I am a novice researcher. I make no secret of that. In writing my historical fiction book, I have chased entire flocks of wild geese, wasted shocking amounts of time, and developed a strange affinity for all those hamsters spinning furiously away on their little wheels, going nowhere. Still, when I look back over what I’ve accomplished, I am humbly amazed. I never thought I’d get as far as I have.
At what point does casual interest turn into obsession? When does clicking through Wikipedia suddenly morph into ordering microfiche of 100-year-old newspapers from historical societies? When do you move from yawning over Google to booking airline tickets and cold-calling local experts?
The moment I realized that the fading black-and-white photographs were concealing things from me was a revelation.
I was looking through a book about Sheridan, Missouri when it happened. The centennial year of 1987 was a big deal for the local residents of the small town where my grandma spent many of her childhood years. I know it was a big deal because I was there. But I try not to remember, because in 1987 I was a snotty highschool senior who couldn’t believe she had to spend part of her summer vacation in a tiny little town in the midwest. I could not have been less interested in the place where some twenty-three years later I would locate the main character of my book. Thankfully, the Sheridan Centennial Book Committee put together a bound copy of the town’s history. And it was while I was poking through it that I discovered photographs have secrets.
When I look at the pictures of my grandmother as a young lady, I am always struck by two things: how beautiful she was and how serious she looked. Since my grandma was one of the happiest, funniest, most sharply witted people I know, it was hard to connect her with the serious, dark-eyed girl in the photographs. I always figured that times were tough back then, that people were not as happy as we are today. A memory from my childhood floats back to me.
“Grandma,” I recall asking, “Why didn’t your family ever smile in photographs?”
“Oh well, you know,” Grandma replied. “We always thought we’d get tired of looking at a goofy grin on our faces. It seemed more natural-looking not to smile.”
For me, smiling was much more natural. The idea that a sense of humor was a modern invention sprung up so quietly that I never even noticed it. This notion was challenged early on in my research.
In the Sheridan Centennial book, I read about a bank robbery that occurred in town in 1898.
The advance agents of prosperity opened a bank at Sheridan, this county, Monday night, but unfortunately they opened it with dynamite and a crowbar.
What? Were they being funny? Their bank was robbed, and they were making a joke of it? Turns out, the bank robbers got away with well over $2,000. Back in the 1890’s, I’m sure that represented the life savings of the bank robber’s victims. But here they were, reporting the calamitous event with a wry sense of humor. And something else, too–grace. I immediately ordered several years worth of the Sheridan Advance newspaper via inter-library loan. I discovered a couple of things: microfiche technology has not changed a bit since I last used it to research a science project in middle school, and while the photographs taken in the early 1900s show a serious crowd, their newspaper articles reflect a different sort of attitude entirely.
On Sunday, April 2, 1916, Mr. Surplus hosted 51 relatives in his home in West Sheridan. The Sheridan Advance reported on the festivities, saying that John Surplus, Delbert Glass and Frank Simmons
…ate so much that we decided to give them a little joy ride to relieve the gas pains. We loaded them in Harley Dowis’ Maytag and he started with them for a spin. Now it takes some car to pull three men loaded to their capacity and the Maytag, ordinarily a good puller, could not stand the strain and died with a snort two miles from town. It took three Fords to get them back home.
I began to realize that my grandma’s sense of humor did not suddenly materialize in the 70’s. Reading on, I saw that the people of Sheridan had a flair for humor even with a simple request for volunteers.
A Civic Improvement Club
Since the ladies of Sheridan are going to meet at the Diamond Theater Tuesday night to discuss plans for raising money to build a band stand, we would like to see them perfect an organization called a Ladies Civic Improvement Club at this time. An organization of this sort can accomplish things that the men couldn’t if they would, and wouldn’t if they could. For angels walk where mere man fears to crawl.
And one more:
Stack Your Bottles
When you get through killing that quart or quarts as the case might be, pile them up in a nice little pile where the small boy can find them. It’s quiet (sic) a chore to run all over town hunting bottles to get the price of a movie ticket. And above all, don’t break them in weeds any more than in the street. They puncture heels as well as tires.
So where does interest meet obsession? In the personality of the people. As always, thank you for reading.