This past fall I had an awesome opportunity to work with the archivist at Keweenaw National Historic Park in Calumet Township, Michigan. That’s way UP in the UP for those, like me, who didn’t even realize Michigan went that far North and West! Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s Calumet was a thriving mining town. Calumet & Hecla Mines employed thousands of copper miners and housed them and their families in the township. The population in the early ’20s was around 25,000.
The paternalistic company town fostered loyalty among its employees and created a true sense of community among the families who lived there. So much so, that in the mid 1980s when a treasured landmark and site of the Italian Hall Disaster was demolished, it spurred locals into action to preserve their heritage and history.
Fast forward 30 years to my work with the archives:
Because there is such a community-based effort to preserve their heritage, many locals and descendants of locals donate family papers, photographs, and even furnishings from the mining era to the local Historic Society or the NPS Archives. About 10 years ago, and again in 2015 a descendant of a local resident donated about 130 photographs to the NPS archives. Mostly industrial photographs depicting the mines, railways, and local celebrations there were also a number of family photographs and images of homes in the town. The donor identified one of the men shown working in a darkroom as his grandfather, but there was little else known about the man and his connection to the mines.
Fast forward to the end of the three weeks I was there:
Not only did our research positively identify the supposed photographer, but we were able to place him as an employee at the mine and a direct relative of several prominent figures in development of the mining industry in Michigan. Our research also connected one of those prominent figures to another early Upper Peninsula settler, something that was unrealized until this stack of photographs prompted the research.
Using current archival methods, we housed the photographs for safe keeping and created a finding aid for The Childs Family collection documenting the genealogy and contributions of the family to the local mining industry.
Why did I tell you that?
Because throughout my three weeks, working in the archives, scouring through local history resources and pondering the gift of these photos, I couldn’t help but wonder several things:
- Who cares? I know, this seems like a silly thing for me to wonder and still be so excited to do the work with such enthusiasm, right? But I did wonder this daily. I wondered why, if the grandson of this man had no use of the family photos, why would anyone else?
- Really, who cares? Again – a prevailing thought underlying my hours at the research library. So much effort and work and puzzlement to create a document that may only be read by me once it is in the public domain. Archival work is a thankless endeavor!
- Why do I enjoy this so much? Because even if just one person stumbles upon the finding aid and learns something about their family, it’s worth it. Saving that person three weeks of tedious research to connect them to one of the area’s founding fathers, or to a related Revolutionary War soldier before that is worth it to me – but that’s mostly because as I’ve researched my own family tree, the value of these types of finding aids has been immeasurable.
- Did the family historian who meticulously entered seven generations of family tree by hand onto a hand-drawn tree some 60 years ago feel the same way? Probably – and to that person, THANK you! It was that person’s work that revealed a significant connection.
So again, what does this have to do with anything?
Finding family letters, personal journals, and business papers of long deceased people revealed details that most family trees are missing. It’s fun to tie together a string of names and dates to reveal kinship to historical figures and celebrities, but to know what their day-to-day life was like or what their values were is almost impossible using vital records and census data.
We don’t write letters that get bundled and preserved. We write emails that get forgotten or deleted. We don’t “call on” an elder family member, we simply call them on the phone…maybe. We don’t have lingering reunions with time to get past the catching up and photo taking – we meet, we eat, we say cheese and we go home.
For a long time, I’ve sensed fractures in my own family connections. Some are self-imposed, some are circumstantial and others are just naturally caused by time and distance. But despite that, I’ve had a deep-rooted longing to hold it all together. Among my immediate family, I’m the oldest grandchild on one side and the second oldest on the other so maybe there’s some sense of obligation. I don’t know if anyone will care, or if anyone will help through contributions of memories and relics. But years from now, maybe that one grandniece or great-grandson or even someone totally unrelated will find my family tree and be grateful the stories were captured and preserved. Maybe, instead of dismissing those old photographs as unknown family, they will see a connection to their past. Or maybe it’ll just help them get an A on a family history project.
So, using social media, I’ll be asking the questions and gladly collecting the photos and stories and memories and sharing them as much as possible. Who knows, maybe I’ll even find a connection the Childs family in Michigan!