One of the reasons that I got interested in history were the stories that my grandpa used to tell me when I was growing up. I loved hearing those stories, and would always be an eager listener. When he died, those stories went with him.
My Great Aunt Helen, my great-grandfathers sister, was as talkative as her brother was silent. She used to tell us stories about her generation of family members, and what kind of people they were. When she passed away, that knowledge went with her.
The story is the same all over the world. As the older generation that raised us and our parents passes away, so does all their history. Their experiences growing up, the world that they knew and lived in – all of these, gone forever.
As I mentioned before, my grandfather had a huge influence on me as a historian. One of the most profound moments that I have with him was when he took my uncle and I on a tour of the old farm neighborhood.
For those of you who may not have grown up in rural America, farm neighborhoods, because of field sizes and distances involved, can range for several miles. Your nearest neighbor, instead of being twenty feet away, is half a mile away. But they’re still your next door neighbor.
That day, grandpa told us about all of the different people that used to live in the neighborhood. He mentioned names, and told stories. My uncle was making jokes, as he’s prone to doing, and I smiled at one of them. Unfortunately, grandpa mistook that for disinterest.
He told me, “One day you may want to know all of this, but it’ll all be gone.” And he was right. I regret that day even now.
Now since I’ve seen aerial photographs, and plat maps, and I can go through all kinds of records to tell you who was there and when. But the personal stuff, like how one farmer took my grandpa and his uncles under his wing and taught them about woodcraft and horses, you won’t find in any government record.
When I lived in Clinton County, Iowa, was speaking to the director of the Central Community Historical Museum in DeWitt. During the conversation, she told me about how several years prior the Clinton County Historical Society had completely shut down at one point because the members were dying off. The living ones didn’t like or weren’t able to travel, and so they stayed at home. More history, gone.
But if you look today, there’s a Clinton County Historical Society. I’ve even been there. Great museum, very nice people. So what happened? The younger generations took up the banner and started to help preserve their history.
Younger folk came in and started writing down stories, and doing research, and sharing with people about their past. And so the society came to life again. And the history wasn’t entirely lost.
But it’s happening again. The societies are growing older, and they’re starting to pass away. One man told me recently that five members of the society he was head of passed away this year, 2016. That’s a whole lot of knowledge that we’ll never get back.
So take heed, my dear readers. Start writing down Grandma’s stories about growing up on the farm, and start listening to the old guy at work talking to you about how certain policies came to be introduced. Because one day, when they’re gone, you won’t have the opportunity to find out.