Donna Spickermann

Genealogy hobby grows into town history project

By By Lee Nelson, QUAD-CITY TIMES -- December 1, 1999

NEW LIBERTY, Iowa -- Her living room has been taken over by filing cabinets and folders full of information.

But it doesn't bother Donna Spickermann of New Liberty. Those folders contain her passion -- history and genealogy.

She began 20 years ago to look up the family history of her parents and her husband's parents.

"Then it just kind of spread out from there," she said.

She has ended up reading almost 100 years of the former Wheatland Gazette newspaper, and then writing each piece of marriage, death or birth information down on paper. That took her seven years of her life to achieve by going to different libraries to read all the microfilm and to read old copies of the fragile papers.

Then, she read all the papers a second time, which took her four years, and recorded the historical facts and events of her hometown, Wheatland. She lived there as a young girl, and now lives only seven miles south of it in the northernmost tip of Scott County.

"I now have a genealogy and history facts of Wheatland to share with others. It just seems like the older you get, the more you get interested in your past. My children are grown, and I just found myself getting more involved in it."

Through word-of-mouth and through librarians who knew about Spickermann's efforts, people from all over the country have called her to get their families' histories.

"I basically have written a family tree for every family that has ever passed through Wheatland. Of course, I would be missing any information that didn't appear in the papers."

Day after day, month after month, she spent time in the microfilm rooms in Wheatland. If she couldn't find certain papers there, she went to the libraries in DeWitt or Davenport.

She got quite friendly with the librarians who helped her through the process, or just kept her company in her quest.

"I had people that wrote in from all over the country looking for their family's history," said Mary Herr, retired librarian from the

Davenport Public Library. She retired in May after 44 years at the library, mostly in the special collections department.

"I think the great surge of interest about genealogy came after Alex Haley's book 'Roots' came out. Now with computers, there is so much access to our past."

She and Spickermann had many conversations through the years.

"Donna is such an interesting person. We just kind of hit it off. She took up quite an undertaking."

But Spickermann found a lot of fascinating things while recording information.

Wheatland used to have a dance hall five miles north of town. She found articles announcing Guy Lombardo and Lawrence Welk would be appearing there.

"When they had these big bands, more than 1,500 people fit into one building. I found it quite fascinating because my husband and I are into dancing."

Through her findings, Spickermann also discovered that the further you go back in history, the more detailed the obituaries become.

"Even if they took their life, the description of how they did it is in there. It seemed a little spooky from the silence of suicide today."

When she researched her own family and her husband's, she found an article about her grandfather's first wife who perished in a house fire in 1892. Her grandfather threw their baby out of an upper story window. Someone caught the baby, and it survived. Her grandfather jumped out so he could catch his wife. But she perished before he had a chance to save her.

Spickermann had so much information on certain subject areas, that she made separate folders. Some of those topics include auctioneers, the three churches in Wheatland, those in the military, the fire department, hotels (yes, Wheatland used to have quite a few hotels), restaurants, grocery stores, morticians and automobiles.

"In the early 1900s, whenever someone bought an auto, their name got in the paper because it was such a big deal," she said. She also found information about the first and only murder in Wheatland in August 1898. She discovered that the worst fire in Wheatland history was on July 4, 1874, when a young man was playing with firecrackers. The entire main street was destroyed.

She hasn't had much request for Wheatland genealogy information from people in Wheatland. But she's had many requests from people all over the United States and a few in England and Canada.

"It just hasn't caught on here, yet. I don't have a computer, yet. So, I can't e-mail out information. The hardest part so far is finding people that would be interested in my work."

She gives out the information for a reasonable cost, depending on how much copying, postage and labor she puts into it. One family's history was 225 typed-written pages. She even received a crocheted afghan from a woman in Colorado with whom she has become good friends with since their first meeting.

"I'm doing all this just because I'm interested."