Update: Lewis Bunker Rohrbaugh, R.I.P.

As mentioned in yesterday’s newsletter, Lewis Bunker Rohrbaugh passed away recently. He was the proprietor of Picton Press in Maine and also was well-known as an expert Swiss genealogist. He was also a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists. His obituary has now been published:

Lewis Bunker Rohrbach, F.A.S.G., of Marco Island, Florida, and Worb, Switzerland, one of genealogy’s most dynamic and widely-respected writers and publishers, passed away in Naples, Florida, on 2 January 2016, after a short stay at Avow Hospice. Despite an illness that became critical several months ago, he was able to continue his research in early Swiss records up until a few days before his death.

Lew was born in Philadelphia on 28 October 1941, son of Lewis Henry and Ruth Elizabeth (Bunker) Rohrbaugh, and a Birthright Quaker. He attended Westtown School in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and then Amherst College, where he was a member of Phi Delta Sigma fraternity. After graduating in 1963 with a degree in Economics, he completed six months of training in the U.S. Army Reserves. He then began a professional career in the banking industry as credit analyst for Provident National Bank in Philadelphia, but quickly moved into the investment banking business, first with Butcher and Sherrerd brokerage in Philadelphia, and then with Endowment Management & Research Corporation in Boston. His final stint as an employee was a year as a vice-president of Arnhold and S. Bleichroeder in New York. In 1973 he formed his own consulting company and became one of the first securities analysts to extensively cover the burgeoning Japanese market; primary clients during that 15-year period were Endowment Management, Nikko Securities of Tokyo, and GT Management of London. His first marriage, in 1964 to Suzanne Potts, ended in divorce a decade later. He married, second, on 28 June 1980 in Rockport, Maine, Carol Allen Cressman, daughter of Dr. Paul Gerhardt and Betty (Allen) Cressman, who survives him. It was at the time of his second marriage that he changed his name from Rohrbaugh to its original spelling, Rohrbach.

Genealogy was a strong interest for Lew dating back to his childhood and influenced by his mother, Ruth (Bunker) Rohrbaugh, who herself did significant work in the field. His family also provided another important connection, summers on the Maine coast. As a teen-ager Lew conducted a thriving lobster business, maintaining his own traps in the harbor. Given his love of books, genealogy, and Maine, combined with an outstanding business sense, it was a natural move in 1978 for Lew to establish a small publishing business, Picton Press, in his home in Rockport, Maine; after a period in Camden, he settled it in an old farmhouse in Rockport. The focus was on transcription of old records, but a “vanity press” division, Penobscot Press, handled books funded by their authors. Lew had already published the first two volumes of his own Rohrbach Genealogy, in 1970 and 1977; the third appeared in 1982. In 1983 he put his investment career aside in order to focus on developing Picton as a leader in excellence in the industry. One of its early publications was Boston Taxpayers in 1821.

Although he continued his own research at a steady pace, Lew was personally involved in every aspect of Picton: when necessary he jumped in and rewrote passages, he indexed books, and he went to genealogical conferences marketing them. Picton’s specifications for book production were just a bit more stringent than those of other companies; attention was given not only to appearance, but to such details as heavier boards in the bindings and high quality acid-free paper.

His home in Rockport was packed to the gills with books, and in the 1990s Lew invited a few people whose work he had published to serve on the board of a new venture, an Institute for the Study of Colonial History. Even though meetings were expected to be infrequent and small, the effort came to naught when small town New England politics interfered and the Selectmen rejected the establishment of an institution that strove to celebrate the history of the place. Finally, he sold Picton’s Rockport house and moved the business to rented quarters in Rockland. Throughout the years, Lew and his small staff at Picton performed wonders for Maine research, bringing out editions of classics with new introductions, publishing vital records of Maine towns and other books for the Maine Genealogical Society, and, finally, digitizing Maine town records and making them available on CDs. (An offer to do the same for Rhode Island was met with distrust by town clerks and never got off the ground.)

