January 15, 2021
Unlike on the eastern plains of Colorado, severe thunderstorms are rare in Northern Utah, where I grew up. That was a good thing because any time an electrical storm threatened, my mother gathered us kids, unplugged all electrical appliances and dragged us all down to the basement. As we cowered in the corner furthest from any windows, Mom would tell us how important it was for us to hide out like this. After all, she told us, when she was young, her house had been struck by lightning. No one was injured, other than ending up with plaster falling all over them, but the strike tore off the entire side of the house and left a pile of bricks where the main chimney had been.
Mom and her siblings never forgot that memory, and all of them were deeply afraid of thunderstorms, whether large or small, for the rest of their lives. As far as I know, none of them ever even came close to being struck by lightning again, but they passed the scary story on to their own children and grandchildren.
Many decades later, when I became a genealogist, I remembered Mom’s lightning story and wondered if it was really as life-threatening as she’d made it seem. As a genealogist, I knew that many family stories were exaggerated and that it was important to try to figure out what really might have happened. Luckily for me, Ogden, Utah is and was a fairly good-sized town, and it had always had a daily newspaper – The Ogden Standard Examiner – which published all the local goings on, as well as state and national news. In the days when I first began to wonder about the lightning story, The Standard was only available on microfilm at the local public library and was not indexed. That wasn’t a problem when I was looking for obits for people whose death dates I knew, but the only thing Mom could tell me about her traumatic lightning strike was that it happened when she was “a kid.” Since she was born in 1925, that could have meant anytime from approximately 1928 or 1929 through about 1940. That was hardly a searchable period since newspapers were thick in those days, and I only got a chance to look at the local papers for a few hours on my occasional trips to Utah.
The lightning strike remained just an unverified story for a few years more. Eventually in the early 2000s, newspapers began to be digitized. The Standard was digitized early, and I quickly subscribed to Newspapers.com, which had a long run of the paper. Whether or not there actually was an article remained to be seen, but I thought there was a reasonable chance if the house had actually been as damaged as Mom remembered. Searching for “John Dawson – lightning” and narrowing the time frame to 1929 through 1940 got me a lot of hits. The second one was entitled “Lightning Tears Corner Off Riverdale Home” dated May 4, 1931. Bingo! There was the article which described the early morning lightning strike essentially exactly as Mom remembered it, including the plaster in her sisters’ breakfast bowls.
Mom had been barely six years old when the freak storm hit, but she remembered it clearly. No wonder she was terrified of storms for the rest of her life; the lightning strike was probably one of the most memorable events of her childhood. For me, the strike wasn’t nearly as personal, but verifying the story made me realize that newspapers can be the source of so much more than just obits and death notices. They can tell us stories that we wouldn’t have been able to access any other way. Since I found the lightning story, I’ve found numerous other stories about my ancestors in local newspapers, everything from a great grandfather’s buggy crash when his horse was frightened by an early automobile to the story of how my great grandmother’s Sunday roast was stolen from her basement as it rested before being carved for dinner!
Even if you think your ancestors were probably just “ordinary” folks who wouldn’t have made the local newspapers, it’s worth checking. Local newspapers were written for local readers who were interested in the escapades of their neighbors, whether large or small, so the chances are good that you’ll be able to find at least a few articles about your own clan.
Accessing newspapers is often quite simple nowadays. Newspapers.com, Genealogybank.com and Newspaperarchive.com are three good starting points. Although they are subscription sites, all three offer free trials, and all have a wide range of newspapers available. In addition, there are a number of free sites for newspaper research including the Library of Congress’ Chronicling of America and a variety of state newspaper projects which have digitized papers from various states. Just Google the name of the state plus historic newspapers to access them. Due to copyright issues, the free sites typically don’t cover newspapers as recent as those covered in the paid sites, but they’re certainly worth checking.
Do you have a “lightning” story rattling around in your memory? Do you want to try to verify it? If it could have been considered remotely newsworthy, newspapers are a great way to “read all about it.” Now is an especially good time to dig into digitized newspapers, since nearly all of our research has been narrowed to the internet. Happy hunting!
Researcher/Director at Large