On Midwest Cooking: The Hot Dish

I noticed, the other day, just how many of my internalized Upper Midwest family meal recipes start with, “Brown a pound of hamburger.” It struck me as I was surveying the contents of my freezer, thinking about meal prep while simultaneously considering the restrictions on meat buying that my local grocery stores have implemented.

Hamburger is a stapje of many dishes I grew up with. The most dominant of these is something we obliquely refer to as “hot dish,” but the definition and recipe for hot dish varies by person, family, region, or specialty. Any pot luck dinner will feature as many variations of a hot dish, otherwise known as a casserole in other regions, as there are people to eat them. Each has some kind of meat, some kind of starch, some kind of vegetable, and a sauce to hold it all together. If it’s baked, it usually will also have some kind of crunchy topping.

The quality and type of ingredients often reflect the means of the household creating the hot dish. For example, when I was a child, browning hamburger could mean either cheap, fatty beef, or lean ground venison from the deer my father and his brothers would hunt or every fall. I recognize that in many parts of the world, venison is a luxury food dish; in northern Wisconsin, it is staple winter meat for many low-income families, who hunt for the deer themselves or know someone who can provide one for them.

It requires different handling than beef; depending on the deer and the conditions in which it was feeding, cooked ground venison can give a waxy mouth feel. I learned to brown it, drain the fat, and rinse it in hot water before I added seasonings, to avoid that. Chicken, canned tuna or salmon, or leftover meat of any kind also can be featured in a hot dish. All of the meat is cooked first before being combined with its other parts.

Starches run the gamut, from boiled noodles to rice to hash browned potatoes. Sauces, too, vary widely. As I was growing up, we relied heavily on canned condensed soups for our sauce component, and canned vegetables. (Funny, I just had the random thought that canned vegetables are for hot dish, and fresh are for plain eating alongside meat and potatoes. Interesting what sticks with you.)

Three different hot dishes still find themselves in my own, grown-up menus with a fair amount of frequency, though they differ a bit from the originals. The first, referred to as “Dad’s,” remains a favorite of my father. Originally, it’s just 16 oz of macaroni, cooked; 1 can of condensed tomato soup; 1 pound of hamburger, browned; and 1 can of corn, tossed together while hot and served from the pan.

My grown up, lighter version eliminates the fat and salt of the condensed soup (which I rarely cook with any longer). I also use different shaped noodles on a whim. Often, it’s 16 oz penne pasta, cooked and tossed with one pound of browned lean ground beef and one jar of marinara or other favorite tomato sauce. I top it with parmesan at the table. I’ve also been known to eliminate the meat and mix in a cup of mozzarella, ricotta, or cottage cheese, turn out into a baking pan, top with more cheese, and heat in the oven until everything’s melty.

A second common hot dish, features tuna. For this one, I do use condensed soup: cream of mushroom, actually, but I’ve seen higher-end recipes that use a béchamel with sautéed mushrooms, too. This is a combination of 16 oz. cooked egg noodles, 12 oz (two cans) tuna packed in water, 1 can cream of mushroom soup, and 1 can of peas, drained. Toss together and serve hot from the pan, with or without parmesan on top.

The last one is colloquially known as “Tater Tot Hot Dish,” and there’s as many variations of it as there are families who produce it. It’s a take on a classic shepherd’s pie, but it uses whatever ingredients are in the cupboard. My favorite combination is 1 pound lean ground beef, browned; 1 can cream of mushroom soup; and 1 can mixed vegetables, all tossed together. Turn that out in a 9 by 13 baking pan and cover the top of it with frozen tater tots. Bake until the tots are browned and crispy, and serve.

As meat restrictions remain, I’ll probably have to get more creative with my menus. I know how to cook high-protein vegetarian meals, and I’m afraid my family will just have to enjoy a few of those a week. It’s healthier, anyway. I think it might take some getting used to, but with so much happening in the world right now, it’s a small thing to change in the greater scheme.

On Fandom

I’ve been mulling over an epiphany I had a couple of weeks ago, about fandom and my place in it.

It will come as no surprise to some that I am, apparently, a professional fan. However, it was a surprise to me when I realized it.

