Interview – Rhonda Early of Pocket-Tree

[Editor's Note: recently I had the opportunity to review a new genealogy product - Pocket Tree©™ - here at GeneaBloggers.  Here is an interview with the company's founder, Rhonda Early where I discuss her company, her products and the genealogy industry.

Look for more of these "review and interview" combos here at GeneaBloggers in the future.  I think as the genealogy industry evolves, many of our readers want to learn about the process of developing a genealogy product and bringing it to market.]

How did you come up with the idea for Pocket Tree©™? What was your inspiration?

I was getting ready to go on my second trip to the Allen Co Library in Ft. Wayne [Indiana], a wonderful genealogy facility for research. As well prepared as I was for my second trip, I still felt like I wasn’t going to be able to use my time as wisely as I could, and still be comfortable carrying everything around for a couple days.

My first trip had not gone well because I just wasn’t sure how to organize myself. So I wanted to be positive that didn’t happen on the second trip. For this second trip, I had all of my questions ready, all the book and microfilm numbers in hand, but I still wasn’t ready. I needed a simple family tree chart to refer to, keeping the family tree info accessible at all times – with dates and locations.

I remembered from the first time, kneeling on the floor at the microfilm files, wishing I had all my names and dates in front of me so I didn’t have to hope I was finding everything that might apply to my family. Instead, I made many trips back and forth from table to file, (they don’t want you taking up space sitting on the floor) paging through my (ancestor) lines. I knew there had to be a faster, organizational way.

So for Trip #2, I envisioned what would work for me and went online to purchase this type of chart. There was nothing close to suiting my needs. So, I printed, cut, and taped a chart onto six sheets of 8.5 x 11 paper that would accommodate endless generations. I folded it into a quarter page and was good to go. I had my reference guide!

I had several comments from others that it was a great idea and the chart worked like a charm! My trip was hugely successful due to the fact that every place I walked in that library, I had all my family data with me and simply kept the chart in my hands. I constantly referred to it. And I had several comments from others that they liked the idea.

When I got home, I kept thinking how great my chart had worked, but that there had to be a better way. (I’m all about convenience and doing things easier . . .)

I remembered a map I had used in NYC a few years back. It was an origami fold, but had perforations to make it fold right. Perforations wouldn’t work for a handwritten chart and would tear too easily.. I started researching online and at the library for as many folds as I could find that would give me a 9 + generation ancestry  hart, folded into a compact, workable size. My husband even started working on folds. We finally realized simple worked best.

I found a printer with a great graphic designer that were willing to tackle the design. With trial and error we developed the Pocket Tree©™.

Have you always been involved with genealogy and family history? How long have you been researching your own roots?

As a child, I always asked my parents questions about their youth. I loved hearing stories about my mom’s family and childhood — this was during the depression — because we had moved to Indiana and only saw relatives in the summer when we returned to her childhood home. I loved looking through her photo albums! Her stories, and those of another relative, built a wonderful story of Germans from Alsace. My father spoke very little about his family except to say they were poor and he was always hungry. There were mysteries there I always wondered about . . .

In during the 1997-98 school year, I took my daughter and son to school, then drove straight to the library where I spent hour after hour. I had no idea how to go about researching, but our library’s family history specialist helped me. Her foundations of “start with you” and “never trust any information you haven’t documented” have stuck with me. I ordered tons of microfilm from the National Archives and back then, you “rented” them for 2 weeks at a time. I had a deadline that entire year! I worked for several years and after that until I couldn’t find any more information without travelling or buying all the CDs that had started to be available for sale. It was cost prohibitive to me without any guaranteed results, so I slowed down considerably, waiting for a time to pick it back up.

A couple years ago, I checked out Ancestry.com and was thrilled that the brick walls began to fall away! Since then I began working with that same family history specialist to do some classes, informal discussions, and programs for genealogists in our area.

What advice would you give to someone who was preparing for a research trip away from home? What should they do beforehand? What should they take with them?

I imagine everyone is different to some degree on this, but based on my trial and error I guess I’d say that prior organization is most important.

