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A passion for recording family history

justine wettschreck/Daily Globe Ken Zylstra of Worthington holds up photos of his grandfather Klaas Zylstra, who came to America in 1911 from the Netherlands. Since 1999, Ken has dedicated his spare time to recording family history.

WORTHINGTON -- He has absolutely no idea how many hours he's put into his project, but Ken Zylstra knows it will likely never be finished. Still, gathering up family history and organizing photos has become a passion.

His grandparents Klaas and Elizabeth Zylstra left the Netherlands in 1911, traveling from Friesland to New York with their two young daughters. A son was born aboard the ship that carried them across the ocean. From New York, they traveled by train to Sheldon, Iowa, eventually settling on a farm just a few miles from the Minnesota border, outside of Bigelow. Unfortunately, a bout with appendicitis left him weakened.

"He came through the surgery fine, but was told not to do anything strenuous," Ken said. "Then he went out and chased cattle."

Klaas died November 9, 1918, at the age of 34, and his funeral was the first to take place in the new First Reformed Church in Bigelow. Benson Funeral Home of Worthington handled the arrangements. Klaas was buried in the Ransom Cemetery near Bigelow, leaving behind his wife, two daughters and four sons. One of the sons, Katrinus, was known as Gus. Gus was Ken's father.

Ken first got interested in tracking family history because one of his children wanted to know more about it. Right around the same time, he read an article about recording family histories for future generations. In gathering up information for her, he got hooked.

"I had no idea what I was doing or if I was doing things wrong," he admitted with a laugh.

In 1999, Ken came into possession of some old family photo albums. He and his sister decided to start working on the project of scanning them into a computer. Ken started with some ideas of how to organize the collection, and ended up with strips of sticky notes that stretched almost to the floor.

The more Ken learned about the family, the more he wanted to fill in the blanks.

A cousin had gone to visit the Netherlands and ended up meeting Yannie Zylstra, a woman very interested in the family history.

Eventually, his research made him curious enough that Ken also made the trip. The two have been trading information and notes ever since.

"She really wanted to know what had happened to Johannes, my grandfather's brother," Ken explained. "No one seemed to know."

Ken happened to mention the missing brother to another relative and was surprised to learn Johannes was buried in a cemetery not too far away. He went to the cemetery, but was unable to locate the grave. It took some detective work, but Ken eventually learned Johannes had indeed been laid to rest in that particular place -- with his last name misspelled on the official records of the church.

According to Ken's research, his grandmother remarried after Klaas died.

"She married the hired man," Ken explained.

Elizabeth had one more child, named Klaasina after her late husband. By the 1930s, many of the children had moved. Gus headed out to California to milk cows, but came back to marry Ken's mother Agnes. By then all the children had left, and Elizabeth had moved to a farm near Org. Gus and Agnes got married on that farm.

Later, Elizabeth bought a small house in Worthington. Ken accidentally bought the same house years later to fix up and sell. If he hadn't looked at the records, he would have never known his grandmother had once owned the home.

"Things like that make us realize how important this history is," Ken said. "We have family members who don't know anything about their own family."

After years of researching, it was decided those family members all needed to meet. A week-long family reunion took place in August 2010, with fellowship, sharing of stories and photos, and guided tours of the places in the area ancestors had lived. Ken had taught himself how to make Power Point presentations so the others in the family could see the photos he had collected. He also offered to scan in photo albums others had brought.

"It is amazing what photos are out there," he said. "We have some photos from the same time, but from different perspectives."

Since he started the family history project, Ken has learned more about genealogy and recording the data he finds.

"The articles I've read say that the younger generations may not ask the questions about their mother and their grandmother. Fifty years from now is when they'll get interested. When they have more time," he said. "But if we don't ask now, it may be too late."

So he will keep plugging away, organizing and scanning photos and history so that one day, other family members can learn about their ancestors.

"But that's OK," he admitted. "When you have a passion for something, you don't mind putting your spare time into it."

Someday he'll hand down his files and knowledge to another person who has a passion for learning about the Zylstra clan, and it will still be a work in progress.

"It will never be done, so whoever eventually takes over can have whatever I've got," he said with a laugh. "The last chapter won't be done by me."

Daily Globe Reporter Justine Wettschreck may be reached at 376-7322.