First, it’s no surprise to many to find that I am a lifelong fan of the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder. My first book, in fact, is an edited collection of the literary journalism of Rose Wilder Lane. I subscribed to Little House newsletters from the home sites in Laura’s world when I was old enough to use my babysitting money to do so, and my first independent road trip, the week I turned 18, was to see the Pepin and Walnut Grove sites firsthand.

Like many “bonnetheads,” I made an effort to learn how to do everything Laura did in her books. I learned to sew, to cook over an open fire, to churn butter, and to make bread from ground wheat and sourdough starter. I played “Little House” for endless hours with my cousins and friends, almost always as Mary, the oldest, because I had blond hair. As an adult, I bought each new book that came out about her life, and as a graduate student, I used her life experiences and writings to frame my own historic research.

I’ve even cosplayed as Laura or Rose, on occasion.

But somehow, that didn’t translate into fandom for me. It simply was. The work I’ve done with Laura and Rose has become what I’m best known for as a scholar, and it’s led to a degree of me being recognizable in public. The BBC interview I gave when Pioneer Girl, the annotated edition, came out, contributed some name recognition internationally that was cool and weird at the same time. And yet, I still hadn’t connected the dots.

It’s ironic, because I have actually researched fan culture. For my master’s thesis, I explored fan culture and the emerging communities online that supported various subgroups of it. I was fascinated by the collectives that had decided to take ownership of varied media, particularly Lois and Clark, and “correct” the deficiencies fans had identified in the original work’s plots. I finished and defended my thesis in 2001, just a few years after the World Wide Web had entered homes and before social media became a dominating force.

I spent a long time trying to see the thread that binds that research to the work I’ve done in history, and I realized, finally, and with help from the Michael Sheen fandom, of all things, that what ties everything I’ve ever done as a scholar together is fan culture.

So, there lies the epiphany. I’m still exploring fandom and my place in it. There’s something teasing me with notions of celebrity, familiarity, and cognitive dissonance that I’ve yet to articulate. When I’ve figured it out, I’ll write more about it.

(And yes, I’ve become a big fan of Michael Sheen’s work. Especially in Good Omens. It’s brilliant. You should go check it out.)

(And yes, I really am that clueless about my own significance in some ways, and require metaphorical big slaps in the face to “get it.”)

A Letter to My Graduate Students

I’ve read this letter out as part of the @letterslive project. It was a letter I wrote to my graduate students this morning as part of our weekly check-in. It reflects this moment in time, and the particular challenges of teaching about media. The parameters of the request from Letters Live, outlined by Benedict Cumberbatch in this YouTube video, ask that we read our letters out loud on video. Readers are not required to use their faces, hence, my voiceover with my favorite fabric background.

The text of the letter, which is read out loud and posted on Twitter, is here:

Good morning from Minnesota!

As someone who works hard to manage chronic clinical depression, I’m finding this week’s material, which focuses on health communication, doubly challenging to talk about within the framework of COVID-19. Some of your posts and reflections have struck deep chords with me, and I’m struggling to contextualize what I know about media as a social institution with what I’m seeing across our news and other media platforms.

We in journalism often are careful to make a distinction between news and “other media.” It’s a necessary line we draw in order to help us focus on what society needs from news sources and what society wants from media. However, it’s clear to me that the average media consumer makes no such distinction. The image of a woman’s screaming face protesting a state lock down by shouting the “Media is the cancer!” hurts my heart. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that without media, more people would be dead at this point of the pandemic. And yet. And yet.

So, I’m personally balancing my rage and hurt with, ironically, some entertainment media. I’ve been watching John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” program on YouTube, and it’s made me cry every week. I watched the Disney Sing-Along last week with my little girls, and cried some more. I managed to watch two back-to-back episodes of Dr Who  in a worldwide simulcast on Sunday, and followed several of the original cast as they tweeted along. It helped, a lot, to feel connected to people who want to share something happy.

As we look ahead to our last week of classes, next week, I’m trudging through what needs to be done. I do want you all to know how much I appreciate your discussions and contributions to class. You all have made this experience incredibly rewarding.

