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    In every family, someone ends up with “the stuff.” It is the goal of The Family Curator to inspire, enlighten, and encourage other family curators in their efforts to preserve and share their own family treasures.

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    An Ironic Epitaph

    Sometimes we celebrate home especially when it is no more. Arline Kinsel’s spidery handwriting leaves a poignant elegy for “Refuge Ranch,” her mother’s homestead property in Beulah, Colorado. Arline and her sister Mercy spent many happy summers at their mother’s ranch relaxing with friends, posing for photographs, and putting on theatrical productions. When Arline and her husband Roy were separated in 1912, Arline retreated to Beulah with their small daughter Lucille to find comfort with her mother and sister. Mercy taught at the Mace School and built a small log house on the property as her own “little house.”

    In December of 1913, Mercy was living at the ranch when she received this photo/postcard from either her mother or from Arline,


    “Oh, you can drop the insurance if you wish for I don’t suppose we will have a fier.”


    Arline’s note on the front of the card made when she was in her 60s are an ironic commentary to the sad end of “Our little Brown home in the West. . . it burned up finally” and was never rebuilt.


    The Family Curator Writes at Shades of the Departed

    I am honored and delighted to be the guest author today at footnoteMaven's historical photography blog, Shades of the Departed, where her articles have won a loyal following of readers enjoying her careful research and keen eye. FootnoteMaven features her own photographic collection in her discussion of a wide range of topics associated with understanding, preserving, and digitizing old photographs. She also hosts a monthly Blog Carnival “I Smile for the Camera.”

    Each week, Shades offers a guest column from other gen-bloggers in the “Friday from the Collectors” series. My article shares our classroom project, “Reading Women’s Lives,” and discuss how photographs enhanced our understanding of a personal correspondence. Students in my classes transcribed nearly 100 letters, but it was the photographs that helped bring the authors to life on the page. I am grateful to footnoteMaven for the opportunity to share our project with others, and do hope that it will inspire similar classroom projects. Please visit Shades to read the article.

    Today marks

    • The First Anniversary of The Family Curator
    • The Birthday of Nathaniel Hawthorne (4 July 1804, Salem, Massachusetts)
    • The Date Henry David Thoreau moved into his cabin on Walden Pond
    • And of course, American Independence Day! Happy Birthday America!


    Who is That Man?


    A Sweet Scene



    One of the girls’ favorite photos featured Arline and a handsome young man hugging on the lawn. He is tall and bends over Arline to embrace her in an affectionate bear hug. Both look quite young, probably teenagers. Although Arline carefully identified the people and places in scores of photographs, she missed this one. It wasn’t a very “good” picture, but the surface damage indicated that it might have been one of Arline’s favorites too. The yellowed marks reminded me of stains I found after perfume was spilled on a framed photograph.


    But who is the young man? The couple's faces are in the shadows making it hard to see their features. First guess would be Arline's first husband, and the

    girls assumed that the photograph showed Arline and Roy. The problem is that the young man in the damaged photo seems much taller when compared with Roy in another photograph.



    Arline and Roy with baby Lucile



    Could it be her second husband, Albert Edwards? Again, he doesn't seem tall enough. Albert is nearly Arline's height; he lacks the stature to bend over her like the young man in the hug.

    Albert Edwards and Arline

    Perhaps he was her third husband, Charley H. Parker, a handsome farmer from Kansas? He is tall enough. Charley was a big man and even in this snapshot of the couple both wearing hats it is clear that he was taller than Arline by quite a few inches. They weren’t married until 1921 when Arline was 31. Could they have known each other when they were younger? And does the young man “look” like Charley.

    Arline and Charles H. Parker



    The best conclusion might be that the young man in the first photo was an unidentified admirer, and definitely not Arline's first husband. Wouldn't we like it to be a happier photo story? Sorry, girls. It looks like Arline and Roy might not have had that happy moment on the lawn, after all.



    The Family Curator Meets the Press

    I did not expect to have much readership to this blog, so I was quite surprised when Footnote Maven emailed a few weeks ago regarding the classroom project and asked me to write a guest column for her historic photography blog Shades of the Departed. It seems that my comment on her article about postmortem photography prompted a visit to The Family Curator, and she wants to hear more about our classroom experience with transcribing old letters. My article will appear this week, Friday July 4th. Should be lots of fun.

    I have also learned more about the entire blogging community from attending the SCGS Jamboree in Burbank this weekend. Newsblogs, musing blogs, family history blogs were all featured at the two sessions I attended. It was great fun to "meet the bloggers" and hear new ideas about where the trend is heading. Schelley Dardashti, Dick Eastman, Leland Meitzler, and George G. Morgan represented the news and podcasting blog world; Randy Seaver and Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak were there as general musers, and Stephen Danko commented on writing a family history blog. I was especially interested in Megan's comments about blogging on Facebook and even MySpace because students are active on both sites. Family history and genealogy may be see a growth spurt of interest from young people if those sites build genealogy areas.

