While some local residents may not be aware of the treasure trove of information stored at the Tazewell County Genealogical and Historical Society’s library in Pekin, the facility consistently draws visitors from around the country.
“Just in the last few months, we’ve had people here from California, West Virginia, Indiana, South Carolina, Iowa, Michigan and New Mexico,” said longtime TCGHS member Susan Rynerson as she glanced through the library’s visitors’ log.
Located at 719 N. 11th St., the library sits in the society’s Ehrlicher Research Center. After renting space for many years, the society bought the building in 1997 with the help of a generous benefactor. The library houses microfilm, microfiche and thousands of books, including local histories, plats and atlases; census records; cemetery records; marriage, birth, and death records; high school yearbooks; city directories; periodicals from other genealogical societies and one of the largest collections of German birth records in the state.
The group, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, makes its collection available to the public but is a privately funded organization that receives no tax dollars or grant money. The society’s entire source of revenue is from donations, the sale of publications and membership dues — $20 a year per individual or $23 a year per family.
“We are staffed strictly by volunteers,” Rynerson said. “The hours they put in here are staggering.”
On a Tuesday in May, several volunteers were gathering resources for the upcoming visit of a California man who had requested information on his Tazewell County ancestors.
“The staff has been working for days to have as much as possible pulled and ready for him when he gets here,” Rynerson said. Volunteers had pulled land records and city directories since the man wanted to visit houses his family had lived in, as well as church records that held information on births, marriages and deaths.
One of the volunteers helping on the project, Diane Haynes, actually shares an ancestor with the gentleman.
“Sometimes you learn stuff about your own family while you’re looking for stuff on other people’s families,” said Rynerson, who has traced her own family roots back to the 1600s.
TCGHS volunteers can provide research services to those unable to visit the library, including surname searches, obituary services and photographs of an ancestor’s grave for a donation to the society. Volunteers help walk-in visitors at no charge, although it’s not uncommon for visitors to sign up for a membership during the visit.
Pekin native Tim Staker, who now resides in Indiana, was one such visitor who was so impressed on a recent visit that he became a member on the spot.
“I had been doing online genealogy for over a year, but I had never actually performed any ‘on-the-ground’ genealogical research,” said Staker, who was seeking information on a great-great-grandfather who had lived in Tazewell County.
Staker said volunteers were friendly and pointed him directly to a number of pertinent resources, even tracking down his ancestor’s death certificate and helping him find photographs of other relatives he had never seen before.
“Some were of people I had known when they were older, but I got to see pictures of them when they were young,” he said. “There were pictures of others I hadn’t known, and it felt like I was meeting them for the first time.”
Volunteer Evelyn Burdette said she enjoys researching her own family and helping others because “it’s like being a detective.”
“We’re more than happy to help anyone who walks in the door,” she added.
The TCGHS library also receives and houses artifacts, most of which are stored away and available for viewing by appointment only. Recent acquisitions include a set of World War I dog tags, and an old wedding invitation.
Some artifacts will be on display during the society’s 40th anniversary open house Sept. 16. The event will also include refreshments and a drawing for a one-year membership and $20 worth of research.
“We hope a lot of people will come to the open house and see what we have here,” said organizer Diane Haynes. “You would not believe the number of people who say, ‘What do you do there?’ I tell them to come and see. People are just blown away by what we have.”
For more information, visit the TCGHS website at www.tcghs.org or call 309-477-3044.