By Yvette Rebik, For the Camera
In today’s culture, receiving a handwritten letter from a family member seems unique or maybe even strange. E-mails and telephone calls have quickly replaced this old-fashion way of correspondence, and unless you save these conversations, family history can be lost.
Mary Wolff, a resident at the Academy retirement community in Boulder, is the proud owner of thousands of family documents that date from the 1800s to 1990. Large family portraits tell stories of the past and fill her living room with almost two centuries of history. Photographs and letters with remnants of wax seals still on the papers fill six boxes on Wolff’s table. These boxes, along with 194 more in storage, make up the Ames Family Historical Collection.
“Finding all this information was like a treasure hunt,” said Wolff’s daughter, Linda Cowan.
Most of the documents were discovered in the attic of a house in St. Paul, Minn. The papers represent six successive generations, and about 75 percent of the material is from three groups of papers that represent three generations in a matriarchal line. In the St. Paul home, the papers and photographs had been assembled for more than 100 years before they were given to Wolff in 1991. Everything was shipped to her home in Boulder, and she has been organizing and adding to the collection ever since with the help of her daughter.
The organization of the documents is incredible. Every box has colored tabs that match family members and their dates of correspondence. Every item eventually will be identified in the Ames Family Historical Collection Guide. Dr. Karl J. Stone, a family friend from Littleton, is responsible for putting together this overflowing navy blue binder, which acts as an index to make it easier to find information in the collection. Wolff and Cowan described the organizing process as long and difficult.
“I have always been a neat and organized person, though,” Wolff said. “During this process, I am known as ‘da boss.'”
Since the information is organized, it gains value. According to Wolff, if historical documents are in their raw states, they almost have no value unless the family was famous. Her ancestors were quite distinguished in history though.
Her great grandfather, J. Peter Lesley, was a well-known geologist. He headed the second geological survey of Pennsylvania and was the librarian for the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia for 25 years.
Charles Lesley Ames, the Lesleys’ grandson, was the president of the law book publishing firm West Publishing Co. in St. Paul, Minn.
Charles Gordon Ames was a Unitarian minister who at the end of his career served as a minister of the Church of the Disciples in Boston.
Her family members often wrote about the evolving American culture in their letters. They discussed Darwin and scientific theories, Ralph Waldo Emerson and abolitionism.
Since paper was expensive, they wrote in different directions to save space and money. They also used telegrams and original postage stamps when they were invented.
Wolff gained a sense of herself while going through her family’s letters.
“I learned about their liberal traditions and their big interest in public affairs,” she said. “We all had an interest in genealogy.”
Some family members published their letters during the turn of the century. These include “Recollections of My Mother, Mrs. Anne Jean Lyman, of Northampton” by Houghton Mifflin in 1889, “Peter and Susan Lesley, Life and Letters” by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in 1909 and “Charles Gordon Ames: a spiritual autobiography” by Houghton Mifflin Co. in 1913.
Wolff plans on donating the Ames Family Historical Collection to a historical society in Minnesota, Massachusetts or New England.
“I’ve been told by librarians that things should go to the places where they’re from,” Wolff said, “but I’m not willing to do that. The whole collection is integral to family history. It would be ridiculous to have it in different places.”
For those who are interested in discovering their family history, Wolff suggests interviewing older people in the family while they’re still around. She also recommends saving letters and pieces of family history instead of throwing them away during spring cleaning.
Patricia Ostwald, assistant librarian for the Boulder Genealogical Society, said that researching genealogy is very common and is now one of the most popular hobbies in the U.S.
“You could read about wars and immigration in a book,” Ostwald said, “but reading about your own people really brings it to life.”