Did you know that Labor Day got its start in 1894? It was a “workingman’s holiday,” back when a typical job meant 12-hour days, 7 days a week. Ugh. Just think of that.
But jobs or occupations can make a great entry point for a memoir!
So, what did your ancestors do for a living? Many times, you’ll know the answer to that right off the top; it’s the kind of detail that’s often handed down in the family. But if you don’t know, census data can often help fill in that important blank.
In this fascinating example above from the 1880 Census in Virginia City, for example, we see an accountant, a butcher, a bartender, a watchman, a mill worker, and even a “tailoress”!
Women’s occupational opportunities were often pretty limited a century ago, but might include teaching, sewing, milliner (hat-maker), and occasionally medicine. And many women, of course, were considered to have no formal profession. Instead, they were said to be simply “keeping house.”
But what did that mean? Chances are, they weren’t languishing in the parlor doing needlepoint all day. There was laundry and house-keeping; cooking and baking; tending gardens and mending clothes; and of course all the hard work of raising children. Some women also brought in extra money for the household by raising chickens and selling eggs, or taking in laundry.
My own great-grandmother a talented seamstress. That meant following the latest fashions and sewing beautiful clothes – often without a pattern.
My grandfather was a carpenter in the early 1900s. His skills were put to use not just building houses; he also hammered together wooden crates for a tomato-packing shed in early Florida.
So, how about the folks you’re writing about in your memoir? A little bit of research can give you a fresh perspective on what their daily lives were like!
Here’s a fun memoir exercise, just for Labor Day:
* Do a bit of research about your ancestor’s occupation. A simple Google search like “what was a farmer’s life like in the 1800s” can pull up a wealth of information. (Did you know that winter was often just as busy a time for farmers as the summer growing season? Or that many farmers also did work for friends and relatives?)
* See if you can locate family photos, old magazine illustrations, or other images that help show that profession. What tools might your family member have used, like the old-fashioned sewing machine or carpenter’s plane, above?
* Imagine what the “fruits of their labor” meant, in terms of the time your ancestors spent. How long would it have taken to sew a new dress? How many months did it take to build a house? What hours would an average work-day have spanned for a dairy farmer?
These real-life work details can be so fascinating, I really hope you’ll share what you find out!
And if you’d like to learn a little more about the origins of this great holiday honoring workers, here’s a bit of history just about Labor Day: https://tinyurl.com/yxgqc4g6
They weren’t trucking cattle up to summer pasture when Wally Adams was a kid.
Nah. For over 30 years, Wally helped drive cattle the hard way, saddling up at 2 a.m. to get the herd to the top of Old Kingsbury Grade before nightfall. That meant long, dusty days on horseback. But it’s what you did to help a neighbor out.
The roots of Wally’s life are tangled deep with traditions from a century and more ago. And the Adams family’s roots, too, run deep here in northwestern Nevada. John Quincy Adams (Wally’s great-grandfather) and his brother Rufus settled in Carson Valley in 1853, a full decade before Nevada became a state. They bought 640 acres of land in September that year a mile north of Mormon Station (today’s Genoa), a handwritten deed that’s now part of Nevada’s “First Records.”
Their land was the subject of one of the earliest property disputes, with none other than Judge Orson Hyde claiming title to the same land in 1855. Luckily the newly-created county court upheld the bulk of the Adams brothers’ claim.
Trained as brick-makers in their home state of Illinois, the Adams brothers built a brick kiln on their new ranch. Adams brick quickly became a popular building material, finding its way into some of the earliest structures in Carson Valley including the Genoa courthouse, and the U.S. Mint and Glen Eagles restaurant in Carson City.
The family home, too, was constructed of brick. An astonishing 6,000 square feet in size, it featured 21 rooms, including a ballroom on the second floor. The dusty Emigrant Trail passed right by the front steps, and the Adamses opened their house to travelers, selling rooms, meals and liquor as well as hay and barley to passing emigrants through about 1860. John Quincy Adams once called those the “happiest days of his life.”
A fourth-generation Adams, Wally still spots bits and pieces of his family’s history sprinkled throughout Carson Valley, from old brick buildings to family artifacts donated to the local museum. But despite his family’s deep local roots, the Adams story has rarely been shared.
“We’re a quiet family,” explains Wally. “We stuck to ourselves and never got involved in politics or stuck our noses in anybody’s business. My dad was just busy trying to make a living and run the ranch.”
