Grinding Ol’ Bones

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a multi-media exhibit, discussion/workshop, book-circle project tailored to hosts

This autumn your institution can host one, two or all three parts of a custom-built program about family and social history. Each of three possible products caters to hosts’ varying budgets or staffing abilities.

The core program consists of a mobile exhibit traversing the Upper Midwest in a retrofitted school bus, the BUS-eum. Eighteen exhibit panels and four vitrines offer visitors texts, maps and videos relevant to family history. Besides in an on-board mini-auditorium in the back of the BUS, a traveling historian also provides programming in hosts’ facilities. One or two pre-visit programs can complement the core one.

More than a monolog by a trained historian, this project features dialogs between participants, with him.

Project Outline — Part I: What

The digitization of both public and private records has made genealogical research easier than ever. And, on-line or other sources offer ample guidance on how to effectively investigate one’s familial past. A plethora of information, on all aspects of living, can bring a family’s past back to life like never before.

Is collecting a jumble of birth or death dates and places, marriage or military records and other statistical data, however, meaningful enough in itself to sustain in-depth, worthwhile ancestral sleuthing? Because genealogy can be a lonely calling, comparing notes with others can fuel the motivation and benefits for all.

But, more than just the “How?” of genealogy, Grinding Ol’ Bones explores the “Why?” of it—shared discoveries in how to interpret or at least contextualize factual data. Essentially, Ol’ Bones is about distilling stories, then plugging those familial milestones into a wider framework—into social history.

Ol’ Bones forms the core of programming tailor-made to fit each host’s particular resources and on-the-ground realities. One or both of two additional programs can complement Grinding Ol’ Bones; they are:

  1. The first volume of historian-author Michael Luick-Thrams’ pentalogy about his family’s 400-year history in North America as a starting point for group reflection,

Reading Ol’ Bones: Reviewing Together the “What?” of Family History

is a case study of how genealogical research can help explain individual biographies and family dynamics. Roots of Darkness: Our Family’s Dreams and Nightmares in America (with Anthony and Gary Luick, et al) is the product of one family’s collaborative review of how their ancestors’ experiences, values and choices affected the lives of several thousand descendants. Book-circle groups meeting in libraries or museums, churches, schools or other institutions can download the E-book or a paper version of Roots or Darkness.

Components: a book-circle series of five, 120-minute-long sessions (an introduction, three reviews of designated sections of the book, and a summarizing conclusion), led by a host-appointed facilitator.

Costs: the cost of downloading the E-book + any staffing or facility-usage costs, determined by hosts. The expense of optional refreshments during breaks can be covered either by hosts or by the participants. For $150 the author can facilitate the final session via SKYPE or another electronic hook-up; for $250 he will facilitate both the first and fifth of the 90-minutes sessions: additional on-line services are available.

Resources: The designated facilitator can download a gratis TRACES packet to help guide the group.

  1. A second pre-BUS-visit program can enhance the overall effectiveness of the project as a whole:

Finding Ol’ Bones: Learning Together the “How?” of Family History

Local genealogists are often happy to offer public review of effective family research, from how to start a search through how to integrate the findings into a coherent compilation of beneficial use for others.

Components: a one-time presentation by a host-vetted facilitator to review best-practice family-history techniques as well as a cross-section of sources available, both on-line and in real-time.

Costs: The costs depend on who hosts secure to offer the presentation and what materials (if any) might be provided to the participants; some costs can be transferred to participants as modest fees.

Resources: The designated facilitator will decide what materials to show or recommend. It would be beneficial if even basic genealogical guides or supplies might be available, for sale, during the session. An appointed facilitator may confer with TRACES staff pre-program for additional suggestions or resources.

Other, tandem features of TRACES programming provided gratis during a BUS-eum showing include:

  • A readiness to accept individual family histories if they are stored on a compact disc or stick, and the donor signs a waiver authorizing the information to be copied, then stored by—for example —state historical society archives, state genealogical societies or similar non-profit organizations.
  • As TRACES programs focus on oral history, hosts will be invited to record video or audio tapes of their event: TRACES will offer copies of tapes to our non-profit, public-run partner organizations.
  • And, downloadable study and teaching packets to enhance the effectiveness of the materials presented as well as the discussions spawned by TRACES programming are available on-line.

Project Outline — Part II: How

TRACES exhibits, lectures, workshops, publications and other resources focus on stories on three levels:

  • The story of humanity: What does it mean to be a human? How have humans lived in various eras or cultures—and, what does that variety of human experience say to us alive today (and to those who will follow us) about how to live; what lessons can we draw from our shared pasts?
  • The story of a nation: How did we get to be “us” till this point? How did past shared experiences form the American character or inform our current ways of living and organizing society?
  • The story of an individual: What in a given human life is the result of nature and what born of nurture? What parts of “me” are innate and which ones are absorbed from those around us?

In autumn 2015 TRACES will explore these and related questions in group settings with select audiences. Community organizations such as libraries, museums, schools and civic groups can host a lecture or community forum (for example, during hour-long brown-bag lunches), a half-day seminar or weekend workshop, an on-line book-club discussion via SKYPE, or some other form of engagement with TRACES.

