Library helps connect community members, families with the past

This photo of McGregor’s Main Street (showing the Sullivan Opera House and Scott’s Wholesale and Retail) is just one featured in the George Smith collection.

This cabinet holds binders full of historical information about everything from the community’s notable people to buildings and homes. (Photo by Audrey Posten)


By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor


The McGregor Public Library houses a number of books filled with historical information—tomes featuring wars and generals, laws and politicians, inventors and explorers. While that information is important, there is more to history than memorizing and recalling facts about prominent figures and notable events. This concept was pioneered by Lucy Maynard Salmon, who served as the assistant principal and later principal at McGregor High School after graduating from college in 1876. After a short time in McGregor, Salmon went on to become a collegiate history professor, where she encouraged students to learn about history through less traditional means that reveal information about ordinary life.


Salmon is featured in the library, in a binder devoted to some of McGregor’s notable people. The binder—housed in a cabinet behind the front desk, out of the sight of casual librarygoers—resides with dozens of others filled with years and years of newspaper clippings and other information. The binders cover a broad range of topics related to the community’s past—important people like sand artist Andrew Clemens, the Ringling Brothers, Emma Big Bear, the MacGregors and Basil Giard; bridges; churches; fires; floods; parks; geology; streets; houses and buildings; businesses; city entities like the police force, fire dept. and chamber of commerce; and community clubs, organizations and teams.


So fitting of Lucy Salmon’s ideals, it offers people the opportunity to learn about the community’s “ordinary people.”


While the McGregor Historical Museum is a valuable source for genealogical information, Library Director Michelle Pettit said many also check with the library. Another cabinet holds alphabetized binders, with each holding information about the familial last names people have researched at the library. When one name is researched, Pettit said she keeps that information in a binder in case other related family members come in search of information. If she can, she also shares contact info with those connected parties.


“They don’t know each other, but they might be third cousins,” she said. “We work as a connecting link.”


Pettit said summer and fall are the busiest times, as people often stop to look up information if they’re traveling or in town looking at gravestones. On some days, the library has had up to three sets of searches.


However, wintertime also offers its fair share of genealogists. Just last week, Pettit said a man who had been adopted stopped in hoping to find information.


If someone is interested in learning more about their ancestors, Pettit said having dates to refer to is really helpful. The librarians are also willing to offer as little or as much help as needed, especially when searching microfilm.


The library has a microfilm collection of the North Iowa Times, dating from 2010 back to Oct. 1856, when the newspaper first began printing. More recent issues are available in hard copy form. The library also provides access to obituaries.


“You get the whole spectrum,” Pettit said, referring to the confidence level of researchers. “Some people are old hats. They’re confident and do it a lot, so they want to do it themselves. Some people really want us to find stuff for them. It’s about half and half.”


If the library doesn’t yield any genealogical links, Pettit said there are a number of helpful online sources. One of those resources is the Clayton County Genealogical Society, which provides things like cemetery listings and census, birth and marriage records.


Aside from the genealogical information it offers, the library also connects the community with its past, giving people a snapshot of what life was like 50 or even 150 years ago. The museum has shared some photo collections with the library. While people can look at the photos in binders, some are also available on discs.


One more recent collection was taken by George Smith, who was an agent for the Chicago, Milwaukee and Saint Paul Railroad during the 1880s, and lived above the passenger depot in McGregor. The photos were given to the McGregor Historical Society by his granddaughter, Mrs. T.W. Brewer of Sarasota, Fla. The photos depict a wide range of scenes—everything from views of McGregor’s Main Street businesses to ladies dressed in their finery in Buell Park.


No matter the occasion, Pettit is there to continue Lucy Salmon’s revolutionary concept of turning the ordinary into the important.


“I really like the people part of history,” she said.

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