Tolmans search a big family tree

100-year-old family organization tracks ancestors, newborns; involves the youth

BOUNTIFUL, Utah — Descendants of Mormon pioneers Judson, Cyrus and Benjamin Tolman come into this world with a supplement to their birth certificate — membership in a hundred-year-old family organization.

Of course, not all the thousands and thousands of Tolman cousins are dues-paying, family history-researching, reunion-attending members, but about 1,200 families are. And they have established the Tolman Family Genealogy Center in Bountiful, Utah, where are housed the records of more than 150,000 family names. The names occupy 23 filing cabinets and are now nearly computerized after what family genealogist Loraine Tolman Pace called "a horrendous amount of work."

The organization gathers names on both ends of their lists — the long dead who have a vast Tolman posterity and the newly born who will someday be ancestors. They maintain current mailing lists so every Tolman baby belongs and every family receives a newsletter, dues payers or not.

And yes, there is still plenty of Tolman research to do.

"Our purpose is to save both the living and the dead," said John O. Tolman, president. To accomplish this, the organization is finding more cousins to do more research. Under its board of directors are vice presidents who supervise a major line.

"We want to increase our publications and membership, and get more members to pay dues," he said. "We are very concerned about saving the living. We are trying, through our publications, to get more families involved, particularly the younger generation."

Few family reunions are sponsored at this level. In 1980, some 1,500 attended a reunion and just about wore out the leaders. "It takes quite a lot of energy to manage that many people," said Sister Pace. "We felt our energy was better spent doing research, and we prefer to have the reunions held at a lower level."

But to celebrate the organization's 100th anniversary, some 400 of the clan gathered June 27 in the Bountiful Utah Val Verda Stake center to hear an address by Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve. The next day, 500 or so attended as John O. Tolman dedicated a monument and plaque at Bountiful's Tolman Park. The plaque was in honor of the Tolman owners of the land, most recently Ephraim, who received the land from his father Jaren, who received it from his father, Judson the pioneer.

It was Judson, the last survivor of the three Tolman brothers who crossed the plains, who first gathered his descendants and those of his brothers — they had 53 children among them — and started the family organization in 1903.

"The primary purpose was to take care of temple work for the dead," said Sister Pace. "He set up dues to help with research: $5 for boys and $2 for girls."

The organization continued strong at first, but by 1930 had started to fade until Myra Tolman Patterson, a daughter, took over. Since then, the organization has had regular meetings and made continual progress both backward and forward.

Because of its research progress, the Tolman organization in 1962 extended its reach back beyond Judson Tolman's father, Nathan, to a 10th-generation ancestor Thomas Tolman, born in 1608, the first Tolman immigrant to America. In the process, they extended greetings to their non-LDS cousins.

But the non-LDS eastern cousins received them coolly. So in 1965, some non-LDS Tolmans from the West, Fred and Arlene Kelly Tolman, were outfitted to make a tour of the East and meet with the other side of the family.

"People opened up their homes to them, fed them and gave them records," said Sister Pace. "We got thousands and thousands of records. They also stopped much of the anti-Mormon feelings among them."

In 1975, three cousins, L. DeVon Mecham, Bion and William O. Tolman, went about finding a home for the growing stacks of records that no longer fit on a porch or in the back room of a seminary building where they had been kept. The family acquired an older building that was about to be demolished, moved it to family property on Orchard Drive, and with cousins donating funds, labor and material, renovated it. Elder S. Dilworth Young of the First Council of the Seventy dedicated the building, which the family has reverenced just as if it were a Church building.

With an apartment on the top floor where family members' rent help take care of operating costs, the facility is nearly self-sustaining. Cousins meet regularly in the hundred-year-old family quest. Youth are involved through family history games and participate in research.

Past president Tom Tolman, a history-minded Bountiful City councilman, told of searching out children of a so-called "wayward" uncle who had been lost to the family organization. To his surprise, he found them active Church members, taught gospel principles by their father. But these adult Tolmans felt like orphans in the world with their father and mother gone. Brother Tolman met with the oldest daughter and let her know that she was part of very large family with thousands of cousins who were pulling for her.

As the oldest daughter shared her life experiences, "we both wept," he said. "We have formed a very close bond."

Which is what families, and the Tolman Family Organization, are all about.

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