Portrait and biographical album of Barry and Eaton counties, Mich. by Chapman Bros: a review

This book–like all Chapman Brothers books with similar titles–is pretty much what the title says: a collection of biographies of folks and families who lived in Eaton and Barry Counties in 1891. The local biographies are preceded by a couple hundred pages of biographical sketches of the presidents of the United States and governors of Michigan.

The Chapman Brothers mass produced similar books for many Midwestern counties by selling subscriptions and sending out questionnaires. If you paid the subscription fee and returned the survey your biography would be printed in a book, which would arrive for you to place on your bookshelf. Chapman’s staff members in Chicago turned the questionnaires into very formulaic biographies, which were gathered into the book in no evident order. The resulting bios are as reliable as their sources–which varies, of course–and as interesting as the information the sources provided. Any impression one might get of local history or local geography is incidental and unintentional. That does not much meet my research interest.

For my purposes, the book is pretty frustrating. With no historical overview in the book, no deliberate organization, and neither maps nor other geographical clues, trying to glean any understanding of local history is difficult. Moreover, the template used to compose the biographies becomes pretty aggravating after the third or fourth example–you get a brief overview of the subject’s life, then reviews of his parents’ life stories, then back to the original person’s bio with more detail and perhaps a story or two. Unless you’re otherwise familiar with the person whose life’s being summarized, by the time you get to the meat of the composition you’ve often forgotten the subject’s name.

Another issue is the subscription model. Lacking either a geographical or alphabetical organization, I made searches for people and places I was aware of in both counties. These searches often came up empty, even for families I know to have been resident in the area around 1890. This, of course, indicates that the Dow and McCargar families, to pick two prominent Roxand Township clans, were uninterested in subscribing–which is OK, to be sure, but it leaves important gaps in the story. Side issue: This book consistently calls this township Roxana, and never calls it Roxand. I’m quite tempted to do so myself.

I do not mean to imply that this book has no value. I found a (somewhat) useful biography of Sylvanus Peabody, for instance, and now know a bit about him; this is information I’d not found elsewhere and knew I wanted. Which is a clue about the book’s usefulness: If one of the biographies is someone who’s interesting to you, it’s probably useful. That’s reason enough to locate a copy, and keep it around. But if you’re looking for an overview of local history, the Chapman books likely won’t meet your need.






This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

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