Sunday, May 01, 2005

Collecting History

Back in High School, I was not much interested in history. My required history courses in College did nothing to change that fact. In both cases, I blame uninspired teachers who were either not that interested in history themselves (football coaches who had to teach something in addition to the time spent out on the playing field) or so focused on a particular period or aspect of history that they couldn't be bothered to teach anything else. Case in point is a professor I was told about that taught the U.S. history course just fine up to the point of the Civil War and then never made it to Reconstruction and beyond.

I almost understand that last one, since I get bogged down in the period of 1861-1865 myself sometimes as I go about collecting dead relatives. So far I have four direct ancestors who fought for the South and two who fought for the yankees.

The more information I dig up in my genealogical research, the more I find myself fascinated with studying the times when these ancestors lived. Finding an ancestor who died in 1918 led me to study the flu outbreak that took so many lives that year. Learning that my ggg-grandparents lived in Texas in the direct path taken by Santa Anna when chasing the Texians toward the Texas coast, after the massacre at the Alamo, led me to research the period known as the Runaway Scrape. There's nothing like knowing that your ancestor was in a particular place during an important historical event to suddenly make history come alive for you.

This historical interest has a bleed-over effect. I've begun to look closely at those bins of unclaimed photos in antique stores. I'm surprised how often the folks in the pictures are identified on the back. I've begun to buy some of these and post them on my website, in hopes that some family historian out there will find them and claim them as long-lost family members.

Another side-effect to my research has been to inspire me to collect early memorabilia of my college alma mater. Mary Hardin-Baylor started out as Baylor Female College and Academy and it is surprising how many pieces of Baylor College history turn up for sale on EBAY. For about a year or so I've been buying yearbooks from the 1920s, postcards, and miscellaneous programs and other ephemera from the early, pre "Mary-Hardin" years. You might think that my interest was formed strictly from the fact that I am an alumnus of that institution. Actually, it came about from, you guessed it, genealogical research. My initial purchases of 1920 material was spurred from an attempt to locate my great-aunt in a yearbook. I never found her, but I found myself fascinated at the fashions and the snapshots of flappers in locations I knew well from personal experience.

Yesterday I received my most recent EBAY find and it is a real treasure. Someone decided to sell a scrapbook kept by a 1920s student. I figured it would be a few pages of photos and maybe a few programs. What I received was a crumbling leatherette album of about 100 pages, each page filled with not only photos and the odd program, but numerous newspaper clippings about events at the College and letters from the girl's family. On the one hand, I'm tickled to get so much historical data, but on the other hand I grieve that this woman either had no family to pass it to or no one in her family cared to take custody of this wonderful album of memories. I fully intend to use much of this material in a historical website for the College and share with others this window into the past.

It makes you stop and wonder what will happen to your own collections. I have 17 notebooks of family history on my bookshelves, one whole shelf of Baylor-College history, numerous rare county histories and assorted ephemera that speaks to me for one reason or another. And here I sit with no descendants to inherit this material. In my case, I intend for the bulk of this collection to go to a historical society or library. I don't want my precious history collection to end up on EBAY when I'm gone. There may not be someone like me out there at the right time to volunteer to take custody of my artifacts.

Not sure what my point is here. I guess I want to encourage others to catalog family treasures and put them into the hands of a caring custodian. The gentleman who sold this album to me was a friend of the lady who created it in her youth. He could have decided it was junk and pitched it in the dumpster. After all, most of the photos are unidentified and if you are not connected to Baylor College in some way, what use is it? But something led him to put it up for sale and I happened to find it. I will treasure it for as long as it's in my possession. I hope that Alvan Carpenter knows that her memories have found a friendly caretaker.

Preserve history. Someday, maybe several generations away, your history will be someone's treasure to find.


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