Think, next, about how you would put your newly acquired understanding of media theory and practice to work in teaching an intro class. I know that some of you have already had this experience; others are looking forward to trying it for the first time. Every classroom is different, and will face interesting challenges. The key to making it work, I’ve always thought, is flexibility. Provide the framework and the materials to learn the material, but be flexible in how that it shaped. Take advantage of teachable moments. Media examples, past and present, will be your friends as you strive to help your students understand and evaluate materials.

Please know that I am thinking about all of you as we finish out the term. Stay well.

Dr L

Rustic Blueberry Scones

Day 22 in isolation, and I made these yesterday. By request, here is the recipe:

2 1/4 c. Baking mix. (I used Bisquik, but you could also use 2 c. flour mixed with 2 teaspoons baking powder and 2 teaspoons salt, cut with 1/2 stick cold butter

2 T. Sugar

1 c. Fresh or frozen blueberries.

2/3 c. Cold milk

Stir the sugar and baking mix together, then add the blueberries and toss to coat. Add the milk all at once and mix gently until it just comes together. Dough will be sticky. Turn out onto a lightly greased baking sheet and pat into a rough square about 3/4 inch deep. Using a sharp knife or pizza cutter, cut the dough into eight wedges. Separate them on the same pan so that the wedges are at least an inch apart.

Bake at 425 degrees for about 15 minutes, or until golden. Serve warm with butter.

Laura Ingalls Wilder and Me: My day on Rocky Ridge Farm

I’m standing here, next to a life-sized cut out of Laura Ingalls Wilder, in front of her side porch and the door that leads to her farmhouse kitchen on Rocky Ridge Farm, now known as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum.

Visiting Rocky Ridge has been on my personal to-do list since I first found out that she’d lived on this section of Ozark land for more than 60 years. Wilder traveled extensively as a child across the Midwest as her family looked for a place to settle down and prosper, and each of the places they stopped and lived has become part of the “tour” of Wilder sites. With this stop at Rocky Ridge today, I’ve been to every site but the one in upstate New York featured in Farmer Boy.

It’s hard, sometimes, to process the emotions that come from fulfilling a long-held dream. I brought my sister and my little girls along for this trip, and having them there added to my joy at finally walking on Wilder’s land, touring her house, and viewing her things, lovingly preserved as it was when she died on Feb. 10, 1957 at the age of 90. As our docent explained during our tour, Wilder’s daughter, Rose, locked the house three days after Wilder’s death, and it remained in stasis until three months later, when, with Rose’s permission and the formation of the non-profit society that currently maintains it, the home opened to the public for tours.

I’m grasping for words to express how it felt to stand in Laura’s kitchen, seeing the pipes that Almanzo had installed himself to bring their spring into the house so she’d have running water with which to cook. One counter held her flour sifter, a board, rolling pin, and ceramic bowl, looking for all the world that she’d stepped away for a moment from baking project. Her blue willow-patterned dishes, everyday favorites, gleam from an open cupboard. The green linoleum that tops the short counters–made by Almanzo to accommodate her petite size–is original.

Everything in the house remains as she left it in 1957. Through the kitchen to the dining room, visitors can spot Rose’s ladder stairs to her upstairs bedroom on their left. The dining room table, bought by Rose to furnish the Rock House in 1929, had been brought back to the main farm in 1936, when the couple moved back in after spending eight years in the Rock House that Rose had built for them. On a shelf built as a triangle to fit snugly in the corner above a heater, the clock that Almanzo traded a load of hay for during their first Christmas still tells the time, carefully wound every morning by the docents in charge for the day.

I found it hard not to touch things as I went through the house. (My preschoolers were very good at keeping their hands in their pockets. They started teasing me about doing the same, and made me giggle.) But it was hard! Most tables and dressers held a lace doilies, knitted by Laura in a favored “pineapple” pattern. Her sewing box sat under a table, ready for use; her nightgown lay across her bed. Her desk held letters from publishers and others; her parlor window seat held three pillows, one of which was embroidered by Angeline Day Wilder, Almanzo’s mother.

Laura’s library, Almanzo’s canes, Rose’s organ, and most of all, their space, lovingly built, kept, and maintained, echoed with the remembrances of their lives, lived.

