PLATTSBURGH — Tucked neatly inside an archival box in the basement of Plattsburgh State’s Feinberg Library lie priceless pieces of Julie Dresser’s ancestry.
Sixteen handwritten letters, which the college’s Special Collections staff has gone to great lengths to preserve, detail the 19th-century hopes, dreams, sorrows and daily experiences of Eunice Jones and her niece, Bettie Huston Lyon.
It was a delightful surprise to come across the letters, said Dresser, a teacher’s aide from Sycamore, Ill., and also Jones’s great-great-great-great-granddaughter.
“It’s so infrequently that you’re able to actually hear from someone from so far in the past in their own words,” she said in a phone interview.
Members of the the Society of American Archivists were also intrigued by Dresser’s find. Recently, her essay describing the contents of the letters and her discovery of them was named the winner of the society’s “I Found it in the Archives!” essay contest.
As a result, Dresser has been invited to attend the 76th-annual meeting of the American Archivists in San Diego this August.
GO BEYOND THE INTERNET
The society, a national organization with more than 6,000 members, held the contest in an effort to create awareness in the American public about the importance and usefulness of archives.
“The focus is to try to bring the concept and the information in the archives out to the general public,” said Gregor Trinkaus-Randall, society president.
Archives, he explained, are mostly unpublished materials, such as records of information, maps, personal papers and photographs, that document the daily activities of societies, governments, businesses and individuals throughout history and into the present.
“And then we try to make these materials available to people for research,” Trinkaus-Randall said.
For example, people use archives to learn more about the history of a town, university or corporation, conduct research for non-fiction publications and document legal decisions.
However, one of the biggest uses of archives, according to Trinkaus-Randall, is genealogy research.
“Genealogy today, the Internet has made it so easy,” Dresser said. “But you’ve got to go beyond the Internet to really find that wonderful data that is in libraries and archives.
“You can find lots of personal papers that you might not find anywhere else.”
‘LIFE WAS HARD’
Through Jones’s letters, written between 1853 and 1859 to a sister and brother-in-law, Dresser learned that after living in the Plattsburgh area, Jones moved to Indiana and later to Illinois, where she resided in a home just 35 minutes from where Dresser lives now.
“In one of her letters, she gave almost a room-by-room description of what her house was like,” Dresser said.
In addition, the correspondence revealed how lonely Jones was after having moved away from her sisters in New York and how she spent a great deal of time making cheese and fending off Illinois’s numerous snakes.
“It gives you a sense of really how hard life was,” Dresser said.
Other letters were written by Bettie Huston, a niece of Jones’s.
“Bettie certainly didn’t mince words when she had an opinion,” Dresser wrote in her essay, “which makes her letters fun to read, and I’m treated to an outsider-looking-in opinion on the family’s conversion to the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
And Bettie wrote an account of Jones’s final illness and death.
“It’s not often one is able to find a first-hand account of the death of an ancestor,” Dresser noted in her essay. “I felt like the proverbial fly on the wall.”
The genealogy enthusiast was able to obtain copies of the letters, which she was made aware of on an online genealogy discussion board, from Plattsburgh State’s Special Collections Librarian Debra Kimok.
“We don’t specifically collect information useful to genealogists,” Kimok said.
“By default, we have a lot of it because we have letters people have written, we have some birth and death records, some marriage records, (and) we have cemetery records.”
In addition, the archives collection houses monographs, periodicals, pamphlets, audio and video materials, photographs, maps and manuscripts.
“We focus, for the most part, on collecting history for Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties —the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain region,” Kimok said.
Special Collections, which is open to the public, also contains archives documenting the history of Plattsburgh State and its predecessor, the Plattsburgh Normal School, as well as a multitude of issues and topics throughout the area’s history.
“What we do is try to preserve things forever,” Kimok said.
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