For genealogist Christine Zywocki, history is what survives on fragile and crumbly papers in musty basements.
For nearly 20 years, Mrs. Zywocki has been archiving the tens of thousands of monument transaction and burial records stored in the old Lloyd Bros. Walker Co. building at the corner of West Central and Auburn avenues in West Toledo, across from the entrance to Woodlawn Cemetery.
Established in 1846, the monument and headstone company is the second-oldest business in Toledo next to The Blade. A fire in the 1890s destroyed its early records, and the oldest ones surviving today date to 1892, when the firm moved into the then-new building by the cemetery.
The records, some written in a loopy cursive and others by typewriter, give more than just a name and date of birth and death. Many include biographical information, handwritten correspondence from the deceased s family members, and details and whereabouts of headstones the family bought.
Although most of the records date to the 20th century, a number of customers bought new or replacement monuments for relatives who died decades earlier, in an era before many state governments recorded residents vital statistics.
Our people were well pleased with my choice of monument and I most cheerfully accept the terms and proposition you made me, wrote one customer, George A. Stone, in October, 1916, upon purchasing a headstone for his adoptive parents, who were both born in the 1790s and died in the 1860s.
It is for all these reasons that the records represent a genealogist s treasure trove to Mrs. Zywocki, 57, of Holland for whom their preservation has become an obsession.
Needless to say, it came as a jolt for her that six file cabinets of records who knows how many were in there? were pilfered by looters this winter and that about 20,000 more records that remain in the building are in danger of being lost, stolen, destroyed, or buried under rubble.
After being vacant for close to four years, the once magnificent building has been ransacked by thieves and is now barricaded shut. In this poor condition it made Mayor Carty Finkbeiner s Dirty Dozen list of dangerous or unsightly structures, and depending on the outcome of a lawsuit for a public nuisance, soon could be demolished.
Mrs. Zywocki succeeded in rescuing a few thousand records from the building s basement in early March and deposited them for safekeeping in a Toledo-Lucas County Public Library warehouse.
Her efforts to remove more were thwarted by city code enforcement officials, who quickly boarded up the building s entrances and threatened her with arrest for trespassing.
We can t just let anybody walk in there and take whatever they want, said City Law Director John Madigan.
This week, Kattie Bond, acting director of the city s Department of Neighborhoods, told The Blade that the city would salvage records in the building before it could fall to the wrecking ball.
Yet what would happen to the records once they are removed remains unclear. The answer could be determined by the outcome of legal action against the building s owner, although a hearing date has yet to be set.
Until she hears more answers, Mrs. Zywocki continues her quest to save the thousands of pieces of genealogical history in the basement, records that she considers irreplaceable and priceless.
These are records that, if you don t have it in the family Bible, they don t exist, she said.
Her preservation efforts have gained support from area genealogists, including Connie Ayres, president of the Toledo Area Genealogical Society. She has helped Mrs. Zywocki organize and catalogue information from some of the records.
It s more than just a few books in an empty building, Ms. Ayres said. It s who we were and how we got here. It s something that can t just be shoveled under a pile of bricks and forgotten about.
A company s history
The story of how the records came to be abandoned in a leaky basement is as much a tale of the history of Lloyd Bros. Walker Co., which was once considered among the top 10 largest monuments works in the country.
The company was founded in Maumee by Edward Lloyd, a stonecutter from England who helped cut stone for the locks in the Erie Canal. The monument company moved to Adams Street in Toledo and eventually across from Woodlawn Cemetery, and Mr. Lloyd s sons the brothers in the name carried on the business.
Along with headstones, the company produced many large monuments through the years, including the war memorial at Civic Center Mall, the statue of President McKinley at the Lucas County Courthouse, a Holocaust memorial in Beth Shalom Cemetery in Oregon, Ohio, and the Zero Milestone at the rear of the White House marking the exact center of Washington.
It has designed monuments for places as far away as Australia and India, including a bell tower in Ireland and a plaque on a hospital in Africa.
