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Ancestry one of the most popular hobbies in the country

Rich McFarlane points out the latest addition to the family tree, his son Joseph. (FNS Photo by Eric Hyden)

GRAND FORKS — When Rich McFarlane and his wife were expecting their second child, a boy who would carry on the family’s name, he wanted to know more about where he came from.

McFarlane is one of the millions of people across the country who have recently taken up genealogy — the study of family history.

What was once a hobby centered around spending hours at the records archive and walking through cemeteries has become easier in the age of the Internet.

According to ABC News, ancestry is the second-most popular hobby in the U.S. after gardening and the second-most visited category of websites after pornography.

“I think a lot of people are like me, and at some point in their lives, they become curious about who they are and where they came from,” McFarlane said.

In her 25-plus years of researching her family, Cathy Altepeter has strived to find out as much information about her ancestors as possible.

Along the way, she has searched for and collected every tidbit of information she can. Housed in three-ring binders are obituaries, marriage records, township maps, military records, land grant records (if they were homesteaders) and any other piece of data she can get her hands on.

While some records may take her months to track down, in her mind, that joy of finding the information makes it all worth it.

“It’s exciting and satisfying,” she said.

Altepeter said she has traced her lineage back to the 1600s to ancestors in Norway who have owned a family farm for more than 400 years.

“I’ve always been a curious person and this is a way to satisfy my curiosity,” she said.

“If you just start looking,” she said, “you can find the most amazing things.”

While many who are into genealogy try to trace their lineage back as far as they can, McFarlane said he wants to find out the personal stories about who his ancestors were.

While researching, McFarlane has uncovered huge family finds and solved a 96-year mystery of the disappearance of his great-grandfather as well as discovering that his grandfather, Robert Denver McFarlane, who founded McFarlane Sheet Metal in Grand Forks, was left for dead as a newborn.

His research has found that his great-grandmother died while giving birth to his grandfather in a Catholic hospital. Because the family was not Catholic, the baby was not being fed or taken care of by the hospital staff — essentially letting the baby die.

Robert was eventually rescued by his grandmother and father. Rich McFarlane’s great-grandfather (Robert’s father) eventually abandoned the family — and his newborn son — after he was incapable of raising a baby. After that, his great-grandfather fell off the radar until McFarlane’s recent discovery of his death certificate in Washington.

“It’s like a detective search, and if you find something, it’s a really big moment of excitement,” McFarlane said.

“I think learning about your family history validates who you are as a person,” he said. “It’s also cool because these are the people that you come from and as a young kid, you don’t care. But with your age, I think you learn to appreciate what your ancestors went through in order for you to be alive.”

Wade Rupard

Wade Rupard is a reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. Rupard is a 2014 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and is originally from Normal, Ill. 

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