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!”