Strange finds: human hair used in WWII Navy Instruments

Today while I was transcribing one of my Licking county ancestors’ obituaries, I noticed this strange, intriguing little piece of news a few columns over. A Maryland company had accepted a woman’s length of hair which had been cut 18 years before, and the company planned to use it in the manufacture of navy instruments.


“Accept Hair” from The Newark Advocate, page 11, published in Newark, Ohio on 14 December 1942

What in the world was the navy using human hair for?? A quick Google search brought up this article from the Defense Media Network which informed me that human hair (especially blonde hair) was extremely sensitive to changes in temperature, and that these temperature changes induced changes in the hair that could be measured with great precision. At least if it had never been touched by a curling iron or chemicals. It was therefore used in meteorological instruments such as radiosonde hygrometers

You learn something new every day!

52 Ancestors: #4 Susan Jane (Shaffer) Swick

This week, I’m going to write about my 4x great grandmother’s pioneer journey to Ohio in the early 1800’s and one of my favorite family history resources, newspapers.

Susan Jane (Shaffer) Swick was born in December 1818 in Fredericktown, Maryland, the daughter of John C Shaffer and Anna Haskinson Hayes. Her family moved to Ohio in 1836, when Susan was 18 years old, and settled in Licking County, where she would live for the rest of her life. In 1843, Susan married David Swick, and they eventually had six children. Their two youngest, David Jacob Swick and Susan Elizabeth Haskinson Swick, were twins. One of these twins, David, is my 3x great grandfather.

One of my favorite family history resources for my research on my dad’s side of the family is the newspapers from Newark in Licking County, Ohio (The Newark Advocate, The Newark Daily Advocate, etc. – it’s undergone a few slight name changes), that has been digitized and is available on I’ve had family in Licking County from the early 1800’s all the way through to my great grandmother who lived there until she died just a few months ago, and has newspapers from about the 1860’s until at least the 1970’s, if my memory’s correct. In addition to obituaries, birth announcements, and wedding announcements, I’ve found a bounty of other information that helps to give me a much fuller picture of my Licking County ancestors. The advertisements include pictures of the kinds of clothes my ancestors probably wore and the kinds of household goods they used. The Advocate is a small town newspaper, and in addition to bigger national and world events, it usually carried a page or two about social events happening in town, which seem a lot like the Facebook status updates of 100 years ago. These are things like:

  • “Mrs. Smith received a visit from daughter Susie on Sunday.”
  • “A birthday celebration was held for John Doe at his home on Friday evening. His mother served a delicious dinner, and Bobby X, Billy Y, Jimmy Z attended in addition to his family.”
  • “Little Susie Q came down with pneumonia on Wednesday. She was attended by Dr. X for the next several days and is now fully recovered.”
  • “The Methodist Women’s Circle met on Monday. Mrs. Smith hosted and those in attendance were [long list of women’s names].”

These short stories help me to see who were my ancestor’s closest friends, which family members they saw most often, what kinds of things they did for fun, and what illnesses and hardships they faced. Sometimes it allows me to see the slowly worsening health of a person in the months before they died. And occasionally, I come across article featuring the life story of one of my ancestors.

headline: She walked to Newark

One such article is “She Walked to Newark”, published on Friday, July 11, 1902 in the Newark Advocate. This article details her journey to Ohio and life as a pioneer in Licking County, based on an interview conducted when she was 84 years old. Here is an excerpt from the article:

She came to Licking county with her parents when eighteen years old, in 1836, walking every step of the way 356 miles, and she made her home in Licking county ever since, a period of 66 years…When Mrs. Swick first came to Licking county in 1836 it was yet almost a wilderness, and Newark was but a small hamlet containing a few log cabins. Mrs. Swick’s parents first purchased a few acres of timber land in Jersey township for $300. With willing hearts and sturdy arms they soon cleared it off, chopping the trees into timber, erecting necessary buildings, fences, etc. surrounding it. They then bought another fifty acres of land adjoining their first purchase for $400, which they also cleared in a comparatively short time. Mrs. Swick helped to clear the entire tract of land, male help being scarce in those days and hard to get. She rolled logs, cleared underbrush, worked in the fields and helped to move the goods to the cabin in the woods on a sled. She also pitched hay and raked wheat in harvest time and made herself generally useful wherever she could. It was quite evident that the pioneer women of those days had good constitutions, were not afraid to work and did not know the meaning of nervous prostration. Her husband, like most men of that time, in addition to being a hard worker, was a great hunter, in which pursuit he was very successful. He killed deer and turkey, frequently shooting some three and four wild turkeys in a day. They made delicious eating, and the pioneers had many a feast in the woods.

