Sunday, October 23, 2011

Finding Isaac's Journal

When I learned that my deceased cousin had owned a homesteader's journal, I began asking questions, starting at the museum to which Cousin Lucille had bequeathed many of her possessions.  Unfortunately, no one seemed to know anything about the journal, but I was invited to look through the unsorted boxes of my cousin's possessions stored in the basement of the museum.  Like many small town museums, the Lucille M. Hall Museum depends on volunteers, and I felt selfish searching for the journal when it was obvious that they needed help sorting.  I made a compromise with my conscience.  As I began opening boxes, I sorted contents and identified pictures that I recognized, but I chose boxes that looked like they might contain the missing journal.  When the last two volunteers came down into the basement where I was sorting to let me know they were leaving for the day, they told me I was welcome to stay and continue looking.  I wasn't too keen on staying alone in the basement of an old building whose creaking and dripping sounds were not familiar to me.  I left with them.

The next day, a volunteer had gone into the storeroom where I had been working and had opened the box next to the one I was sorting.  It was the last box on the shelf, and inside was Isaac's Journal.  If I had stayed to work only a few minutes longer, I would have found it.  The important thing, however, was that the journal had been found--and what a discovery it was!


Each day from August of 1884 to June of 1891, Isaac wrote in this large, leather-bound journal, two inches thick, pages ten inches wide by fifteen and a half inches tall, containing 480 pages--the kind of legal journal in which records at the court house are kept.  In the front pages of the journal are entries from 1870 and 1871, when Isaac was a young druggist in Rossville, Illinois.  With no explanation for a 13 year interruption, the journal resumes during Isaac's years as a homesteader in Stafford County, Kansas.  Knowing that I wanted to use the journal for research, the museum board allowed me to take it home to do the work.                                                                                                                             

In order to organize and index all of the information the journal contained, I quickly realized I needed to transcribe it.  Isaac's penmanship is actually quite good, but he filled the pages from edge to edge in a fairly small script, and at my best, I was able to type only about one page every forty-five minutes.  I wasn't sure I could complete such a project.  After two weeks, I called one of the board members and told her what I was trying to do.  She said not to worry about how long it was taking, since without my inquiry, the journal might have gone undiscovered for months or even years.  The task of transcribing took me eleven months, involving one crashed laptop and a trip to my optometrist!                               

Mark Twain wrote in Innocents Abroad:  "At certain periods it becomes the dearest ambition of a man to keep a faithful record of his performances in a book; and he dashes at his work with an enthusiasm that imposes on him the notion that keeping a journal is the veriest pastime in the world, and the pleasantest."  Twain goes on to say that such enthusiasm only lasts about twenty-one days; however, Isaac's commitment lasted far longer, and it is a historical treasure.  The front page identifies the Journal as "Vol. 5th."  Sadly, the whereabouts of volumes 1-4 are unknown.

The writing done in 1870-1871 is that of a young man--full of ideas, opinions, and personal feelings.  When the journal writing resumes in 1884, the entries are of a more practical nature--the weather, his crops, labor done and done for him by others, economic matters, community events, and political activities.  Isaac seems to have been influenced in his changed style by a newspaper column authored by Henry Ward Beecher, which Isaac clipped and glued in the journal.  Beecher disapproved of confessional journal keeping, offering instead the following advice: "One may trace from day to day the mere facts of personal history, the proceedings of the farm, or the books read, visits made or received, the events in society, the conversations with men of mark, the facts of the weather, the seasons, the aspects of nature, and, in short, a journal for knowledge, in distinction from feeling, might be kept with great profit."  Isaac adhered to this advice for six years, preserving a record of prairie life and social struggles.

Isaac lived in an exciting time, but he kept his Journal for himself, written in sentence fragments and containing names familiar to him but a mystery to today's reader.  I decided to bring this historical place and time, with Isaac at its center, alive for readers!  Even while I was transcribing and indexing the Journal, further research began.

[Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin.]


Kim said...

It was good to talk to you today, Lyn. I look forward to reading more about Isaac on your blog. I'll bet you would have preferred that Isaac hadn't taken Beecher's advice!

Anonymous said...

Oh good you have the comments working!!! I love this blog post about how you became engaged with Isaac and his story. I love the photos, too. I'll keep coming back to read more posts. -- Ann

susan snively said...

I like the sense of discovery and excitement you convey, Lyn, as well as the sense of doing real work--exhaustion spiced with triumph. The photos are lovely. What a treasure you've found! As Emily Dickinson would have said, "A precious - mouldering pleasure - 'tis - /To meet an Antique Book - / In just the dress his Century wore -" (569) Keep up the good work! Susan Snively, Amherst, MA

Grace Grits and Gardening said...

What a treasure you have unearthed! Can't wait to read more.

Deb L said...

Now that I’ve had the true privilege of reading an advanced copy of your wonderful new book, Prairie Bachelor, I’ve gone back to the beginning of the blog to better understand Isaac and his times along with your own journey in telling his story.