Researching Close Ancestors

In building a family tree, it is tempting to focus on adding as many generations as possible to each of your known family lines. Indeed it is satisfying to trace a family back eight or more generations. Some of the branches of my family tree run so deep that I get frustrated with other lines with unknown fifth great grandparents.

Two of my brick walls are both ancestors of my great grandpa Howard Cook. I know that his grandfather George Cook emigrated from Germany/Prussia in 19th century, but I do not know who George’s parents were. Likewise, I do not know the origin of Great Grandpa Cook’s maternal grandfather, Cyrus Cole. He appears in the 1860 census as a farmhand living in Brownhelm, Ohio, as if he created himself wholesale, ready to work with pitchfork in hand.

Early on in my research, I felt a bit of defeat that two of my brick walls were connected to a close ancestor. How could I fail in tracing the family of a man I thought I knew well? I decided to invest more time in researching Great Grandpa Cook himself. Although it was likely that this research would yield little or no clues that could help break through those brick walls, I figured he was worth my time. What would I find about the life of a man who was so essential and influential to my mom’s side of the family?

I knew that his first career was baking and that he’d worked as a professional baker until he developed Baker’s Lung, which caused him to take a job as a school custodian, a job that had little glory but much security. I found two newspaper clippings about his work as a baker.

The first is an advertisement from The Lima News from May 24, 1929:

Lima News Page 2 May 24 1929

In 1929, he was just 22 years old, and my great grandma was expecting their first child, my grandma Eileen. I think it’s interesting that at such a young age he was accomplished enough to be listed by name in an advertisement, as the “Pie Foreman” no less.

The second clipping is from the February 23, 1954 edition of The Lima News:

Lima News Page 17 Feb 23 1954

This short article implies that he received a 30 years of service bonus in August of 1953, which means that he began working as a baker during the month before he turned 16. When I was growing up and heard about his first career, my mind invented the notion that he was a baker for 20 years. Who knows why I settled on that number. Maybe my young mind could not comprehend such a scale of time. It turns out that he had that job for at least 31 years, and then he worked as a school custodian long enough to earn a pension.

In looking at census records, I discovered that Great Grandpa Cook did not attend high school. This surprised me as 80% of my memories of him involve seeing him read something, such as the newspaper or one of the hundreds of issues of National Geographic he collected. I looked back at my family tree for clues about why his education ended early while his oldest brother did finish high school. The answer was the untimely death of his father, my second great grandfather William Cook. William died of TB when Great Grandpa was just 11 years old. He completed three more years of school and then went to work.

I wonder why he chose to be a baker. He was successful enough at this work that he was able to sustain a middle class life for his family (which included six children, by the way).

I was also able to borrow and scan some of his recipes from his days as a baker. All of these recipes are massive in scale since he was a commercial cook.

His master chart for pie fillings:


The formula for “thicking” which looks to be a slurry of several standard thickeners:


His recipe for chicken pie filling, with “2 hens”(!);


He also had a recipe for potato salad for 80 people and parkerhouse rolls:


I have two points in sharing this information here. First is my pride in his work. Second is to encourage you to research your close ancestors. Search old newspapers, yearbooks, and the like. Ask your older relatives if they have any of that ancestor’s writing. You could find lots of information to deepen your understanding of relatives you thought you knew well.

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