Lew’s wife Carol says, “Maine was his new world heritage and a place where he began his work of assembling and publishing vital records in association with the genealogical community. But Switzerland was his identity and core.” In 2001, hoping to give their young daughter a taste of another culture, Lew and Carol moved to Worb, Switzerland, for what was intended to be a year’s stay; Staatsarchiv Bern gave him a work permit in exchange for his writing a book for them. That year turned into a long-term residency, as the reserved Swiss uncharacteristically welcomed the family — a time recalled by Carol as one of the happiest in Lew’s life. Finding that “the 15th and 16th centuries were where he wanted to spend his research efforts and the Canton of Bern was so generous in offering up to him some of their treasures,” Lew had his large collection of books shipped from Maine to Worb. Although frustrated by the fact that he could never master the spoken Bern Deutsch dialect, he learned to read the ancient script. A few months before his death, knowing that he was working against time, he wrote to a friend, “There is something simply magical about being about to go into old German from the 1500s and 1600s which has never been transcribed much less translated, and solving problems.”

Lew’s partnership with the Bern Archives resulted in several books and numerous CDs of German Churchbooks and other early records. His Guide to Swiss Genealogical Research was published by Picton in 2010, and Volumes 4 and 5 of his Rohrbach Genealogy appeared in 2012 and 2014. Lew’s first five volumes on various Rohrbach families, many of whom were not related to him personally, are considered among the best and most well-documented books on American families with German and/or Swiss origins ever published — classics in their field. At the time of his passing, Lew was working feverishly on proofreading and adding footnotes to Volumes 6 through 10, which cover all Swiss Rohrbachs c1250-2015 including their thousands of descendants in America; the indexes alone have about 150,000 entries. His goal was to make the entire Rohrbach series, in his words, “the best single-surname genealogy of the last century.”

His memberships included the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, the Pennsylvania German Society, the Swiss American History Society, the Maine Genealogical Society, the Society of Mayflower Descendants in the State of Maine, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, the Camden [Maine] Yacht Club, the La Jolla [California] Beach and Tennis Club, and the Island Country Club, Marco Island, Florida. He was a Trustee of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, from 1991 to 1993. He was certified as a C.G. for 40 years, and in 2015, shortly before his death, he was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists.

Lew was meticulous, a scholar’s scholar – and his absolute passion for genealogy came through via the excellent quality of his own many publications (not to mention those of Picton Press): he accomplished what many genealogists can only aspire to achieve. Although often a lightning rod for controversy, he was at heart “a giver,” happily dispensing advice and sharing his expertise with any family historian who sought him out. In 2014, he gave his 12,000-volume library (about 11,000 books and 1,000 quarterly journals, shipped back from Switzerland) to the St. Louis County Public Library’s Special Collections.

He leaves his wife, Carol Cressman Rohrbach, daughter Elisabeth (“Liz”) Rohrbach Andrews, son-in-law Christopher John Andrews, and a multitude of friends and colleagues in both the United States and Switzerland who will miss him greatly. The publication of his final Rohrbach volumes is scheduled for 2017. Picton Press will close but its legacy will continue. The Rohrbach Foundation, which Lew formed to underwrite historical and educational projects, will distribute Picton’s inventory to libraries throughout the county.

6 Comments

Very sorry to learn of Mr Rohrbach’s passing. Could someone advise me as to what became of his Picton Press company? A few years ago I purchased several copies from him of a reference book about my ancestor John Hart (Catalog #2273). I’d like to buy one more copy to send to a cousin but cannot find Picton Press in the USA on the internet. I’d greatly appreciate any information, thanks.

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Thanks for confirming my suspicion. Do you have any knowledge re his business continuing under another name, or what became of his book inventory? That would be quite a loss if it all went to a landfill.

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Thanks for that information. The volume I am interested in was authored by the Rev. Frederick Wallace Pyne, PhD. Googling his name turned up a few similar volumes he wrote on certain other descendants of the signers of the Declaration of Independence currently available on Amazon, but alas not the volume I am seeking. Best wishes.

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I was very sorry to learn of Lewis Rohrbach’s death and the subsequent closing of Picton Press, both are a great loss. In the early 90’s Mr. Rohrbach published of a 600 page directory of 19th century Massachusetts photographers which I co-authored; no other publisher saw value in such a work. His vision, support (and patience during the preparation of the manuscript) was extraordinary.
Ron Polito
Boston, MA

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