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Family Trees Bloom, Thanks To Young Storykeepers

More and more students around Vermont are learning that books are not the only place to find compelling stories.

They’re also discovering colorful characters in family photo albums, census documents, even cemeteries. To help them mine all that rich material, children’s author Natalie Kinsey-Warnock has been touring schools as part of a history project called Storykeepers.  Her latest stop: the Lowell School, in the Northeast Kingdom.

On a cold, sunny day, students from kindergarten through eighth grade transformed the auditorium into an exhibit space. They covered the walls with hand-made posters that tell stories about long-gone family members.

Mason Svayg displayed photographs from the time of his great-grandfather, Srult Tsvaygenboym.

Until he dove into family history, this seventh-grader had no idea how he got such an unusual last name, shortened from the Russian moniker of his ancestor. And while he couldn’t unearth any photos of his great-grandfather, he now feels a kinship with this man he never met, partly because they are both Jewish. 

He was  in World War 2 fighting against the Nazis and his wife was never captured by the Nazis or anything, so they re-united in 1949. He had four children, one of which was killed and shot by the Nazis. He became a U.S. citizen in 1985, and moved to Ohio,” Svayg explained.

The young Vermonter says he never got the chance to meet this war hero. But he’s proud of that heritage.

At the other end of the room, 12-year-old Colby Wright says he admires his great-grandfather too.

“Joseph Harvey Alphonse Tetrault,” Wright read from his poster. “I would say that if he tried to do something he would always accomplish it even if he got hurt doing it.” 

Like many other Lowell forefathers, Tetrault logged and sugared. He was also the town barber.

“What I thought was a really funny is he drove all the way to Florida with a couple of his buddies to get his barber certificate,” his great-grandson said.

Project leader Natalie Kinsey-Warnock says amusing stories like that, as well as tragic ones, motivate these young historians to learn more about relatives they may never have met. 

“And we do family trees, genealogy. We do the history of photography.  The kids learn the difference between daguerrotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes; they learn how to date photographs with hairstyles, fashions, all that,” she said as she toured the exhibits.

The kids also visit the town clerk’s office to find death, marriage, and land records. First, they all research one person—in Lowell, a nineteenth-century activist named Rufus Kinsley.

He was a staunch abolitionist who was with the Eighth Vermont in the Civil War, " Kinsey-Warnock explained. ‘He was also an officer of one of the colored regiments, and after the war he stayed in Louisiana for a few years and established schools for the freed slaves.”

Kinsley had been largely forgotten in this town. But other family stories get handed down for generations. Third-grader Daisy Beckwith learned about her great-great grandfather, Percival Bartlett Cobb, including a story about a hatchet.

“Percival took his sister Edith out in the woods to show how he could use his hatchet,” Daisy explained. “He cut the tree but he accidentally cut Edith… and Edith ran home but Percival thought that he killed her but he hid in the woods for a while.”

Daisy’s mother, Lilly, says Edith miraculously survived, and Percival became an author who wrote a lot of family history. She says Daisy has been totally pre-occupied with this research project—so some apples, it seems don’t fall far from the family tree.

Storykeepers was funded in part by the Children’s Literacy Foundation. Kinsey-Warnock has taken it to about ten other schools in Vermont.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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