Gus Letto has a near-guarantee for the residents of Churchtown, past and present.
“If anybody from this (St. John the Baptist Catholic) parish walks through the door, I can almost certainly tell you your ancestors, including 16 great-grandparents,” he said.
Letto, 85, of Albuquerque, N.M., has a database of 47,000 people he created to back him up as well as 60 years of research on Churchtown, something he good-naturedly admits is a bit of an obsession. He has been in town this week, passing along boxes full of information for the St. John church to keep and share, as he wants to step back from his longtime hobby.
“I may want to actually watch something on TV for once,” he joked. “Or I could visit a museum.”
His interest started in 1958 when his mother-in-law took him to visit the Ava Maria Cemetery and former church just outside Churchtown, which was built in 1866 along with St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Churchtown, Washington County, just across the border from Parkersburg, West Virginia.
“It fascinated me,” said Letto. “The church was still there. The pews were gone but the stained glass was still intact.”
The church was torn down in the ’80s but Letto’s interest in both of the sites continued.
“I started collecting information over the years, a little bit here and there,” he said. “Even for a year in Vietnam (while serving with the Air Force) when I wasn’t flying I wrote letters to people and would get information back. I came back with a whole notebook full of things.”
It was the people in the rural Washington County community, both living and in the cemeteries he’d visited, that drew him in, said Letto.
“It’s the fact that they’re such salt-of-the-earth people,” he said. “There are no judges, no famous politicians, just farmers who were deeply religious people. They taught their kids to be honest farmers and deeply religious and for so long, they all stayed here.”
The same family names that are listed in a current parish newsletter are in the 1860 census for the area, Letto said. That includes the Pottmeyers, of which his wife, Carolyn, is one.
Local historian Ernie Thode said he expects a lot of interest in the materials Letto has shipped from New Mexico.
“This is a community that just really gets into their roots,” he said. “They relish their roots.”
Letto spent the week unpacking and shelving his books and documents. To house the items, a room in the brick building next to the church on Ohio 676 was renovated by Ken Pottmeyer, a cousin of Carolyn Pottmeyer and lifelong member of the St. John congregation.
Once Letto returns home, members of the parish will set hours for those interested to come and research their families. They can also visit a room full of old photos and family histories of the area in the building next door.
“I’m giving them what I call a starter,” said Letto. “It’s names, dates, places and if they want to do more research, they can. So many people you meet these days don’t even know their grandmother’s maiden name. It’s sad.”
Letto also has a grave locator for those interested in finding the final resting place of their local ancestors.
As for his? He’ll be back in Churchtown, the site of his decades-long passion.
“They’ve agreed to let us be buried in the cemetery,” he said. “We’ll be among all good people.”