Taking the Census: The Day Dad Found Himself

Dad was 78 when he accompanied me to the National Archives Branch in Denver. He was not a researcher and had no idea that an ordinary citizen could look at census information. He just wanted to spend some time with me while I worked on a family history project.
          Filing cabinets and microfilm viewing machines were packed into the archives reading room. Only the occasional whump of a file drawer sliding shut or the whir of film on fast rewind broke the silence. I settled Dad at a desk next to mine, loaded a census film for Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, and forwarded it to Holland Township, where he grew up. It was the 1910 census. 
          Now and then as I worked, Dad tapped my arm. “Here’s Isaac and Jeanette LaGasse; I used to walk to school with them,” he whispered. I nodded without taking my eyes off my own work. A short time later, another tap. “Here’s my pa’s friend, Ed Ten Haken.” And so it went. Dad spent a nostalgic afternoon following the census taker through his rural farming community, stopping in at the homes of school mates and neighbors long forgotten.
          Everyone in the reading room that day heard Dad’s exclamation of delight when he found himself. He burst out with his customary, “Well, I’ll be switched,” as he pulled me over to look. There he was, Harvey Simmelink, age 9 months on that April day in 1910 when the census taker came to call.
          It was a validating moment for Dad. According to Sheboygan County, his birth had never been recorded. It was scrawled in the family Bible and his baptism was noted in the church rolls, but Dad did not have a birth certificate. Finding himself officially listed in a government record somehow closed that one nagging hole in an otherwise complete life.
          When I took Dad along that day, I was afraid he might be bored. Instead, he experienced an epiphany of wonder. I know my grandparents and those neighbors and childhood friends would be pleased to know that Dad stopped by to pay them a visit after all those years and found them at home.
(This story originally appeared in the New York Times on May 25, 2002 and The Saturday Evening Post Sept/Oct 2002.)
          In 2012 the 1940 census will be publicly available, giving people the opportunity to rediscover themselves as my Dad did. This year, 2010, is a census year. The information we all contribute will not become public until 2082. You never know who, in that distant future, will be as excited to find you as my Dad was to find himself.
         Please respond when the census form comes in the mail or when a census taker comes to your door.

Published in: on March 29, 2010 at 6:00 am  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I have read this article more than once but still have to smile when my ex-neighbor Harvey, aka”James” as our driver, found himself on the census. I can imagine his excitement as he discovered himself with his parents in print that day.I am a genealogist and get excited over the simple little things such as census and Bible Records,etc. Let’s all excite future generations by recording family data and responding to the census. Thanks Cindy for putting a smile on my face this evening with this posting.

    • I still smile every time I think about that day in the archives reading room when Dad found himself. It’s nice to share with someone who remembers him.

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