History hunter

GREENFIELD — When Jack Humbles got stumped, he knew just where to turn for help.

Humbles, a regular at Hancock County Public Library genealogy meetings, has been tracing two branches of his family tree for the past decade. And whenever the Spiceland resident needed help plugging the right information into ancestry.com, or finagling the new microfiche machine in the local history room, Paul McNeil was there.

For a year, McNeil served as a reference librarian at the library, occasionally aiding patrons in their search to piece together their personal histories. When he found he had a knack for helping people find their roots, he decided to take a step to turn his hobby into something more official. In November, he applied for and was awarded the position of Hancock County Genealogist by the Indiana Genealogical Society.

McNeil became interested in the position after receiving a $250 scholarship from the genealogical society to take an online genealogy course from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also attended the society’s annual conference in Terre Haute in April.

The genealogical society aims to appoint a county genealogist in each of Indiana’s 92 counties, but finding qualified history buffs willing to take on the responsibility is difficult. Only 57 people across the state currently hold the title, state records show.

County genealogists serve as a liaison between the genealogical society and the county they represent and act as the point person for people who come to their area to do research.

McNeil is the first person to be appointed as a Hancock County Genealogist, said Indiana Genealogical Society treasurer Meredith Thompson.

Perhaps that’s because tracing a person’s ancestry can be tedious work. Unlike the glossy TV shows such as “Who Do You Think You Are,” in which genealogists seem to uncover dramatic family histories in mere minutes, McNeil said the reality of genealogical research involves much more time, phone calls and poking through heavy bound volumes of historical records — or their online equivalents.

“People still think it’s easy,” he said. “They think that in an hour, you can trace your history back to William the Conqueror.”

A Middletown native, McNeil received his bachelor’s degree in history from Ball State University before achieving a master’s degree in library science, archives and records management, from Indiana University.

McNeil said he fell into the genealogist aspect of his job. He became a reference librarian at the library but didn’t realize until later that assisting library patrons with their efforts to uncover family history would become a part of his job — one he liked.

Library assistant director Barb Roark said McNeil was a natural fit for the position of county genealogist.

“Paul is very dedicated and very interested in learning,” she said.

Roark helped him get the county genealogist title, by writing one of the letters of recommendation he needed to apply, she said.

McNeil enjoys helping patrons in the local history room, whether during open research nights or casual visits during the day, he said. The library owns and maintains several shelves of historical records, such as Works Progress Administration archives from the 1930s, state genealogical society indexes and local history books.

In addition, the local history room hosts local yearbooks going back to 1900. Look through countless reels of microfilm, and you’ll find local newspapers dating to 1860.

In addition to its print archives, the library also hosts many of its historical references in online archives, McNeil said.

To help library patrons who are searching for their family histories, the library also has subscriptions to ancestry.com, HeritageQuest Online and records from the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company, among others, McNeil said; many of these are accessible to patrons at home through the library’s website and app.

McNeil said one document can make all the difference in a person’s search to learn more about their family history; obituaries, he said, are a great source of information. Looking through lists of the dead is the No. 1 thing he does, he said.

He also connects patrons to records from outside collections.

“It’s a lot of remote research, where I am sending an email or a letter, or making a phone call to another librarian, and copying what I find for the patrons,” he said.

He said it is rewarding when those he helped come in months later and share the information they found with him.

The library hosts a genealogy interest group, which meets every third Wednesday of the month, McNeil said. Guest speakers often spice up the meetings, he said.

Humbles said the meetings are not only interesting but beneficial for those who are tracing their histories.

“He … (has) been very good at setting up guest speakers who are useful,” Humbles said.

Kitty Smock, the library’s communications manager, added that the genealogy interest group has grown since McNeil started working at the library — a testament to McNeil’s relationship with patrons.

Bob Suhr, a Greenfield resident and genealogy enthusiast, said McNeil is organized and very good at keeping the genealogy group informed about what’s coming up, which has helped draw about 10 to 20 people to most meetings.

Suhr belongs to Palatines to America, a German genealogical society. The group gave a seminar in August for the genealogy interest group about Jacob Schramm, one of the early settlers in New Palestine, whose letters are housed in the local history room.

Learn more

Researchers may use the Hancock County Public Library’s local history room during library business hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays.

Hancock County Genealogist Paul McNeil is available by request to assist researchers.

Author photo
Rorye Hatcher is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at ​317-477-3211 or rhatcher@greenfieldreporter.com.