Letters Bring History Alive

A View of the 19th Century

By Becky Smith

I am currently doing volunteer work at the Leroy Historical Museum, or as some of us are more familiar with, the Jell-O Museum. I wasn’t really sure what to expect going into this seeing as how it was a last minute decision to switch from taking pictures of grave stones, to working at the museum.

I grew up very close to the home of Jell-O, only about 5 minutes away in the next town over, but sometimes it slips my mind that Leroy is in fact a historical site. I had no idea what kind of work I would be doing in my 12 hours at the museum and on my first day I was a little disappointed to hear I would be reading old letters from the Leroy family.

I’m going to be honest, my heart dropped. I thought maybe I would do something ground breaking, like investigating murders, or the founding of new territories. Reading old personal letters never really fit into my description of history, and old letters from the little town of Leroy, how much more dull could my assignment be?

Not only did I despise my work at first, but I also found that the writing looked like waves drawn by a child, it was scribbles and flourishes and excruciating to decipher, so to actually get through a single letter could take almost 30 minutes. The first few letters were very discouraging because of the writing, but also because I had no idea who the people were.

This is where Lynne stepped in and helped me. She gave me a simple genealogy of Leroy family which helped immensely. And also made things more difficult: it turns out in that family there were 3 generations in which there were daughters named after their mothers. So every generation had a Pauline Leroy, so in order to figure out which one it was, you had to look at the date, and who it was addressed to.

Once I was able to decipher the writing, and knew some things about the family, the letters started to mean something to me and began to get interesting. One really neat thing I encountered was the fact that in the mid 1800’s parents still thought of their children as mini adults and talked to them as such. Some of the letters I read addressed to a 9 year old boy included things we would never expect a child to understand today.

I also found it very interesting that the parents of this family in particular spent a lot of time out of town, leaving their children with a relative. Many of the letters I read included descriptions of their time away, and some of the stories were very amusing. One letter from the father to his 9 year old son told about a stowaway on board their ship who happened to be a murderer from Boston. He boarded the ship under an assumed name trying to escape and was found when authorities called out all the names of the passengers in steerage.

Work that I originally thought would be dull and tedious is actually very fascinating; to see actual letters from 150 years ago is surreal because things have changes drastically since then. It is still tedious in the fact that the writing is very difficult to read but getting through is a lot easier now than that initial letter.

Becky Smith is in her last semester at GCC and plans to transfer to SUNY Brockport where she will be a history major. She hopes to attain teaching certification to work in a elementary school. Becky lives in Bergen.

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About Derek Maxfield

Associate Professor of History Genesee Community College
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