What started as a hobby nearly 50 years ago for Lecompton resident and genealogist Iona Spencer, has blossomed into an effort to give a whole community its forgotten history back.
Spencer, who took up genealogy in 1964 after the passing of her mother, was contacted in 1970 to put together a book on her mother’s side of the family. After years of work, she finished the volume on the Glenn family in 1973.
That was when the realities of the publishing world set in for Spencer.
“We finally completed it and took it out to Jostens. They wanted $2,000 down,” she says, “and we didn’t have that kind of money.”
So Spencer contacted her far-flung relatives across the country, telling them she needed $20 per copy if anyone wanted to ever read her work. She was flooded with interest and – more importantly – with money.
“It was no time flat and we had our $2,000. We had them publish 300 of them, and, boy, we sold them in no time flat. We could have sold more if we had them.”
Spencer then went on to write about the other sides of her family.
“Next thing I knew,” she says, “I had people writing to me, wanting me to do genealogies on them.”
In 2009, Spencer went on to release “Cemeteries & Known Burials of Lecompton & Kanwaka Townships,” a tome that spans the totality of her years of research.
These days, Spencer’s become so in demand she’s had to limit her genealogy work to those families from around Big Springs, Stull and Lecompton. She says she’s had requests from across the country from people wanting to know their families’ pasts, but at age 87 has restricted the areas she works in now.
Paul Bahnmaier, President of the Lecompton Historical Society, says Spencer, also a volunteer for the society, has done work of great importance for Lecompton’s residents and the families of those who were involved in the community over a century ago.
“It’s extremely important,” he says, “because of our Civil War history and our Lane University-era history. We get requests from people whose ancestors attended Lane. We’re able to provide info that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. (Spencer) spends hundreds of hours doing this. It’s not just something that happens overnight.
“Just within the last two weeks,” Bahnmaier continues, “we had a request from a family whose ancestors were here attending Lane University at the same time the Eisenhowers were here. Because of her research, we could just send the information to them. That’s the sort of thing that makes what she’s accomplished so significant. It’s a legacy that will live on forever.”
Besides helping whole communities, Bahnmaier says Spencer will go out of her way to assist families trying to find the graves of loved ones. He cites one instance in particular, six years ago, where a group led by Spencer brought an old, nearly forgotten African American cemetery in disrepair back to presentable condition.
“It had been allowed to become overgrown and cattle had actually run across it,” he says. “She spearheaded the effort to restore that cemetery. Now the members of that family plan to have a reunion there.”
Spencer says she’s found a wealth of information over the years, not only about her family – among the first settlers in Lecompton in 1854, including her great-great grandfather, George W. Zinn, one of the first Free State representatives in the history of Kansas State Legislature – but about many other locals in the area. She says she enjoys helping people find out their families’ histories.
“They’re just wanting to see where their families came from and what they did,” Spencer says. A lot of it I typed out of the newspapers, and I can send (people) where (their ancestors) went to visit a relative, or where they had a big party or something. I’d send that to them and they’d get the biggest kick out of it.”
Lecompton resident Georgia Wingfield says Spencer is a very important member of the community and that her work is invaluable. She also says Spencer has a warm heart in general.
“Anything you need or want, you tell her and she’ll help you do it. She’ll do anything for you, she’s just a good old soul,” Wingfield says.
“She can tell you who used to live where, who built that house, who built that barn, how many kids they had, where they lived. Different things you want to know – she knows it.”
Wingfield says Spencer helps tie the local communities together through her research of the past.
“She’s a good, willing person. For Stull, Big Springs and Lecompton, she’s the rock.”