With this description, I can pretty easily picture much of Susan’s daily life at that time in my head. What hard work her family had to do to make a home for themselves in the woodland wilderness, where the largest town in the area was still just a “hamlet of log cabins”! Many of my other ancestors were early Ohio pioneers, and surely had similar experiences. I often feel like moving is such a hassle for me, but it’s nothing compared to the moves made by these pioneers who first walked hundreds of miles, and then had to clear land and build a house. I have such respect for these pioneers who made so many sacrifices and put in so much hard work to make a better life for their families.

52 Ancestors: #3 The Geesey cousins and the hoop mill explosion

This is the tragic story of an explosion at a small family business that made national headlines in 1909. This explosion killed two of the cousins of my 3x great grandmother, killed four other men, and injured another Geesey cousin.

Geesey hoop mill after the explosion

Geesey hoop mill after the explosion (1)

But before we get to the details of the explosion, let me tell you a little about the history of this part of the Geesey family.


The people in this story are all grandchildren of Charles Geesey and Lydia Murry. Charles and Lydia moved from Pennsylvania to Steuben County, New York, some time before 1830, and their 10 children were born there. Then, sometime between 1850 and 1860, they moved with all but possibly their oldest child to Fulton County, Ohio. Most of their children got married and continued to live in this area of Ohio, mostly working as farmers. Charles and Lydia’s grandchildren that feature in this story are Deforest and Frank Geesey, sons of John Murray Geesey, and Freeman Geesey, son of Charles Geesey Jr. All of these men were cousins of Eva Alice Clark, who is my 3x great grandmother and the daughter of Mary H. (Geesey) Clark. Here’s a handy chart to help keep track of all of these people.

Sometime around 1900, Deforest moved to Dowagiac, Michigan, and became one of the most prominent businessmen of the city, owning and operating a hotel and the Geesey Bros & Coble Hoop Mill where the explosion occurred. As far as I can tell, the “hoops” they produced at this mill were used for barrels or other similar vessels; the hoops could be made of metal or wood (the Geesey mill produced wooden hoops), and they were used to secure the wooden “staves” that made up the sides of the barrel. The exploding boiler was used to supply steam for the engine that ran the wood-cutting machinery in the mill.

At some point before the explosion, it seems that at least one of his brothers, Frank, and their cousin Freeman moved to Dowagiac as well, along with their families. At the time of the explosion, these men were all 40-50 years old and married. However, it seems like even before the explosion, life had been hard For these Geesey cousins. Several of them were on their second marriage, their first wives probably dying somewhere along the way, and they each had at most 1 child as far as I can tell, none of whom lived long into adulthood.

This brings us to May 26th, 1909, the day of the explosion. At the busiest times of the year, the mill employed as many as 35 men, but on this day, they were preparing to close down for the season, so only eight men were working there. Their regular engineer in charge of the boiler was not working that day (one report said he was laid off), so another employee was running it. At 3:30 pm, one of the employees, A.B. Kinney, felt a draft (it was a cool, rainy day), and stepped outside to grab his coat. This probably saved his life – he was the only one there to not be killed or seriously injured. At this same time, a belt on the planer came off, so the men had to quickly shut the engine and boiler off. But just as Kinney reached the door and before the engine had stopped running off its own momentum, the boiler exploded.

Here’s how Kinney described the explosion: “Immediately after the blast the whole mill seemed to collapse. Bricks, parts of the iron boiler, and boards flew in every direction. With the mill smashed like cardboard all about me I did not even feel the force of the explosion. I kept my foot and escaped without a scar.” (2)

Debris was reported to have flown over 600 feet away. Besides Kinney, Freeman Geesey was the only other person there to survive. He said, “I was standing about eight feet from the boiler when it exploded and it was nothing short of a miracle that I escaped.” (2) When the boiler exploded, he was hit with flying bricks and debris, receiving many cuts and bruises. He was knocked down, and before he could get up, he heard another employee, Marvin Stewart, groaning nearby. Freeman found Marvin, and managed to carry him out of the ruins of the mill. He then went back in and continued to try to help others until more help arrived, despite his own serious injuries. Marvin later died of his injuries, and the rest of the men all died on the scene. The heavy rain that day put out the fire from the explosion quickly, so the bodies and the ruins of the mill were not badly burned.

Geesey mill after the explosion

Geesey mill after the explosion (3)

This must have been a devastating loss to the Geesey family, and to their community as well. Deforest and Frank’s brother William was reported to have said that the family planned to sell their land in Michigan as soon as possible and then the family “will go to Ohio never to return” (4). I’ve had trouble finding everyone in the 1910 census, but by 1920 at least, it seems that indeed, the surviving family members were all back in Ohio.