There’s no pretense, either, as Wally shares what it was like to grow up as part of such a historic clan, with one foot still firmly planted in century-and-a-half-old ways. Take the house where he grew up, for instance, built of homemade brick fired right there on the Adams ranch. “We had one heater in the house when I was a boy, and that was the kitchen stove,” he smiles. “That was one of my chores, to chop and bring in the firewood. The rest of the house didn’t have heat, so we lived mostly in the kitchen in wintertime.”
Remnants from the emigrant days were still in the house a century later, when Wally was a boy – and remain in family hands today. The home’s twin parlors (one for gents, one for ladies) still contained their original formal, horsehair-stuffed sofas. Also left over from the home’s first days: a 30-foot long wooden table with matching wooden chairs, where travelers once sat down to supper. Until about 1950 the house lacked both electricity and indoor plumbing.
Even today, drinking water for the old house is gravity-fed from a spring two miles up the mountain, ferried through two-inch riveted steel pipe salvaged from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. “They didn’t have much money,” Wally explains, “so they did what they could do. They went over with a horse and wagon and brought it back in 20-foot sections. I’ve still got some of that old pipe for when I have to make repairs.”
By the time Wally came along, the Adams family’s original 640-acre ranch had roughly doubled in size.
The best part of his inheritance: old ways and old-fashioned know-how. “By the time I was five, I was driving a tractor. I would cut wood, cut hay in summer. I helped Dad irrigate, wean calves,” he says. Hay had to be hand-pitched into the barn for storage, from bales stacked six high. “That top layer – it’s not so hard to throw. But when you got down to the bottom layer – well. That’s why I gotta have a total shoulder replacement now,” Wally chuckles.
There was plenty of old-fashioned penny-pinching. “One time my grandfather had a belt on a drill press that was slipping. He told me to go ask Grandma for some syrup or honey. He pours that on the belt — makes it sticky. He couldn’t afford belt dressing,” Wally remembers with a smile.
An all-around ranch mom, Wally’s mother, Elsie, served as “caregiver, nanny, referee, seamstress, knitter, crocheter, needle-pointer, excellent ranch hand and family cook, canner, avid gardener, tractor driver, hay hauler, and whatever it took to make it happen,” as her obituary put it when she passed in 2008. Even with all those duties, Elsie took on the job as postmistress at Genoa for about a decade, and volunteered to help with the Candy Dance and PTA.
Wally’s dad, Rufus William Adams, too, served the community as a school trustee, a founding member of the Genoa Cemetery Association, and fire chief for the local volunteer fire department. During World War II, Rufus would forward messages received on his ham radio to local families from sons stationed overseas. He imparted not only his love of ranching but also his ham radio skills to Wally.
By the time he was 14, Wally was driving a school bus. At 16, he became volunteer fire chief in Genoa – a post he would hold for the next 20 years. “They didn’t have all the fancy rules and regulations then,” he acknowledges. “If someone’s house was on fire, we responded and tried to put it out.”
To make a little extra money, Wally began working as brand inspector for Douglas County NV in August, 1974. “They started me out at $3.10 an hour and 13 cents a mile. I put 80,000 miles on my pickup in the first two years,” he remembers.
Now with 38 years under his belt inspecting brands, Wally’s earned his share of stories. “It could be scary sometimes when you’re out in the middle of nowhere, out of radio range,” he says. “I always carried my ‘girlfriend’ – that’s a sawed-off .12 gauge. And I had a sidearm.” But inspecting also had its fun side: Wally got to meet actor Red Skelton once – “nicest guy you can imagine.” And he was introduced to a sheik from Saudi Arabia, who’d just flown into Reno in a brand-new 747 to pick up a horse. Big money was involved. “Can I talk you out of $5 for my brand inspection?” was all Wally wanted to know.
There were new-to-the-country folk, calling to demand that Wally come get the wild mustangs out of their yards. (His polite response: “If you don’t want ’em in your yard, fence ’em out.”) And one pure-bred city slicker burned up his phone, irate about a cow delivering a calf within viewing distance of her four-year-old daughter.
