Our Town – Joan Warmerdam digs into the past

Interior News Our Town feature.

Try this for a screenplay.

A gutsy teenage girl works her way up the Edmonton Bulletin in 1912. Kansas droughts, locusts and tornadoes force a young family to cross nine US states by ox-cart until, somehow,  they settle in Oklahoma Indian territory just after the Civil War.

Oh, and Bill Vander Zalm’s in it, and so is John F. Kennedy.

As a movie, this story is just too big for one screen.

But Joan Warmerdam got it down. Armed with church records, news archives and her muckraking grandmother’s eye for detail, she untangled the plot, settled the facts and gathered it all into three self-published books—her family history.

“Oh, it’s a long story,” she says cheerfully, as we sit down to the table  full of records.

We’re inside Audrey’s Archive, one of two research rooms tucked above the Bulkley Valley Museum.

Named after another founding member of the B.V. Genealogical Society, it’s where Warmerdam and others show new recruits how to trace their family roots.

Lining the shelves is the largest genealogical library north of Williams Lake—books  like Railway Records and Pioneer Women, binders marked Internet Genealogy, and a full set of Heirlines, the BVGS newsletter.

Right now, she said, the society is up to its neck in research.

On the whiteboard behind me is a name—Franz Wentzel, alias Weinzel, Weinzierl, or Wenzel.

It’s the key name, or names, in the case of Shirley Ann Martin, a Houston resident who won top prize in the society’s “Who Do You Think You Are, Smithers Style?” contest this May. Based on the popular TV show, the contest will reveal the genealogies of three local families in a slideshow at the Hudson Bay Lodge on Oct. 15.

Tracing histories of the other two winners—the Utz and Brandsma families—was relatively easy, said Warmderdam. The Utz came from United Empire Loyalist stock, which she had studied before. The Brandsma have Dutch roots, a language that, luckily, is spoken by several BVGS members and Warmderdam’s husband, Bert.

But so far, the society has found nine recorded spellings of the Wentzel/Weinzel/Weinzierl family—a major hiccup when record-searching, and a common story for families who arrived in Canada before English speakers had worked out how to spell foreign-language surnames.

Still, Warmerdam said, the Wentzel story is coming together in time for the big reveal this fall. One BVGS member is just coming back from Germany, where he was hard at work on the case.

Warmerdam’s own family story is largely mapped now, with a few mysteries outstanding—like how her ancestors Miles and Lou Spencer Trembley came to live on Oklahoma Indian territory.

But then, Warmerdam got an early start.

At 14, she was asked by her grandmother to listen and write the names of the family members she could remember in a stack of 19th-century tintype photos.

Years later, after inheriting the family history project from her mother, Warmerdam and her sister sneaked by night into a University of Alberta lab with one of those 165-year-old photos—the picture of Sarah Cole Spencer on her deathbed.

An earth sciences professor, Warmderdam’s sister had access to a high-powered lens used for analyzing minerals. Now, at that detail, they could see signs of trauma on the woman’s head—evidence she may have been kicked by an animal.

Among the most treasured traces of her family are things that Warmerdam lived and remembers.

“As a little girl, I was taken to my grandfather’s office,” she said, where she saw the linotype machines that published the Edmonton Bulletin.

“You could smell the hot lead and the ink, and this big machine would go ‘clank’ ‘clank’ as it dropped the slugs,” she said, describing not slimy slugs but hard metal ones—pieces of the massive new printers that sped up newsprint in 1880s.

Warmerdam’s grandfather, Joseph Adair, was an Edmonton politician who proposed to his wife Dorothy in a letter that she still has. Printed on letterhead from a hotel in Fort Frances, now Thunder Bay, Adair mailed it off while in the middle of Sir Wilfred Laurier election’s campaign.

“After everything that my family had been through in all these generations, I know why they ended up the way they did,” said Warmderdam. “I know why they do what they do.”

Warmerdam’s story is  powerful, now that she’s pieced it together. And every family has one, she said, including mine.

“You just have to do a family history,” she told me. “You never know what’s going to happen next!”

Just Posted

If climate is an emergency, act like it

Council has declared a climate emergency, but is sitting on money that could mitigate its effects

CT scanner officially open in Smithers

As of noon on July 12 the machine had scanned 45 patients, five of which were emergency CT scans.

Musical collaboration comes together at Midsummer Music Festival

The project was done to acknowledge a potential for harmony among otherwise disparate communities.

WATCH: Mip performs at Bulkley Valley Brewery July 12

Catch two songs from Mip’s nearly three-hour set at the brewery on July 12.

Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman sentenced to life in prison

Experts say he will likely wind up at the federal government’s Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado

Olympic softball qualifier gets $150K boost from provincial government

2019 Americas Qualifier to be held in Surrey from Aug. 25-Sept. 1

Gas price inquiry questions Trans Mountain capacity, company denies collusion

The first of up to four days of oral hearings in the inquiry continue in Vancouver

‘Benzos’ and fentanyl a deadly cocktail causing a growing concern on B.C. streets

Overdoses caused by benzodiazepines can’t be reversed with opioid-overdose antidote naloxone

Will you be celebrating national hotdog day with any of these crazy flavours?

The popularity of hotdogs spans generations, cultures

Former home of accused Penticton shooter vandalized

Ex-wife of man who is accused of murdering four people had her house vandalized

Survivor of near-drowning in B.C. lake viewing life through new eyes

“If I died that day, the baby wouldn’t know his dad,” said 31-year-old Mariano Santander-Melo.

‘Beyond the call’: Teen in police custody gets birthday surprise by B.C. Mountie

Unusual celebration started when Staff Sgt. Paul Vadik went to visit the teen in his Coquitlam cell

Thunderstorms forecast across B.C.

Environment Canada has issued a thunderstorm watch for B.C.’s central Interior

Most Read