Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Archive Job From Hell

I am reading the wikipedia biographical entry for Marie Curie. Why I am reading that is a completely different story. But, I found a brief sentence that truly puts any archivist job into perspective:

"Because of their levels of radioactivity, her papers from the 1890s are considered too dangerous to handle. Even her cookbook is highly radioactive. They are kept in lead-lined boxes, and those who wish to consult them must wear protective clothing."

This seems to me to be truly the most difficult, emotionally challenging archival job in the world! I admire the dedication and adventurousness of the archivists that handle these papers.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Minnesota Grows Everything!

When I first moved to Minnesota, on this latest sojourn, I discovered how very little I know about agriculture. My wife and I arrived in town thinking that corn and soybeans, the staple crops of Midwest, were obviously the main crops of Sherburne County, Minnesota.

Boy, were we mistaken.

Since arriving in Sherburne County, I have learned that potatoes are the current main crop for farmers. Corn and Soybeans are also grown. In the past a myriad of crops have been grown in the fields of Sherburne farms.

For a very long time, strawberries were a significant crop. In the 1870s and again in the 1960s, the county held annual Strawberry Festivals. In the 1870s, the festival mainly consisted of coming out to the farms and picking your own berries. Enjoy the day in the strawberry fields. In the 1960s and true fair atmosphere developed around the Strawberry Festival. These events culminated with a beauty pageant and the crowning Miss Luscious Red, a specific strawberry variety developed in Sherburne County.

Just as interesting, and possibly startling, in the early part of the 1900s tobacco was raised in Sherburne County. One resident, in the 1920s remembers farms throughout the county having at least one curing shed for tobacco. Another person remembers their grandmother raising tobacco as a primary cash crop in the early 1900s. I find this remarkable. Tobacco is a Southern crop!

In terms of overall numbers tobacco farming in Minnesota was small. At its highpoint in 1930 farmers in the state raised about 2.9 million pounds of leaf tobacco. By 1937 tobacco was no longer grown in Minnesota.

The point of all of this is that the assumptions we make are often terribly wrong. Jumping to conclusions about the communities around us can lead to some very confusing interpretations. As family and local historians we have to be prepared to open ourselves to new, and often startling, facts and details about our communities. When we are open to new discoveries the practice of local history truly becomes exciting.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Fiction and Fantasy Sometime Mix

Here is a really unusual story combining history and fiction. For Family Historians and Harry Potter fans, this story has everything!


The family of a real life Harry Potter who was killed in the army
claim that his grave has been turned into a tourist attraction by fans
of the hit book and movie series seeking their fictional hero. Private
Harry Potter was serving overseas when he died in Israel in 1939
during an uprising. His grave had gone unnoticed in the British
Military Cemetery in the town of Ramla for more than half a century.

But now the headstone has become an unlikely tourist attraction
because of J K Rowling's much-loved books and movies. Sightseers have
had their photos taken next to the grave, while the local tourist
board has listed it as an official attraction. And even though Mr
Potter, from Kidderminster, Worcs., would have led an active life in
the army, it is far removed from the magic and spells of the fictional
Harry Potter. Pvt Potter's surviving family members have come forward
to reveal the years of heartache they suffered after his untimely

Ken Potter, 77, was just six years old when his elder brother was
ambushed and killed while driving back to a base near Hebron in
Israel. 'Harry has never left our thoughts,' said the former
greengrocer, from Kidderminster. 'He is with us all the time, even
though he died such a very long time ago. 'We were just young kids
when it happened, all I was bothered about at that time was going and
playing. 'But I remember a policeman came to our door to give mum and
dad the news. They were very upset but we didn't really know what was
happening. 'All I can really remember about Harry is one time him
carrying me about by the fireplace. 'It was so long ago and I was so
young, but I never forget his face." Fellow brother Derek, 82, also
recalled their parents Edith and David, who had eight children,
finding out about their son's tragic end. 'I can remember our parents
being very upset but they kept it to themselves," said the retired
carpet maker, also from Kidderminster.

