When it comes to family trees, Susan Whitemountain of Anna is a master forester. Not only has she traced her roots back generations, but she’s planted the seedlings of genealogical research in dozens of other people, helping them discover their own family histories and stories. Her journey as a family historian began in earnest more than a decade ago.
“I really got into the genealogy after I retired from the Navy in 2006,” she said. “My mother was living in Dixon and turning 80 and she had done a lot of family research so I put together a CD of photographs for her. She wanted to join the Daughters of the American Revolution, so I went through the whole line and helped her with that.”
Whitemountain, 66, said she was living in Virginia at the time and her interest in family history was beginning to branch out, leading her to make frequent trips to Illinois and other places to meet distant relatives and learn about her ancestors.
“I would travel all of the way to Missouri to visit my cousin where I was scanning pictures and putting pieces together,” she said. “I was going to Ireland, to Chicago and to California to meet people. Everybody has a little piece of the puzzle and it doesn’t always come to you readily. You have to make a lot of calls — cold calls on the phone — and reach out to people.”
She said sometimes those calls help to put everything together, sharing about following a hunch she followed in putting together another family’s history.
“There are ‘aha’ nuggets and you use these to put things into place. You begin to look for clues and patterns. I knew in this one family tree that at one place there would have to have been a son named Hugh and he would have been the third son, born around 1858. I put it in as a spacer,” she said. “Some of the relatives in the book were from Australia, so I sent it to them. They got in contact with someone in Scotland who led me to a lady in Connecticut that helped me find Hugh. That’s the way it happens. You may just sit for a long time and be stuck, then all of a sudden you find something and it unravels. Mom always said I should have been a police officer.”
Whitemountain, who is originally from Sterling, didn’t work in law enforcement, however. She served a combined 26 years in the Navy and Army Reserves.
“I went in in January 1971 and, at the time, women didn’t go on ships. I never learned how to fire a gun. It was nothing like it is today. I was a hospital corpsman and I had gone to nurses training, so I always worked in the medical field,” she said. “I went to physical occupation school and came up through the ranks, eventually becoming a Chief Petty Officer.”
During her military career, Whitemountain earned two master’s degrees from university outreach programs, one from Northern Illinois University and the other from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, a place with which she was already familiar.
“I had relatives down here. We used to come visit an aunt in Jonesboro. After I retired, I started doing genealogy and I was coming to the courthouse quite a bit. This was a nice place to come back to,” she said.
Now as a resident, she continues to complete not only her own family history, but also helping others with their own. Not one to miss the tie between family stories and local history, she’s involved in organizations such as P.A.S.T. (Promoting Appreciation for Structural Treasures of Union County). She’s even preserving a building of her own. “The Gathering Place” will be a family research and genealogy resource center in downtown Anna.
“I imagine it being a place where people will come in to talk about their families and share their stories. I’ll take all of my resource books and I’ll my publishing equipment; we’ll publish genealogical books there.,” she says.
She says she’s never charged to help anyone with their family history. She does it to preserve the past and to raise up future genealogists.
“If I can teach young people and make them eager to learn about history, that’s great,” she said. “I’m looking to help people preserve their histories. When you get involved with a family and you begin to talk about where they lived and what they did, you feel like you are right there. I’m blessed to be able to do that.”