Campton Hills museum tracks down relatives of 1835 farm settlers
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It's a little like an episode of "Who Do You Think You Are?" on The Learning Channel.
But instead of a one-hour TV journey into a celebrity's past, uncovering the early story of the Garfield Farm Museum in Campton Hills took years of tedious work, emails on Facebook, research on Ancestry.com and other sites, and some old-fashioned detective work.
Saturday, the passion and perseverance for the past will culminate when about 20 ancestors of Samuel and Margret Culbertson gather at the farm for a private reunion, on-site history lesson and participation in an ongoing archeological dig.
The Culbertsons bought the land in 1835, but eventually decided to head west and, in 1841, sold the property now known as the Garfield Farm Museum (off Garfield Road, north of Route 38) to Timothy Garfield.
"For many years, the museum didn't know anything about Sam or his family. Over the last few years, we have finally been able to track down the family that settled the farm, including a number of descendants," said Bill Wolcott, Garfield Farm Museum operations director. "One of them even donated a day book to the museum that Sam carried with him during the family's trip from northwestern Pennsylvania to Illinois in 1835."
The road to Saturday's reunion began in February 2011, when Mary Ellen Brue of Baldwin, Wis., received an email from Wolcott regarding a posting she made on RootsWeb.com.
At first Brue, who is the great-great granddaughter of Samuel and Margret Culbertson, was cautious because it was an email from someone she didn't know. But after Wolcott explained who he was and what he was doing, Brue, the self-described family historian, decided to help.
"He started asking questions and I started looking for answers," said Brue, who will make the drive to the farm this weekend with her husband, Don, along with her sister, Donna Walters-Nelson, and her husband, Don, who live in Milaca, Minn.
Research pays off
Wolcott said the museum, which was founded in 1977, didn't have much information about the Culbertsons. In fact, museum officials weren't even sure about the year much less the date that the 440-acre site was sold to the Garfields.
But researching through Ancestry.com helped put Wolcott in touch with Brue and other Culbertson descendants. A big break was discovering a relative still had a day book that Sam Culbertson carried with him from Pennsylvania to the Fox River Valley that provided records of daily expenses and the weather.
"That chronicled their trip. There wasn't a lot of detail of 'This is what we did today' sort of thing," Wolcott said of the day book, which has been donated to the museum along with other letters, photographs and short stories about the Culbertsons' eight children.
"It's just absolutely amazing this day book survived all these years," Wolcott continued. "Personally, it was really incredible to finally be able to prove the (Culbertson) family was the family that settled the farm here. That was really exciting to have the farm's birthday (of July 8, 1935)."
Wolcott said Culbertson descendants are coming from Wisconsin, Virginia, California, Alaska and other states.
The big day
Wolcott said Saturday will include a morning lecture at the farm, a picnic lunch and the group will then proceed to an excavation site where an ongoing five-year archeological dig is recovering artifacts from an old log cabin/tavern on the property. The cabin was built by the Culbertsons and the Garfields later converted it into a tavern.
Brue is excited about seeing the farm, reconnecting with relatives and helping with the archeological dig.
"It would be exciting to see a little piece of pottery that's dug up, the whole process, and to see what they're doing," Brue said. "They're going to be digging where (Sam and Margret's) cabin was. I think that it's just so neat that the property isn't a Walmart parking lot or passed through many families and turned into a housing development. It's pristine land, otherwise untouched."
Judy Thompson of Carpinteria, Calif., is the great-great granddaughter of Sam and Margret Culbertson. She and her sister, Pam Jones, of Anchorage, Alaska, also will fly in for the event.
Thompson said she had only been researching her family history since the 1990s and first came into contact with Wolcott on a Culbertson Facebook page.
"We just started corresponding. More people came into the loop," said Thompson, who lauded Wolcott and Brue for the work they did to trace the farm's true origins to the Culbertsons and locate their descendants. "We've just been burning up the Internet with sharing information and photographs. I find it very intriguing. I'm a detective at heart and love the minutia and detail."
Thompson said the discovery of the day book was a huge event for the Culbertsons and museum officials alike. She is eager to see the farm as well.
"It's important to all of us to go back and walk the land our ancestors lived on," Thompson said. "I want to see the farm. I want to experience what it was like early on. I know it's different. But to actually be on land my grandfather was on as a young boy. ... It will just be fun to did through some dirt (in the archeological dig)."
Thompson lauded Wolcott and Brue for the work they did to trace the farm's true origins to the Culbertsons and locate their descendants. Thompson said she had no clue Wolcott's initial Facebook message would grow into Saturday's reunion.
"I never imagined that something like that would happen. But I was always hopeful," Thompson said. "You always hope the next contact will be something like this. I can't say enough about what Bill has done."
Brue said experiencing a step in her ancestors' westward journey is a major life event for her.
"We had a lot of pieces. But (Wolcott) is the one who put the pieces together," she said. "Ever since I found out about the museum, I wanted to go there. This is on my bucket list."
The reunion is a private event, but the museum is open to the public from 1 to 4 p.m. for drop-in tours Sundays and Wednesdays or by appointment.
For more information, visit garfieldfarm.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (630) 584-8485.
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