The Family Historian

Editor Hobart Rowland reflects on his journey through finding his ancestry.

I’ve become the historian in my family. For the most part, it started about five years ago, when I discovered a few battered boxes of photos and documents in my parents’ basement. One had been left wide open—and perilously close to some recent water damage on a nearby wall. Inside were letters dating back to the early 18th century—all of them remarkably well preserved, given the less-than-ideal conditions to which they’d been exposed. 

Several months later, my brother gave me an introductory subscription to—cyber-crack for this budding genealogist. Just like that, I was off doing the investigative work my late grandfather had taken to with a passion, minus the unlimited Internet resources now at my disposal. He was the first to have “Hobart” as a first name, and I was the second and last (so far). I hated it as a kid, and I was teased relentlessly for it. Now, having two last names makes for a pretty cool journalist’s byline. 

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As it turns out, the Hobarts have been on this continent for quite a while. My great-great-grandfather, William White Hobart, was a sheriff in a Gold Rush town in Northern California and later a senator in Nevada. His father—who joined his son on an eventful journey west in the 1840s—was the last in a long line of ministers. The first to set down roots here was the Rev. Peter Hobart, who presided over the Old Ship Church in Hingham, Mass. Founded and built by its congregation in 1681, it’s the longest surviving 17th-century Puritan meetinghouse in America.

This past November, on our way home from a wedding in Boston, my family and I attended a service there. Today, it’s a Unitarian Universalist congregation led by the Rev. Kenneth H. Read-Brown, also a Peter Hobart descendant. Later, we explored the cemetery blanketing the hills behind the church. Lots of Hobarts were buried there, along with a few Lincolns.

Hobart Rowland

The graveyard behind the Old Ship Church

It’s been noted that Old Ship is the oldest church in continuous use as a house of worship in North America. More often, anything that hasn’t been demolished finds a second life as something else, as with the 14 local structures Mark Dixon writes about in “History Repurposed.” An armory in Media serves its second tour of duty as a supermarket; a Manayunk railroad bridge trades passenger cars for bikes and joggers;  government types take up residence in a former orphanage in Concord Township. 

And in Paoli, visionaries hope to supplant a town’s unassuming past with a more promising future—in the form of the long-awaited Intermodel Transportation Center. Senior writer J.F. Pirro covers that story in “Along for the Ride.”

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None of this is preservation in its purest sense. But it sure beats the alternative.

Our Best of the Main Line & Western Suburbs Party is July 25!