Stories of the Past

Written by Lee Hermiston

Photo by Matthew Holst

Harvey Henry doesn’t live in the past, but he spends a lot of his free time studying it. But the history that the retired architect studies isn’t found in text books. His subject matter is found in census data, land deeds, birth records and death certificates. As an avid genealogy enthusiast — the study of one’s ancestry — Harvey said he’s interested in learning the stories of his relatives’ lives.

“We found that to be satisfying,” Harvey said of the vast amount of research he’s conducted with his wife, Gloria.

Henry said he and his wife began doing genealogical research on their relatives in 1985. Thirteen years later, the couple has documented more than 5,000 relatives from nine basic families, Henry said.

But it wasn’t always easy.

“I found that my parents had some knowledge about my ancestors,” Henry said, “but it only went so far.”

The rest of the work was done by Henry, spending as much of his free time as he can pouring over documents involving the lives of his distant relatives. The work paid off, though, turning up interesting information about Henry’s relatives he wouldn’t have otherwise known. Henry said he learned one of his distant relatives carved meat in Illinois for future President Abraham Lincoln. Another relative was captured by British soldiers during the War of 1812.

“We found about that just by accident,” Henry said of the Lincoln connection.

Although Henry’s most in-depth and detailed work goes into researching his own roots, he also lends his time to help others with an interest in genealogy. Henry is the webmaster for Iowa City Genealogical Society. Henry said his wife joined the society in 1996; he joined a year later and became webmaster in 2000.

“We have all kinds of information on vital statistics (on the Web site),” Henry said.

One of Henry’s side projects is the Iowa Gravestone Photo Project. The program is a state-wide undertaking of the Iowa USGenWeb, the state genealogy association. Henry coordinates the Johnson County page. The goal of the project is to photograph every gravestone in Iowa, county by county, and document them on the project’s Web site for world-wide viewing and research.

“That’s a massive undertaking,” Henry said.

To get some support for the project, Henry gave a seminar to about 40 people a few months ago to teach them how to take and submit gravestone photos. Iowa City Genealogy Society member Margee Miller said Henry, whom she praised as a “tireless worker,” was enthusiastic and educational during his presentation.

“I think he was very helpful for getting people to contribute,” Miller said. “He’s just enabling other people to get this project to grow. He’s an excellent teacher.”

However, few people have a better idea of how dedicated Henry is to the project than his own wife.

“He just does a lot of work,” Gloria said. “He’s just in there (his office) day and night.”

However, Harvey is quick to share the praise with other people who are working on the project, including people who have begun to photograph and document gravestones throughout the county. Henry said he hoped his presentation would help the project to take off.

“It’s a big job,” he said, “but we’re anxious to have people volunteer.”