Gene Gilsdorf of Lake Township, right, leafs through a tax record book from Perrysburg Township dated from 1840. Behind him, Barbara Harbauer of Perrysburg Township and Fred Witzler of Luckey, Ohio, comb through property taxes from 1861. The members of the Wood County Chapter of the Ohio Genealogical Society toured the Wood County Courthouse in their quest to find their ancestry.
We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, and so it's a good thing to know who they were.
That might describe the philosophy of the Wood County Chapter of the Ohio Genealogical Society, whose 450 members put great stock in researching family history.
Last week, about 50 members met in the Atrium of the Wood County Courthouse and got some tips from Auditor Michael Sibbersen on how to use the county's voluminous property tax records to research their ancestors. The meeting also included a guided tour of the records center by Brenda Ransom, Wood County's records manager.
For the amateur genealogists, it was a great opportunity to learn of the resources available in their own backyard.
They also picked up some entertaining nuggets of information from Mr. Sibbersen.
For instance, Wood County once imposed a special income tax on doctors and lawyers. The problem was, incomes were not self-reported, and it was up to the tax assessor - as he was called in the early 1800s - to estimate the income. The tax was capped at $5, no matter what the estimate.
Pianos too were subject to a special tax and, according to Mr. Sibbersen, Wood County also had a luxury tax on carriages and pocket watches.
In 1846, sheep and hogs were added to taxable property. However, a cow, eight sheep, and four hogs were exempted from the tax.
Brenda Ransom, who is the records manager for Wood County, guides about 50 budding and seasoned genealogy enthusiasts on a tour of the Wood County Chapter of the Ohio Genealogical Society through the records center in Bowling Green. During last week's tour, the participants were shown that a wealth of information can be found right in their backyard, whether it's gleaned from a dusty, fragile ledger or on microfilm.
Mr. Sibbersen cautioned, "Property tax records are not considered a first-level source for general information in the same way that census rolls, vital records, and, for instance, wills are regarded."
That's because a lot of people weren't property owners, and persons and properties can be difficult to locate, he explained.
"Don't start here [with property tax records] until you've narrowed down the location for your ancestor. It is incredibly time consuming unless you have a township or two, at least, and a range of years to work on," he said.
Other advice of Mr. Sibbersen included:
•Knowing your geography and political jurisdiction boundaries. He said you need to research boundary changes and even name changes so you know where ancestors are going to appear. Wood County used to include modern-day Lucas and Hancock counties, he noted. Lake Township was part of Troy Township before it was formed, and both were part of Perrysburg Township before there was a Troy Township.
•Finding the right name in the right place doesn't mean you have the right person.
"I always think of Epaphroditus Foote, an early settler of Washington Township. Uncommon as it is, he could have had a son, nephew, or cousin with that name," Mr. Sibbersen said.
•Guarding against assumptions. If an ancestor doesn't appear on the property tax rolls, don't assume he wasn't there. "He could have been an apprentice or hired man," Mr. Sibbersen said.
•Remembering to check for spelling variations.
•Using microfilm when possible. Mr. Sibbersen said it's probably better in Wood County, for example, to use microfilm copies at the Center for Archival Collections, which go up to 1860, instead of struggling with frail and unwieldy record books. They are not easy to use and probably should not be subjected to being placed on a copy machine.
The Center for Archival Collections is in the Jerome Library at Bowling Green State University.
Beverly Miner of Bowling Green said that Mr. Sibbersen did "a super job" of explaining everything. "I've used his tips in the past," she added.
Mrs. Miner is an experienced genealogist, having written a published history of her ancestors, the McGowans of Ontario, Canada, some of whom settled in Minnesota, where she grew up.
Jackie Instone said she too found Mr. Sibbersen's advice valuable. She said she was from Sandusky, but her husband Jim's family was well-established in Wood County.
"We'll use what we learned today to research his family," she said.