Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - February 10, 2023

Scanning a life

The 350-plus documents spanned more than 160 years. Included were gravestone inscriptions, such as: "Oscar Graetz Born June 5, 1836, 1st Lieut Co F 6th Regt Wis Vol, Died at the battle of Spotsylvania, May 10, 1864, Died for his country."

Another was a newspaper account of a wedding: "... To the strains of Lohengrin's wedding march the bride entered the church on the arm of her father ... attired in a long fitting gown of eggshell satin, and a long tulle veil fell from a close fitting cap. ..."

An obituary included a poem:

We write our lives wher'er we dwell,
On those who love and know us well,
Strangers may cheer us from afar,
But neighbors see us as we are.
I'd rather have my worth be told
By happy hearts than glittering gold.

There was a December 30, 1953 letter from a 21-year-old soldier to his 9-year-old brother: "... You don't realize how lucky you are until you come over here to a country like Korea. Many of these children don't have parents ... they are orphans. Just imagine what it would be like not to have any mother or father. ..."

An architect's 1987 sketch from a 1905 photograph is of a Welsh home, showing the house was "built" using two oak trees bent toward the other and then bound together near the apex.

So where did this disparate group of documents come from and why was I interested? All are part of husband Art's family history.

- The soldier was the son of Art's great-great grandparents, who came to the United States to shield their sons from being drafted into the German army and Europe's seemingly-constant wars. Arriving shortly before the Civil War began, three served in the Union Army. One was captured, another crippled and one - Oscar - died.

- The bride with the eggshell satin gown was Art's mother Donna.

- The poem appeared in his grandfather Edgar's obituary.

- The soldier's letter was from his brother Tommy.

- The sketch was of the home where his great-grandfather Thomas was born.

Art and I have now spent a few hours several days a week scanning those items and many more. Part of the motivation is to verify his records as some items were filed more than four decades ago. But the primary reason is to create digital copies to make them easy to access and share.

Art's genealogy efforts began in the early 1980s, when he was in his late 30s. To obtain such documents then meant "inheriting" them from family members or traveling to courthouses, walking through cemeteries, going through old newspapers, and writing letters to distant relatives, hoping they would respond.

Art read every Manawa Advocate - the weekly newspaper in his father Tom's hometown - from the start of publication in 1895 through World War II. He traveled to countless county courthouses in Wisconsin and other states to track down deeds and birth, marriage, and death certificates. He often recorded that information on cassette tapes and transcribed them later. Hours were spent walking cemeteries row by row to copy down names, dates, epitaphs, and other pertinent information and to photograph gravestones.

That "grinding" work was all before email, ancestry.com, findagrave.com, and newspapers.com made many documents easily accessible. However, few deeds, church records, Bible recordings and private letters are available online. Many families still have photo albums or other family heirlooms squirreled away in attics. There is still a place for the "hands-on" history hunter.

Not long after he began, he'd developed the habit of indexing each document on his computer and then making three photocopies. Originals were placed in storage boxes to keep them "pristine." He bought a book binder and made three identical sets of books using the copies as pages. Today, each set has more than 30 inch-thick volumes. One set is kept at home, another in his office at work, and the third is at a relative's home. Should any one of them experience a fatal encounter with a fire, tornado, plumbing failure or whatever, the others will likely survive.

During our recent three weeks of daily scanning and cataloging, we processed about one-tenth of the total. In addition, there are also several large "to be processed" containers sitting in the corner at his work, so we needn't worry any time soon about having nothing to do.

To say I was initially confused by Art's system would be putting it mildly. In fact, it really didn't seem systematic at all. How on earth could a Civil War record from 1865 end up in the same folder or on a page adjacent to Art's baby photos from 1944 and the 1987 sketch from Wales?

But he explained that while you might find some relative's photo next week, a picture of the spouse might not be found until years later - or maybe never - so you can't wait to catalog the former. His method is much like that of a museum - an "accession" system where items go into the collections as they arrive while documenting their location with a searchable index. It allows locating them later.

When we met, his family history situation was the opposite of mine. While I come from a long line of pack rats, his people might best be characterized as being from the "who-would-want-this-old-cr*p; let's-fire-it-out!" school. But the organizing problem is the same, so we've been processing mine the same way we've done his.

It's tedious work - a real slog. Yet every now and then, a rediscovered item may make us laugh or feel sad. But all involve revisiting little stories and remembering those who contributed in some measure to who we are. Scanning a life is not just entertaining, but satisfying as well. It's the history of who we are.

Top (l-r): Oscar Graetz; Tom and Donna Vaughan wedding picture; Edgar Vaughan; Volume 1 of the Herrmann-Vaughan reference books. Bottom (l-r): Art being held by brother Tommy; portion of Tan Ban-Y-Bryn sketch showing the trained trunks of the trees; envelope of letter from Korea (below) and an excerpt from the contents

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