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.

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.

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