On this month’s Tales, Dr. Charles Lewis shares his discovery of a trunk once owned by a WWI soldier, and how he uncovered the story of the man’s journey to a war from which he would never return. Listen below.
When I was a young girl attending one of the many camps I enjoyed, I loved sitting around a campfire telling stories. One of my favorites is a mildly spooky tale that I can’t quite remember the origins of, though I suspect it came from a Girl Scout leader or text at some point.
Half of the fun of telling spooky stories is the ambiance. When telling stories around a campfire, the circle can be big or small, but the warm light from the fire casts deep shadows, as only faces are lit up. Woods or fields surrounding the fire seem darker, and deeper. As a storyteller begins to share a tale, everyone hushes, and the quiet is only broken by the breaking of a log, the snap of pine pitch crackling in the flames, or the call of a night bird.
Perhaps it is a night Iike this where you might hear me tell this story:
Once there was a couple from the Twin Cities named Jane and Martin Hill. They were newlyweds, and in the time-honored tradition of the Midwest, decided to take a road trip for their honeymoon, heading up North along back roads they’d never been on before, just for the adventure of it. One evening, they were driving as dusk was falling, and it started to rain.
It came down in great sheets, making it hard for Martin, who was at the wheel, to see the road, which had gone slippery. He slowed the car, but a shadow ran in front of it without warning, and he swerved. The car flew into a series of rolls, ending up in the ditch with the headlights pointing skyward.
Martin must have fallen unconscious for a moment, but when he came to, he noticed his wife was gravely injured. The rain had lightened up a bit, and there was just enough light from the dashboard that he could see she was bleeding.
Now this was in the days before cell phones, so Martin had no way of contacting an ambulance, and he, himself, knew very little about first aid. He was frantic, trying to think what to do. He managed to get himself out of the car, then to her side, which was crumbled. Something gave him tremendous strength, and he was able to pull her caved-in door open, and take her into his arms. All he could think to do was to get to the road and start walking toward the last town, which they’d passed several miles ago.
He gathered Jane up, stumbled up the wet, slippery ditch, and made it to the road. He began walking, holding on to his wife and looking for any sign of assistance. His patience was rewarded after a time, and he spotted a light off the road, in the distance.
Martin looked for some kind of path or road that would take him to that light. In the dim light of the rising moon, he saw what looked like a footpath in the underbrush, and he took it, stumbling his way down the path, holding Jane carefully, and looking ahead to a large house that appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, with light emanating from its bay windows. He carried Jane up the steps to the front door, and used his foot to kick it harshly.
He heard footsteps from within, and the door opened with a creak. An old, decrepit man appeared, his long gray hair thinning over his scalp, and his walk marked by a heavy limp.
“Yes?” The man looked Martin and Jane over carefully.
“Please, do you have a phone? My wife, and I, well, we’ve been in an accident and she needs help. Please?”
The man pursed his lips, then nodded. “The Master is in.” He gestured. “Bring her inside.”
Martin entered the house, still holding onto his wife as the other man closed the door behind him and guided him into an old-fashioned looking parlor, gesturing to the settee. “Lay her there,” the man said. “I’ll get the Master.”
Martin lay his wife down. She looked pale and bloody, and he worried it was too late to help her.
The man came back, and with him, he brought a tall, elegant-looking man in what seemed to be an old-fashioned suit, whom Martin thought was likely this “Master” of which the former had spoken. “Please,” Martin said. “Can you help me?”
“We haven’t a phone,” the Master said. “But I am a physician, of sorts. Let me see what I can do.”
Martin stepped back, and the Master rolled up his sleeves as he knelt next to Jane. He checked her breathing, listened to her heart, and sat back heavily. “I’m sorry to tell you this, sir, but your wife is already dead.”
Martin felt faint.
“She can’t be! She can’t!”
“There’s nothing more we can do for her.”
Tears fell from Martin’s eyes, and for the first time, he noticed blood dripping down his own arm to the floor below. “Oh,” he said faintly, and fell, before the Master or his servant could catch him.
The Master checked Martin’s pulse, and shook his head. “He’s gone, too.”
“Master, what shall we do with them?” The servant asked.
“Lay him out on the other settee,” The Master directed, going to his parlor organ. He sat at the instrument as his servant laid out Martin on the other settee, and began to play a few chords.
“Master?” The servant asked.
