It has been a while since I have written. I have not had much spare time this semester but that all comes to an end tomorrow. That's right, I'm never going to study another thing again. Well, maybe that is taking it a bit too far but I'm definitely not studying anything on Thursday, that's for sure. For tomorrow, Wednesday April 27, 2016, I submit my final report on my capstone project; Mr. Boller's Scrapbook (http://bollerscrapbook.omeka.net/exhibits/show/c--v--boller-s-scrapbook/biography)
That's right, I am graduating - finally - with my second master of arts degree in public history from St. John's University.
What is public history? I get that question a lot. It's kind of like the history side of museum studies; it's about making history accessible to the public.
For the past academic year I have been working on researching and analyzing the materials bound together in one man's scrapbook dating from 1883 in his home town of Lexington, Illinois to 1907 in the garment district of New York City with a majority of it's contents focused on his life in Chicago. Mr. Claude Villette Boller was a tailor by trade who rose through the ranks of the noteworthy mail order distributor, Montgomery Ward & Co. In 1905, Chicago was the scene of one of the bloodiest labor strikes in U.S. history. That strike began in the Montgomery Ward fabric cutting room where Mr. Boller was the manager. But today I don't want to talk about the strike or the trial that followed, or the website I built about it. I want to write about how genealogy research and the networking power of Ancestry.com answered the more important, and perhaps the harder questions about Mr. Boller's life.
As soon as my colleague, Librarian Karen :) , showed me the scrapbook my first month on the job back in July 2013, I instantly wanted to know how we got this resources. All Karen knew was that it had been in our library longer than she has been. I wasn't sure if I would ever get the answer to that fundamental question but I knew how I was going to try.
I got on Ancestry.com and started looking for documentation on Mr. Boller. I used the many census records I found to build a family tree for him and I contacted every Ancestry user who had Mr. Boller or his immediate family members in their trees.
Six months after writing scores of emails I finally got the reply I needed. Oh, I got many replies prior to this one but those users didn't know much about the Mr. Boller or his life in NY. But over the recess between the Fall 2015 semester and this Spring 2016 semester, I got a reply from a gentleman named Mike.
Mike wrote that his grandmother had a brother named Claude Villette Boller. Based on an obituary I had seen for Mr. Boller, I deduced that Mike had to be the grandson of Mr. Boller's daughter, Geraldine. I wrote Mike back and said, "If your grandmother was Geraldine Boller than your great uncle was Claude Villette Boller, Junior and this scrapbook belonged to your great grandfather, Claude Villete Senior." Thus began an exchange of genealogical information that only a historian and a descendant could exchange.
I wrote Mike about the details of Great Grandpa Boller's life as revealed to me through his scrapbook and he wrote me about the facts his father, Mr. Boller's grandson, could recall. In short time it was made clear that the obituary I was working with had wrong information in it. The obituary said Mr. Boller's daughter, Kathryn, was married to a man who's last name was Flood. Mike assured me though that her married name was Kathryn Foote, not Flood.
That detail changed everything. Mr. Norman Foote was a long time administrator in the School of Agriculture at what is now called Farmingdale State College where Mr. Boller's scrapbook resides. Whether Mr. Foote bequeathed the scrapbook to us or unloaded it on us is unknown. Did he generously give it to us? Did he move away and dump all his books in the library? We will never know and nor does it matter. We have it and it is wonderful.
The moral of the story though is that stories are important and usually it takes time and patience to create a great story. Sometimes a whole lifetime. Be patient and persistent in your mission to get the whole story. But know that those answers you seek do not always come from well trusted documentation. They come from people, people with family stories. Yes families tell "stories" and Yes, people make mistakes. But people also make mistakes in writing articles and drawing up documents.