“I told her that’s part of Mother Nature, and she hung up on me. Twenty minutes later she called me back: ‘That cow is being abusive to the calf. She’s licking it off and now the calf fell over. I think it’s got a brain concussion!’” Wally chuckles. “Then she asked if she could go get the calf. I said, ‘Well, it’s probably on private property. And by the way, how fast can you run?’ The lady didn’t get it. ‘What do you mean?’ she asked me. I had to explain, well, if you go get the calf, that momma cow’s going to be coming after you!”
Then there was a memorable encounter with a judge. A man had pled guilty to stealing a calf, and the judge was imposing just a fine. Wally had to speak up. “I told him he should’ve put the man in jail. ‘It’s only a $400 calf,’ the judge responded. ‘I can’t make him a hard-core criminal over that.’ Well, that ain’t the point, I told the judge. That’s the rancher’s livelihood.”
Wally finally quit inspecting for Nevada in 2012. “I found myself living out in romantic downtown Gerlach or Tonopah or Coyote Camp and those places, and was gone from home most of the time. It’s not 9 to 5; you’re on-call eight days a week, 48 hours a day. I wanted some time to myself,” he sighs. Even so, he just couldn’t quit entirely. Wally continues to inspect brands for California – including 3,000 head for Centennial Livestock every year.
Like so many historic ranches, the Adams Ranch has shrunk in size over the years, as economic forces and family needs required that portions be sold off. Even so, Wally hopes that his family’s traditional way of life will continue – and will inspire future generations to appreciate Nevada’s ranching heritage.
“As a kid, I had the freedom other kids don’t have,” Wally reminisces. “I’d take my .22 with me everywhere and I’d go hunting when I wanted to. Ranching life is a good life. It’s a hard life. But if everyone had a chance to do it, it would change their attitudes about where food comes from. Today, they go to the grocery store and see a carton of milk or a package of meat, and don’t realize the work that went into it.”
*A longer version of this story first appeared in Range Magazine (Fall 2020 issue).
Oral history is a rich source of family and local information. But it’s an incredibly fragile source. Memories fade. Old-timers move on to whatever the next life brings.
Does your local museum or historical society already have an oral history program capturing those elusive memories? If not, consider launching one!
In just the last few years, my own community has lost more than a dozen local elders. And with each death, an encyclopedia’s-worth of memories and how-to knowledge has vanished.
We’ve actually been lucky – the memories of at least a few of those elders were written down before they departed. But not every community has a formal or informal oral history program in place.
Like to start an oral history program in your community? Here are a few tips and suggestions to help you get started!
How To Start Your Own Oral History Program: (1) Decide just how wide you’re willing to cast your net. Are you only interested in preserving memories about your area? Or are you willing to capture the stories of folks with a fascinating past, even if they’re describing another town or country?
(2) Invite a group of potential volunteers to kick around the mechanics. Do you plan to just digitally record a series of interviews? Is someone a great videographer? Are there transcription services you can utilize to create a searchable print version?
(3) Identify a small handful of local elders (say 4 or 5) whose oral histories you’d most like to preserve. Then appoint an outreach person to contact each elder to see if they might be willing to share their recollections for your project.
(4) Brainstorm a list of questions ahead of time, so you won’t forget to ask anything that’s really important. But don’t let a fixed written list dominate your interview. Conversations naturally tend to ramble – be willing to let that happen. Some of the most fascinating tidbits of information can pop up when you just let the conversation flow.
Most of all, don’t wait! Reach out now, while you can. You’ll be so glad you preserved the precious memories that you did.
Like more tips for collecting oral history? Check out our book for more helpful ideas and suggestions!
I’ve been fascinated lately by the concept of ‘resilience.’
Our ancestors had it. Somehow they made it through wars and food shortages; terrible pandemics; losing a spouse or a child to disease or accidents.
And medical care? Well . . . some of the very best medical treatments back then would be cringe-worthy today. Sure, they had opium, laudanum, and whiskey to dull the pain. But just imagine trying to recover from a leg amputation during the Civil War, or an appendectomy in 1900.
Having a baby wasn’t just a happy event, one hundred years ago. It was a life-threatening one. Some parents watched child after child die before reaching adulthood, from accidents or illness. Families moved across the ocean or across the country in search of excitement and fresh opportunity. But that often meant they never got to see their loved ones or hometowns again.
And yet somehow, despite all their trials and sadness, people kept going. They found ways to bounce back and find joy in life again.
So, how did they do it?
