Take advantage of holiday visits to record family history
Spend some holiday time recording your relatives’ family histories, especially as festivities bring generations together.
That’s the advice of Beryl Pielli, of Newport, who years ago taped interviews with her mother, Alice Pruett Bell, about life in the farming town of Wilbur, Washington.
“With the holidays coming up, it’s so important to gather information from elders and record it,” said Pielli, 73. “I met with my mother in Wilbur and recorded stories that all seven of us siblings grew up hearing. She had a sense of humor and was a great storyteller.
“I was so afraid I wouldn’t get it written down before she died, and I could never remember all the stories she told.”
Later transcribed into a written form, Bell’s stories led to gifts across generations more than once. Pielli and her husband, Leonard, worked with family to compile the oral history into a spiral-bound book given as an 85th birthday present to Bell, who teared up upon receiving it.
Years later, Pielli again teamed up with family and computer-savvy friends on an expanded manuscript with even more family photos to create a book she had printed locally.
At $7 a copy through Spokane’s Gray Dog Press, “Bell Family Memories” went to multiple relatives at a July 2012 family reunion. Pielli also gave one copy to a historical society.
While a manuscript is one way to preserve family histories, smartphones and technology offer some fast-tracked ways to capture memories that fit around busy lives, said Liberty Lake resident Stacy Julian, 51, who also gathers relatives’ stories to forge connections.
Julian, a mother of five, worked in the scrapbooking industry for 25-plus years and was founding editor of Simple Scrapbooks magazine. Today, she teaches about ancestry storytelling methods, including at the annual RootsTech convention on the convergence of technology and family history.
“I’m trying to make family history simple,” said Julian, who has visual reminders of ancestors’ stories in her home.
One of Julian’s favorite tools to get started: create a one-page questionnaire to give relatives by email or at family gatherings. Her family information sheet asks for basics of full name, birthplace and date, but also other tidbits.
Relatives list favorites for a color, song, holiday, and place to visit.
The form asks relatives to share the name of someone they admire and why, a “life’s work,” notable accomplishment, and three words that best describe them.
“The beauty of it is someone can fill the sheet out in about a minute,” Julian said. “Before I see family, I print out a bunch and make them do it. People love to write about themselves, if it’s simple.”
In 1994, Julian asked her husband’s grandfather, Russell Julian, to fill out a family sheet and she later filed it away. After Russell Julian died, her husband was asked to eulogize his grandfather. The history form helped bridge memories, including a favorite song, she said.
“Afterward, Russell’s daughters came up to my husband and said, ‘How did you know what his favorite hymn was?’
“We talk to each other, and love each other, but we maybe don’t have these things written down.”
Julian once heard a story that her great-great-grandfather Joseph Hall kept stick candy on a clock shelf to give to grandchildren. With research, she ordered old-fashioned candy in a tin, put his picture inside each lid, and gave them out at a family reunion. She also wrote a one-page story about him.
Pielli suggests that if people are compiling family archives, they keep information and photos in one place. That way, they can add more details as time allows.
In capturing stories, Pielli found details on her father, William Bell, being registered as a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation. He and her mother also ran several Wilbur businesses, some still in existance.
“My parents had a restaurant, a bakery, a little motel, a drive-in hamburger place, trailer court and laundromat,” Pielli said. “It used to be the main route to Grand Coulee before the freeway went in.”
Her friends who helped compile a formal manuscript used computer software to repair the images of old, damaged photos, Pielli said. Later, all photos were saved to a computer disc, with copies attached inside of the book’s back page.
“Another thing that helps is your local historical society,” Pielli said. “If you’re going to do a book, give one to your local historical society.”
Pielli’s adult children have enjoyed the family lore. “I think if you’re interested at all in family history, it trickles down. If someone doesn’t record it, they’ll lose it.”
For old family photos, Julian suggests also using a smartphone camera to capture original images as time permits. She uploads the smartphone images to an ancestry website, such as FamilySearch.org, and later adds facts and history for each picture.
Other invited family members can see the information online, and it’s another way to preserve photos.
“Once they’re uploaded, then once a week or once a month, I’ll add descriptions,” Julian said.
Using a StoryCorps app is another way to record family oral histories, she said, with a built-in script and questions. People can save a recording on a smartphone, or it can go to the Library of Congress.
Another quick tool Julian uses is a Chatbooks app, and the Chatbooks business creates monthly family story books with photos. For an $8-per-month subscription, Chatbooks mails Julian the book of photos and her accompanying written posts she puts on Instagram.
The service can link to Facebook, and users receive an email with the option of editing items before each month’s book is published, Julian said. Extras can be printed to give as gifts.
“The books are 60 pages,” she said. “I like Instagram because you’ve already taken time to put in some written information for each Instragram. Then I go in and hit edit, and I can take photos out, and I can add more details, before it’s printed.
“I control it, but it’s in the background. You can just take pictures of your old pictures. You do have to pay attention to editing, like if you have a video in there, it will print it as a black square.”
Julian sometimes posts a decades-old photo and writes a few details for “Throwback Thursdays” on Instagram. Family members see the images and comment, adding more connections, she said.
“The No. 1 question I get is, ‘I’ve got all these old photos, what do I do?’ You pick up the smartphone; they have good-quality cameras anymore. You put the old photo on a floor in front of a window with nature light and take a picture of a picture. You’re not scanning; that’s overwhelming.”
A smartphone also is useful for its standard voice recorder to capture family dialogue when an aunt or grandparent shares a memory, she said.
“I think the important reason to do that are the family stories and connections. Once you realize you have a connection, and you feel it, then you’re motivated to learn about a person.”
That was true when her own sons were very young, and Julian first heard details about a great-grandmother named Minnie, who raised 10 boys.
“I started to dive in and learn about Minnie. I was 28 years old and I didn’t even know her. I later learned she’d bake cookies and put them in big five-gallon honey tin.”
Julian found a smaller antique honey tin, and when she bakes cookies, they go into her tin that she sets out on the kitchen counter. Her kids know what the tin’s appearance means, and also something about grandma Minnie, she said.
“She’s the honey-tin grandma. Honestly, they’re not interested until they’re older, but they have enough interest now if you create connections. It’s like a seed’s been planted. Then they’ll discover connections.”
Family Story-telling Resources
National Archives, “How to Preserve Family Papers and Photographs” https://www.archives.gov/preservation/family-archives/digitizing.html
Library of Congress, “Personal Archiving” http://www.digitalpreservation.gov/personalarchiving/