Saturday, December 08, 2007

Amatuer Archivist

I decided to take a two and half hour break from shoveling ice yesterday and pulled down a box from above the bookcases in the library. Stored above the bookcases are about a dozen boxes with memorabilia from the builders of our home. These all came from upstairs when we cleared out second floor, and took the 1200 sq ft attic and finished it into three bedrooms and a bath. The cousin who inherited the contents of the house asked me to keep whatever papers and photos I wanted, hence the dozen boxes stacked above the bookcases..

Our house was built in 1928 by Bess Fox, a widow and her 18 year old daughter Helen. We moved into the house six months after Helen’s death at age 92, in late 2004. We owned the house for a year before Helen died and I got to know some of her family’s story.

What I need to mention is that over at the University of Iowa Library’s Special Collections Department is a collection called “Papers of the Fox Family” that were donated by Helen Fox Angell in 1985. This collection includes letters written by Bess Fox to her husband while he was serving in France before his death during World War I, and his letters to her. Also in the collection are letters from Bess to her daughter, Helen, while she served overseas in the American Red Cross during World War II. When we first bought the house I looked at this collection, but only to find pictures of the house. The photos that are in the blog banner are from that collection.

A brief synopsis of the family history that will help in look at the information below: Helen was a French major and started at the UI in the fall of 1928. In the summer of 1929 she made her first trip to Europe as part of a student language group. She returned to Europe in the summer of 1931. She taught French and English in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, from 1937 to 1943. She then enlisted in the American Red Cross and since she was fluent in French was sent overseas following the Normandy invasion. After the war Helen decided to stay in the Red Cross and was posted to the Panama Canal Zone to serve as the recreation director at a rehabilitation hospital for head wound patients. It was there she met and married Mick Angell, who was ten years her junior, and recovering from a sniper bullet to the head he received in France two weeks after the Normandy invasion.

In starting to document a single box, I am trying to imitate the information in the special collections catalog. Here is a listing of the box I went through:


1. Large portrait picture of ladies in kimonos on a porch (Bess not in picture)
2. Large portrait picture, back reads: “Helen Fox, John Fox, Mary Jane Cummins Fox, (Annette) Mrs. Carl Fox, Carl Fox. In front of 200 Jefferson St. West Union Iowa. About 1918 I suppose”
3. Large baggie of diaries: Helen’s

  • Five Year Diary 1975-79
  • Five Year Diary 1980-84
  • Five Year Diary 1985-87 (says in front cover: (too dilapidated to use more)
  • Five Year Diary 1988-92
  • Five Year Diary 1993-97
  • One Year Diary 1998?
  • One Year Diary 1999
  • Memorandum book with entries Jan 2-8, 1999 which were transferred to diary

4. Bundles of Letters all tied together and marked:

  • Box Ville de Paris B.H. Dyas Co handwritten: “Summer of 1929" Letters from Helen to Bess during trip to Europe. Letters all numbered in pencil in the following order: 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, 21, 22, 27, 28, 30

  • Bundle Labeled “Templar Park Summer 1930.” Letters from Helen to Bess from Templar Park in Spirit Lake, Iowa. Letters postmarked from June 19, 1930 to August 26, 1930. Numbered in pencil 1-27
  • Unlabeled bundle. 34 letters most are from Bess to Helen (numbered in pencil 1-21) some others to Helen some from Bess to others, all seem to be from Helen’s 2nd trip to France and postmarked June to August 1931
  • Bundle labeled “Helen Bliss Lake 1935 Mrs. Eastman.” 3 letters and 5 postcards from Helen to Bess postmarked August 1935
  • Bundle labeled “Milwaukee 1937-38.” 56 letters and postcards from Helen to Bess postmarked Sept. 4, 1937- June 9, 1938
  • Bundle labeled “Milwaukee 1939.” 52 letters and postcards from Helen to Bess postmarked Sept. 6, 1938- June 6, 1939
  • Bundle labeled “Milwaukee 1940.” 34 letters and cards from Helen to Bess postmarked Sept. 15, 1940- June 15, 1941
  • Bundle labeled “Milwaukee 1941-42.” 49 letters and postcards from Sept. 2, 1941 to June 3, 1942
  • Loose pile of letters. 41 letters from Bess to Helen postmarked Sept. 11, 1942 to May 22, 1943. One from Grandma to Helen and one from Mother to Bess.
  • Bundle labeled “Milwaukee 1943.” 56 letters and postcards from Helen to Bess postmarked Sept 7, 1942 to June 7, 1943
  • Bundle labeled “Mick in Germany 1949-50.”37 letters and 4 telegrams most from Mick or Helen to Bess from military bases in Germany or U.S.
  • Bundle labeled “1950 Going to San Antonio.” 17 letters and postcards (numbered in pencil) to Bess from Helen
  • Bundle labeled “Colorado Springs 1951” Letters and postcards (numbered in pencil 1-83) from Helen to Bess
  • Bundle labeled “MP School Augusta GA May 1951.” 7 letters from Mick to Bess
    15. Bundle labeled “Colorado Springs 1953.” Letters and postcards (numbered in pencil 1-22) from Helen to Bess
  • Bundle labeled “Wis Trip 1956.” 11 postcards from Mick and Helen to Bess

By my count this is 566 letters and cards in this ONE BOX! (and it isn't all that full) Remember there are eleven more, plus other boxes that I've taken to my office, including the one that documents building the house!

I sat down last night an read the bundle from Bess to Helen when she was in Paris, summer of 1931. It took nearly two hours. I'm grateful Bess typed her letters. Bess mentions that SHE numbered her envelopes so that Helen would know if she was getting them in order(!) They are chatty and newsys and have a lot of information about everyday life and how the Cubs were doing (She listened to every game on the radio)


StuccoHouse said...

I am just such a sucker for stuff like that. It's lucky that people realized the value of those letters, etc. and didn't just view them as junk to toss. It's odd to think of all of the history we are losing these days in the age of email, huh?

You should get an acid-free box from those letters :-)

Mike said...

I am a sucker too, obviously. I have now read the letters from Helen's first year teaching in Wisconsin. It seems as though she typed most of hers too. What I'd love to do is find her mothers, and then line them up in order.

Aren't you saving and burning all your email onto CD's? I'm sure that historians of the future will be unerasing old hard drives of machines they pull out of landfills. They will be the pottery shards of the future...

I do have some archival sleeves for some items, that box is actually one of the newest! Most date to the 20's and 30's

captain zamo said...

I lived in the basement of that house on golv with mick and helen in 1979. a family of racoons lived on the roof because helen often fed them. The famous Iowa Writer's Workshop was planned in the living room. mick worked for vance bourjally on blue bird farm.

Christopher Busta-Peck said...

As a librarian (and house nut) my jaw just sort of dropped when I realized the extent of the archival information that you have about your house. I wouldn't say that it's unheard of, but, based on my experience, I'd say that maybe one house in five hundred, probably more likely 1 in a thousand, of that age, has that level of documentation. It'll be of real use to some researcher, someday.

I know you're keeping this blog, but are you also recording similar things now, to continue this grand tradition of recordkeeping?