Society Saturday: The Idaho Genealogical Society Annual Meeting 2.0

I posted earlier today about my intention to attend the Idaho Genealogical Society’s (IGS) annual meeting, and with my return I am finally ready to update and add more detail about the proceedings! In short, it was a great affair. I carpooled with local members of the genealogical society in my town that I had been hoping to connect with, but just hadn’t gotten around to doing yet (remember the ‘I mean to…’ list?) and they were just delightful. They and the other people I met at the gathering were all very friendly and welcoming, and I had as much fun networking and meeting people as I did in the various sessions they had planned.

Speaking of sessions, I learned quite a bit today! The meeting consisted of the expected business involved in running a genealogical society, including the business and project up-dates (the IGS has a fascinating project in the works to locate and describe every burial place in Idaho they can in each county – some are already done and others are in progress). Besides that, there were several speakers from which I learned quite a bit. My favorite by far was a talk by Steven Branting, a local historian who has been recognized for his work several times. He covered a range of topics centering on illness, death and burial in frontier Idaho, and I honestly wish I could have a DVD of his talk because it had so many interesting nuggets in it. I tweeted a few of them during his lecture and they include the following. Did you know…

  • Undertaking is a relatively new profession? People didn’t embalm bodies much until the Civil War era when they needed to travel long distances to get home for burial.
  • They are called ‘funeral homes’ because most people were prepared and laid out for burials at home before the invention of undertaking? They were laid out in the parlor, usually, which is where we get the term ‘funeral parlor’.
  • Arsenic was used to embalm bodies before formaldehyde? Undertakers usually died young from arsenic poisoning and people didn’t realize how deadly it was until the 1910s, when it was finally outlawed from use in embalming.
  • Early cemeteries had no vaults, making it both easy to step onto a grave that might collapse on you (be careful walking in old ones!) and also, nothing to keep the rainwater out of the arsenic-embalmed corpses, which means many water supplies around cemeteries are permanently poisoned or tainted, including right here in Lewiston. There was a rash of illnesses until they closed the city wells. Some cemeteries may have up to a ton of arsenic in the soil beneath them and the tree leaves might be laced with it. All old cemeteries should have water nearby tested regularly.
  • Post-mortem photography was very popular in the 1870s and 1880s? Today we would rarely think of photographing a burial or funeral reception, but they commonly would photograph the dead or dying back then to have a momento to remember them by after they were buried.

In another session on the 1940 census, I learned in more detail what questions were asked. I’m particularly excited to see that each person was asked where they were living in 1935! That’s right! Everyone had to give their residence at the halfway point! Obviously, this was for Depression-era reasons and not genealogical ones, but I’m still thrilled! The amount of job information and education information is also exciting, and I find myself really wanting to get my hands on it! Of course, there will be no index, but that’s not a problem if one knows where their family was living. Steve Morse gave his excellent one-stop shop to finding the enumeration district here, but if one doesn’t have a location, the presenter today recommended starting with city directories. Index or no, in April 2012, I will be all over that census looking for my grandparents and great-grandparents! There is also an agricultural census and a housing census, the latter due to issues with housing in the Depression era, that will make for interesting searching.

Between the sessions and the networking, my brain was quite full by the end of the day! But that was not the end of my luck! The first speaker, Steven Branting? He had an actual photo, the first I had seen, of J. Morris Howe ON HIS COMPUTER! And he sent it to me! The first photo I have ever seen, and he oh-so-generously shared it! I will be sure to post it next time I cover the Howe letters.

Finally, I learned today that IGS has recently begun its own blogging venture! I encouraged them to register it with Geneabloggers to get the word out, but in the meantime, I hope my readers will think about going over and checking them out and welcoming them to the geneablogging community. The Idaho Genealogical Society blog is available at If you have Idaho relatives or know someone who does, check out the history, the publications available and more! And keep an eye on it for future updates as it develops!
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