Carroll's treasure trove of U.S. family histories

Willow Bend Books delights genealogists

February 20, 2000|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Fred Westcott of Budd Lake, N.J. -- the grandson of Anna Beatrice Furnish, a milliner born in 1878; great-grandson of George Francis Furnish, a Kentucky farmer; and great-great-grandson of Jacob L. Furnish, a Kentuckian who fought for the North during the Civil War -- traveled not long ago to Westminster to research his family tree.

None of his relatives ever lived in town.

Westcott -- great-great-great-grandson of John Furnish, a frontiersman born in 1800; and great-great-great-great-grandson of James Furnish (or "Furnace"), a Virginian who served in the Revolutionary War as a private -- explored the documentary past collected at Willow Bend Books, a bookstore housed in a nondescript brick storefront on East Main Street and devoted solely to genealogical research.

It was not his first visit. "I go in and look through books," said Westcott -- great-great-great-great-great-grandson of John Furnace, a felon who in 1735 was shipped from London to the English colonies -- "and end up buying a pile of them every time."

Flesh on the bones

Willow Bend stocks books containing tax lists from Colonial times, Revolutionary War soldiers' pension files, census records from 1790 to 1920, death records compiled from country courthouse registers and vast bibliographies of other genealogical works.

"In our market, they're interested in who their ancestors were, how they lived," said Craig R. Scott, the owner. "They're interested in putting a little flesh on their bones, not just getting the skeletons."

A growing hobby

Once considered largely a hobby of retirees, genealogy is a growing business greatly aided by an explosion of Internet sites dedicated to untangling ancestral lines.

"This is not going to stop, because now my generation is going to be retiring in the next 10 or 15 years, and we're going to have free time and the cycle is going to continue," said John Humphrey, a genealogy book publisher and education manager of the National Genealogical Society. "There are a lot of factors making this a quote, unquote growth industry."

Scott -- distant cousin of King Henry II, a 12th-century English monarch; and 11th cousin, twice removed, of former President George Bush -- opened Willow Bend in 1994 by piling books onto 12 floor-to-ceiling metal shelves crammed in the back of a garage at his home in Lovettsville, Va.

In 1997, he moved the business into a 750-square-foot apartment. Last year, he bought Family Line Publications in Westminster when its owner, F. Edward Wright, decided to retire after 15 years. Scott merged the two businesses, and last year the company sold 27,000 books.

Few such stores

"They are among the short list, believe me, of genealogy bookstores around the country," said Humphrey. "There are maybe 10 to 15 max, so they do draw people. I've talked to people over the years who will go to Westminster simply to shop in that store."

Browsing through the bookcases, customers can choose among "General Abstracts of Revolutionary War Pension Files" ($585); "Maryland Freedom Papers" ($8), listing the dates and conditions of release for blacks freed from slavery; a $60 compilation of Maine wills from 1640 to 1760; about 400 items selling for less than $3 each; and about 8,600 other volumes.

The shop sells materials that cover the country alphabetically, from Alabama to West Virginia, but it specializes in the mid-Atlantic region, with most of its shelf space dedicated to Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia. Willow Bend has also published more than 800 softcover titles of its own.

Touching history

Scott says his shop is one of relatively few allowing customers to "touch the books" -- that is, to use the store for research without making a purchase. "That was one of the hardest things when I first bought the place," he said. "The staff would come to me and say, `They're copying, they're copying,' and I'd say, `So what?'

"We don't like to limit people in what they can do, but there are people who ask if we can photocopy pages for them, and of course, that's absurd. But we also have people who after several hours ask if the books are for sale."

He prohibits photocopies, computers and scanners, and recently banned video cameras after watching a woman videotape her husband as he read a book aloud.

Caroline Wright of Lacey, Wash. -- the great-granddaughter of James Ames Dixon of Baltimore, who was the son of Eunice Fisher of Delaware, who was the daughter of James Fisher, who was a descendant of John Fisher, who emigrated from England to Dorchester County in 1674 -- has purchased hundreds of volumes from Willow Bend's catalogs.

`Untangling a tangle'

Her research introduced her to a great-grandfather from Ohio who was forced to fight for the Confederacy during the Civil War. She likened the work to "untangling a tangle in a fishing line."

"It is as much about the history of the country as it is your individual lines."

"I used to get letters from people saying, `I'm the rightful heir to the throne of England,' and I have to laugh because we're all descended from these people," Scott said. "The difference is that some people know it and some people don't."

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