The Ephemera of History: The box yields some secrets

I love handling the artifacts of history. There is something about laying hands on something people ages ago owned, or held, or wrote, that inspires awe. I feel connected with these people whom I will never meet, in a way that helps me to “see” their stories.

Opening the box the first time, more than a decade ago, felt like that. At the time, I didn’t have a place for these things, so I kept them carefully sealed in the box to preserve them for the future. And now, I’m opening it back up.

The letter on top originally came from my desk. A query had been sent to me about whether I’d like the materials, and I’d responded with a note that I’d love them. That I would make copies and return them. Unfortunately, when they came, there was no return address and the original letter had been lost. (If this was you, I’m still ready to keep my promise.)

Handwritten on the bottom of the letter: “Here they are–nothing special yet they show the hard work Grandma Elsie [middle name, last name] did even in her 50s.”

I can’t quite make out the middle and last names–they’re long, and I could make a good guess, but I’m not ready to name the person who created these materials yet. The next set of pictures, though, have legible names: Henry and Selma Kolb, next to a booklet titled “THE STORY of an EPOCH in the LIFE HISTORY of a SEGMENT of the KOLB FAMILY.”

Then came a general genealogy of the Ernst Kolb family that begins in 1761 and ends in 1961. I immediately am reminded that I want to get these materials back to their family, if someone in the family wants them. The historian in me can’t imagine they wouldn’t.

Next, I found an album bound in cardboard, labeled “Memorial Day, 1899” for Dist. V, Meeme, by Fred. K. Kolb, Teacher, with a clue–two large class photos printed by H.C. Benke in Wells, Wis. Then, a newspaper clipping from 1974 about the farm on which my sender’s grandmother lived and worked from 1892-1983.

Then, I find the notebooks.


Ledgers, “theme” books, and familiar spiral bound notebooks filled with observations that began in 1955 and ended in 1978. The first entry reads,  “Jan. 1955. New year went to church. In P.M. went to Karls and in eve called on Ewald  O—. Sun to arrive for dinner. Mon Jan 3, 42 [degrees], scrubbed chicken coops.”

There’s a note every few days, written, I think, by the “Grandma Elsie” referred to by my sender, whose name can only be read as “Judy.” I glanced through several entries, then forced myself to stop. I can easily be lost in archives, and this one seems rich. A baby born in July 1956. A cutting of grain. Checks received for crops. All recorded here by someone who thought keeping such records was important.

I do wonder if she wrote anything before 1955, and what happened to those diaries. If Elsie did live and work on that farm for more than a hundred years, retiring in 1974, then I have to wonder why I only have twenty years of diaries in the box. Maybe the rest were thrown out? Maybe these notebooks were only hastily rescued by a granddaughter who hoped someone might use them? Maybe there are more.

Heather, my partner at Documentary Site, couldn’t read any of the handwriting. But it’s mostly legible to me, classic Palmer Method-style handwriting familiar because it’s my grandmother’s, too. It’s the style of handwriting taught in the one-room schools in Wisconsin, the style first taught to me in third grade in Mrs. Weinzerl’s room in Luck, Wis. Already, in 1980, it was going out of style; my cousins in Madison, Wis. during the same period learned the kind of upright cursive that starts with forming print letters with small hooks.

So, as I said, I can make a guess as to the last two names, but my next step is to try the permutations of those names in Google to see if I can triangulate my search for the rightful owners of this box. I know the farm was in Wisconsin. But at the time of my research, I lived in Kansas, and I was under the impression that the owner of the box lived fairly locally.

It’s a bit of a mystery, but now I have a place to start.

What’s in the box? Investigating an impulse to preserve

The first Thanksgiving after my grandmother Elsie passed away, I looked through her cookbooks to see if I could find the recipe she used to make the chocolate cake with date filling she made every year for my father’s birthday.

I pulled out The Farmer’s Wife Cookbook, and it flopped open to the exact page, with notes in her own handwriting.

At the time, I cried a little. The memory of my grandmother, the tradition of the family, and the legacy of food, farm, and life all sort of coalesced into this moment of love. It was not the only moment that led me to start researching American farm women’s lives in the early to mid-twentieth century, but it is one that gets repeated every year, as another food tradition, family tradition, or farm tradition sneaks up on me.

I’m not alone in this. When I was actively conducting research for my book More than a Farmer’s Wife, based on my dissertation, I met with dozens of women who had been raised on American farms between 1910 and 1960. A note in Taste of Home‘s request column also yielded dozens of letters from women who had that farm connection. In the end, I collected more than 200 individual stories from women with first-hand experience of that period on the farm to add to my impressions of their stories from the farming magazines of the same time.

Among what I was sent was a box.

Inside the box were genealogies, pictures, scrapbooks, and a journal, tucked in with a note on the top about how I might be able to find them useful. I did not, however, have a return address. I could not use them for the project that I was working on at that time, but I could not bear to throw the box away. These are someone’s memories; someone’s family history; someone’s traditions.

My colleague Heather McIntosh and I decided now is a good time to investigate the box.

Heather is the genius behind Documentary Site, and together, we’re going to blog about a project that will open up and archive the contents of the box for an interactive documentary. Today, we start with her blog about the process we plan to take, and my blog about the story behind the box as I currently know it.

I was also sent scrapbooks, photos, and other bits of material culture as part of that project, and I ended up with far more material than I actually could use. At some point, I’d like to do more with it.

But for now, we want to know: What’s in the box?


Thoughts on the New Year

I hadn’t intended to do a year-end wrap up this year, and I’m still thinking that it’s not quite the right thing to do.

For all that I accomplished in 2019, it was a very difficult year for me personally.

I wrote more than 100,000 words across multiple formats and platform, including 90,000 words of fiction that may or may not become something.

I got a grant and traveled to England for two weeks, where I conducted research and gained a much-needed change in perspective and respite from the everyday.

I returned to school, took up my seat as chair and helped lead the charge to forming our new School of Communication.

But nearly every day was a struggle. My own battles with depression and anxiety sort of overshadowed many of my achievements. Weekly therapy is now a thing, and it’s a helpful thing.

I think we don’t spend enough time as a society focusing on our mental health. I know that I grew up thinking that any problems “in my head” demonstrated weakness, and I simply had to get over it, whatever “it” was. I developed numerous techniques to hold the darkness at bay, including secluding myself with a book.

(Former classmates might recall that I spent every lunch during ninth grade with my nose in a book, tuning out the world around me. That marked the start of the worst of my teenage depression.)

I also got involved in multiple activities. Keeping busy, I thought, would help keep those shadows away. I wasn’t completely wrong. Anything that could get me out of bed, out of the house, and moving in a positive direction was a good thing.

Back then, I could not have accepted help from a mental health professional, even if it was offered. But now, I know better. Accepting help–seeking help–is the only logical, and most important, action one can take when facing problems with mental health. Depression and anxiety at this point are old adversaries, but therapy has helped me open some new doors to acceptance, healing, and management that I’d never before considered.

As we move into 2020, I plan to continue to set goals for myself professionally and personally. I plan to keep my writing pace this year, and to seek out opportunities to publish my work. I plan spend more time with my family, and to see new places.

And I plan to continue to focus on my mental health, because I’m important.

You are, too.