Discoveries: Bizarre Snow Story Proves Truth Stranger than Fiction

You never know what you'll find when using old newspapers to explore your family history. Oh, sure, you know that obituaries, birth announcements and marriage notices will give you names and dates to help fill in your family tree. But some of the real delights in genealogy lie in stories you never knew, found in places you didn't expect.

Take the following news article as an example. It is a strange, even bizarre story—if it were fiction, you'd think it was a Monty Python comedy sketch, or a scene from the TV sitcom "Green Acres." But this story is true. Imagine if you were a descendent of Abram Decker, had never heard this story before, and stumbled upon it while researching your family history using historical newspapers? You might shudder with horror realizing how close fate came to ending your ancestor's life—which means you would never have come into existence.

This past winter saw many parts of the country hit with very heavy snowfalls. As bad as it was—and I myself spent many a sleepless night listening to my roof groaning under the weight of three feet of snow—this winter was nothing compared to the Winter of 1898 in New Jersey, with its 15-foot-high snow drifts!

The startling story of Abram Decker's snow misadventure in New Jersey was picked up and printed by the Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho) on Feb. 18, 1898. It is an amazing tale—and, as the following news article declares, he was indeed saved by "the heroism of his devoted wife":

Wow, what a story. After waiting in vain all night for Decker to return from a trip to get groceries, his worried wife set out in the morning, searching for him through 15-foot snow drifts—finally spotting one forlorn foot sticking out of the snow. Then her desperate scramble to light fence rails, hoping the bonfire would warm her husband and alert nearby neighbors. Finally two farmers came to the rescue, soon joined by two other neighbors, who brought Decker and his heroic wife back to their home.

Now that's an incredible family story. It's scary to realize how close Decker came to freezing to death—and how desperate Mrs. Decker must have felt suddenly discovering her husband's foot sticking out of a 15-foot snow drift, and her determination in setting a fence on fire to save him. One of those amazing "truth is stranger than fiction" stories that lie buried in old newspapers, not read for generations and completely forgotten, that suddenly leap out at you with the happy reminder: family history research is full of discoveries!

This story also provides an important tip when doing your own genealogy:
  • Don't limit your search to just one state.
  • It makes sense to begin your research in a state where you know your ancestors once lived.
  • Afterward, though, expand the scope of your search—remember that the information you are looking for may have appeared in a newspaper in another, quite unexpected, state.
  • In the above example we have a story coming out of Port Jervis, New York, about a man from Swartswood, New Jersey—picked up and printed by a paper clear across the country in Boise, Idaho!