CEDAR RAPIDS — Charlene Hansen of Cedar Rapids knew what she was looking for when she received a microfilm copy of the 1940 U.S. census for Benton County from the National Archives.
Hansen, 80, scoured through enumeration districts in her hometown of Keystone until she found what she was seeking: herself, 8 years old, living with her parents, Robert and Easter Bender, and her two sisters, Joann and Sarah.
The census captured a portrait of the Benders during a pivotal time in the family’s history, reporting that Hansen’s father was “a laborer at an auto garage,” where he worked on farm machinery. But a year later, business dried up.
“During the war, they quit making new farm machinery,” said Hansen. “They were using those materials for the military.”
Her father soon found a manufacturing job in Cedar Rapids, where they moved in 1942. For Hansen, acquiring the documents represented a significant addition to her collection of family history.
Snapshot of life
Hansen is among millions of genealogy buffs who have been mining the 1940 census data since the National Archives posted digitized images from microfilm on its website in April, available for free to the public.
The data gives a snapshot of life during the Great Depression and before the changes brought by World War II. Until April, it was all shrouded by privacy laws.
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A partnership of genealogy organizations such as familysearch.org, Archives.com, and findmypast.com launched the 1940 U.S. Census Community Project, marshaling a volunteer corps of 140,000 people to index the census and make it searchable by name.
The project is about 85 percent complete, according to the organization, with 30 states indexed, including Iowa.
But volunteers at the Linn County Genealogical Society never considered waiting for the indexed records to come online to begin searching their contents and adding them to its research tools.
Linn County’s collection, located in the basement of the Masonic Library in Cedar Rapids, includes drawers of microfilm and shelves of books filled with birth, death, funeral, marriage and divorce records, voter registration cards, telephone books, war records and more that all volunteers are intimately familiar with.
The society is run entirely by volunteers, who take shifts working at the library and who log countless hours at home indexing books for the collection.
The society chose not to join the national indexing project but rather to index Linn County for its patrons’ use only.
The Iowa Genealogical Society in Des Moines, on the other hand, joined the national project to index all of Iowa’s 99 counties. A volunteer there, Barb Hammer, administered the project and online training of the 140 people who registered to help.
“We had volunteers coming out of our ears,” said Hammer.
By the end of June, Hammer said, her volunteers had completed Iowa’s index.
“They’re doing other states now,” she said. “They are having fun with it — it’s something to do on these hot days.”
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Hammer said she would have liked to index her own family’s county, but she understands that it wouldn’t have been practical for such a large-scale project.
“I didn’t get to index my county,” she said, “but I can find them now, thanks to somebody.”
Volunteers at the Linn County Genealogical Society have completed a third of the work on their index and are on schedule to finish it this year. Janice Young of Cedar Rapids, who said she logged 100 hours in June alone, said the biggest challenge has been reading the old penmanship of census-takers.
“Sometimes it’s almost impossible to interpret names,” she said. To combat this problem, the society is double indexing by cross-referencing names with those in city directories, which it believes offers an advantage over the online index.
Society President Pat Wilkinson of Cedar Rapids said the census will be one more tool she can use to help people looking for recent family history in Linn County.
“I have always loved history, helping people and detective work,” said Wilkinson.
“Some discoveries we make can be truly life changing,” such as helping people who were adopted find their birthparents, she said.
Other discoveries can be less monumental, but nevertheless amusing.
For instance, Wilkinson found that her own grandmother, Rose Marie Hoffman, had lied about her age for her whole adult life, including on the 1940 census. She stumbled upon the truth when she obtained Hoffman’s birth record, which showed her to be two years older than she had claimed.“My grandmother did have some vanity, I guess,” said a bemused Wilkinson.