Let’s start with the obvious: People generations ago didn’t expect life to be easy. That’s number one, I think, in the resilience game: understanding that life’s joys and challenges come as a package deal. People back then knew they had to accept the “bitter with the better,” as the old saying goes. Somehow we’re not so geared for that, today.
Part two of our ancestors’ formula: Community really was a ‘thing’ back then. People shared the good and the bad with each other. Weddings were festive community-wide celebrations. Funerals were a time for communal grieving. There may have been petty rivalries, bickering, and disputes in those communities, too. But when pain and loss came along, you knew you weren’t facing the hard times alone.
And perhaps the biggest resilience-secret from days gone by: The connectedness of life meant important reasons to keep going. No matter what, the cows still had to be milked every evening. Family and friends still depended on you to put food on the table or get the hay in the barn. Today, too, simple daily routines reminding us how much we’re still needed can be an incredible steadying force when life throws us a curve ball.
Hope you’ll be thinking about the wonderful stories of resilience in your own family — they’re more great material for your memoir!
Here are a few writing prompts about ‘resilience’ to help you get started:
* What ancestor or friend was a great resilience model for you? What challenges did they face, and how did they get through them?
* What group or community came together to support you when you really needed it, or were there to share a special happiness? How did that happen, and what did it feel like?
* What strategies have helped you recover from your own challenges or losses? What lessons have you learned about resilience that you’d like to “pay forward” and share with future generations?
It’s easy to think of our memoir as just our own story. But how many other paths crossed yours to make you who you are today? Probably thousands and thousands!
In this pool table game of life, we’ve all taken hits from a few random cue balls. Our trajectory has been disrupted by unexpected forces that coaxed us, prodded us, or simply whacked us off the table for a little while.
Not all of those forces were benign. But some were encounters with people who made us better.
Maybe those inspirational forces were your parents. Or perhaps your biggest inspiration was long-gone historic figure, or a celebrity you never met in real life.
But we never, ever forget our heroes. Role models with stories so compelling we aspired to be like them. People who challenged us to reach higher, be better, try harder.
It could have been a movie star; a saint; a surfer; a favorite teacher.
But when you ask yourself, Who inspired you? chances are someone’s face immediately came to mind!
So here’s a memoir tip: Don’t forget to mention those special forces that altered your trajectory. The heroes and heroines who inspired you can add a fascinating dimension to your memoir!
A FEW MEMOIR WRITING PROMPTS:
* How old were you when you first felt inspired by this person? How did their path happen to cross yours?
* What form did “inspiration” take for you? What about this person did you want to emulate?
* What might have happened if you’d never had their encouragement or inspiring example to follow? How did your life trajectory change as a result?
* What have you done (or might do in the future) to “pay it forward” and inspire someone else?
That’s it for this month!
Let us know how your writing is going! Leave us a post on Facebook: @WriteYourMemoir
Serendipity gives me goosebumps. Just as I was about to write this post about “food memories,” I stumbled on a terrific example of this exact form of family-history writing.
“From Billee’s Kitchen” is a great, simple collection of not only recipes but memories. Compiled in pdf form by Melissa Corn Finlay, it honors her grandmother, Billee Barton Corn. And you can read it for free, here! It’s packed with Billee’s favorite recipes, from Shrimp Victoria and desserts to die for, and great family photos. But best of all, it includes Melissa’s memories of her grandmother.
Born in 1918, Billee used to keep a jar of bacon drippings on her stove. (Sound like anyone you knew?) She went to bed every night with a Louis L’Amour novel in her hand. Granddaughter Melissa got sips of Billee’s favorite nighttime beverage (Dr. Pepper over ice) as she joined Grandma under the puffy down comforter. And Melissa can still recall the tantalizing smells of her grandmother’s apricot “fried pies.” Special memories indeed!
So, what fascinating nuggets of family history and memoir material might be lurking in your kitchen? And how can you easily preserve and share them?
Start by pulling out that old card file or family cookbook, and thumb through the recipes. What dishes were your parents’ favorites? And what do they say about your family’s travels or the way things were?
What special culinary treasures have been handed down from long-gone relatives? I treasure my great-grandmother’s recipe for Burnt Sugar Cake just because it’s a legacy. And I love the visual image of my great-aunt’s recipe for Deep Dish Peach Cobbler, scrawled in her own spidery handwriting. How fun to know that these special treats once graced their tables, too, and how rewarding to pass the recipes along to future generations!
