“It is important for us … to cultivate in our own family a sense that we belong together eternally,” President Spencer W. Kimball has said. “… We ought to encourage our children to know their relatives. We need to talk of them, make effort to correspond with them, visit them, join family organizations, etc.” (Ensign, Nov. 1974, p. 112.)
The following reports suggest ways to make family reunions fun as well as effective: how to get maximum participation, how to make family history interesting to children, how to accomplish genealogical responsibilities as a large ancestral organization, and how to organize a mainly non-LDS family organization.
The Roundup Reunion
As we approach the ranch, we see the four ranch houses, green barley fields, grazing cattle, and rolling hillsides rimmed with aspen and pine. Cousins are jumping on the trampoline, riding motorbikes in the pastures, and galloping on horseback at full speed. A little four-year-old leaves his activities and dashes across the lawn to greet us: “D’ya know what? The reunion is starting!” Each arriving carload is welcomed. Brothers and sisters and cousins happily greet each other.
Nearly 150 descendants of Lawrence and Mary Corbridge look forward to this reunion every year at the family ranch on the Blackfoot River near Soda Springs, Idaho. The location and date are always the same. Although families are scattered from the shores of Florida to the coasts of California, they plan their vacations well in advance to include this event that both children and adults anticipate all year.
A barbecue supper brings everyone together. Responsibility for meals and activities is rotated from year to year so that each family can express creativity and ingenuity.
After the barbecue comes the hayride. Excitement mounts as young and old run to find a place on the hay wagons. But they’re in for more than a leisurely ride through the countryside! Bandits attack the wagons, and sheriff and posse come to the rescue. Cattle rustlers, prospectors panning for gold, and Spanish “banditos” (returned missionary cousins dressed in native costumes) have appeared on the scene over the years.
Cousins, both country and city, help develop the plots for the hayride activities and take part in the action. The plot is planned; the dialogue is spontaneous and hilarious.
Several Indian Placement students have been a part of our family group. They are remembered in the fun. One year they told tribal stories and histories.
Evening entertainment continues around the campfire with music and melodrama. Accounts from journals and personal histories are presented as plays. Some are humorous and entertaining; others are spiritual and inspirational. Following this, all ages join in square dancing, the “Hokey-Pokey” and the “Virginia Reel.” The family band (guitars, harmonicas, jug, washtub) plays hoedown music that keeps feet tapping and hands clapping to the Western beat.
As the evening draws to a close, a family prayer is offered under the stars. Mothers depart to bed down the toddlers. Young cousins head for the tent village, and the older folks drop into bed.
The next morning, everyone gathers at 8:00 A.M. for early activities and breakfast. The President of the organization (the oldest living male member) conducts the family meeting. He is assisted by two counselors, a secretary, and a historian.
Missionaries who have returned since the last reunion give their reports. Mothers of missionaries presently in the field report on the activities of their sons and daughters. As young cousins hear these reports year after year, their own determination to serve missions is strengthened. Forty-two members of the family organization have completed full-time missions.
In 1981, the president of the family organization reported that the four-generation project had been submitted on schedule. Team effort was the key to the success. Each of the ancestor couples on our pedigree chart had been assigned to a brother or sister who verified the genealogy sheets for accuracy. Several expressed their feelings that it had been a rewarding experience to do this research. Each one had felt a closer kinship to that particular ancestor.
To feature the four-generation program, the family historian collected heirlooms for a memorabilia display. Always on display during reunions is a beautiful family scrapbook which has been kept current with pictures taken over many years.
Before the family meeting is concluded, future events are discussed, such as family temple excursions for weddings. Every descendant to date has been married in the temple.
Outside activities then continue, starting with the traditional flag parade. The patriarch-president leads the grand march on horseback carrying the national flag. He is followed by a mounted representative from each family carrying a family flag designed by each individual family and kept from year to year. They circle the arena on horseback and then form a straight line. We all recite the pledge of allegiance and sing the national anthem with recorded background music.
The rodeo activities now begin: barrel racing, calf-roping, horse relays, and chariot racing. The “buckaroo rodeo” features little cowboys from the younger generation trying to lasso a pair of horns fixed to a bale of hay pulled on a little red wagon. Dressed in chaps and cowboy boots, they ride bucking horses improvised from broomsticks.