The home is the showpiece that Laura intended, made from materials taken right off the farm, and emerging into view from the road at the perfect spot coming out from town. It’s a lovely home, and I can easily see why she didn’t want to be parted from it for long.

The museum by Rocky Ridge, now down from the house in its own space with its own parking lot, continued the collection of things that once belonged to many of the people in the Little House. Pa’s fiddle, once owned by Charles Ingalls, has pride of place in the gallery. But we can also see Caroline (Ma) Ingalls’ mother-of-pearl handled pen, Mary’s Braille slate, and Rose’s writing desk. I had to send my little girls, who had been very patient but were getting restless, with my sister into the attached store early so I could be sure to view it all: every. single. thing.

Of course, I spent way too much money in the gift shop. But I also signed stock; they had several copies of my first book, The Rediscovered Writings of Rose Wilder Lane, Literary Journalist. I also spotted it in the Rock House in a display about Rose, which I found flattering.

We had a very late lunch in town, then took pictures in Mansfield’s town square and visited the Wilder and Lane graves in the cemetery. I could have spent days, but one day was enough to view absolutely everything.

I highly recommend a stop if you’re in the area. My little girls, at 4 and 5, found it to be a fun experience. Walking the trails around the farm gave them plenty of exercise; somehow, and I realize how silly this is, I hadn’t realized that a farm in the mountains would be on such a significant incline. We were prepared with good shoes, so it didn’t trip us up. If mobility is an issue for you, don’t worry; handicapped parking is available at the museum, the main farm house, and the Rock House. We chose, mostly, to walk. We avoided the over-the-hill walking trail between the Rock House and the farm house, but otherwise walked everywhere.

I sent my mother a selfie of my sister, my little girls, and me, all smiling, pink-cheeked, from Laura’s front porch. She texted back, “Cool! Do you feel different?”

I gotta say, “Kinda, yeah.”

Reflections on Farm Women

Working with the contents of the box that Heather and I are archiving made me think about the farm women I have known over the years. Many chose to share their stories with when I was working on More than a Farmer’s Wife, and I have numerous letters from women all over the country who felt pressed to share a story, either their own, or their mother’s, about what life was like on the American farm for women between 1910 and 1960.

I’ve been asked about my choice of time period for the original book before, and it falls to a couple of things: first, the years that Laura Ingalls Wilder was an active writer, and second, the period during which the United States saw its biggest shift in population from rural to urban in history. In 1910, 90 percent of those living in the United States lived in rural areas; in 1960, 90 percent of those living in the United States lived in urban spaces.

The shift was dramatic, and with it, many had a sense that something would be “lost” of rural culture’s history. More than one letter I received suggested that fear was the reason so many stories were shared. It certainly was the driving force behind Wilder’s initial draft of what would become the Little House series of books for children. Wilder, herself, began writing for farm journals and rural publications at the beginning of that period, under the handle of “As a Farm Woman Thinks” in the Missouri Ruralist. When she and her husband, Almanzo, “retired” from active farming, Wilder decided to write down what she remembered about her childhood in order to preserve it. While it’s true that another motivation was financial–she certainly hoped to create something that would sell–preservation of history remained a goal of that draft, and all subsequent drafts of her books.

I’m finding, as time moves on, that many other women have had the same impulse. Occasionally, I still get a copy of someone’s memoirs in the mail. I keep every one. I have scrapbooks, pictures, letters, and self-published books. All of their senders say one thing: Remember us.

It’s fitting, I think, that these should have some sort of home, even if it’s digital. It’s exciting to see the interactive documentary Heather and I are producing take shape as we make decisions about preservation and content.

Next week, it’s our spring break, and my sister and I plan to take my littles on a road trip to Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Mo., home to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family for more than 65 years. I’ve never been there, and it’s one of the Wilder sites that I’ve most wanted to see. There, she wrote the Little House books. There, her daughter Rose grew up, then later rested and recouped the family’s financial losses during the Great Depression. It’s place, and space, that helped shape a family and a legacy.

I’m really looking forward to it.

Decisions: A database is built

Today, we made a decision about what to do with the contents of the box.

Heather at Documentary Site and I have been discussing, all though the beginning stages of this project, the kinds of things we could do with the materials in the box. As I noted last week, straightforward historical interpretation is one way we could go. But as we look through all the materials, and we read the notebooks, we both came to separate, but similar, conclusions.

