Birthing a community’s memory
BY ROBERT L. BAKER
Wyoming County Press Examiner
(Ed. Note: A version of this story appeared at the time of Dorothy Colbenson’s 100th birthday in 2009. It is shared again with a few updates to give the community an understanding of the rich family and research legacy left behind for anyone searching Tunkhannock’s past.)
It’s not at all uncommon when one approaches their “later” years in life to take stock of all the kids, grandkids, and great grandkids that can be directed to a single progenitor or pair of them.
The Dorothy Graham born on Foundry Street (now Maple Avenue) in Tunkhannock on Sept. 9, 1909, is responsible for a bundle of descendants- the first generation a result of her marriage with William ‘Bright’ Colbenson.
Daughter Elsie Colbenson Puza said in counting for her mom’s obituary, her parents had four children, 10 grandchildren, 21 great grandchildren and 24 great-great grandchildren; and one great-great-great grandchild.
The truth is that Colbenson has quite an extended family, too- the result of a birthing process ignited in 1971 that brought so much more into her family.
Her husband had died that year, and at 62, Dorothy was not really interested in getting married again.
But she had a supreme interest in another man.
His name was Isaac Graham, and Dorothy began stalking him.
But not in a bad way, mind you.
Isaac was her father’s grandfather, and long before she came along he had bought a lot on the corner of West and Susquehanna in Tunkhannock borough that she remembered had a fence around it.
She went to the Wyoming County Courthouse and researched the deed on the property, starting with the present owner and working her way back to when the lot was first set aside.
Then, not long after, she had a question about a lot that ended up on her mother’s side of the family.
Armed with a capacity to answer questions that others couldn’t or wouldn’t, she decided to research that deed, too.
She didn’t quite put her finger on it at the time, but she had been bit by a genealogy bug and methodically started to gather info about her ancestors, in much the same way millions have today thanks to the access that Internet databases have provided.
Curiously, however, Dorothy’s interest was not just in her family, but in the people who were her ancestors’ neighbors.
The Dortha (an enumerator’s mistake, Dorothy points out) Graham who was listed in the 1910 census as being 7/12ths of a year old and living in her grandparents’ household with her dad and mom and older sister was clearly part of a larger family.
The Squires (his name was really Squier, Dorothy points out) household of her grandparents was the 406th of 427 residences in Tunkhannock borough, according to that 1910 census.
Although it wasn’t her original intent to research all those residences, in time, Dorothy went up and down the streets of Tunkhannock borough and one by one researched each house’s deed along with all of the borough’s businesses.
After her maiden voyage with family properties, Colbenson went up West Street on one side and down the other, and she said, “There was no place to stop.”
She chuckled, “I guess you could say I was addicted. There really was no place to stop, and it was all so interesting and made history come alive.”
In the beginning, she realized she was doing the task a little amateurishly, and had left obvious things like present house numbers off of her original drafts, but that got straightened out in a hurry.
Daughter Elsie recalled of the time, that if anyone wanted to know where her mother was during weekday daylight hours, just head over to the Recorder of Deeds office.
“She was as much a fixture there in the 1980s as those old deed books,” she said.
Today, the Wyoming County Historical Society houses nine substantial volumes of data, thanks to Colbenson’s labor of love.
Paula Radwanski, director of the historical society, said it was impossible to calculate the value of what Cobenson had done, and noted that it was so much more than just volumes of papers.
“Someone from out of town would come and ask a question about a particular residence, and they would instantly be directed to Dorothy,” she said.
After that meeting, and particularly if the person’s ancestor happened to live in the borough, visitors would be moved by what Dorothy already knew, “and they were off to the races in assembling their own family histories,” Radwanski said.
By the time of her 100th birthday, there were nine volumes of personal research that Dorothy Colbenson contributed to the historical society:
*One deals with Research on bridges, canals, churches, fairs, ferries, lights, railroads, tunnel, water and weather.
*Another with Fires.
*Another with Properties from Slocum to North Tioga.
*Another with Properties south of Tioga.
*Another with Properties in the north and south side of East Tioga.
*Another with More Properties in the north and south side of East Tioga.
*Another with Properties along Bridge Street, north of Harrison.
*Another with Properties Main to Second.
*Another with Properties from Church to Maple.