Sunday, March 4, 2018

Diaries of Old--Snapshots of Lives Past

By Pamela S. Meyers

I can't believe we're already in March. This is quite a busy month as I am seeing my newest historical romance novel, Safe Refuge, releasing on the 27th.

I recalled this morning how much researching the diaries written by a lady who lived in my home town of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where the novel takes place, at the very time my story takes place, helped me in developing my story. I published an article here at this site back on January 4, 2014, as I was writing the novel, and I thought it might be of interest now, over four years later.

January 4, 2014

Last month I shared here about researching family history, and many readers responded, saying they were encouraged to begin their own family history research. I hope some of you have gotten started or plan to in the new year!

Another way of learning about your ancestor’s lives--or maybe your ancestral hometown's history--is to locate personal diaries and journals written in the past.

One artifact that came to me through my dad and his family was a small notebook. It wasn’t intended to be a diary. In fact, the name "Wigwam Tobacco" is imprinted on its cover. Even back then they were making promotional items to advertise a product! 
Edith's Diary

It may not have been a real diary, but my paternal grandmother, Edith, decided to make it one. And for a bit more than an entire year, she recorded her life in that little notebook. There wasn’t a lot of room for her to write, but through those pages I was able to read about a year in her life as a young woman on the verge of falling in love. This was very special to me because I never had a chance to know her since she died before I was born.

She began the diary in August of 1899 and the last entry was made in September 1900. Through the pages I read about a young man named Jack turning her head, her celebration of the turning of the century on 1/1/1900, and her mother dying that May. What really caught my attention though, was the sweet flirtatious attraction between Edith and Jack, who would become my grandfather. It seems that although Jack was interested in Edith, a pretty girl or two would still capture his attention. Or, at least it seemed that way to Edith :-). They often attended dances, coming alone, but then at the end of the evening Jack would walk her home. 

One summer night she walked into the dance and the Tumbolt sisters were there. Jack having a good time. The following day she says she went uptown in the evening. Saw Tombolt girls AND saw Jack. She put the emphasis on the word "and." I could almost feel her stomach growing hot as she watched my grandfather probably cajoling with the Tombolts. At least it made good fodder for a story.

And a story I wrote for a fiction writing class I was taking.  A lot of the story came from my imagination, and the Tombolts were there to be sure.

Eliza's Lake Geneva Diaries
Fast forward to this past fall. While researching for my current work in progress, a 19th Century story set in Lake Geneva, WI,  my hometown (which is not the same town my grandmother lived in), I attended an event at the town's museum. The speaker mentioned a set of diaries written by a lady, Eliza Baker, who lived in Lake Geneva during the 19th century. Her seventeen diaries, dating from the Civil War up to the early 1880s, are housed in the archive library located at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. When I heard this, I couldn’t wait to get to that library and look at the ones written in 1871 and 1872, the time when my story takes place.What better way to read about life in my story setting than that?

How I picture the scene
I did not know about the lady or any of her descendants, but I knew the house (long since torn down) that she lived in. The flavor of the town seemed to leap off the pages. For example, in winter she took a horse-drawn sleigh to church, and one time she and her husband took a horse-drawn sleigh across the frozen lake where he "found an Irishman"  there and hired him to chop firewood. Later in my reading, her husband suddenly took ill and died a few hours later. I gasped and said, “Oh no.” By that time I felt I really knew Eliza and blinked at tears as she described her grief.

I wished I'd had the time that day to read through all 17 diaries. But I'll have to save that for another time. My research makes me wonder what else is housed in those archives. You can be sure I’ll be heading back up there as soon as I can to find out.

Your family may not have passed down a diary, but something else. Perhaps you have some letters or postcards. Or possibly some newspaper clippings or a cookbook with notes written in the margins.

What artifacts from the past do you have that tell you about your family several generations ago?

Pamela has written most of her life, beginning with her first diary at age eight. Her novels include Thyme For Love, Surprised by Love in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin (a reissue of Love Finds You in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin), a 1933 historical romance, and Second Chance Love, a contemporary romance set at a rodeo in rural Illinois. Her novella, If These Walls Could Talk, was published in May 2017, in a collection called Coming Home: A Tiny House Collection. Safe Refuge, a historical romance set in Chicago and Lake Geneva, Wisconsin releases in March 2018 and Whatever is True, a sequel to Second Chance Love will publish at a date to be announced.

Available in  Kindle at Amazon now for preorder.


  1. All I have are random documents from an aunt of my father's, with no idea of why he got them other than the fact that this woman had no children of her own.

  2. I enjoy history of family with old letters, cards, pictures, etc. Thank you for sharing.

  3. I have a letter written in 1850's from my great-great grandfather to my great-grandmother while she was away at "finishing school" and he tells her what he expects of her as his daughter and a young lady. I also have a letter written by my great-grandfather to her just before he went to battle in Nashville in 1864 and he tells her he how he looks forward to coming home and seeing her. He was captured and in prison until the armistice. That became the nugget for the first book in a series about the family after the Civil War.

    However, the greatest treasure is a collection of stories my grandfather wrote. They are true stories of incidents in his life where God did something wonderful or miraculous for him, his family, or a friend. It's about 1/2 and inch thick. My sister took the handwritten stories, typed them on the computer, printed copies, had them bound and then gave one to each of his grandchildren. (all my cousins) They are a legacy of God's power, love, mercy, and grace in one man's life. I then had copies made for each of my sons. They want me to do something like that for them. I guess I should.

    Thanks for sharing these tidbits of history. I love genealogy and finding the history of families.

  4. Your post resonated with me, Pamela. I'm glad you mentioned the Archives because I am on a mission to promote them. They are often missed by people searching for their family history as many people think an Archives wouldn't hold images, documents, and diaries from ordinary people. But they do! Local, state, and provincial archives are also looking for material from the everyday person, so if you are gifted with a family member's treasure but don't want to hold onto it yourself, see if the local Archives want it.

    As for my own treasures, I have a copy of my grandmother's handwritten memoir, and original letters and diaries from my husband's grandparents. Because we believe these should be shared with family members as well as anyone interested in history, we are posting them online. It takes time, but there are so many searchers out there and we love receiving the feedback.

    Thanks for this post, Pamela. Excellent information.