    Several members of the audience seemed to be there not as potential bloggers, but as readers; people wanted to know how to "read" a blog. They didn't quite understand how to subscribe and thought that perhaps they had to pay a fee, like most "subscriptions" require. I think there is real potential for educating the blogging audience about the genre itself. Many people have heard of this medium but just aren't too sure about it. I recall then when I wanted to start a classroom blog at my school a few years ago, the administration was absolutely against it. They did not want the students using blogs at all, and did not want the school providing this "suspicious" new medium of communication. Two years ago, I was able to host a class blog but students had to sign in with a password to access the site. I don't know if many other schools have a similar situation, but I think it does remind us that this is a new phenomenon. While many users are comfortable and have no trouble with technology, others are still trying to come to terms with this new media.


    Post Mortem Photography

    One of the photos that most impressed the students was that of a child "sleeping." It was difficult for them to accept that this was a postmortem photograph, a popular and very socially acceptable practice in the last century.

    Yesterday, footnoteMaven continued a discussion from her posting last week on postmortem photography, "I Still Think She's Dead and Here's Why." Her research is extensive and she brings several examples to the table in evaluating the status of the original photograph from "I Think She's Dead!"

    I hope Maven considers publishing her post as a magazine article or as part of a book. It was a useful summation of the genre.


    Genealogy or Family History?

    This project has made it clear that assembling a personal history is going to involve "doing genealogy" as well. The students wanted to know who's who immediately, they wanted to know dates and relationships to help them understand the people they were reading about. We found little gems of information buried in the letters, now I have to pull out those nuggets and add them to the overall family tree.

    One of my favorite comments turned up in a letter from one sister to another, "I told the boys when they woke up that today was their Aunt Minnie's 50th Birthday." Checking the date on the letter and Minnie's death certificate verified that date, but it was so much more personal to read that a little sister still remembered her siblings birthday when they were both grown women with children of their own.

    My mom has been researching her family line in earnest for many years and she is now very pleased to have drawn me into the net. It looks like I will be taking her to the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree later this month. . . or maybe she is taking me!



    Class Breakfast at my home
    (I am wearing orange).

    Today was the last day of class and we celebrated with breakfast at my house. I started hosting the class my first year of teaching 11 years ago, so it seems fitting to bring back the tradition in my last semester. Of course, it's convenient that I live less than a block from the school and everyone can walk down the winding road to pass through the iron school gates and into the wooden gate at my home. Some years we have had tea together, sometimes lunch or brunch depending on the daily schedule.

    The girls were finally able to view the DVD slide show I made of the photos and newsclippings. It came out great, but wouldn't play on the school Mac computers (must be something to do with being compiled and burned on my PC at home). Everyone crowded into the TV room and watched Arline and Mercy come to life on the big screen. I added a soundtrack of rather plaintive music, and caught several sighs and exclamations. They were excited to put the faces to the names on the letters they had read. Over and over I heard them remark on Arline's beauty; of course, they loved her clothes too. I think their favorite photograph is the one where Arline stands against the light on the porch of the ranch house in Beulah, Colorado. She is wearing a long loose dress and what looks like an embroidered dressing gown. Her hair hangs in a long braid. It is a lovely photograph, part of the Beulah series featuring Arline and Lucile in several shots.

    Before the girls returned to school I was able to read them a letter that my mother wrote when she heard about our project. She shared a few memories of Arline and wrote,

    I am so pleased that Denise has shared her Grandmother's letters with you. I believe she wanted women to know what it was like for a young woman in the early 1900's. It is remarkable to think some of you are holding paper and reading words that were written so many years ago. . . Enjoy the letters and look for the messages my mother was hiding in each one. We can be thankful for our rights as women. We can do any job we want to and develop our skills and interests without discrimination.
    None my students wanted to trade places with Arline. Their own lives seemed complicated enough. . . they just shook their heads at the notion of living in the early 20th century.


    Review Time

    Students could be reviewing for exams, but instead want to talk about the project. Although they have really only studied a few of the letters individually, the group shared highlights with one another and then began to offer thoughts on the people involved. I sketched a rough family tree on the whiteboard and answered questions for a while. Some were quick to see the obvious -- four marriages, four daughters. Some focused on the subtext, praising Arline and Mercy for their independent spirits, trying to break out of the confines of their 1910 community.

    Most students had finished a course in U.S. History, many also completed U.S. Women's History; they had a good overview of the battle for voting and property rights. Seen in the light of the larger scale of American history, their story is remarkable because it is "everywoman's" story. They weren't rich, famous, or privileged. They were just very ordinary women.

    The girls who want to continue this summer were especially enthusiastic; some have vowed to write letters home from their adventures this summer rather than rely only on email. The longevity of paper and ink seems to have really impressed them. Who would have thought a few years ago as we were hearing the tech bell to convert to the digital age, that we would learn paper is still preferred for preservation?