'They kept the war from us because we were just kids, but you could
tell something was very wrong. 'It was hard because a letter from
Harry arrived the day after the policeman came to tell us.' The
poignant personal note read: 'Dear Mother, I am getting on alright. I
expect to be home for Christmas. If I am not, it is a bit of bad luck.
'I hope dad is still in work. Tell Ken I am not forgetting his bike. I
hope Alice (his older sister) is alright. 'You perhaps have been
reading the papers. 'I am not boasting but listen to the news on the
wireless and listen to what work we in the Worcester shires have been
doing. 'Well, I think that is all for now. 'Cheerio, Crash Harry.'

The latest film in the blockbuster movie series Harry Potter and the
Deathly Hallows was released two weeks ago. The film is based on the
book which was released in 2007 as the last in the series of novel
about the fictional wizard at Hogwarts school. A staggering 44 million
copies of the book were sold around the world just eight months after
it was published.

But despite his late brother and the boy wizard sharing the same name,
Ken admits he has never watched the films. 'I've seen bits of them
fleetingly on the TV but I have never properly watched them," added
the dad-of-two. 'Actually, I never really twigged that Harry shared
the name with the film character. 'It was my sister's son who first
found out about the interest in his grave about three years ago while
on the internet. 'We couldn't believe people visit his grave, but
apparently they come from miles around to have their photo taken next
to it.' The real Harry Potter left his family's home in Kidderminster
to join the army in Birmingham in 1938. The 17 year-old lad was
desperate to serve his country, so lied about his age, telling the
recruiting sergeant he was a year older. He spent eight months
training with the 1st Battalion Worcestersire Regiment in Aldershot,
Hampshire, before being ordered to Palestine in September 1938.

His unit was garrisoned in the area to battle an Arab uprising, and
Pvt Potter was a driver in the Motor Transport section, where he
gained the 'Crash Harry' nickname. During spring 1939, he was based at
Deir Sha'ar, near Hebron. On July 22 of that year he was driving back
to the camp in convoy when they were ambushed by armed bandits. Pvt
Potter and fellow soldier Pvt Joseph Darby were killed in the attack.
But despite being given the tragic news soon after his death, it would
be 50 years before the family found out the exact circumstances.

Ken, married to wife Shirley for 56 years, said: "About 15 years ago a
fella came into the shop and said he was with Harry when he died.
'That was how we finally found out what had happened. 'He said Harry
had been shot by a Shot sniper during the attack while they were
driving back to the base. 'We had not known exactly what had happened
to Harry until that day. The chap was old when he came to see me and
has probably died now, but it was only through him we knew how Harry

Brother Derek is still the proud owner of Harry's campaign medal from
the Palestine conflict. Two more of Harry Potter's siblings are also
still alive and well in Kidderminster. His sister Joyce is 88 years
old, while youngest brother Ray, 75, has named his pet dog Harry after
his long lost brother. And there is one other spooky link to the boy
wizard. Harry's father David acquired a scar on his forehead, just
like the fictional character, while in the trenches during the Great
War. Ken added: 'Dad had a scar on his forehead from the First World
War. 'He was shot across the forehead when he was in the trenches.
They operated on him and put a metal plate in his head. 'He was never
the same after he came back from the war." As for visiting Harry's
grave, none of the family has been able to make the journey, despite
an invitation from the town's mayor. Ken, who served in the Korean War
with the Enniskillen Dragoon Guards while doing National Service,
added: 'The mayor of Ramla did once invite us to visit.

'We would love to go, but things just kind of trailed off and we
didn't hear any more. 'I know Ramla can be a bit of a dangerous place,
so I'm not sure if we will ever be able to see it.'


And thanks to the History Net listserv for bringing this story to light. It was originally published on the DailyMailonline.