Feature Story

Interview with Margaret R. “Peggy” Jenks

Anyone who has researched their ancestors in Rutland County, Vermont knows the name Margaret R. “Peggy” Jenks. Peggy has catalogued every person on every gravestone in the 200+ cemeteries in the 27 towns of the county, and published these indexed listings in a series of 16 books. Peggy is also an accomplished genealogist, having researched and published books on early families in New England and New York. She chaired the Seattle Genealogical Society's Computer Interest Group from 1982-1986, was editor of the Newsletter of the Genealogical Society of Vermont from 1996-2005, and served six years as a trustee of the Association for Gravestone Studies. Peggy has been a long time member of the Vermont Old Cemetery Association and this month we caught up with her as the snow is about to allow her to continue her fieldwork.

VOCA: Thanks for taking time to talk with us, Peggy! Can you start by telling where your where born, about your childhood, growing up, your education and early adulthood.

Peggy: I was born in Springfield, Massachusetts where my parents were for the summer. My father was a college professor. I was just a month old for my first trip to Vermont staying at the family cottage on Lake St. Catherine and having a four generation picture with great-grandma, grandma, mother and me. Home was Chicago. I spent my first birthday at Estes Park, Colorado at a YMCA camp where my father was working. I just don’t remember what he was doing, but the summer I was 6 I was spent at the camp in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin where he was the minister and planned the entertainment. I do remember seeing a Shirley Temple movie. In June 1941 we moved back to my grandparents in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts and were there through the war. I went to high school at Springfield’s Technical High School. I graduated from Drexel, now University, in Philadelphia with a degree in home economics. I married Bob Jenks a week after graduation and we moved to DeLand and Daytona Beach, Florida. I was a dietitian at the Halifax Hospital until motherhood. Halifax Hospital is where they now take the injured race car drivers. Since then I have lived in Silver Spring, Maryland, Miami, San Diego, Bellevue, Washington, Richardson, Texas, Maryland again and now Granville, New York.

I have four wonderful children: Susan, Catherine, Joan and Robert. They have given me six grandchildren and now a great-granddaughter. Robert is the only one who has been with me in the cemeteries to any extent. I would not have been able to visit two of the Mt. Tabor cemeteries without his help as one was down a very washed out road I never could have attempted alone.

VOCA: Your web biography indicates you first began researching and writing as a family genealogist. How did that occur? How did you do the research? What was the result of your first effort?

Peggy: My first memory of genealogy was my grandmother working on charts at Lake St. Catherine when I was 8. She, with her mother and sister, were going to visit two Granville cemeteries and I refused to go with them. Their ancestors were very early settlers of Granville and Hebron NY. It was arranged for me to stay with cousins. After Grandma died in 1960, mother gave me one of her note books. I really started with my husband’s family as his mother was a descendant of a first settler, Ichabod Marshall of Poultney. We have some 3rd cousin in common. My children have 20 direct ancestors buried in Poultney. Bob’s father’s family were early settlers in the Brattleboro – Guilford area. The kids have about 100 direct ancestors buried in Vermont, I have only 4. Searching all these family lines took me to many cemeteries. The drawing I use on my books was done by my oldest daughter, Susan. She went by the East Poultney cemetery with her cousins one day as I was copying the stones!

Mother lived near NYC and went into the city often for Sierra Club meetings. She would go by the NY Public library and search things for me. Mother got hooked! She compiled four books on her mother’s ancestors. The Reynolds – Rice book and the Spencer book I did these last couple of years are the families Mother did not live long enough to compile. My grandmother’s records went a long way with the research.

My first effort with cemeteries was a project of the Genealogical Society of Vermont to compile a card index of everyone buried in Vermont. During vacation in Wells, I copied all the stones and that winter typed the cards. The next time I was East, I copied Poultney and did the cards.

Bob’s Poultney grandmother had Horton ancestry and I became acquainted with an elderly minister Mr. Seymour who had collected many Horton records in eastern Massachusetts. I sent him all my Horton records and found more for him. It ended becoming my project. I needed a new typewriter. The Seattle Genealogical Society had a fair in 1980 and four of the members brought their computers. I was hooked. This was the best way to type the Horton book. I bought a Radio Shack model II and an indexing program. I decided to enter the Wells records and indexed them to learn just how to use the computer – that is how it started. I ran copies and advertised. They sold so I did the Poultney records. You all know the rest.

VOCA: You were the editor of the Newsletter of the Genealogical Society of Vermont from 1996-2005. Tell us about how you became involved, how you managed the newsletter, and how you collaborate with other genealogists, most of whom are amateurs we assume.

Peggy: I had joined both GSV and VOCA about 1976. I was in Granville in 1995 and GSV needed a new Newsletter editor and I volunteered. The format was set by the previous editor so it was just a matter of collecting articles and keeping after the president and treasurer for their data. Fortunately members also sent interesting things. Sometimes I really had to scrounge to find enough to fill the pages.

Work on the Horton book was so different than today. I made many trips to the Seattle Federal Records Center for census. The census was only open to 1880 at that time. Then how wonderful when 1900 opened! Several visits to Salt Lake City allowed me to search land and probate records. Fortunately Mr. Seymour had correspondence with many descendants that I continued. Then I became acquainted with Ruth Horton Metzler who had spent years on her branch of the family and done a lot of research in England. She wrote the chapter on the possible English ancestors. With research on the daughters, it ended up in four volumes. I have continued to find more data and have realized I would never get another book finished so have turned all my records to Jeff Horton. He is doing a wonderful job of continuing my work. We talk on the phone often. We are looking for Horton’s to take the DNA test.

VOCA: During the 80’s and 90’s, you catalogued every cemetery in Rutland County, Vermont and in the last decade have updated several of those books. You live in Granville, NY. Why Rutland County?

