Editor’s note: The Minnesota Genealogical Society honored John and Jan Dalby as winners of its 2010 Pioneer Explorer Award for their contributions to the development of Minnesota resources for genealogy and family history.
A heart attack changed John Dalby’s life. It was 1981 and he was only 42 years old. Yet this heart attack and two subsequent heart surgeries spelled the end of his career as a certified milk inspector and propelled him into early retirement. But retirement was not a comfortable fit for a sharp-minded fellow with his work ethic forged on a farm.
Then John’s life was changed again - this time by a simple phone call. His cousin had some questions about their family’s history. The search for answers grabbed his attention he said, “because it was interesting and time consuming, and that’s what I needed at that time.”
Seeing an opportunity to get some exercise and at the same time, do some good as a new member of the Rice County (MN) Genealogical Society, John began spending one day a week walking the nearby Faribault and Northfield city cemeteries to inventory the grave markers. His petite wife, Jan, joined him when she wasn’t at her full-time secretarial job or working her own upholstery and drapery business. After Jan retired in 2003, she joined John in his mission to catalog all of the cemeteries in ten counties of southeastern Minnesota. But a careful inventory of a cemetery’s markers wasn’t enough. They augmented the names and dates recorded from gravestones with anything they could add from cemetery, church, and county death records.
Now John needed a way to organize and access all of this information. Personal computers were quite new in 1982, when John bought his first, an Apple IIe, and taught himself to use it. He built a database using Appleworks Data, and systematically entered the cemetery records from recipe cards -- no small job for a one-finger typist.
The Dalby’s cataloging efforts spread outward in concentric circles. Jan says, “When we ran out of work, we went looking for more.” So the couple began indexing history books, plat maps, newspaper articles, and obituaries. Then they entered indexes for birth and marriage records, church records, city directories, and Civil War veteran records. They soon needed computers with more memory to accommodate the growing files. As word spread of the Dalbys’ database genealogical database, they were inundated with requests for help from across the country. In 2002, the Owatonna Public Library contracted a young computer programmer to build a website that would make the database available online. The website, www.dalbydata.com, continues to be funded by the Owatonna Public Library.
At home in Faribault, John takes a seat in front of the three computers on his desk every morning around 5:30 and entering names, dates, and references into the database until 7:30 or 8:00 in the evening. Jan’s desk is adjacent and holds only two computers. She transcribes materials from about 6:30 AM to 7:00 PM, but she says that since she can type with all ten fingers, she accomplishes more in less time.
John credits his ability to work such long hours to growing up as a farm boy near Millersburg in Rice County, Minnesota. Jan is also a small town girl. She grew up in Castle Rock Township, just north of Northfield. It was John’s lucky day when he was stood up by his date for a dance in Chaska, because he met Jan that night. Fifty-two years of marriage has cemented them into a delightful couple with twinkling eyes and a quick tease for each other.
John and Jan seldom walk cemeteries anymore - they have colleagues to do that. Now churches, cemeteries, and historical societies entrust their precious original records to the couple to take to their home in Faribault for addition to the Dalby Database.
The Dalby Database has proven to be an invaluable resource to people researching their Minnesota roots. It receives 200 to 300 hits per day from all over the world and currently now contains more than two million records, including over 932,000 cemetery entries, and more than 600,000 city directory listings.
But the tremendous worth of this database reaches beyond genealogists. When a house fire consumed all of the records for the old Wildwood Cemetery, in Wasioja Township, Dodge County, Minnesota, the Dalby Database made it possible for Wildwood to reconstruct records of more than 800 burials that would have been otherwise lost forever.
Jan says, “John’s goal is to stay alive and enter data as long as he can, because it’s a never ending job. So far, we are only doing counties in Minnesota, but if I live forever I will cross the border.”
The Dalbys reap no financial gain from their work or their website, so one might wonder, why they have spent so many years on this project with no end in sight. John explains, “heart attacks cripple you physically, not up here,” pointing at his head. “This work is what keeps me alive.” He adds, “And it helps to be a little crazy.”