It’s best that we create something that others can use to make sense of this story, ask questions about this period and time, and interpret from their own perspectives what it is they see.

Therefore, we’ve started a database.

This work is going to take some time. In the boxes’ journals, we have at least 7,000 entries for a database that we will make searchable by theme or keyword for others to use. We’ve decided to set up a domain exclusively for this project, and create an online archive. Some of the story will be interpreted through narrative text that will go along with a theme. But all of the entries will be made available for an audience to use to draw their own conclusions.

Posts about the box itself may dwindle during the time that we’re using for database entry. We’ve set up a shared spreadsheet, and we’ve each picked up a notebook. We’ll enter information by notebook, date of entry, the full text of the entry, and a series of tags we think best reflects the content of the entry. For example, on early entry on weather and cleaning chicken coops might be tagged “weather” and “chores.” We’ll try to make it as accessible as possible.

It also occurred to me during this discussion that I actually have a lot more material than what’s in the box for a database of this type. When I wrote More than a Farmer’s Wife, I interviewed or corresponded with more than 200 farm women who were born on or raised on farms between 1910 and 1960, and I kept it all. I actually couldn’t bear to part with it, because I could only use it for broad context and triangulation of data I gathered while reading farming and women’s magazines for the period in the book.

But the voices there, in the interviews and correspondence, need to be heard, in their own words.

We’ll be taking a hiatus from technical posts as we work on data entry, but I’ll still be posting about what we find along the way. I’m also taking suggestions for what our domain and/or project name could be. “What’s in the box?” is great for a start, but it doesn’t really describe the scope of what this project is becoming.

Off to the database.

 

What’s in the Box: Thinking about platforms

A critical question raised by Heather and myself in the last week is how we want to go about sharing the contents of the box with audiences.

Reading my last post about the box, Heather started to question whether I’d like to actually write a biography from the journals in the box. While I’m not really interested in doing that, I do think the chronicling of the material in the box could lend itself really well to that style of storytelling. However, we’re attempting to do something a little different here.

This led to a discussion about how to present what we’ve found, and whether we want to interpret it, or to lead others to draw their own conclusions about it.

Historians and journalists share a common role in that they’re tasked with interpreting the materials they find for a larger audience. As a former journalist who actively works as an historian, I tend toward this model of storytelling. It’s the sort of approach that invites others to share in what you’ve found, and what it means, but it also can be very direct communication. By the act of offering my interpretation, I assert that mine is the correct one.

However, one point I’ve learned over time is that my interpretation might not be the best or even the right one for the materials I’m uncovering. Each of us views the world in ways specific to our upbringings, cultural backgrounds, and value structures. As the granddaughter of Wisconsin farmers, I am confident that I share a great deal in common with the author of the journals in our box. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that my interpretation would be complete.

What would be better, perhaps, for an interactive documentary, would be to share the contents of the box wholesale, and allow viewers/readers to interpret what they find through the lens of their own unique experiences.

We’ve been thinking about digitizing the materials, and then sharing them in one unique place. We’ve been considering adding the chronicles, line by line, into a searchable database of some kind. We’ve also been considering imagery and how it would fit into the larger context of the work, and we’ve been considering how to tell the story offered by the box.

We’ve also been wondering whether there are other such chronicles out there that could be added to the archive we’re apparently building.

All of these questions drive our next steps.

To tell a story: Ways of approaching history

Thinking about “What’s in the Box?” has helped me focus a little on my other historical research.

When I first got the box, I was working on a large-scale history project. In fact, it might have been too large to do justice to the topic. It came from a place of wanting to learn about and share a story about how farm women in the United States lived and worked on their farms in the early to mid-twentieth century, rooted in my grief over the loss of my own grandmother just before I started my doctoral program and a parallel life-long interest in Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was writing for and about farm women at the time.

As with many questions that tackle aspects of women’s history, the first step had to be looking for their voices and stories. Several options could be employed. The first, which I used, is asking people for their own stories, informally networking to see if there was some written record that could be used to uncover the past. The biggest challenge in uncovering stories of the largely voiceless is that lack of voice; once many people have passed on, there’s no record they’ve even been a part of the past.

