed in the late 1990’s. Depending on the topic, there are usually 15 to 30 people who attend.

Far and wide

People from all over the United States and from countries around the world contact the Wayne County Historical Society with questions about family history research. This is a paid service, although members of the Society have free use of the library during regular business hours, to come in and look up records.

She stated that is very interesting to meet so many different people, who all share an interest in genealogy.  Doing the research is something like being a detective, Kay said. She may need to go each through deeds and wills at the courthouse, or comb through old newspapers. Census records are meticulously searched online.

“Families are so interesting,” she said. “There are so many stories out there, which need to be told.”

Myths & a few closet skeletons

Sometimes there are particular challenges, like common names. There are three different Smith families in Wayne County, and sorting out who’s who is part of the fun and frustration at times.

Part of what they end up doing is dispelling myths. While it can be rewarding to be able to help people, Kay stated that sometimes they learn things they’d rather not know, or find that cherished story in the family folklore was just that, a story!

In one case, a family had a belief that two brothers emigrated, coming over on a ship from Europe, bound for America. The story was that they met two sisters who were fellow passengers, and they had two weddings on board! It turns out in doing the research, that the library staff found the two brothers were already in America when the ship landed.

Someone else learned of some shenanigans that occurred when an ancestor was in the military during one of the world wars, the descendants didn’t care to discover!

People are thrilled

On the other hand, Kay said that families are so often thrilled at finding out a little more about how they are connected, and finding out stories the library staff is able to find. Particularly exciting is finding out connections in the Revolutionary War, or a link to the Mayflower voyages.

Bart does a lot of the computer research. Kay puts what they find out in a chronological story, detailing all they were able to learn about a customer’s ancestry. This is packaged together for the family.

“People are very appreciative,” Kay said. “They expect just documents but find out we wrote it up in a form that is easy to read.”

When they get an inquiry, she says they ask for as much information as they can, to learn what the family already knows. This not only helps avoiding duplication, but aids in knowing where to dig to find more family information.

There are several other Wayne Counties in the United States. They frequently get inquiries that were meant for someone else. The Wayne County Historical Society in Honesdale, Pa., focuses of course on Wayne County, although research may cross borders. They sometimes will direct people to contact historical societies in neighboring counties to find out more.

Huge growth

The library has grown a great deal since Kay became involved 13 years ago, in 2004. A large addition was added to the building in 2008, which resulted in a larger library and an archive room. Computers have been added which the public may use to look up information.

Use of the library by the public has “exploded” since the Society started a website, she said. Most inquiries are by email. Others are by phone call and letter. Fewer come by in person.

 A massive project has been underway, initially led by the former Executive Director, Sally Talaga, to digitize thousands of photographs, so that they may easily located with a computer program. 

A new system was put in place in 2017 that allows scanning of thousands of deteriorating microfilm reels, with the ability to raise contrast and restore image of long-ago newspaper pages that in some cases have been fading beyond recognition. The new system will also allow searching of names and other words in the text of the database of newspapers. This will be an immense improvement in the ability to look up historic information. Sue is working on that project, which takes as long as two or three hours per reel.

For information

WCHS members may use the library at no charge; non-members pay $5 a day. There are additional charges for photocopies or computer copies. To order a professional research package costs $55,00; one may also pay $6.00 for looking up a single name, or $12 for looking up four items.

For more information about the Wayne County Historical Society Research Library and the Research Librarian position email wchspa@ptd.net or call 570-253-3240. 

To find help in discovering one’s genealogy, including hiring a research professional, visit www.waynehistorypa.org (click Research Library), email or call.