The Wisconsin Historical Society published an amazing collection this month that is essential if you’re researching your family history in SouthEastern Wisconsin (Eugene Walter Leach Collection). And, it’s a really cool story of how the public came together to publish some great records. But beyond all of that it’s a fascinating example of how our personal research can mushroom over time, how we need to be aware of the impact of that research can have over time, and how we need to ensure that our records survive us in a meaningful way.
“To a chosen few historically minded persons in each generation is given the privilege of collecting and preserving the sacred facts of history, that they may not be lost to future generations.” – Eugene Walter Leach
Eugene Walter Leach (1857-1938) was born in Minnesota, but moved to Racine as a toddler and lived there the rest of his life (Eugene Leach bio). He was largely a private citizen who took it upon himself to collect, catalog, and publish the history of Racine, Wisconsin. He published 3 books during his lifetime, and was appointed as Racine’s official historian and Custodian of the Racine History Museum 4 years before his death. But his magnum opus was a book (The Story of Racine County – A History) that was not completed at the time he died, and which is now publicly available for the first time.
His research for the book filled 14 archival boxes, and the manuscript itself was over 1300 pages. Leach had spent decades collecting the stories of earlier settlers to Racine County. Just a quick review of about ½ of the collection shows me that he was visiting nursing homes, sending out questionnaires, reaching out to surviving family members for recollections, and being very active in gathering information about his subjects. All of this was preserved when he died in 1938, but largely lost to history.
Around 2008 a volunteer at the Racine Heritage Museum, John Magerus, PHD, was considering various projects when he came across an entry on the Wisconsin State Historical Society’s website referencing the papers of “Leach, a Racine, Wis. Historian and curator of the Racine County Museum, including an unpublished manuscript.” Further digging led to discovering Leach’s papers were stored at the local university, UW-Parkside, and Magerus published portions of the manuscript in 2010.
Local history buff Todd Wallace began working the Wisconsin Historical Society and UW-P to digitize the collection, which lead to a GoFundMe campaign in 2016 to pay for the digitation. That digitization effort culminated in the WHS releasing the collection digitally earlier this month.
The collection is fascinating, and a true treasure. We’ve gone through and skimmed about half of the documents, and while there isn’t much directly related to our family, it’s still a wonderful read.
Reviewing the collection, a few thoughts popped out at us:
We all start out as family historians and make the transition to historians/genealogists if we’re serious about this hobby
My 1C1R Peggy is the historian of the Leonard family, and her collection of artifacts and documents is amazing. It was her Family Reunion book from the early 1980’s that got us started on this journey. But it’s a classic collection of great stuff and stories, with no attribution, or citations, or publication. As we all start collecting our information, we will reach a point like Leach where we become keepers of unique and irreplaceable knowledge. As you go longer in this hobby it’s natural to start being more organized, more formal, and more interested in publishing what you’ve found. Reading through this collection it feels a lot like what I hope my work will be 30 years from now, and I can see how my work could progress much like his…from amateur historian, to a historian.
The best part of genealogy is the stories, not the facts
We knew when we first got into this hobby that we cared about the stories much more than the facts, and this just further demonstrates that truth. We, of course, recognize the utility, and value, of the facts he’s presented, but we’ve spent most of my time consuming the stories of these settlers of Racine County, and of how the community sprang up. I can’t imagine how excited the descendants of these subjects must be to find the stories of their family told.
Digital research has it’s place, but the most valuable work is often what you go out and discover offline
Many of the vital records, and even most of the newspaper articles, that are a part of these archives available to us today. The most valuable parts of the collection are the research he did with living people, the letters, finding and copying old diaries (that are likely long since lost), visiting nursing homes for interviews, etc. are nothing short of treasures. I was especially impressed by his work with sending out hundreds of pre-printed questionnaires, which led to impressive results. We spend a lot of time looking at our screens for answers, but we need to spend more time out in the field gathering the pieces of this puzzle that can’t be found online.
Make sure you have a formal plan to pass your research on when you’re gone
We’re just coming around to this, but we will be adding a formal Codicil to our Will that details how to process our genealogical work. We’ve already reached out to the Racine Historical Museum to make arrangements to donate objects we have that are priceless, and that we can’t maintain to the level they deserve to be. We’ve made digital copies, so we’ll be able to continue to enjoy the content, but we have no business trying to maintain the originals. Either way, it’s critical we have a formal plan in-place to ensure our work survives us.
Store your research archaically
Building off the previous point, we started from day one using archival paper, folders, storage boxes, ink, sleeves, etc. to store our documents. They are never stored in the basement, and they should easily survive us. We’ve had friends who received the trunk of family photos and documents when Grandmother passed away, that were soon destroyed when the basement flooded. Looking at Leach’s collection, I shudder to think how easily it could have been lost and to think of how many similar collections were lost due to family who didn’t care about these things as much as we did.
Get involved in your local historical societies
Eugene Leach’s work eventually BECAME the local historical society. This collection is seeing the light of day this month because a local historian volunteered at the Racine Historical Society, and took it upon himself to dig the collection up, and other local historians raised funds to have it digitized. We can have a huge impact, and it can’t help but further your research as well.
Give back wherever you can
You see sharing across this entire story. Leach built his work off of the work of various historians who preceded him. 100’s of relatives of early Racine settles shared stories and artifacts with Leach, that then were shared with us. Local historians banded together to share money so the collection could be digitized. We approach this work collectively, and no one builds their research on their work alone. We stand on the shoulders of others as we build our family histories, and we have a duty to share our work freely so that others will build on our work and take it further than us.
Thank you so much to everyone who worked on this collection, and I can’t wait to read all the way through this collection!