What Is History?
It’s a right and wonderful thing to save a venerable old building from the wrecking ball of “progress.” It gives great pleasure to saunter down halls provided by the craftsmanship and industry of our forefathers. Buildings are tactile, tangible. But, while historic structures and records and maps and streets provide the framework of our past, they aren’t History.
History is stories. Experiences. Experience.
We’re Losing This War…
Every day a memory of the 20th Century – its sights and sounds, its terrors and triumphs – disappears. Yielding to the inalterable advance of time, our grandparents and parents are departing — often leaving us with no notion of their stories before we were born.
We’re losing WWII vets, all in their 90s, at the rate of approximately 555 a day, according to recent US Veterans Administration figures.”
Ask yourself this: Do you know how your parents met? What about your grandparents? Great-grandparents? What did they do for a living? Who was the artist of the family? Who did you inherit your musical talent from?
If you can’t answer those questions, you have some work to do!
Number one [on the map] is the home and farm of Oliver Johnson, where I was born, May 22, 1873. Grandfather’s farm consisted of 160 acres. My father Frank P., youngest of four children of Oliver and Pamela, was married in 1871 and farmed the place until I was fifteen years of age, when he moved to his own farm south of the present Fair Grounds. When Minnie Fessler and I were married, in 1894, we moved into the same house, which was four rooms added to the north wing of the old house, and which my father had left five years before and [we] farmed the old place, (Oliver Johnson’s home 4451 Central Avenue) until 1905, when we moved to our own farm on West 79th Street. Grandfather Oliver Johnson bought the Central Avenue farm, 4451, in 1855. Price for the 160 acres was $8000.00… ” -Excerpt from Howard Johnson’s description of the Indianapolis area once called the Sugar Flats
1912 – On a cold, snowy night, Dr. Hersey was called to the log cabin. He arrived by horse and buggy in time to deliver a baby girl — named Violet May — named after Dad’s sister Clara May and Mom’s sister Stella May — Hair light in color; eyes of brown. (Born 2-19, 1912) Mom told me Dr. Hersey wanted to adopt me as well as another couple. WHY? Two weeks after I was born Mom sent Floyd to Jerry Tellis’ store for a can of molasses. As Mom looked out the door she saw Floyd trying to pry the lid off the molasses can. She rushed our the door to rescue it, tripped and fell, breaking her right wrist. She learned to change diapers and sweep with one arm…”— Recollections of Mrs. Violet Musgrave, “On The Move”
Investigate. Once you’ve established a comfortable rapport with your interviewee, the best stories will come from personal questions – the ones that might elicit laughter or tears: the thrill of first love… a most embarrassing moment… the feelings he had as he left for boot camp. These are the questions that will give you rich details.
Visuals. One old photograph can elicit an hour of story telling, so imagine the stories an entire album or home movie might bring to mind. Bring your own props or ask your interviewee if she has any family photos or heirlooms to show you. For photos, ask if she knows when and where the photo was taken, the reason or event, and who the people in the photograph are. For family heirlooms ask questions such as: What’s the story behind this thing? How was this used? Who made it? How did it come to you?
Archive. Once you have written or recorded your relative’s stories, make sure to share this with the whole family. A single copy could be lost or destroyed, but making and distributing many copies increases the likelihood that the material will live on for generations.
As much as we all might prefer the immediacy and detail of digital recordings, it’s good old paper that will stand the test of time. Recording media and devices come in and out of vogue ever more quickly as technology advances (remember the VHS?) but paper copies of pictures and written stories have not proven obsolete in thousands of years.
Grandma had a feather mattress and the bed never really looked made… She had an outdoor toilet with 2 seats since she lived on the main street in Broad Ripple, people would walk around the house and use it. Every summer a man would come and clean out the out-house. What a smell! How those men did that for a living I’ll never know! Probably they needed the money as nearly everyone was poor then.” — Excerpt from the recollections of Mrs. Eloise Maners, “Growing Up In Broad Ripple.”
In 1914, I started going to Manual Training High School. World War I had begun, and social activities in general were curtailed. Shortages of every kind existed and food became top priority. Those were bleak years during my high school days. I rode the Fort Harrison Interurban Car to the terminal station downtown, from there I walked more than a mile to Manual Training High School. My favorite subjects were; Drawing, Sewing and Cooking, but our cooking classes were mainly learning to substitute for things that were in short supply – especially sugar and white flour. My senior year was the happiest when I spent six out of eight hours in the Art Department.”— Excerpts from the recollections of Grace Hackemeyer Roberts, “Bits and Pieces of Memories”
Special thanks to the loaner of this collection of memoires, who prefers to remain anonymous — and to the writers themselves who have given this writer hours of enjoyment and the impetus to pen her own story.