Feature Story – Mary Colgan-Bennetts

Mary Colgan-BennettsMary Colgan-Bennetts sums up her early years of interest in genealogy as ‘nonexistent’. She grew up with 9 siblings, including a sister who had done extensive family research without a computer. Yet Mary never bothered to look at her sister’s research findings. Then 10 years ago, she began working at the Siuslaw Public Library along side Kevin Mittge.

Kevin introduced Mary to Ancestry.com (‘Ancestry’) and within a few minutes, she was researching and finding information about her late husband’s family (Bennetts). The experience proved to be the beginning for many extraordinary discoveries to come. She  researched her mother’s family (Woods), spoke with relatives, and even uncovered family letters (dating back to 1925) from her grandparents to her mother.  She entered the data into Ancestry and soon became passionate about her family’s history and all aspects of genealogy. Mary’s sister, who had put her family research efforts aside while raising a family, renewed her interest in genealogy after learning of Mary’s impressive research results.

~  “Giving respect to those things that belonged to our ancestors and honoring them.”  ~

Baptismal DressBaptismal dress of Great Aunt Ellen (b. 1914) made by Marriage CertificateMary’s grandmother, Leola Woods.  The dress is now displayed in a shadow box in Mary’s home.

Marriage certificate of maternal grandparents Robert N. Woods and Leola Alice Tillotson.  Robert and Leola eloped in 1925.


Through family stories and research, Mary learned her maternal great grandfather, George Merrill Woods died in a Colorado farm accident in 1910. Unable to raise their 5 children on her own, her great grandmother, Bertha Woods (‘Grandma B’) sent the children to Nebraska to live with her grandfather (Thomas Kirkpatrick), who was a minister and owned a farm. The eldest 4 children (Fern, Harold, Robert and Violet) continued to live and work on the farm, while Donald, too young for farm work, was placed in a home for half orphans. [An orphan in the early days wasn’t a child whose parents had died, but rather a child whose father had died.]

Several years ago, a distant cousin whom Mary had heard of but never met, contacted her through Ancestry, inquiring about Grandma B. They began corresponding, sharing old family photos and the stories behind them. Her cousin recalled hearing that Mary’s grandfather (Robert Woods) had attended Clayton College for Boys* in Denver. To research this information further, Mary contacted a public library near Clayton College. By chance, during an online chat session, a librarian there happened to recall seeing a box of records from the Clayton school in the library’s basement. She offered to locate the box and send copies of its contents to Mary.

* Clayton College – ‘Initially an orphanage and school for needy boys, the college (a term in that era broadly used to describe any institution of learning) opened its doors in 1911. Though it opened as a residential school, the emphasis shifted in later years to providing treatment and social services to boys who were deprived of parental care and support.’ [Source: http://www.claytontraining.org/history.php%5D

Within a few weeks, Mary received a package of documents from the Denver librarian. The documents included copies of school admission records, grades, letters, intelligence test scores, a suitcase inventory, and a 1916 pedigree chart. The pedigree document was a record no one in Mary’s present day family had previously seen. It included a list of family members, where they had lived, their livelihood and an explanation of why Donald was not sent to live with them. From these records, Mary was able to further expand her research with the list of family names, and determined it was not her grandfather Robert, but her grandfather’s brother (Donald Woods), who had attended Clayton College. As the years passed and the college expanded, the early school documents were turned over to the public library.

Though her interest may have been nonexistent at one time, today Mary’s passion for genealogy is obvious, particularly when discovering information ‘in the unusual, non- suspect places’.

“What keeps you motivated to continue researching?”

Mary’s research efforts reveal a family’s rich and colorful history, with many stories – including the story of a father whose love of baseball took him to one of the game’s historical achievements. But that’s another story . . . stay tuned for Part Two of Mary Colgan-Bennetts’ feature story.

About siuslawgenealogy

The Siuslaw Genealogical Society of Florence, Oregon is a member supported, non profit organization. Researching genealogy and family history is our passion.
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