As a journalist, I loved to tell people’s stories. I learned in my teens that everyday stories had just as much impact and interest as the big news of the day, through work in state journalism workshops and camps. One of my first features that got significant attention told the story of a cleaning woman, Lorraine, in the dorm in which I was staying for camp. It ignited for me a passion to tell the stories that remained untold. And as a journalist before I became a historian-in-training, I thought to look first toward newspaper stories to see if I could find farm women’s voices from the period I was interested in, which started in 1911.

So my first project, in a classroom under the direction of Dr. Hazel Dicken-Garcia, was a paper that examined discourse about farm women in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. As a starting point, I used the first known publication date of Wilder’s column in the Missouri Ruralist, so that I had a known date when at least one farm woman was actively writing and engaged in the farming community. As an end point, I used the last known publication date for Wilder’s column, in 1926. That left fifteen years of Press coverage to comb through, so I decided to be methodical about it. I reviewed papers from harvest and planting seasons over that fifteen years, looking for farm women’s voices. I went through everything for that fifteen years.

And found exactly one item that directly mentioned farm women.

One.

In fifteen years.

I learned several things: One, that farm women truly were going voiceless in the mainstream media during this period. For some reason, this surprised me then, but with time, experience, and further research, I’m no longer surprised by this result. Two, that the Minnesota State Fair then, as now, recognized the role of farm women in the rural communities as being significant; the item that was reported came from its grounds, where new “rest room” facilities had been built on Machinery Hill for women to use. And three, that the lack of coverage in mainstream media didn’t mean farm women were totally voiceless; the item also interviewed the female editor of a magazine called The Farmer’s Wife.

In the absence of mainstream coverage, alternate and dissident press will appear, as this one did.

The Farmer’s Wife, I discovered, was a magazine published for many years in St. Paul. It is archived at the Magrath Library on the St. Paul Campus of the University of Minnesota.

The seeds of my dissertation are planted there.

Because of the lack of coverage, I realized I needed to discover the larger story of American farm women first. While some research had been conducted at this point, no one had looked at farming magazines at the scale I decided to try. I ended up looking at six different magazines–three farming, three national mainstream press–over fifty years that marked the shift in the United States from being mostly rural to being mostly urban: 1910 to 1960. Later, I sought out other means of finding these voices, including interviews and correspondence with women who lived and worked on farms during this period. It’s during this phase of the research, which was conducted to add to the dissertation for the book that was published in 2009, that I encountered the box.

On its face, I couldn’t use the materials within it for the research I was conducting at that time. The notebooks, at a glance, were fascinating, but ultimately beyond the period I was researching. I set it aside.

Now, looking at it again, I realize the box calls for a different style of storytelling. It’s not material that would lend itself to a large-scale project. It’s more in line with a biography–a piece of history that illuminates one person’s life that in some way tells a larger story about that person’s role in history. It calls to mind Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book, A Midwife’s Tale, which started with a similar diary chronicle to tease out a rich biography of Martha Ballard, a colonial midwife who lived in Maine and kept her diary from 1785 to 1812. (It won a Pulitzer Prize; it’s a brilliant book that I highly recommend.)

I don’t know what I’m going to do with those diaries yet. It’s a different sort of story, a different era from what I’m used to working in. And yet it’s very, very familiar.

What’s In the Box? Looking at old photographs

I’m looking at the photographs in the box today. Two are loose; three rest inside the cardboard-bound album. My first thoughts surround what people are wearing in the photographs, but I’m finding it difficult to separate myself and my thoughts from my impulses to preserve. I’m not using gloves as I handle these, though I am using dry, clean hands. I can tell that someone took great care of these; the yellowing that might indicate acidic based paper really only is present in the cardboard case.

The wedding photograph, mounted on a gray heavy card stock, is labeled “Henry and Selma Kolb” on the back, in pencil, in writing that clearly was influenced by the Palmer Method.  It’s relatively easy to date the photo; photographs of this quality were not available until the mid to late 19th century, for one. I decide to look at the family genealogy book to see if I can find a better date for the photo before I look any further, and I find them.

kolbgen

Henry and Selma Kolb were married Nov. 30, 1899. They had two children, and by 1963, they had five grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

The photo is in black and white. It’s not yellowed as much as it could be; the photo paper and the mounting board appear to be high quality.  There’s an imprint on the bottom border that I can’t make out; I use a soft pencil and a piece of paper to make a rubbing of it.  It reads: “E & A Kreuter 1212 N. 8th St Sheboygan Wis.”