The “baby derby” features crawling, toddling, and running contests. Fun-loving nieces enjoy a queen contest. All receive an award for sportsmanship.
Lunch is served and then everyone pursues a variety of activities to their liking for the afternoon, such as football, volleyball, fishing, and trail rides on horses or motorbikes. An exercise wheel used for training horses is improvised for a kiddie merry-go-round. Swings, teeter-totters, and a trampoline are available for all ages.
Floating the Blackfoot River that winds through the ranch is especially fun. Kayaks, rubber rafts, and tubes splash and bob up and down as shouts are heard from those aboard. Mischievous cousins ambush the unsuspecting. Only the fortunate, the aged, and the babies step ashore dry. This is why it is the last activity of the day and of the family reunion.
As we say farewell for another year, we realize that our family is closer—that there are warmer ties binding us together than ever before.
Remembering Christopher Layton:
On 8 March 1898, five months before his death, Christopher Layton formed an organization that is still functioning today—the Christopher Layton Family Organization. His posterity has grown to more than 15,000 family members.
What were the purposes for organizing and for continuing the family organization? At that first meeting in Thatcher, Arizona, committees were formed to write Christopher Layton’s life story and to research his genealogy. Since then, the family has worked together to complete those assignments. His autobiography was printed in 1911, and from the 1920s to the 1950s the family did genealogical and temple work for Layton names, although most of them weren’t on his direct lines. In 1958 a committee was also formed to search out his posterity.
On 4 April 1965, a historic family reorganization meeting took place in Salt Lake City. Several goals were set: to hold reunions more consistently, to edit and reprint the autobiography, to bring the posterity lists up to date, and to earnestly seek out the direct ancestors of Christopher Layton. I was appointed family genealogist, and research began. After several research trips to England, we completed the genealogical work on Christopher Layton’s direct lines as far back as we could go—into the 1600s. We printed pedigree charts and family group records and made them available to the family at reunions.
Then when members of the Church were asked in 1980 to verify and resubmit four-generation records, the family organization submitted the records in behalf of the whole family—even records extending beyond four generations. Over the years since our initial research, we have uncovered new facts, dates, and sources of information and are making this material available to the family. And although we went back as far on Christopher Layton’s lines as we could at the time, we’ve now found some more possibilities for further research.
As a large ancestral family organization, we’ve encouraged family members to form their own smaller family organizations. We’ve told them that we’ll take care of genealogical research as a larger family group, but that each smaller organization is to keep the posterity lists up to date and to have frequent reunions to encourage family fellowship and togetherness. Those kinds of activities are more successful on the smaller, more personal organizational levels.
The large Christopher Layton Family Organization generally has a reunion every two years now. The purposes are mainly genealogical. An important part of the all-day reunions is the business meeting, where we let everyone know the status of the genealogical research and where we report on how family funds have been spent. Members of the family have written skits, plays, poems, and songs relating to Christopher Layton and his family and have presented them at reunions. I prepared a slide presentation on his life—and a second one with a “then and now” theme, looking at his homes in his day and what they look like now. We always display documents, pictures, artifacts, and other items relating to him and his family. We have drawn maps showing the location of his homes, businesses, mills, and cemetery lots for tours for family members at the reunions.
We incorporated the organization in 1976 to qualify for a bulk postage rate and to make it possible for family members to deduct contributions from their income taxes. The board of directors includes representatives from each of the nine main branches of the family. Of course ours is a nonprofit organization: all money is used for genealogical research, family reunions, and family history projects. Periodic newsletters—with a circulation of over 1,200—keep family members informed about reunions, activities of relatives, family history, and new genealogical information.
When Your Family Isn’t LDS
Family organizations aren’t just for large LDS families with pioneer ancestors. My wife, our three children, and I are the only members of the Church in a family association we helped to organize—and we find that it is helping us fulfill our genealogical responsibilities and develop close family ties.
The sketchy stories about my ancestors that I heard as a boy stimulated my imagination and whetted my appetite to know more about them. As I was growing up, I often felt embarrassed and ashamed that I couldn’t confidently answer questions about the origin of my last name. My longings to discover my heritage grew over the years.
