Digging family roots turns into career

News Photo by Diane Speer Professional Genealogist Matthew McCormack of Herron, who has long been interested in his own family’s history, stands near several family antiques. McCormack inherited all of his great-grandfather, Carl Henry’s diaries, that span the years 1900 to 1966. He also owns a set of his great-great-grandfather, Charles Henry’s law books, pictured in the photo.

Matthew McCormack’s relatives consider him the keeper of the family history. It’s long been his passion, even though he knows the details he shares with them can occasionally come off as boring.

“Their eyes glaze over sometimes when I’m telling them one of my stories,” joked McCormack, who’s the great-grandson of the late Alpena attorney, Carl Henry.

McCormack remembers as a child his visits to the Henry home at the corner of State and Dunbar Streets, also affectionately known by locals as the stone or castle house. On those visits, he spent hours poking through old papers and books.

“There were several generations of stuff in the house. My family forgot whose it was and how it fit into the family tree, so at a very early age I started doing genealogy research,” he said. “It’s a hobby that can easily turn into an obsession.”

When he headed off to college at Eastern Michigan University after first taking courses at Alpena Community College, McCormack, also a Dexter High School graduate, said he would have preferred to major in genealogy but no such degree existed at the time.

“So instead I majored in history and historical preservation,” he said. “It was the closest thing I could come up with.”

That led initially to employment at both Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum. For the past 17 years, however, he’s parlayed his love of genealogy into a career and now makes his livelihood as a professional genealogy researcher.

His clients hail from all over the country and range from individuals wanting to find out more about their family roots to companies who hire him to help determine living descendants in cases where people die without a will. Still others are interested in digging up family history for medical reasons. He’s also done research for a bank seeking to consolidate shareholders by proving the status of descendants.

“Everyone has a different reason,” McCormack said. “For most it’s a shotgun approach. They want to know as much as they can about as many people as they can.”

While it’s rewarding when successful, the research also can be frustrating at times.

“It’s fun. It’s like being a detective every day,” he said. “Sometimes it’s vexing and sometimes I have to take a step back and look at things from a different angle.”

In another instance, his multiple years of research work for a client in Chicago ultimately led to McCormack writing a 400-page book about the client’s family.

“When we started out, he only knew about 20 names,” McCormack said. “By the end, there was a database of 1,500 names of great aunts and uncles and other relatives that he hadn’t known existed. He loved having the book.”

McCormack makes use of numerous online tools, including the most well-known ones, ancestry.com and familysearch.com. But he doesn’t limit himself.

“There are so many tools out there,” he said. “There are a lot of records online, but they are just a drop in the bucket on what’s out there.”

He also turns to newspapers, prison records and military records as source material. Old-time newspaper accounts in particular, he said, can provide color about family members because of the style of newspaper writing employed many decades ago.

During the summer, McCormack averages about seven to eight hours a day conducting genealogy research, but in the winter the time increases to 12 to 14 hours daily.

“If I could keep awake, I would do it 24 hours a day,” he said. “The research I’m doing is more for others than for myself.”

He said clients often get excited about tidbits of information he’s able to dig up for them.

McCormack does his work primarily from the bucolic setting of what for many years served as the Cripps family fruit farm at 11715 Cripps Rd., Herron. He and some other family members purchased the farm 15 years ago as a retirement property, but he lives there full-time now.

The place came with three dilapidated, tar-papered cabins that once housed migrant workers who came seasonally to pick fruit. Most recently, McCormack renovated the cabins, ran power to them and opened them up to the public as Airbnb accommodations. In doing the renovations, he repurposed old doors, windows and beadboard from his great-grandfather’s vintage cabin at Hubbard Lake.

“This is the first season for it and everyone has just loved the experience. It’s a place for people to get off the grid,” McCormack said, adding that he’s been full up since beginning the venture earlier this summer.

Many area residents may recall former times when the Cripps family offered their farm as a fall destination for picking pumpkins, taking wagon rides, and enjoying homemade cider and doughnuts. The barn they once filled with hay bales, bins of apples and other fall goodies now serves McCormack as the headquarters for annual genealogy retreats he holds on the property.

“People from nearly every state have attended the retreats,” he said.

When doing genealogy research locally, McCormack frequents the Alpena County Courthouse, Besser Museum, Alpena County Library and local cemeteries. He also gleans information from locations outside the immediate area, including the Archives of Michigan in Lansing, Bentley Historical Library in Ann Arbor and Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library.

In addition to conducting research, McCormack stays active in related organizations. He’s a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists and often attends genealogy-related conferences. Over time, he’s developed many contacts in the field.

He’s also actively involved in the local Northeast Michigan Genealogy Society and serves as an officer of the group.

For more information about McCormack’s genealogy business, New Line Genealogy, LLC, go to his website at www.newlinegenealogy.com.