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Twila Van Leer: The family history 'miracle' found in an 1875 plumbing supply catalog

When genealogists get together, the conversation sooner or later gets around to the miracles that keep them searching, years on end sometimes, to find their missing family members.

That happened recently while a group of us tied a quilt at the Centerville Utah South Stake Humanitarian Center, as we do each Tuesday. Eileen King told us a story about a truly fantastic, stranger-than-fiction story about her friend Norma Denson, who found a genealogical treasure in the most unlikely place possible. So I contacted Norma, a member of the Parrish Canyon Ward in Centerville, and she graciously shared the story with me.

Here's how it goes:

It happened over a period of 25 years. That's how long Norma and her mother had been working hard to find members of the family of Norma's husband, Frank, to move them back beyond his paternal grandfather, Francis Marion Denson.

They did manage to learn a fair amount about Francis Marion. He was born in New York state in 1870 and was married four times. His second wife was Anna McClane, whom he married in Ogden in about 1899. She died in June 1910, leaving him with four children ranging in age from a newborn to 8 years old. He also was rearing three children from his first marriage. Apparently overwhelmed, he took Anna's children, including Frank's father, Fred, to the old St. Anne's Orphanage in Salt Lake City. Francis Marion served in the Army during World War I, and there is little to indicate that he had much contact with his children as they grew up.

The orphanage sent Fred and a brother to a foster family that treated them as servants. At one time, they sent Fred, then 12 years old, shepherding by himself. He ran away, found his sister Leola in a nursing school and lived with her.

In her research, Norma found Francis Marion's father, Sylvester, but could discover only a first name, Helen, for his mother. And there it stood. As part of her search, Norma wrote to the county clerk in Bath County, in upstate New York, seeking information on the Densons. No luck. She filed the correspondence and turned to other matters.

As she researched, the family did the usual family things. Fred and Norma and their family moved from the west side of the Salt Lake Valley to Centerville. Eight years after relocating, long after the post office usually continues to forward mail when people move, and 25 years after she sent the letter of inquiry to New York, Norma received a letter from Royal Denson, who had learned she had once contacted the Bath County clerk in search of information about the Denson family.

Royal, not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had been doing his own genealogical searching. He was able to retrieve her letter from the Bath County clerk and was delighted to have another contact. He shared information he had about Frank's great-grandmother Helen. He had retrieved the information from clippings that were in a book, he told his Utah relatives.

Get set; here comes the next miracle. In 1976, Frank's employer rewarded his good work with a bonus of two round-trip tickets to anywhere in the United States. It was no contest. The Densons headed for New York, then drove 10 miles into Pennsylvania, where Royal then lived. The first thing Royal wanted to know, based on his sketchy information about Mormons, was how many wives Frank had. It was a great teaching moment.

Then their host produced the greatest miracle of all — an 1875 plumbing supply catalog in which someone had pasted clippings about members of the Denson family. Royal's nephew had purchased it for 35 cents at an estate sale and passed it on to Royal because he knew of his interest in genealogy.

Included in the clippings was Helen Denson's obituary, which listed her maiden name, Clauharty, and information about her parents, siblings and children — a treasure trove beyond measure, tucked into a book that described in great details pipes, toilets, wash basins and myriad plumbing supplies, all at 1875 prices. This and other clippings provided the missing link that allowed the Utah Densons to do temple work for many members of Frank's family. Royal, then in his mid-80s, made a gift of the book to the Utah visitors, and it remains a family treasure.

Don't believe in miracles? Contact Norma. She'll set you straight.

Twila Van Leer is a former Deseret News editor and staff writer who has recently been called to serve as a family history missionary.