  1. Know what you want to find. Write everything down you want to know — don’t rely on your memory.
  2. Find out if the facility you are going to has the info you need. Go online, make calls, but know where your info is before spending the time and money being frustrated.
  3. Be polite. My dad always said, “you get more with sugar than you do with salt.”
  4. If you’re finding graves or old house/farm locations, try to situate directions—or a guide even—before you go. I would contact the historical societies for assistance on that. Make a “nice” donation to them. They are hard, conscientious workers.
  5. Pack light. I understand some places won’t allow you to take bags, folders etc. in with you.
  6. Find out ahead of time if you are able to make copies on site — and how they handle that. Do they have to make the copies? Or do they allow you? Either way you’ll need money or change for a machine. What about a digital portable scanner? What about a digital camera?
  7. Find out the hours — and days — all the research sites are open, before planning your trip. Some are closed on certain days . . .
  8. Take your “possibilities.” It’s what I call the people you are unsure are related, but bear checking into if you hit a brick wall when you’re on location.  I think this is especially important when you’re not in a situation to return any time soon.
  9. And of course, take your Pocket Tree©™ filled in!!! You’ll need it, you’ll use it, and you’ll be glad you have it!

How did you come up with the interview questions used on PocketTree? Have you been successful in interviewing your own family members as part of your genealogy research?

I was a “why” kid. Some of the interview questions are the type I used to ask my parents on our trips “back to Grandma’s.” We didn’t live around relatives and it was a way for me to understand things better. Even after everyone was gone from the area and we didn’t go back anymore, I continued to ask the “why” questions. Sometimes I got more details each time and the more I knew, the more I could build on.

I think if you want to really know what makes people who they are — history is important. Knowing about hard times like poverty, illness that swept thru a community, or military background leaves a lifelong mark. Family background is vital if you want to know why someone is the way they are.  And I think asking about lost dreams takes them back into their youth and gives you insight into one more hidden facet of their character. One thing for certain, these open-ended questions allow for a far broader, more colorful view of their lives — and their parent’s lives — and prompt more stories to be told, and more questions you’ll ask on your own.

The thing to remember about these interview questions, is that when you carry your Pocket Tree©™ with you all the time, you won’t miss the chance to talk to someone because you can’t think of enough questions. It’s all here. Sure, the video camera is great, but you probably don’t carry that everywhere. How do you know when the opportunity will present itself to you? Thus, the Pocket Tree©™.

What’s interesting to me is, that as many talks as I had with my father, after I had information from the census, vital records, and a will, I may have told my father more about his family background than he ever was able to tell me. Talk now is what matters most.

And finally, who is the one ancestor of yours that you admire most and why?

This is easy. My grandfather, Clarence. I’m so amazed that as a barber in the early 1900s, he owned his own home — clear. He installed indoor plumbing, built a 2 car garage and rented them (he never owned a car), furnished the home with a few quality pieces, and raised 5 children. When the depression happened, he lost his savings. Everyone cut their own hair at that time, so he had few customers. WWII came and since all the boys were gone, he still had few customers. During all this time, he and my grandmother took in other people’s washing to make ends meet. His children never went hungry, and had necessities only — no birthdays, no Christmas tree or gifts. Yet he wasn’t unkind — just German and frugal. He gave money to church every Sunday, and “down and out” men were always fed when they came to the door. He took care of his family and home, managing to rebuild his savings for my grandmother. Amazing man.

(This family will also be featured in a new book coming out in December called Wheeling Immigrants by Sean Duffy. The link is on my website.)

©2010, Thomas MacEntee

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About Thomas MacEntee

What happens when a “tech guy” with a love for history gets laid off during The Great Recession of 2008? You get Thomas MacEntee, a genealogy professional who’s also a blogger, educator, author, social media connector, online community builder and more. Thomas was laid off after a 25-year career in the information technology field, so he started his own genealogy-related business called High Definition Genealogy. He also created an online community of over 3,000 family history bloggers known as GeneaBloggers. His most recent endeavor, Hack Genealogy, is an attempt to “re-purpose today’s technology for tomorrow’s genealogy.” Thomas describes himself as a lifelong learner with a background in a multitude of topics who has finally figured out what he does best: teach, inspire, instigate, and serve as a curator and go-to-guy for concept nurturing and inspiration. Thomas is a big believer in success, and that we all succeed when we help each other find success.

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