November 25, 2022
Every family has its stories. At every family get together the stories get told and retold. Eventually the stories get enshrined in family lore, and everyone assumes that the tales are true. Until a pesky genealogist comes along and debunks a treasured family myth.
One of my family’s favorite stories was about my maternal grandmother’s childhood. Her father felt it was important for his children to have more education than the local first grade through eighth grade school could provide. The nearest high school was in the larger town of Ogden which was several miles away.
Family lore explains how my grandmother rode her bicycle into town every day to attend high school. Within a few years her younger brother became old enough to accompany her on her daily rides, and eventually both siblings graduated from high school. It was an unusual accomplishment for a farm girl in my grandmother’s day, and she used to brag that she’d had enough education to teach school herself, had she wanted to do so.
I remember hearing this story numerous times as I grew up. None of us ever questioned the details of the story. Then I became a genealogist.
I learned that many family stories tend to be exaggerated or even completely fabricated. I started to wonder about the logistics of my grandmother riding her bicycle into town every day. I grew up only a few miles from where my grandmother did, and there were plenty of winter days when riding a bike was impossible. Utah got a lot of snow when I was young, and I’m sure it was the same in the 1890s when Grandma was a girl. Not to mention the fact that the roads weren’t paved back then, so there must have been muddy days even in the spring and fall when a bicycle ride wasn’t feasible.
A few years ago I visited the homesite where my grandmother had grown up. I decided to drive into town following the old roads she would have used if she’d bicycled to town. It took over a half an hour to drive into town. It would have taken much longer by bicycle. I couldn’t imagine any parent allowing their young daughter to ride alone such a long way.
I did some research and discovered city directories for Ogden for the period when my grandmother would have been a student. I was surprised to see that my grandmother and her younger brother were listed in them. Both were listed as “boarders” at an address not far from the high school. The directories listed occupations, and Grandma and her brother were listed as “students at the high school.”
Part of my family’s story has been confirmed. My grandmother really did attend high school in town. I haven’t been able to find a record of her graduation, but I’m guessing that she probably did since the directories list her as boarding in town for four years.
Like so many family stories, Grandma’s bicycle riding prowess turns out to have been exaggerated. Her home was just too far away from town for her to have ridden very often. The weather would have made it impossible during much of the winter. While she may have ridden a bicycle into town on occasion, she certainly didn’t do it every day since she was boarding in town. She did, however, attend high school when few young women did. She was rightfully proud of that.
Grandma’s story reminds us that family stories need to be taken with a grain of salt. They’re often the part of family history that non-genealogists remember, but that doesn’t make them accurate. We genealogists need to research our family legends even though the results may not make us popular with our family.