These feelings were put into action when my wife and I were baptized into the Church in April of 1969. Encouraged by the Church to seek out my ancestors, I consulted with family members about their knowledge of our family history and began searching town records in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. I accumulated dates, wills, inventories, pictures, and stories, and located homesteads and other sites pertaining to the family.
During this project, I realized how much I needed the assistance of the rest of the family—and how much we needed each other’s assistance. So in September 1979 I wrote the first issue of the James Greenhalgh & Family Newsletter—a one-pager—and mailed copies to all the relatives I knew about: forty family members and friends in Canada, England, and the United States. I told them what I had collected and explained: “I feel this priceless information should not remain solely in my possession, but should be passed on to all descendants of James Greenhalgh. For this reason, from time to time this newsletter will be mailed to you for your enjoyment. I hope it will develop a deep appreciation and love for our ancestors and our heritage. And I would like to invite you to send me any stories, important events involving your family, family history, pictures, etc., for publishing in our newsletter. Stories told to you by your grandmother or grandfather, mother or father, aunt or uncle would be a valuable contribution to the Greenhalgh family history—as well as making interesting reading.” I didn’t have any idea what my relatives, many of whom I didn’t even know, would think of my short newsletter.
To my delight, it was favorably received! We printed an issue monthly—and didn’t run out of material after the first few issues, as I had feared. Family members sent words of encouragement, histories, dates, genealogies, newspaper articles, and stories. They supported the newsletter financially with contributions. (No fee is charged for it.) Some contributed their time.
In the one-year anniversary issue, I encouraged the family to keep their copies in a binder. “It won’t take long,” I wrote, “for those single pages to accumulate into a book—a book about the history of the Greenhalgh families.”
Since our first year had been so successful, I took a big step. In the anniversary issue, I proposed that “the descendants of Greenhalghs join together to establish a family organization for which officers will be elected and an annual reunion planned. The goal of this organization will be to preserve the Greenhalgh family histories, traditions, and genealogies.” I explained some of the benefits of joining together and proposed that we meet to discuss the possibilities.
The outcome of that planning meeting was the first Greenhalgh get-together. On 11 April 1981, fifty-five members and friends of the Greenhalgh family gathered in the George D. Greenhalgh Memorial Hall of the Chepachet Union Church, Chepachet, Rhode Island. The evening began with a display of family records and pictures, including information most family members weren’t aware of. The display also included how-to’s for writing a personal and family history.
After a delicious dinner served by the Ladies Society of the Chepachet Union Church, we had a guest speaker, a noted local genealogist, historian, lecturer, and author. Her talk, “Up in Grandma’s Attic,” was very informative and fit the evening’s theme very well.
Next, members of each family introduced themselves to the group. Then I conducted a brief session on how to begin to do research, walking everyone through the experience of filling out a pedigree chart and a family group sheet.
At the end of the evening, we elected officers and heard the treasurer’s report. We voted to hold a reunion every year, open to all descendants of Greenhalghs, whether their research ties them into our lines or not—or even whether or not they’ve done any research. Most of us visited for a while before leaving.
Our 1982 reunion included time for family members to display talents and hobbies. We again had dinner, a speaker, and short presentations on record keeping.
We’re proud of our name and heritage. And we’re grateful that our family is working so well together to learn about the past—and about each other.
Hold Fast the Heritage
After attending many family reunions, we concluded that long meetings and lunch in the park just weren’t accomplishing all we desired. We felt there must be more.
We wanted our children to know about their ancestors—how they braved the sea, the plains, the unknown; how they answered a call to leave comfortable Salt Lake City and pioneer southern Utah, not slipping in their faith and joy in the gospel, no matter what the adversities. We wanted our children to be proud to be part of the family.
So we took a bold move. First we divided our large ancestral family organization into eleven smaller ones—for the eleven children of John N. and Emma S. Hinton. The larger group still carries on important genealogical functions, and the smaller ones make activities and projects more personal.
The first year, our “grandparent family” organization had its reunion at the family home in Hurricane, Utah—not just for an afternoon, but for two days. We visited the grandparents’ birthplace in Virgin, Utah, reliving their lives by walking the dirt streets, sitting in the little school desks, walking across the square to the adobe brick chapel, seeing the pioneer homes, sitting under mulberry trees, and listening to stories about the old days. Then we had dinner on the lawn at grandpa’s house, and a business meeting in the church where they had worshipped.