    Finishing Up

    Clearly, some students could continue this project for quite a while. Some still needed to finish transcriptions and corrections. Others were ready to talk about the letters and share their thoughts on what they discovered. We put off the discussion until tomorrow; they are anxious for answers, but I am afraid that we will mostly generate more questions.

    I finished up my slide show over the weekend. About 8 minutes of photos arranged chronologically with text and music. I decided to keep the time frame to the period of the letters we have read, birth through 1920 or so.


    Day 4 - The Transcription Project

    Today was our last full day on the project. When I walked into the computer lab, three girls came to me talking all at once about their letters and how much they enjoyed the project. Some wanted to keep transcribing and asked if they could work on it over the summer! It is exciting to see their enthusiasm.

    By the end of the class period each student had completed at least two letters -- transcribed, proofread with a partner, corrections made, and data entry sheet completed. Some girls had finished three or even four letters.

    Our final day of the unit will be to discuss what we learned. I find that they are anxious to share the letters they transcribed and want to hear the stories from other letters in an effort to put together the bigger picture. We will save that for Tuesday!


    History Class Joins the Project

    Students in U.S. Women's History are also helping with the transcriptions. With only a few class sessions to spare, they were able to work collaboratively to transcribe several letters. The instructor tells me that their curiosity is piqued.... they want the full story. We may try this again next year and work it into the regular curriculum as a unit on primary sources.


    Day 3 -- The Transcription Project

    What a difference a little experience can make. When I walked into the library today where our class was meeting, I found every student already occupied at a computer. The letters were open on their computer monitors and the girls were pouring over the archaic handwriting. I could hardly get them to look away for a moment as I held up the original photos and news clippings I brought to show.

    "Who had the letter about Mercy's kidnapping?"
    A hand shot up, "I did. It talked about white slavery too."
    "Here is the news article," I said, showing the girls the original and reading "Thinks Sister Used as Victim of Hypnotist."
    At first a few girls were listening and looking at the photos; soon the entire class was gathered around the large conference table with jaws dropped.
    "She was kidnapped?"
    "Well, the family thought so, but here is her photo with the man . . . "
    "He looks so nice," they repeated. "He looks normal."
    "Yes, he does, and she married him."
    "Were they happy? Did they stay married?"
    "Not really. He did leave her, and her daughter had mental problems."
    "What else?" They wanted to know.
    I could only answer, "I don't know. Read your letters today and see what mysteries you can uncover or solve."
    They actually raced back to their computers to continue reading.

    Students were so quietly intent on their reading that the library felt like. . . a library. After a time, as they finished transcribing their leters, the girls began to read aloud their transcription with a partner to check their work. Now they knew the stories of two letters. Some girls were ready for another and began a second or third transcription. With one day of our library time remaining, it seems likely that nearly everyone will meet the assignment of transcribing two letters.


    Day 2 - The Transcription Project

    I feel like I ran a marathon today. Fifteen to twenty students in the library, all excited, but absolutely confused by the 100 year old handwriting. I raced from student to student helping with identification, file opening/saving problems, and basic questions. They have never heard of three-and four-letter state abbreviations such as Colo. and Tex. and see them as possible words. Then, "w" looks like "m" and "o" and "e" seem impossible to decipher.

    Just as the period was nearing its end, I felt the mood in the room shift. The girls began talking about what stories in the letters, and the people revealed in the words. Now they were reading for the tale, not just the words themselves.


    Day 1 - The Transcription Project

    D-Day! The first group of my English classes is ready to begin. Last week I showed them a short PowerPoint Presentation on working with primary sources. It included slides of an actual letter and the students were surprised by the handwriting. We read it aloud and discussed the conventions of early 20th century social correspondence such as beginning each letter with date and place, referring to recently received letters, etc. I think the email, texting generation found the idea rather antiquated.

    We met in the library today where we were able to spread out on the large tables and also have access to the computers around the room. It was an ideal space. Fortunately, I had taken the time to make a listing of all the letters with a few notations: File Number, Handwritten or Typed, Number of Pages. I decided to initially assign one letter to each student, and selected shorter pieces that I hoped would not be overly difficult.

    When they opened the files on the computer screen I could hear the sighs. The girls were looking at another language, one they could not begin to decipher. I raced from student to student throughout the 50-minute period, deciptering words, making suggestions, coaching guesses. By the end of the class, they seemed to have caught on but I was exhausted.


    Scanning Update

    I am running out of time for scanning letters as I also want to scan some photos and put together a presentation. Haven't been able to process the letters in the AskSam database, but have worked up a Data Entry Form for the students to complete. It should help organize their thoughts about the letters as well.

    I now have over 100 letters in the archival folders, and am scanning hit-and-miss style to catch ones that are a) suitable, and b) interesting.

    Total now 93 letters. May need to complete more.

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