Clearly, the problem of boiler explosions was widespread throughout the country at the time. A publication by a boiler inspection company lists 40 boiler explosions that happened in just the same month (May 1909) as the explosion at the Geesey mill, which resulted in a total of 34 serious injuries and 19 deaths. Many of these occurred in industrial settings, ships, and trains, but some occurred in heaters in residences, schools, and businesses like banks and hotels. (5)

However, this explosion had one of the highest death tolls in recent years. It made the newspapers all over the country, including the New York Times. Later inspections showed that the boiler in the Geesey mill was old, had never been inspected, and had been corroded and become too thin in areas, including where it burst it the explosion. By coincidence, there was a boiler inspector in town that day.  I wish they would have had him come and inspect their boiler, and spent the necessary money to have it repaired or replaced.

One of the more generous reports claim that the corrosion and defects were on the inside of the boiler, where the mill’s engineer would not have been able to see them. Less generous reports seemed to insinuate that these kinds of explosions were a result of the greedy, careless industrialist who only cared about the bottom line, but not their employees. However, Deforest, the owner of the Geesey mill, was there working alongside the other employees, and was himself killed by the explosion. Yes, he was probably somewhat irresponsible in not having the boiler regularly inspected, but it seems like this was common practice in that time. Unfortunately, it took many tragedies like this before the government began to regulate inspection of boilers and before engineers were able to design ones with better safety features.


(1) 1909 June 15. “Boiler Explosion at Dowagiac, Michigan”. Power and the Engineer p. 1083.

(2) 1909 May 27. “Explosion Kills Hoopworks Men”. The Weekly Press (St. Joseph, Michigan) p. 1,5. (available on

(3) 1909. “A Destructive Boiler Explosion”. Practical Engineer 13(7):438.

(4) 1909 June. The Packages  12(6):72.

(5) The Hartford Steam Boiler and Inspection Co.1909. “Boiler Explosions”. The Locomotive 27(8):233-5.

(6) 1909 May 27. “Six Killed in Explosion”. The New York Times.

52 Ancestors: #2 Frank Melick

Things are busy here this week with the start of the new semester, so I’ll just post a photo.

Frank Melick, Utica farm, Oct 1963

Frank Melick, Utica farm, Oct 1963

This is my great, great grandfather Frank Melick on his farm in 1963. Almost all of my ancestors were farmers, but for the most part, you never get to see or hear much about how they actually farmed, so I really like getting to see him in action here.

52 Ancestors: #1 Claudia (Wagman) Rempp

So, Amy Johnson Crow at  No Story Too Small issued a challenge a few days ago to blog about one ancestor per week during 2014. I’ve been researching my own family’s history for a few years now, and this seemed like a great way to collect and share some of my favorite stories, photos, etc., and to lay out a few research problems too. So I’m going to do my best to keep up with the challenge, starting out with my 5x great grandmother Claudia (Wagman) Rempp.

Claudia Wagman Rempp obituary

Claudia Wagman Rempp obituary

My interest in Claudia was piqued when I got her obituary from the Williams County Public Library (Ohio).  It said that she came to the US from Switzerland in 1841 when she was about 27 years old, and that same year married Michael Rempp, who had come to the US on the same ship. That was all of this story that was given, so it raised a lot of questions for me:

  • Did Claudia and Michael know each other before their immigration? It doesn’t seem likely – they married in Ohio after arriving here; she’s from Switzerland and he’s from Germany.
  • Did they fall in love on the voyage? Or was this more of a marriage of convenience, both needing a spouse to face the challenges of pioneer life in the early days of Ohio? Either way, it seems like it would make for a good story.
  • Why did they choose to live in Ohio – Ashland County first, and then Williams County? Did they have relatives there?
  • Why did Claudia leave for the US all by herself, as a young single woman?
  • I already knew of her one daughter, Margaret, who is my 4x great grandmother, but who was the other child mentioned? I haven’t seen any records for another child, so my guess is that this other one died very young.

After finding this obituary, I was able to find a few immigration records that gave me a little more information: Michael was a glazier who was born in Iptingen, Württemberg, and Claudia was from Switzerland. They traveled on the barque Virginia from Bremen, Germany to Baltimore, Maryland and arrived in Baltimore during June 1841 with the intention of going to Ohio.

Census records show that they lived in Jefferson Township in Williams County for most of their married life, and had a very successful farm there.

I probably won’t ever get answers to most of these questions, but I still like to imagine what happened on that ship when Michael and Claudia traveled to the US.