Saturday, August 3, 2019

Finding Your Rural and Small Town Ancestors in Directories

Winter Scene in New Haven, Connecticut
George Henry Durrie, c. 1858
from Google Arts & Culture

Just because your ancestors didn't live in cities doesn't mean that they aren't listed in directories.  As a matter of fact, there are a large variety of directories available for your rural and small town ancestors.  These directories have a variety of names:
  • county directory - published either as a part of a city directory--usually in the back of the volume--or as a separate, stand-alone directory
  • rural directory - also published as a part of a city directory, or separately
  • farm directory or farmers directory - sometimes titled "farmers and breeders directory", "farmers and business directory", or "farmers almanac and business directory"
  • atlas, plat book, or gazetteer - often incorporated with a small town business or rural directory
  • county history - may include a small town business or rural directory

For the purpose of this post and simplicity, I'm going to refer to all of the above as "rural directories."

Just as the names of the directories are varied, so are the facts you may discover about your ancestor, depending upon what information was gathered by the directory companies.  Here are some of the details I've noticed in various rural directories:
  • whether a land-owning or tenant farmer
  • how many acres owned or farmed
  • a description of the property, such as section, township, and range; or lot and concession numbers
  • rural route number, or name of the nearest post office
  • the name of and mileage (and sometimes direction) from the nearest community - "5 miles SW of Centerville"
  • telephone number and exchange (for historical timeline reference, Bell invented the telephone in 1876)
  • name of the farm or ranch
  • number of cattle, horses, sheep, and other large livestock
  • listing of breeders and the specific types of livestock and poultry breeds they raised
  • major crops planted by the farmer
  • wife's maiden name
  • children's names
  • year the individual became a resident in that county
  • military service, or lists of veterans
  • photographs of prominent citizens, homes, businesses, small town streets
  • automobile owners
  • tractor owners
  • county road and local highway maps
  • township maps
  • rural delivery route maps

The Farm Journal Illustrated Rural Directory of Genesee County Michigan 1919 - 1924,
published 1919 by the Wilmer Atkinson Company
from the Internet Archive

Above you can see three listings for York families in the Genesee County, Michigan rural directory of 1919.  The middle listing is my great-great-grandfather, James L. York with his (second) wife Mary, and his "child" Howard M. (my great-grandfather, who was 21 at the time).  James was a farmer who owned 40 acres, 2 horses, and 5 cattle.  His mailing address was Route 1, Goodrich (a village), and he lived on Atlas Township road 65.

Above James's entry is one for his oldest son Ernest and his family.  He was not a farmer, but a mason.  Below James's entry is one for his older brother Jeremiah Franklin York, Jr., who was a retired farmer.  James's entry is in ALL CAPS, which means he subscribed to The Farm Journal.  Consulting the abbreviation key at the beginning of this directory was very helpful, just as it is for city directories.

As noted with my great-grand-uncle Ernest, one did not have to be farmer to be listed in a rural directory.  There were many people with various occupations in rural areas: skilled laborers such as masons, blacksmiths, millers, and mechanics; ferrymen; shopkeepers; business owners; town clerks and sheriffs; clergymen, doctors, attorneys, and other professionals.  So don't let the knowledge that your small-town ancestor was not a farmer prevent you from searching farm and rural directories!

Just as with city directories, rural directories should lead you to review and compare other related records.  Gazetteers, plat maps, physical maps, land records, church records, local newspapers, and county histories and biographies are just some of the many records that can enhance what you find in the directories.  Both federal and state censuses often have corresponding agricultural schedules, besides the population schedules, so be sure to consult those as well.

While your rural ancestors may have belonged to a church society and/or a fraternal society such as the Masonic Lodge, they were also likely to have belonged to the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, known commonly as the Grange, which was founded in 1867.  A couple of Grange directories can be found at the Internet Archive.  Contact the Granges in your ancestral areas, if they still exist, to see if they have records of your ancestor, too.

The Road to Lumberville or The Edge of the Village
Fern Coppedge, 1938
from Google Arts & Culture

Finally, get a sense of what it was like to live in that place and time by looking further into the information at the beginning and end of the directory.  Often, you'll find the history of the county; the number of farms within the county and its highest-producing crops and classes of livestock; advertisements from local businesses, some with illustrations or photographs; and farming tips for raising livestock, planting and harvesting crops, symptoms and treatments for disease, pests, and weeds.

You can find rural directories in the same places you find city directories: offline, in libraries, genealogical and historical societies, archives, and used bookstores; and online, in subscription genealogical websites such as Ancestry, MyHeritage, Fold3, FindMyPast; free-to-access websites such as FamilySearch, the Internet Archive, digitized collections of libraries, archives, genealogical and historical societies; and second-hand book distributors' websites, and auction sites such as Ebay.

Rural directories can yield a rich harvest for your genealogical and historical research!

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