This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.
"Congratulations, you may just have won a free pioneer certificate," said the letter from the Rock Island County Bicentennial Commission early in 1976. The letter invited any descendant of a Rock Island pioneer family to attend a ceremony at Black Hawk College at 2:00 on the afternoon of July 3rd and accept the certificate: a gold certificate for those whose ancestors came before 1850, silver for those who arrived between 1851 and 1860, and bronze for those coming between 186l and 1876. It seemed too good to be true. Your great-great grandparents do all the work, and you get the free certificate.
There was one small catch, as people like Sally Schroeder of Rock Island found out. You had to prove your ancestors were pioneers. There was a small application form, with room for documented evidence.
Before long, some four hundred people who signed up for the ceremony were busy rummaging through attic trunks for birth certificates and old letters. Sally began to assemble a family tree which soon occupied several notebooks. Ancestors have a way of multiplying the further back one goes.
To sharpen her skills, Sally signed up for a genealogy course at the YWCA. She made numerous trips to the Rock Island County Clerk's office for records which sent her on ever new tangents. More notebooks. She spent hours and hours in probate going through old wills, and then went on to the Census records for 1840, 1850, and 1860.
Then Sally realized she couldn't show up in an ordinary cap and gown for the pioneer graduation. She had to make an authentic pioneer dress and dust cap to march across that stage.
By July 3rd, the Bicentennial Commission had outdone even Ed McMahon and the Publisher's Clearing House. For the price of a few certificates, they obtained thousands of hours of free research into Rock Island County's pioneer history.
Too late, Sally realized that she would have been ahead by just moving to Wyoming and homesteading one of the remaining 160 acres and let some great-great granddaughter in 2076 pick up her free certificate.
Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.