The Handwritten Past

Old Gile HomeMy Grandpa lives in a little brick house in north-central Kansas in a small town with a population of about 300. Just outside of town is the land where his grandfather built a homestead when he first moved to Kansas from Ohio. Grandpa has driven us grandkids around on those dirt roads in Kansas and showed us the land, where the dugout used to stand, where two walls of the old handbuilt stone house still stand, where our ancestor’s little boy was buried on the farm during some of those first trying years on the prairie. In addition to the stories and the land, there are boxes of old things–books, papers, and miscellaneous items–in my Grandpa’s attic. Among these are letters written by some of my ancestors.

Nothing immerses you into a time past quite like a handwritten letter. The paper is the same paper the writer and the receiver held in their own hands, the ink is the same ink the writer’s pen touched onto the page. The flow of the ink captures the age of the writer and the emotion with which they addressed their recipient. The topics discussed are family and friends and places that existed at the time of the writing, but do not exist in the same form now. Reading the letter is like being transported back in time, and things are revealed through the letter that you would not have known otherwise.

Tornado LetterThe letter in this picture is one of my favorite letters from my Grandpa’s attic. It was written in 1879 by multiple family members in Ohio to their family in Kansas. It was written on two sheets of foolscap, a type of paper around the same size as today’s “legal-size” paper. Multiple family members took turns writing on it, and they squeezed their messages into every square inch of the paper, writing upside down and in all the margins. They had recently read in the Cleveland newspaper that a huge cyclone, or tornado, had gone right through Kansas, and had worried about their family for days before finally receiving a letter that they were all right. They promptly wrote this letter in return.

Here are a few voices from the letter:

Dear Aunt, Uncle, and Cousins:

How are you all prospering by this time? We received your letter and was real glad to hear from you. We had not heard for so long that we did not know but something had happened to you. That must have been a hard storm you had out there. We had heard of it through the Cleveland paper.  We are glad to hear that you are all well.

[From Lovina “Vina” Matilda Washburn, schoolteacher, age 22]

Dear Nettie [Helena Annette Gile, age 13],

How did you come to get a toad into a bottle. I would like to see it. Are you afraid of snakes? I think I should be. Christies  school is out now and I expect we will have high times for a while he is as full of his fun. I am much obliged to you for for that card I think it is real pretty, and have put it in the parlor on the shelf. Please write soon.

With love, from Vina

Dear Uncle Newell, Aunt Carrie, Cousins Nettie & Johnnie,

We were all very much relieved to hear from you after the tornado. You had a very narrow escape didn’t you. I do hope we won’t have any such storms out here. I had thought of writing to you to find out whether you were all alive or not, but didn’t know but you might have been whirled entirely out of that county or somewhere else so thot I would wait a little. Uncle Nute you shan’t say we don’t answer your letters for we do and you ain’t a going to be allowed to “hide you light under a bushel,” or your “talent in the earth”, for any such season. So just speak right out with your pen on the next sheet of foolscap  you can get hold of and tell us all the sublimity, beauty, tragedy and comedy of the storm. You know very well all these elements are combined in anything so great as that cyclone. And an eye witness who is not suffering particularly from it effects has time to note down a few items.

[From Sarah Melissa Washburn, a schoolteacher, age 20]

It’s artifacts like this, and the crumbling walls of the old limestone house, and the stories my grandpa shared about my ancestors, that made me excited about my family history from a young age. It’s things like this that motivated me to study family history in college, and devote much of my life to becoming an expert on doing research on my own and other’s genealogy. It’s things like this that make me want to write this blog, to share these stories and this knowledge with you, because by sharing, we can learn more and feel more connected to our ancestors and to this thing we call the past.

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