By Joe Earle
Mike Brubaker first heard talk of the family scandal when he was a little kid.
Sitting around the dinner table at family gatherings, somebody eventually would bring it up. “You heard about it all the time,” he recalls.
Still, “they’d get the story all twisted around.” There was a scandal, Brubaker knew, but the details were muddled. It had to do with his great-grandmother. But when Brubaker was 10, he didn’t really understand what his relatives were saying about her. He just knew something was up.
So, when he was 20, he decided to find out what the real story was. That was his first step toward his becoming a genealogist.
He’d been told his great-grandmother had lived in a mining camp near Park City, Utah. So he went to the college library and searched through Park City newspapers from about 1890, about the time she had been there.
In the columns of those newspapers, he found what he was looking for. There was his family scandal, all laid out, quite literally, in black and white.
He discovered that his great-grandmother, he said, had been a prostitute. She was known as Maggie Malone or sometimes just “Irish Mag.” She’d killed herself, taking cyanide after polishing off a pricey meal in a fancy restaurant. She’d tried to kill her 3-year-old daughter, too, he said, but the girl spit the poison out.
The child was adopted and raised by a farmer who lived nearby, and her descendents became Brubaker’s ancestors. But once he’d uncovered the story of Irish Mag, he was hooked. He had to know more about his family.
“That’s how I jumped into it,” said Brubaker, who’s now 49. “That’s how I fell into genealogy.”
Once Brubaker got a taste for family history, he never lost it. He kept gathering information about his forebears. He couldn’t find out any more about Maggie Malone’s family – “Right there, my mother’s line dies,” he said. — but he had plenty of other relatives to research. Now he’s collected hundreds of names of his ancestors in his computer database.
In recent years, his sister has joined the hunt. “It’s infectious,” he said. “Right now we’re trying to prove ancestry to the Mayflower. We’ve got a line that takes us to New England in the 1600s. We’re just trying to make that last connection.”
He’s also made genealogy his living. Brubaker is the full-time, professional genealogist at the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead. He publishes a newsletter and maintains an on-line blog to help others do genealogy.
This summer and fall, Brubaker is teaching a series of classes on genealogy for Heritage Sandy Springs. The first class, held June 3, covered genealogical research for beginners. Subsequent classes — one each month through October – are to examine topics such as using oral histories, county and city records and military records, and cemeteries to research families.
His first class attracted about 18 participants. He showed them sample charts to use to keep easy-to-understand records, reviewed materials that are readily available for tracking down ancestors and talked about how to build a family tree. “Start with what you know and work backward in time,” he said.
It makes sense to conduct the classes in the summer, he said. “The summer months are the busy months. That’s when genealogists get active,” he said.
Why? Vacation. “That’s when they can travel to do research,” he said.
Brubaker himself spent a week and a half last summer traveling to Nebraska to look for records of his dad’s family. They were ranchers.
Others who bury themselves in genealogical research can find different sorts of family stories.
Milton H. Gorman of Sandy Springs, who attended Brubaker’s first class, said he wants to spend more time researching his family because he’s descended from one of his community’s oldest families and thinks he may find even more connections to Sandy Springs’ pioneers.
“My grandmother and my mother and a couple of aunts visited the cemetery there at Sandy Springs United Methodist Church and they said half of the people in the cemetery were related some way,” he said. “Spruells married Spaldings. A Spalding girl married an Abernathy. … On my mother’s side, we were an integral part of the founding of Sandy Springs. Sandy Springs means a lot to us.”
Al Martin, who grew up in Brookhaven, has been collecting information on his family since the mid-1950s. He’s got 11,000 names in his computer genealogical database now, he said, and, at age 82, he’s still collecting.
“I started doing it to authenticate and verify some data for the family,” said Martin, who now lives in the Pine Hills neighborhood, but whose family has roots stretching back generations in Brookhaven. “I became interested in the cemeteries and started mapping them in 1956. It’s just been a growing thing.”
So, why collect all this information on one’s family? “It’s a natural desire to want to trace back your history,” Gorman said
And Karen Smyth of Brookhaven, who’s traced one branch of her family tree to 1604, sees it as something she can share someday with her children.
Born in Lebanon, Smyth said she emigrated to the U.S. at age 11. She came to Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics, she said, and ended up staying.
About a decade ago, she started e-mailing relatives to ask for information about their family, she said. Gradually, she accumulated thousands of names in her database and she’s posted many of them online.
A Web search for one of her family names is likely to point to her website, she said. She still gets contacted about once a month by others researching the family.
“I’m very big on names and I’m very big on history,” Smyth said. “I really want to be able to tell my child where I come from.”
Besides, genealogy fans say, there’s a thrill that comes from hunting for information on an ancestor and then finding a name or date in a newspaper or book to prove when and where that particular person lived and died.
“Once they get caught with the bug, the family history bug, they get excited about it,” Brubaker said. “It’s just getting that initial spark.”
Brubaker sees other advantages, too. He’s an historian by training and sees collecting family stories as an important way of connecting with America’s history.
“A family history is the most basic of histories,” he said. “It’s the most important part of history because it ties in the individual. We all know about the American Revolution. Individually, it’s much more important to be able to say, ‘My ancestor was in that battle.’ It gives some meaning to the event.”
Heritage Sandy Springs is offering a series of classes this summer and fall on genealogy. Mike Brubaker, genealogist from the Atlanta History Center, is teaching the classes. They are scheduled from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on July 1, August 5, Sept. 2 and Oct. 7. They are held at the Heritage Sandy Springs office at 6110 Bluestone Road. The courses cost $5 per class for Heritage members and $10 for non-members. For more information, call 404-851-9111 x 200.