Getting Local with Research. And while I am a strong proponent of visiting the place of your ancestors, I am also very much in favor of good planning. The further away you live from your ancestor's home the more you should prepare.
If your ancestors lived just five miles down the road you wouldn't need any preparation. Just go and see what it looks like and then continue on with the process of discovery. If your ancestors lived more than fifty miles away then a good deal of preparation will save you a lot of heartbreak.
Here are some suggestions to help you "get local" before leaving home. Searching for these items will be nearly as fulfilling as making the trip.
1) Discover the lay of the land
Find as many maps as possible of the town you'll be visiting. Look for historical maps as well as a good current road map. Use the maps to get a feel for the lay of the land. Check the historical maps for old cemeteries and old businesses such as mills or blacksmith shops. Perhaps these buildings, or remnants of them, will still be standing.
2) Locate the cemeteries before you go
The old maps should have helped you locate the old cemeteries in town. Don't presume that these will be easy to find using a current map. Pull up the Bird's Eye view on Bing Maps or Google Earth and see if you can locate the cemetery today. If you have a hard time locating it with these tools then you will likely have trouble in person too. Call ahead to the local town or regional government offices and see if you can find a cemetery supervisor who can give you exact directions.
3) Put your preservation hat on
Pretend that you are preservationist bent on saving old houses. Where would you look to find information on the old houses that are still standing? Most governments have some form of tracking system. By tapping into this resource you can identify which houses in town were standing at the time your ancestors lived there. Wouldn't it be wonderful to get a photo of yourself standing in front of a home that your ancestors would have known and seen as well? Better yet, perhaps your ancestor's home is still standing. In Massachusetts you can access the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS) to obtain this information. In other states the information is often found online at the state historic preservation office website.
4) Play tourist
Do play the role of tourist and search for tourism materials related to the town or region that you will be visiting. You may be able to locate museums or historical sites that you didn't know existed. Be sure to check for events that will happen at the time you will be visiting. It's fun to take part in a community activity and get a chance to mingle with the locals.
Be sure to check the internet for the local historical society. You might need to write a letter or call to get in touch with them. Many local historical societies are very small. That can translate as limited visiting hours or a small core staff of volunteers. Don't let that deter you. The local historical society should be a high priority if you can make arrangements in advance to meet with them. These are the folks who typically know more about the town than anyone else and can tell you which old-timers have lived in town the longest and are worth a visit.
6) Make a Contact List
This is a critical item for every research trip or ancestral home visit. Make a list of the local public places you will want to visit such as the library, town hall, historical society, churches, etc. Include on your list their addresses, phone numbers and hours of operation. Preparation such as this will mean smooth sailing during your trip and will let you quickly change gears should some place be unexpectedly closed.
Let these six suggestions help you "get local" before you leave town. It will help enjoy the journey and the eventual in-person trip all the more!