How Newspapers Can Help Tell Your Family Story

Photo of B.H. Webster performing a motorcycle stunt of riding through a burning fence c1939.

For years I worked on my genealogy without using a newspaper as a reference.  I had boxes of starter material, and of course both my parents were alive to allow me to interview them. Easily 20 years had passed before I even considered the value of a newspaper, other than hunting for an obituary.

Now I am an old-newspaper junkie. Granted it helps if the person or event you are hunting for has an unusual spelling, but if you narrow your focus down to a state or area, you are apt to find something about your research target.

Father’s Day 2019 has passed, and for those of you with fathers who are alive, today is the time to ply him with questions.  How did he meet your mother? What is his favorite book? What games did he like to play growing up? What is his earliest memory? These are just examples, but you get the idea.  Each time you visit, have a list of more questions because these little tidbits are treasures that give you insight into the man you call “Dad,” or “Father” or “Pa,” and you won’t find that info in the old newspapers.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, I have had this wonderful photograph of my father on a motorcycle driving through a burning fence or wall. At least I think it’s my dad, you can’t really see his face but that is what I was told about the photo.  I had no idea when the it  was taken, and it has been a mystery for 20 years.  Then while browsing a recent newspaper for his name (thankfully his first name Berwin is uncommon), I had a lucid moment.

B.H. Webster, 1930s, standing on Depot Street, Merrimack NH.

The Nashua Telegraph of 6 July 1939 on page 5 reported: “Merrimack–Fourth of July was well celebrated in town with everyone enjoying the program planned by the Fire Department under the direction of Capt William Abbott. Two ball games were played . The one in the afternoon was won by Merrimack. About 6 o’clock several children took part in a costume parade with several receiving prizes. Berwin Webster did his famous stunt of riding through a burning fence on his motorcycle. Temple Band furnished the evening concert after which there was a huge display of fireworks…..”

Yes, so of course the story does not prove that the photograph I have was taken on that particular day, since the story implies he was famous for it, and must have performed it earlier.  But what the newspaper story does give me is proof that he did indeed ride through burning fences, and that he did in July of 1939 (at the age of 26).   Five years later he would be in the United States Navy, and eventually end up as a machinists mate on a mine sweeper serving there through part of World War II. He would also marry my mother.  If I understand it correctly, she asked him not to put himself in danger and so he stopped stunt riding

There are plenty of free newspaper sources, and some wonderful bloggers have already written on the topic.  I am including their stories here.

Sassy Genealogy: Searching the U.S. Newspaper Directory

The Ancestor Hunt: The 5 Best Free Sites for Online Newspaper Research for Genealogy

. Family Tree: Using Newspaper in Research


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1 Response to How Newspapers Can Help Tell Your Family Story

  1. Thanks for the helpful post!

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