Digging up Hidden History

I’ve always loved to look out the window when going for a drive. I love a good mountain view, and the creeks and rivers, the old houses, churches, and barns. I don’t want to miss any of it. If I’m looking down at my phone, I might miss that old cemetery on the side of the road, or an old barn, or an old brick farmhouse. I don’t want to miss that, because all of these places have stories.

There’s a Story Everywhere

The old church and historical marker at the Roberts Settlement in Hamilton County, Indiana 

The old church and historical marker at the Roberts Settlement in Hamilton County, Indiana 

On family vacations growing up I used to record every creek, river, and lake we’d cross, sometimes all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Something about them fascinated me. Now I think it’s because of their tie to history. The rivers carried canoes, flatboats, riverboats, the network of rivers across the land connected the people from the East to the West. I was drawn to the old farmhouses that now sit on the side of the Interstate, and I’d wonder about the story of the family that lost their land to progress. Who were these people that lived here? Who are the people that are buried in that old cemetery we just passed?

We miss a lot if we dismiss these places, or if we’re not paying attention. History is all around us, even in places you would never suspect. There’s a story everywhere. Historical markers dot the country, and more are being added all the time. Often there is little or no remnant of the building, people, or event that the marker describes, but you can stand there and remember, or imagine. There is a new historical marker in Hamilton County, Indiana now that honors the old Roberts Settlement, a Black settlement where now that all remains of a once thriving community is an old church and a cemetery. But there are stories that survive too, in their descendants and community history. There are always stories and memories that survive, we just have to dig for them.

Family History in Seemingly Insignificant Places

I happened upon such a story one time, much by accident, that brought a forgotten place back to life. And the place now is a parking garage in downtown Indianapolis. I’d passed it countless times, I’ve even parked there, but to think that that place played an important role in my family history? Well, the thought would never have crossed my mind. But in reading a family history and combing through old city directories, I discovered that what used to sit on that location was the blacksmith shop run by my great-great-great grandfather, John Mulry.  

The infamous parking garage 

The infamous parking garage 

Who would have thought that a seemingly insignificant spot like that of a parking garage would have so much history behind it? It reminded me once again of the importance of digging for stories. Cities like Indianapolis have obvious historical sites like the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, and old cemeteries and houses, but there are small stories hidden in among family histories and county, city, and state histories that remind you that little things happened in places that don’t look like they carry history. Now every time I cross Fall Creek near the state fairgrounds I think of the boy that lived there when it was dense woods and he got lost walking a half mile to his home from the log schoolhouse. Now when I drive down 38th Street I think of the story of the black bear that ran down the street – probably the last bear in the city, but that that kind of wildlife used to run wild in this place. When I drive over the White River in Noblesville, I think of the Delaware villages that used to sit on its banks, that are now surrounded by neighborhoods and stores.

White River in Delaware County, Indiana 

White River in Delaware County, Indiana 

Digging up the History

History and stories are hidden beneath the surface – literally everywhere. Our world changes so fast, but every place has a story. Dig these stories up with your kids, especially those stories that relate to your family, like my parking garage. When you pass the old house that your great-grandpa grew up in, point it out to your kids, and take that opportunity to tell them stories about him. Encourage your kids’ imaginations about these places too. Point out that old farmhouse on the side of the Interstate, and wonder about that family. Wonder aloud about these places and imagine, and then see if you can’t dig up their stories. They’re out there.

The blacksmith shop turned parking garage taught me this lesson: our history is everywhere, but it’s up to us to find it.

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