Sheboygan, again. Our clues are getting bigger all the time.

Still, 1899 makes sense. Henry’s outfit would not be out of place at a formal event today; his suit and shoes are dark, and his jacket cut in a slight wave over his hips with short tails. He’s wearing a stiff white collar and a white bow tie, with a white cluster of small flowers on his lapel. He wears no beard, but has a lovely, well-kept handlebar mustache.

Selma’s gown lacks the fuss of an upper-class Victorian gown, which could indicate her place in a lower class or a nod to more modern styles, which were beginning to trend toward slimmer lines and less fuss. I can’t tell what color it is, but it’s a shade that reflects as a deep gray, so it might be blue. It might be deep pink. I make a mental note to research Victorian wedding colors as I look at the white, high-necked blouse that rests under a jacket that matches the skirt, with lace at the edges and a bow tied sharply at the waist. Her hair is up, and crowned with a headpiece that is floral, with ruffled veiling off the top that leads to a floor length veil. It’s gorgeous.

The pair make a beautiful couple. Neither smiles, but that’s not uncommon for this era. Some preferred not to show imperfect teeth. Some were coached to keep their mouths closed as a means of keeping themselves relaxed and still for what could be a long exposure time. Selma, however, looks like she’s trying very hard not to smile as brightly as she can. There’s a suggestion of dimples there, and eyes that look like they could laugh at any second.

Elsa Muetzelburg Neumann peers out of the other single-frame photo. She’s got a Palmer method label, in ink, on her back. The ink’s not bleeding, and it appears to have been done recently, with some kind of ball-point pen. She’s labeled “Elsa” in the genealogy, but her granddaughter, our correspondent, refers to her as “Elsie.” Elsie is who we think kept the journals. Her record indicates that she was born Jan. 14, 1892, married June 14, 1913, and died Nov. 29, 1983.

The genealogy has more ink on this page, than on the others, and I think her granddaughter wanted to fill in the blanks.

Elsa’s picture clearly is taken when she was still a teen, certainly well before her 1913 marriage. Her gown is the filmy white cotton or linen characteristic of a well-bred girl’s graduation wardrobe, though it shows considerable ankle. The scroll she holds in one hand bolsters the impression that this is her graduation photo. If she graduated at 18, which is not a given, this photo would have been taken in about 1910. The imprint reveals another, different Sheboygan address.

The third set of photos comes in one, cardboard album. It’s hand sewn at the edges, and labeled on the front. It came from Fred Kolb, who proudly declared himself “teacher” on the front cover in iron-based ink. This album has seen better days. It’s spattered with liquids that left stains behind, and the photos are going pink with exposure to the cardboard on which they’re mounted. The photos are attributed to a photographer in Wells, Wis., but close attention to the content of the photos places the pictures in Meeme, Wis., which is close to Sheboygan.

A quick check of my phone’s map feature tells me Meeme is 18 miles or so from Sheboygan, a day’s ride by horse; a twenty-minute drive today.

The genealogy tells me that Fred K. Kolb, the teacher at Meeme on Memorial Day 1899, born in 1872. He was 26 in his dignified teacher’s pose, in a classroom decorated with buntings. Another photo in the set, of all his students, is marked with ink in three places. One marks out a little girl who might be Elsa. It’s hard to tell. Fred married in 1906, to Laura Post, and the couple had three children.

So much can be gleaned from the photos. So many stories can be told.

Tips on photo preservation: If you’re interested in preserving your old photos, now is the time to get them copied on acid- and lignin-free paper. Keep them in low light and handle them carefully with clean, dry hands. If you’ve got old insta-photos, the kind that came from Polaroid or Kodak instant cameras, take this step immediately. The chemicals that help produce the instant images will wear out over time, and your images will be lost. Doing this would make a great gift for your family archivist.