What memories do certain recipes bring back for you? I still remember the welcome smell of my dad’s Beans Bretonne simmering in the oven — a family favorite — as I walked in the back door after school. (In case you want to try it, here’s his recipe — with some hilarious comments from my sister.)
And you might even find surprises tucked away in that old cookbook or filing box! As I was writing this story, I discovered a long-forgotten collection of old newspaper clippings in the back of our family recipe box. Domestic goddess that she was, my mother had tucked them away in the 1960s, preparing to be the perfect party hostess.
Sharing food-and-family memories doesn’t have to be a huge production. Make it easy on yourself! You might simply copy those old family recipes and bind the pages together, or paste individual recipes into a small scrapbook, as my sisters did (see below). If you’d like to “pretty it up” as Melissa did in her family recipe book, just create a Word document with images, then convert that to a pdf for sharing.
Okay, that’s your Memoir Writing take-away for today: Let favorite family recipes prompt your memories of both food and family!
And of course I’d love to hear what stories you remember.
MEMOIR TIP: Finding the Special in an “Ordinary” Life
Ever feel like “my life was nothing special”? It’s a common refrain among memoir writers. You went to work; came home; cooked; did laundry. Then rinse and repeat, day after day. Where’s the special to write about in that so-called “ordinary” life?
Here’s my take-away after interviewing dozens of folks who thought theirlives weren’t very special: keep asking questions. Some of the greatest memoir material is tucked away right in the details of a seemingly “ordinary” life.
Here’s a couple of examples:
I once interviewed an old-timer who’d never lived far from the spot where he was born. Turns out he was a virtual living library of nearly-lost skills. He’d grown up hunting and trapping — with fascinating tales to share about his days tromping the mountains and the wild animals he’d encountered. He remembered when the local generator shut off at 9 p.m., along with every electric light in town. And brushes with death? It was amazing that he’d ever reached his 80s! As a teen, he’d once been sent out onto a flooded bridge to help break up a logjam threatening to take out the bridge. His “safety gear”: a bit of rope tied around his waist. Bottom line: he had plenty of amazing stories from a truly amazing life!
“I was just a housewife,” one of my husband’s relatives would similarly protest. But a little prodding later, we heard how her journey to school took her over a railroad bridge — a fine thing, until a train was coming, when she’d have to leap over the edge and hang onto a post until it passed. And she beamed as she told us how she and a classmate were allowed to spend the night from time to time with the warm and wonderful teacher from their one-room school, who’d let them roast marshmallows over the chimney of an oil lamp. Special memories indeed!
So, how can you find those fascinating nuggets? Those details that breathe life into the most “ordinary” life story? Here are a few tips:
Think about what special knowledge or expertise you’ve acquired — especially anything unusual by today’s standards. Did you learn the tricks of cooking on a woodstove, or how to skin a rabbit? Did you grew up sewing your own clothes? Tell the story of how you learned, and share the proper steps!
Remember how life was different than today during your growing-up years. Did you ride a bicycle or maybe even a horse to school? Get lost in a cornfield? Ever built a treehouse? What adventures did you have that kids today would never experience?
What kind of “ordinary” foods did you eat — perhaps something that’s anything but ordinary now? And how was that dinner prepared? Were staples in your family’s diet things that aren’t so common today, like parsnips, liver, or Spam? Did your mom make homemade pies made from home-grown fruit? (Do you still have that favorite recipe? If so, be sure to include it!)
What dangers did you manage to survive? Some of those experiences may be very uncommon today! Did you ever get lost in the forest in the snow? Come face-to-face with a bear? Challenge your friends to see who could be the first to swim across a dangerously swollen stream every spring? One of our friends had a simple abscess as a child that was truly life-threatening back then, although today it could be easily cured with antibiotics. Another relative spent an entire year in bed with pneumonia — again, an easily-treatable malady today. Those “ordinary” tales of challenge, hardship, and danger are especially fascinating when viewed backwards through today’s lens!
Bottom line: Don’t dismiss your life as “ordinary.” Remembering the details of that “nothing special” life often turns up incredibly powerful stories — and great memoir material!
Thinking of stories already? Share a few of your special memories with us on our Facebook page!
And if you’d like more Memoir tips, find our book on Amazon!
Karen Dustman is a published author, freelance journalist, historian, and story-sleuth. For more about Karen, her books and other fun stuff she’s written, check out her author website: www.KarenDustman.com.