Peggy: I had no idea when I started with Wells and Poultney where this project would go. I kept getting requests for other towns and I still do for non-Rutland County towns. Rutland County, because it was close to Lake St. Catherine, because Bob’s ancestors lived there. It just happened. I spent one summer in Mendon and did 10 towns. I was commuting from Maryland for four years for the Spring and Fall VOCA and GSV meetings and vacation at the lake. All the towns were done before I moved to Granville except Orwell. The move came when I had a chance in 1995 to buy the 1889 family home in Granville.

VOCA: Some cemeteries have thousands of stones and multiple people on the stones. What is your process? How do you possibly ever complete one cemetery, much less hundreds?

Peggy: I guess a lot of patience. With my 70 page spiral note book and pen, you just copy one stone after the other. I did have a lot of help from Marvel Swan, who with others, had copied about half of Rutland County for the DAR and put the listings in the DAR Vermont yearbooks. Her work was a big help as most was done in the 1940-50s and by the 80s many stones were face down or had become nearly illegible. I would type her listings, then work through the cemetery proof reading her work and adding all the changes. Her work was almost perfect. I always gave her or the DAR credit for any material from her lists. My mother wanted me to do Granville. Orwell was part of Rutland County until 1847 and done while extracting the Fair Haven District Probate records.

VOCA: You started your genealogical research in 1964 and cemetery transcriptions in 1978. We assume you started with pencil and paper, moved to the typewriter, migrated to the word processor, the personal computer, scanners, databases and the Internet. Explain the evolution of your ‘tools’ to us. How do you work today on your current projects?

Peggy: As I found the family data, I designed a Family Group Sheets and typed in my research. Paper and pen were only field work tools. In 1981 things changed with my first computer. It had only 64K memory so each file on a disk was only about 8 pages long. It was quite a task to name each of these files and print them out in order. The Horton book has ended in four volumes, 1300 pages. The body Spencer book, published in 2013, has 227 pages in one file plus the index in another! Certainly the Internet is now a wonderful tool. Unfortunately there are too many errors out there on such sites as Ancestry. I only trust what I see when it’s the original of the records. It has saved me many hours of travel to the Federal Records Center in Pittsfield to look at census. So many of the family trees were done on the old IGI with no documentation. Now with both my desk top computer and laptop I can search on one and enter the data on the other. PS. The Pittsfield record center is now closed and all the films have been transferred to the Pittsfield Athenaeum.

I had started to search for gravestone carvers many years ago, however the project never really got going. After finishing the cemeteries, I had collected a long list of signed stones. It was time to search the probate records for payments to the carvers. With Dani Roberts help, we bought the Rutland County probate films and set about the job. We produced eight volumes that cover the surviving records to about 1850. Many payments for stones were found. The special ones were when the payee was named.

VOCA: You have been a long time member of VOCA. When did you join? Please tell us about your association with the Association.

Peggy: I don’t remember when I joined VOCA, but about the same time I joined GSV. VOCA dues were $1 and a one page newsletter done by Leon Dean’s daughter. My first meeting was in June 1991 at Georgia, VT. I had contributed my list of town cemeteries for the burial grounds book and used the book to find the small hard to find cemeteries in other towns. Arthur Hyde was such a great help this last spring when he told me of another burial in West Haven.

VOCA: What is your current project?

Peggy: I joined the Association for Gravestone Studies in 1982 and became interested in their project to identify the gravestone carvers. A rubbing of the stone of Mindwell Grant in East Poultney showed “EC” as the signature of the carver. One way to identify the carver was through probate records. As there are a number of similar stones in both east Poultney and Middletown, I took a list of the male stones to Montpelier (now Middlesex) and found probate records for Zebediah Dewey, d. 1804 in Poultney. Jonas Clark was paid $20.50 for this stone. Not “EC” but a number of E. Clarks in Middletown. I had worked with town historian Herbert Davison in copying the old cemetery. He found a 1891 manuscript genealogy by Merritt Clark. He wrote: “Enos was a stone cutter – some of his work may be seen at the old cemetery generally ornamented with the head of a Seraph or weeping willow…” Merritt was 12 years old when his great uncle died and we can imagine the boy watching his uncle carving.

William Buckland, buried in North Poultney is one of my children’s ancestors. Who were his parents? The History of Poultney noted his family had been in Hartford, CT for generations. I found a string of William Bucklands there but could not tie them to the Poultney man. An article on the Buckland carvers, William and bother Peter led me to a note that William of Hartford sold his property and moved to Poultney, giving the death date as is on the Poultney stone. There is only one stone in Poultney carved by William as he died too soon after moving. His family stones were all carved by Enos Clark.

I was hooked on carvers. Now I am in the process of compiling all the carver records accumulated over the past 30 years. The marble industry in the East part of the county and the slate industry on the Vermont - New York border, drew an endless supply of carvers and marble and slate dealers. This next year you will see me taking close-up pictures of the lettering on the stones. Each carver had his own way of carving certain letters.

VOCA: What words of wisdom do you have for us as concerns the preservation of cemeteries?

Peggy: Get out and copy the stones in your cemetery before they become illegible or fall face down. One of the biggest problems everywhere is the lack of funds, or unwillingness of towns boards to care for the old abandoned cemeteries. VOCA has done so much and must continue this important work by educating the public to the importance of the old cemeteries. Charlie Marchant, with others, produced a book to show schools how to educate our youth. It’s the best way to stop vandalism. Tom Giffin is doing a wonderful job talking to groups and working with the children on proper cemetery care. The Association for Gravestone Studies now has chapters around the country with interested parties teaching cemetery care. Their annual conference includes a workshop on gravestone repair.

Peggy Jenks has her own web site at http://www.cemeterybooks.com.