In the 20th century the firm opened offices in Detroit, New York City, and Washington, and after the late Jamie Walker purchased it from the Lloyd family in 1970, the company bought several area monument businesses, including Throne Monument Works of Pioneer, Ohio, C. Scherger & Sons Monument Co. of Delphos, Ohio, and Reynolds Monument Co. in Toledo.
Most, if not all of the records of these businesses were also stored in Lloyd Bros. Walker s headquarters at the corner of West Central and Auburn, Mrs. Zywocki said.
Mr. Walker s son, David Walker, said his father had a deep appreciation of history and genealogy and often purchased monument companies just to access and preserve their record collections.
In a number of cases that was his primary concern the records, he said.
Mrs. Zywocki started to help Jamie Walker organize the motley assortment of monument records in the basement in the late 1980s and began transferring the information into a computer database.
She said that at the time of Jamie Walker s death in 1999, she had finished doing most of the records from 1892 through 1921. But eight decades worth of papers still remained untouched in filing cabinets and shelves. Many records from those first 29 years, Mrs. Zywocki says, are now stored in her house in Holland.
The Walker family sold the monument business in 2000 to Gary P. Ventling of Ventling Memorials, Youngstown, who continued selling monuments at the Central and Auburn location under the Lloyd Bros. Walker name for about four years.
Ventling Memorials then sold the Lloyd Bros. Walker business, although not the building, to Patten Monument Co. of Michigan. Under Patten Monument, the Lloyd Bros. Walker business moved to a much smaller location at 3111 W. Sylvania Ave.
Meanwhile the Central and Auburn building, with its brick exterior, elegant marble staircases, and colorful indoor murals, stayed vacant and fell into disrepair.
The current owner of Lloyd Bros. Walker on Sylvania Avenue, Mary Wittman, said she was stunned by the building s poor condition earlier this year when she accompanied Mrs. Zywocki inside to help salvage records.
Everything was such a mess, she recalled. The roof was leaking, water was all over, I was very uneasy being in there.
The city in February filed a lawsuit in Toledo Municipal Court against the owner of the vacant Lloyd Bros. Walker building. The suit calls the structure a public nuisance and requests permission to tear it down at the owner s expense.
The last recorded owner, Mr. Ventling, transferred the property two years ago to the Central Auburn Land Co., a corporation that does not list its principals but which city officials still associate with Mr. Ventling. The company is represented by Thomas Nader, an attorney in Warren, Ohio.
The property is also in foreclosure and in arrears to the city for nearly $30,000 in taxes.
Mr. Madigan, the city s law director, said the city can t allow Mrs. Zywocki inside to retrieve the records unless she gets written permission from the building s owner.
Yet, in what might be considered a Catch-22 situation, the owner s attorney said he can t give Mrs. Zywocki such permission because the city condemned the building.
The city told us not to allow anyone in the building, Mr. Nader said.
Phone messages left for Mr. Ventling at his workplace were not returned.
Citing an immediate nuisance, the city in late February bulldozed a garage attached to the structure s east side. Until the city secured the doorways, that demolition allowed for an open entrance for vandals to the rest of the building.
After seeing the open doorways, Mrs. Zywocki said she hired two movers to help her remove some of the remaining records out from the basement.
I thought, OK, I ve got to get them out before the looters do, she recalled.
Yet she did not get very far before the enforcement officer halted her work. David Walker said he sympathizes with Mrs. Zywocki, because it was his father s wish for her to secure and preserve the monument records. It s just a shame when you have that much history down there, he said.
Thursday afternoon, Mrs. Zywocki gently ran her fingers across the pages of Lloyd Bros. Walker Co. s dusty ledger books. If it wasn t for these pages, she remarked, George A. Stone s descendants would have no record he was adopted.
I ve been doing genealogy for almost 30 years, and here is a little gold mine that has never seen the light of day, and this is my chance to give back to genealogy, Mrs. Zywocki said.
Contact JC Reindl at:email@example.com 419-724-6050.