- Associated Press - Saturday, November 1, 2014

RACINE, Wis. (AP) - Stepping into the basement of the Racine Heritage Museum is like stepping back in time.

Contained in stacks of photos, reams of directories and scores of maps, lie answers to some mysteries of this region’s - or an individual’s - history. And that window into the past is especially highlighted last month, as October is American Archives Month, The Journal Times (http://bit.ly/1oXj0iv ) reported.

“The people who came before us collected things and they are spectacular. There’s really no other way to say it,” Racine Heritage Museum Archivist Mary Kay Nelson said.

People seeking information typically want to research their family’s history, companies, a piece of land or a particular building, Nelson said.

“They’re on a quest,” she said.

At least 50 percent of that time, searchers are interested in learning about a piece of land or a building, Nelson said. Another popular quest is tracing a family tree. The third most popular request is to find photographs, Nelson said.

But some of those requests for information can be tricky.

“What makes it really hard is if somebody has only been here six months to a year,” Nelson explained. “For women it’s difficult. It’s ‘Mrs. John Smith.’ We love a challenge.”

So they search city directories, birth, marriage, work and death records. Museum volunteers ask these visitors what religion their relative might have been, or if he was in the military. They review parish registers and baptismal records.

“We have a lot of things from the early settlers,” said Laura Simson, office manager for the Racine Heritage Museum.

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The earliest records in the museum’s possession date to 1836, Nelson said. Records are collected for the city and the rest of Racine County, she explained.

“I think it’s interesting, to me personally, looking at the city directories … (visualizing) what was and what is now,” Simson said. Particularly along Main Street in Downtown Racine.

But some people new to the area seek answers about the people who used to live in their home, Simson and Nelson said. In those city directories, “they’d list their occupation. If they were looking for work, their name would be italicized,” Simson said.

The archive maintains vertical files of index cards, which provide snippets of data and references to other sources of information.

“You never know what you’re going to pull,” Nelson said, gently removing one card for “Mrs. Ann Jones.” On that index card was typed: 1858 and “mangling clothes.”

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But for some requests, the Racine Heritage Museum cannot be a one-stop-shopping kind of experience. Some researchers are directed to the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, which also maintains an archive.

Those researching their family or property also might be directed to the Burlington Historical Society, the Racine County Courthouse, the Racine County Register of Deeds Office, Preservation Racine, churches’ parish directories and cemeteries, Nelson said.

“I think they have a wonderful time going back as far as they can. They want to know where their family members are from, what country they came from,” she said. “We’ll check on every single last name. Sometimes people come in with a list of 15 last names. We just keep moving around our chess board.”

Even Wisconsin Department of Transportation staff use the archival services.

“Lately people have been checking on roads that are worked on to make sure there’s no burial grounds - nothing historically significant,” Nelson said. “They want to be very, very careful.”

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Information from: The Journal Times, http://www.journaltimes.com

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