The mobile exhibit travels between towns and events in the retrofitted BUS-eum, with a mini-auditorium that can seat an entire class of 25 (images at

Costs: The costs of TRACES programming depends on the duration of engagement and features offered:

90 minutes, with one 30-minute presentation and a one-hour BUS showing* = $150

3.5 hours, with two 30-minute presentations and a three-hour BUS showing ** = $350

half-day, with three 30-minute presentations and a five-hour BUS showing *** = $550

half-day, with one 3.5-hour seminar during a five-hour BUS showing *** = $675

all-day, with a seven-hour BUS showing and three presentations—two of 30 and one of 60 minutes**** = $750

2.5-day workshop (e.g., Fri. PM – Sun. aftrn), with BUS showing for duration (overseen by volunteers or staff) and five, three-hour workshop sessions ( + light assignments) with Michael Luick-Thrams over three days***** = $1,500

(other forms of engagement, tailored to specific organizations, are available per arrangement and negotiated fees)

* Package consists of indicated BUS-showing time, plus 30 minutes of set-up/take-down (each step takes 15 minutes); a volunteer or staff member must be with the BUS at all times during the whole visit. ** The above conditions apply, plus the presenter gets one 15-minute break, during which the host provides a simple meal and a beverage (e.g., salad and juice); *** clause one conditions apply, plus the presenter gets one 30-minute break and two simple meals (one a sandwich); **** clause one conditions apply, plus the presenter gets two 25-minute breaks and three simple meals (one a simple breakfast); ***** clause one conditions apply, plus the presenter gets five 20-minute breaks and three simple meals (one a breakfast) plus two nights of local lodging (can be in-home).

Project Outline — Part III: Why

Project director Michael Luick-Thrams brings forty years of genealogical, historical and pedagogical experience with him. Holding a doctorate in Modern European History from Humboldt Universität in Berlin, he facilitates family history in the context of social history. (See .) As he has done with his own family, Luick-Thrams invites audiences to consider the effects on their families of:

  • migration: How has moving from one culture to another or between markedly different regions within a country changed us? What has been gained through that process; what has been lost?
  • work and leisure: What goods or services have our families provided others in order to fund our own livelihoods? Outside of work, what roles have entertainment, music and art, sports, travel, hobbies, civic engagement or other voluntary pastimes played in our families or individual lives?
  • economic cycles: How have our families responded to and been shaped by booms or busts? How have wealth, poverty, unemployment, further education or career shifts changed our lives?
  • climate and natural disasters: How have seasonal climatic conditions dictated our ways of living, or freak-occurrence weather events visited our lives for a moment, but with long-term effects?
  • wars: How has the experience of war changed our family members’ personalities, our shared familial fates and our nation? How have we, through war, affected the lives or fates of others?
  • religion: How has religious belief or spirituality shaped our familial culture or wider community?
  • technology: How have developments in technology changed the ways we live, think and relate?
  • intimate relations: What have been some lasting legacies of unplanned pregnancies, marriage, divorce, patchwork parenting, non-traditional lifestyles, crime, aging and death in our families?

Project Outline — Part IV: Who

MLT at exhibit

Having grown up on his family’s Century Farm in North Central Iowa, Michael Luick-Thrams is the recent author of his own family-history pentalogy, Oceans of Darkness, Oceans of Light—a Pentalogy: Our Troubles and Treasures in the New World. (For details, see He describes the pentalogy thus (per volume 1’s back cover):

Every family has a skeleton in the closet, but historian-author Michael Luick-Thrams has unearthed an entire cemetery in his family’s 400-year sojourn in North America. From a failed auto mechanic who became an affable terrorist to a mass-murdering mommy; from a butcher turned frontier lawman, a granny who pilfered grandkids’ doll clothes and a cavalry man who thrashed superiors, to a philandering near-mute farmer: In this peerless family history, “normal citizens” prove to be most unusual characters.

Oceans of Darkness, Oceans of Light—a Pentalogy: Our Troubles and Treasures in the New World recounts one family’s improbable journeys from Europe to the American Heartland and back. Along the way, they have found both disasters and redemption.

A new, landmark genre, Oceans is a hybrid history cum meditation, The Waltons meets Sin Citya Little House on the Prairie for adults, R-rated, with pictures. A family chronicle unlike any you’ve ever read (Bill Bryson channels Alex Haley), it both entertains and edifies.

As a set, the first three (Roots of Darkness; Chasing Restless Roots; and Tap Roots Betrayed) of an eventual five volumes explore two main questions: How can we break familial (ergo, social) patterns that sow dark, self-sabotaging dynamics passed between generations if not named, confronted and exorcised? And: How to bring a nation—a super-sized family—that has lost its way, back from the brink of breakdown?

This pentalogy features a cast of hundreds, inhabiting biographies that unfold in communities stretching from colonial Boston to Gold-Rush-era California, via the canal and railroad beds of the Old Northwest Territory to a soft landing in the prairies of the Upper Midwest. Expect guest appearances by—among others—Johnny Carson, John Wayne, Walter Cronkite, Henry Fonda, Buddy Holly, Lawrence Welk, Meridel Le Sueur, Washington Irving, Mark Twain, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler and two former U.S. Presidents.


The stories in this pentalogy take place in—among others—all Midwest states (Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri), between 1785 and today.

Michael Luick-Thrams divides his time between Germany and the American Heartland, as he serves as executive director of a non-profit, educational organization in each country—Spuren e.V. and TRACES.

Project Outline — Part V: When and Where

After the fall 2015 BUS-eum tour around Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, further tours are planned for:

  • spring 2016 in: Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan
  • fall 2016 in: North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri
  • and as of spring 2017 in: Germany and other European countries; the BUS will remain abroad

To realize this innovative, multi-component project, TRACES currently is seeking:

  • hosts among community-focused organizations such as libraries, museums, schools, etc.
  • partners to co-sponsor both programming, the showing of the BUS itself, and the utilization of the family-history documentation or conversation recordings gathered during BUS programs
  • volunteers in host communities to help make a local showing possible and run smoothly
  • board members to replace those at TRACES now cycling out; and
  • interns to work with TRACES for varying periods, doing various tasks and acquiring new skills.

Mattie Marion and who

For more information or to apply to fill one of the above roles, please contact

Thank you!