“Just watch, Igor.” The Master began to play, deep rolling chords in flats and trills, a music none had ever heard before that night, and none would ever hear again. As he played, the bodies on the settees began to shake and shiver. He continued to play, the music reaching a fever pitch as the bodies sat straight up, and their eyes opened.
“Master!” The servant called out.
“Yes, Igor, yes!” The Master cried, then sang: “The Hills are alive, with the sound of music.”
A beat. A pause to let the truly terrible pun sink in.
Perhaps the Hills left.
Perhaps they stayed.
But the power of music saved their lives that night. And when this story is told around the campfire, the “boos” are truly fun for the storyteller. Which was often me, with my terrible sense of humor.
Listen to me tell the story:Continue reading “On Spooky Stories”
Today I’m introducing my new podcast: Tales from the Midwest. The first episode focuses on Midwest food, and I’m talking to Dr. Kimberly Wilmot Voss, a Milwaukee native and expert on food journalism. We had a great conversation about food, home economics, and our hopes for a Midwestern cuisine movement.
For every podcast, I’m going to include links to favorite places discussed on it right here. Kim named Kopps Custard in Milwaukee and State Street Brats (aka The Brat Haus) in Madison, Wis. I’m adding Mader’s Restaurant, The Spice House, and Usinger’s Factory Outlet on Old World Third Street in Milwaukee.
Tales from the Midwest: Episode 1, with Kim Voss
Have a listen. The podcast is also hosted on BuzzSprout.
News from the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder today: Walnut Grove’s summer pageant will be online, starting tomorrow, July 10.
Alison Arngrim, who played Nellie Oleson on the TV show, tweeted an announcement about the pageant’s virtual show this morning. Guests at tomorrow’s first performance, via Zoom, will be Dean Butler, who played Almanzo Wilder, and Dale Cockrell, a music scholar whose work focuses on the music of the Little House books. I’m very excited to see it.
More information can be found on the Walnut Grove web site.
The news from Poynter Institute and other media think-tanks is ominous: Local media outlets from around the United States are closing their doors and laying off staff. The economic challenges wrought by the pandemic have sliced that thin line that stood between these newsrooms and their loss.
In a time when local journalism is desperately needed, we are losing it.
When I entered the field as a news reporter for a daily newspaper in northern Wisconsin, the Marinette Eagle-Star, I had a newly minted bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a strong sense of the importance of journalism to society as a whole. I’ve lost neither of those. But I realized, soon after I started, that the routine stories I wrote for my local newspaper had significance beyond that.
My fellow reporters and I covered school board meetings, city council meetings, county board meetings, highway commission meetings, and many other gatherings of people who made decisions on behalf of their constituents. We talked to police officers and county deputies, superintendents of school districts and teachers in their classrooms. We haunted the offices of elected officials to find out what issues were being raised at the local, state, and federal level that might have an impact on our readers.
And we related all these stories to those readers. We told them about how a county sales tax might affect their bottom lines; how a move to a welfare-to-work program in the state of Wisconsin might affect not only their pocketbooks, but their neighbors; how a rise in gang violence locally had ties to larger cities to the south of us. We told them about a new thing called the Internet and how it might have potential to change how business is done, how many educational options could be offered, and even how individuals could access to information.
We explored the community we lived in, bringing stories about what our readers and their friends got up to in their spare time. We covered local sports, making sure our student athletes got their names in the paper and credit for their achievements. We shone a spotlight on the arts in our community, and we talked to leaders about transitions in leadership in their worlds.
We told reader stories, too, making an effort to find the interesting, unusual, and fun things they were involved in. We dug deep to record these things for the historical record. We also used that historical record, sometimes, to tell larger stories about the community in which we lived, such as that of the Peshtigo fire of 1871.
Readers let us know what they appreciated, and they let us know what they didn’t. Virulently. Ardently. We did our best to make sure we got it right, and we did our best to make it right when we erred.
In those pages, we told the story of community, of multiple communities. We printed birth notices, death notices, marriage notices. Notably, I typeset my own wedding announcement. I was also forced to write up my own accident report, to the light ribbing of my comrades. All careful, all a record. All a journal of what happened in that place, at that time.
Journalism, at its true essence, is public service. The bastardization of that service for profit has led to untold damage to journalism as a social institution.
As I watch the numbers rolling in of these losses, I mourn the loss of that essential community journal. No one ever got rich as a local journalist. But the impact of what local journalists do has been, can be, and will be immeasurable.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.