This was real on-the-spot heritage. But things change. The old houses in Virgin have been torn down, grandma and grandpa are gone, the farm and house in Hurricane have been sold.
But we didn’t let it end. We just found a new location. Now we gather at a lodge in the mountains each year in June for an over-nighter—noon to noon—with no outside interruptions. We enjoy the usual sounds and activities—children’s laughter, chatter as we meet new babies and new in-laws, an afternoon hike to a nearby falls, group sports, and dinner, where family cooks shine as they bring out their best salads, cake, cookies, and rolls.
After a program of talents comes the “heritage” portion of the reunion, when Aunt Lillian talks to the children about their ancestors. Reunions usually have historical moments for the older ones, a family history or discussion of genealogical work. But young ones need heritage just for them, on their own level. They need to know that their ancestors were people, that they were boys and girls once.
Aunt Lillian has used various ways to do this. She has made large flannel-board figures and told the story of our pioneer ancestors crossing the plains. When she decided the children needed something to take home to remind them of their ancestors during the year, she made a coloring book entitled “When Grandma Isabel Was a Girl.” Each child received his own to color and read. Aunt Lillian had the children open their books and read the story with her, following the simple words if they could read or the pictures if they couldn’t. Each page contained a large picture of an incident in Isabel’s life, beginning with her birth.
Next year came “When Grandpa Bernard Was a Boy,” another coloring book, followed by a picture book about the pioneer Hintons. That year Aunt Lillian didn’t read the story. A delightful puppet (an imaginary cousin, Melissa) read the storybook to the children and gave them each a copy.
Next year, a “Hinton Memory Game” turned family history into a fun activity. Small cards containing pictures of ancestors, covered wagons, a sailing ship, or other historical symbols, were spread out face down on the floor and turned over, two per turn. If they matched, the child earned a point; if not, the cards were turned over and another player had a turn. Older players also had to identify the pictures and tell a bit of the Hinton history represented.
One year Cousin Myrna’s family was so enthusiastic about the children’s part of the reunion that they spent time in family home evenings making salt-dough puppets and dressing them in authentic styles to tell the story of the Hintons’ trip across the ocean from England.
Another year interesting incidents from ancestors’ lives were written as short skits, such as when the Indians came demanding bread, when great-grandfather was a cowboy, when great-grandmother was stolen by Gypsies, and when little Isabel and Annie grew silkworms. The skits were sent early before the reunion to families with young children; then at the reunion they performed these bits of family history, complete with costumes and scenery they each made themselves.
Another evening Aunt Lillian called the children from the audience, gave them props, and had them spontaneously act out stories as she read them.
After the program the little ones have a movie and treats, and the others meet in a business meeting. Genealogists report on research, copies of histories and old pictures that have been discovered are shared, a financial report is given, contributions are collected, minutes are read, and elections are held.
Last year a new event was added during the activities of the next morning: a quiet time for the Hinton Seven, the first-generation brothers and sisters. Since reunions are so much fun and there is so much going on, the older ones decided a short period alone would give them a chance to reminisce and share things from their lives. Each was asked to bring a picture, object, or memory to share that perhaps had been lost to the knowledge of the others. What resulted was beyond all expectations: one made a recipe book of Grandma Isabel’s pioneer recipes, another brought the old branding iron, several brought beautiful pieces of handwork, and one brought the old cast-iron kettle used outdoors over a bonfire to can fruit. One son spliced rolls of movie film together, showing many funny, sad, and happy stories, long forgotten.
When the shouting of the morning’s activities dies down and families start collecting belongings and children, there are many hugs and kisses and many teary goodbyes—the most touching of which are between young cousins who, without a reunion, would not know each other very well.
We’re not content with “just-visiting reunions.” Ours take a lot of work, but they’re worth it. For us, having a reunion is not something we feel obligated to attend or look for an excuse to avoid—it is an event we look forward to. If it is well-planned and if everyone’s needs are considered, it becomes the place to be for very young as well as very old.