Bringing local family history back

While digitizing thousands of obituaries, Orvan Mabie uncovers some interesting historical pieces among the mundane.  

One was the notice published about the death of Christian Rath. Capt. Rath, who served in the Civil War, was the executioner for the co-conspirators involved with the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. 

Orvan is working on making a digital, searchable obituary database for each one that ran in the Bristol Banner from 1877 to 1980. Eventually, he wants to present it in book form to the Bristol and Elkhart public libraries. 

“It keeps me out of the bars,” he jokes. “It’s a hobby.” 

Orvan says he’s traced his own family tree back to the 1500s in France. He’s also cataloged thousands of burial sites for 

“I already did my family history, the next step for me is to do something for the county,” he says. 

“I copied the Elkhart Truth obituaries from 1999 to 2021 and gave them to the library and the Elkhart County History Museum,” he says. “But I think most people in genealogy are interested in older files, not new ones.” 

“He’s very generous,” says Amy Pfifferling-Irons, local history and genealogy librarian for EPL. “He’s been coming to the library for his work about as long as I’ve worked here.” 

With one project finished, he began looking at the microfilm of the Bristol Banner and digitizing all of the obituaries. He brings the microfilm from Bristol Public Library to Elkhart because Bristol doesn’t have a microfilm reader. 

“Elkhart has an impressive collection of microfilm and obit indexes,” he says. 

So far, he says he’s logged about 14,000 obits. 

“Some of the early ones are really just death notices,” he says. “I’ll put in other information, like parents’ names.” 

Connecting the deceased to other relatives helps avoid confusion when families have multiple Williams, Marys, or other common names. 

“Here you find a piece of information, and another place you find a different piece of information. It’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle, and it’s never-ending,” says Orvan. 

He also alphabetizes them and is currently checking for errors between 1877 and 1920.  

Orvan says his next project after the Bristol Banner will be to digitize the obituaries from the Goshen Democrat back to 1838 and the Millersburg Grit going back from 1895. 

“Since I’ve retired three times, I’ve got to keep busy,” he says. “I’m not going to stay home and look at four walls and wait to die. I’ve got to get out and do something.”