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1940 Census data gives the data behind the family story

ShenBenus Westville points out an entry while scanning datfrom 1940 census with Larry Clark Valparaiso branch Porter County Library Wednesday

Shena Benus, of Westville, points out an entry while scanning data from the 1940 census with Larry Clark at the Valparaiso branch of the Porter County Library Wednesday May 23, 2012. Clark is the head of the genealogy department for the Porter County Public Library system. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 3, 2012 12:26PM



Family lore has always said that Marlene Polster’s mother had to spend part of her childhood during the Great Depression in an orphanage because her parents couldn’t afford to feed her.

Polster, a Crown Point resident, still doesn’t know whether that story is true. What she does know, thanks to the individual records from the 1940 census that were recently released, is that her mother, who would have been about 7, was definitely living with her family at that time, even if she had been sent off before.

“In a way I wish it did prove the story,” Polster said recently as she searched the census records at the Porter County Public Library in Valparaiso.

Polster and other local amateur genealogists like her have been using the 1940 census information to find out more about their families and what their lives were like at the end of the Great Depression and just before the outbreak of World War II.

The U.S. Census Bureau releases the individual forms used to gather the census count 72 years after each census was taken. The bureau released the forms from the 1940 census about two months ago, and since then genealogists have pored over them looking for their family members.

For Polster, the records unveiled some new information about her family, such as that her aunt was born in Chicago and that her mother was indeed living at home. For others, it helped them to confirm what they thought and see into the past lives of their family members. Renetta DuBose, of Merrillville, and her mother, Debra Parr, used the information to fill in the pieces Parr’s family life in Gary during 1940.

“The 1940 census helped us to place who lived where, how much they made, where they worked,” DuBose said.

It also provided some family gossip: DuBose said she knew a single female relative had been living with a married man, and the census confirmed that yes, they did live together and that no, they were not married. It also showed they had a child together. That gives them more information to go on in finding out about the relative, she said.

Parr said that not only did she find her parents, who were living in Midtown, but also friends of her parents.

A search of the census records helped Westville resident Shena Benus connect her own life with that of her great-grandfather by confirming he lived at the family farm in Kentucky in 1940 — the same farm her own grandfather grew up on and where she would play as a child.

“It was kind of nice to see that where I played as a kid at my grandparent’s place, they lived there as well,” she said.

The census form is also likely one of the last pieces of information she’ll find on him — he died later that year, Benus said.

Although Benus is now researching all of her family, she said she’s been focused on her great-grandfather because her mother wanted to know more about him. She still doesn’t know much other than that he was a farmer and had red hair, she said, but the census helps to confirm what she did know and piece his life together.

Research takes time

The search, which can be found at several websites, isn’t as easy as looking up a family member’s name, however. Researchers have to look up a person by the address they lived at, instead of a name. They then use that address to find what census district they lived in and then have to go look up the forms from the district, scanning through pages until they find the person.

DuBose started searching the day it came out, with her mom joining the hunt a few days later. It took about a week before they found all of their family members, DuBose said.

Polster had an easy time finding her mother’s family because she knew they were all living in the same house on Swan Street in Chicago — a house that has since been replaced by the Dan Ryan Expressway. Her father’s background was a mystery, however, and she wasn’t sure where he was living.

“My dad never talked about his childhood,” Polster said.

After searching for a few minutes through the census forms for Paw Paw, Mich., though, Polster discovered not only her father, Charles Petty, but others of his family members as well.

“Oh, here he is!” she said as she searched the records. “Oh, that’s so good. Now I know where he was.”

Not only did it show he was still living with his adopted mother, but it confirmed he worked as a newspaper boy for about seven hours a week.

Polster said no detail is too small when it comes to finding out about her family’s history. She’s been researching her family tree in earnest since 1994, when she and her husband bought a new computer and a genealogy software program to go along with it.

“I was hooked,” she said.

Since then, she’s passed out forms to every relative she can to get more information from. She’ll spend wakeful nights on her computer researching her family. She isn’t alone, either. DuBose said she has the same drive and has already made several trips to Kentucky to research her family’s past before they moved to Gary in the early 1900s.

Not only has she tracked one relative, a free black man, back to Maryland in the 1790s, but she has even met a female descendant of the man who owned her great-great-great-great grandfather, Reason Porter. DuBose and several of her relatives even drove down to meet the woman at her home, the same plantation where both their ancestors had once lived. The trip turned into a mini-family reunion, of sorts, with the woman giving DuBose and her family a tour of the area and showing them family pictures.

“We saw a resemblance in our family members,” Parr said, laughing.

DuBose said the hunt for more knowledge of her family is what drives her, especially with so few members on her mother’s side still alive. One male relative has gone so far to test his blood to discover where from Africa they are from (turns out they originate from the area now known as Gabon). She’s even used the information she’s learned and turned it into a game that her family plays ever year.

“I think I’ll always want to know,” DuBose said. “I want to find my folks back to Adam and Eve.”



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