Peter Summers, president of the Pinellas Genealogy Society, removes a book from the family history section at the Largo Library.
LARGO – Many people believe seeking out ancestors is probably one of the more fascinating interests an individual can undertake.
You can discover that Aunt Gladys from a few centuries ago had a shady past or that a great-great-great-grandfather was a war hero.
Genealogy can link you to the past by examining old records from courthouses, cemeteries and other public places.
Thanks to the Pinellas Genealogy Society that is based at the Largo Public Library, 120 Central Park Drive, many local residents and people from other areas of the state and country are researching their ancestors.
Created in 1972 as the Florida Society of Genealogical Research, the society was renamed in 1991 and takes up a large portion of the library’s second floor. All Pinellas County libraries some years ago sent their records to Largo, where the only centrally located countywide genealogy research division is now located.
At the helm is Peter Summers, a Wisconsin-born U.S. Army career retiree who rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. The West Point graduate traced his own ancestry back to 1802 ante-bellum New York and has a lead that may trace his heritage even further, to the 1600s.
“Genealogy is fascinating,” said Summers who now teaches at the Tampa campus of USF.
Summers’ own interest was piqued in 1972 when an aunt gave him a steamer trunk filled with old family letters, photographs, diaries and other items. He still has it.
The contents allowed him to “meet” a great-great-grandfather from the 1800s. He discovered that another relative fought in the Civil War.
It’s just in recent years that Summers was able to trace his mother’s heritage. Just recently he tracked down a cousin from his mother’s side.
“My mother died soon after I was born so I don’t remember her,” Summers said. “I traced her family back to Michigan.”
Summers’ ancestors were New Yorkers, mainly farmers, who moved to Wisconsin.
Before the Internet made heritage tracking easier, most people conducted what is called “pick and shovel genealogy.” Letters were written, potential kinfolk were contacted, cemetery and courthouse records were physically examined.
“The Internet is a boon to genealogy,” Summers said, “but there is still a lot of pick and shovel research being conducted.”
The society is staffed by 37 volunteers who assist people, do research and handle the storage of vital information. There are more than 10,000 books in the genealogy reference library and newspaper and public records on paper, microfilm and microfiche.
In the library’s files are the identities of slaves and each and every soldier that fought on both sides of the Civil War. There are books filed by state that contain public records and even a section of bound and unbound family history tomes. Extensive research was compiled into former and present-day Pinellas County cemeteries and present and long-closed mortuaries, such as the Alexander Funeral Home of Clearwater that operated between 1917 and 1947.
Old community newspapers tell of family travels, weddings, deaths and social events.
“Genealogy is sort of a crapshoot that can take you back to the 1600s and before,” Summers said. “There are always the brick walls, temporary ones at times, that can block the next link to a family history.”
The society also offers a speaker’s bureau, public records CDs and six computers that grant free access to ancestry Web sites that normally come with a fee. And if all that isn’t enough, the society offers access to all of it and you don’t even have to be a member.
Joining, though, is essential to the continued growth of the society. The membership dues pay for guest speakers, publications and other needs.
Although we live in a mobile society, Summers predicts that later generations will have an easier time tracing their heritage.
“There is much better record keeping now and, of course, the Internet,” Summers said.
Researching heritage begins with examining present records and talking to relatives, especially older ones who remember incidents from decades past. Many families store family Bibles, death, wedding and other certificates in attics or bank vaults. The rest takes time, patience and research.
Most ancestry buffs are older citizens, but younger people are beginning to show more interest in their family history.
“The society is open to people of all ages,” Summers said.
The Pinellas Genealogy Society meets the third Saturday of each month at 11 a.m. in the library’s Jenkins Auditorium. There is a modest fee to join the society, but the public is invited to attend the meetings and use the society’s books and records. Call the society at 586-7410 or visit www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/flpgs.