Key Concepts

PDF Print E-mail


Berenice Lowe

Battle Creek, Michigan


n.b. from B. L.

            If you are old enough to be familiar with the verses of Eugene Field, turn on the century columnist, you may remember the boy, who, because he was not afraid of snakes and toads said, “I’m pretty brave, I guess.”  That’s my quote for today:  “I’m pretty brave” to think of writing an autobiography, even one that has been requested.  Recently President Johnson’s autobiography was published; the reviewers’ consensus is that “it is a pack of lies.”  My effort, noble as I may feel in executing it, may be the same.

            Some of Battle Creek’s most enthusiastic historians have treated the past with electricity and found the truth comfortably stretchable.  Although I have tried to avoid such pitfalls, I have not always been completely successful.  Now, with this great opportunity to talk about myself, how can I be objective?

            I can only try.

            Historians nowadays make a big fuss over the contrast between professional and amateur status.  According to the standards, I carry the “amateur historian” label.  Please be assured that as an autobiographer, there is no question – I am truly an amateur.


            There has been a lot written about hobbies.  They provide release when one is working intensely, and they save lives when men retire….Adverse aspects of growing old, and retiring, press heavily upon us.  The joints creak, the eyes grow dim, memory falters, and skills become obsolete.  But there are bright compensations….And on of the greatest compensations is to devote one’s mind and hand where one will, with a new joy in freedom to learn and create in an untrampled field.

            What are the criteria for a good avocation?  I believe the central characteristic is that it should be creative….Who is to judge whether it is creative or not – it is not to be judged….Over the door of the shop or garage where it is carried on there should be a sign, “My way, mine alone….”

            A worthy hobby…should require work and study, have novelty, and be all-absorbing while it is being pursued.  [The hobbyist] has years of work ahead of him.  He is entering new ground never before trod.

                                            ---            Vannevar Bush: PIECES OF THE ACTION

1970  William Morrow & Co., New York

pp. 233/234

            The request for this account has come from the librarians at Kimball House Museum and Willard Library.  During the past twenty years I have attempted to preserve and somewhat organize the materials that pertain to local history as have come my way.  During that time some 5,000 items (a conservative estimate) have passed through my house and hands.  Hundreds of books have been added to our area libraries.  Items of other localities, such as booklets, pictures, documents and clippings, have been sent to museums or libraries throughout the United States and to a few foreign countries.

            Many “needs” for future research in Michigan and Battle Creek history have some to my attention.  These have been filed when there have been space and time.  But there have been too many decisions to make.  All I have been able to do, really, is lay the ground work: to arouse interest and to save materials of use which might otherwise be destroyed.

            There are few completed tasks.  Among them are some microfilms:  Wiegmink’s Early Days in Battle Creek, Talbot’s Old Days and Old Ways at Meadowbrook, Souvenir Editions and Sojourner Truth. [Note.  Not knowing how to finance microfilming I asked Michigan State Library, Burton Historical Collection, Michigan Historical Collections, Willard Library and the Enquirer and news to share the cost of a negative and each buy a positive which I felt would be useful to all.  They readily agreed.  The Weigmink “Early Days” was the first and largest: 1175 pages of history plus a foreward and table of contents (typed by Miss Lawler of the Visual Aids Department of the Battle Creek Schools).  The total cost for each participating library was $16 or 1 1/3 per page, about one-third of the cost if it had been ordered for Willard Library only.  This method of cost-sharing was later explained for History Magazine at the editor’s request.]  A few scrapbooks have been created and/or improved.  Minnie Merritt Fay’s abridgement of the Chandler has been typed by willing volunteers.  Typing of the Roberts’ Collection is about three-fourths completed.  His collection of fire-fighting data, largely gathered by Charles Barnes, has been organized, augmented and placed in a more lasting notebook.

            Perhaps the most useful accomplishment (which can always be augmented with current data as events happen) has been the creation of a “morgue” as newspapers call their envelope files of biographies.  This is at Willard Library and has been declared a time-saver by the reference librarians.  At this writing there are 2500 envelopes.  Rose Coller, a Battle Creek historian of great reliability, is said to have a collection of 60,000.  We have urged him to will this to Willard Library.  If he does, a future historian may find a way to make his collection still more useful via microfilm or some as yet unknown process for convenient reference.

            Also completed with a copy to Willard Library, the Enquirer and News and to the Battle Creek Sanitarium history room is a table of contents or listing of Fannie Sprague Talbot’s 250 articles under the series “Do You Remember?”  The titles and the dates they appeared in the Enquirer and News are given.  Another list which has been of use at the library, feeling it would be a time-saver for future researchers and fewer burdens on the minds and memories of the library staff.  Work has been started on a more complete listing which Hobart Chipman of the Enquirer and News hoped to see completed and published.  We called it The Index – a title more appropriate for the Coller collection.  This has not been completed.

            In April, 1971, Amy South took over the Sunday Enquirer and News column, Looking Back.  She not only knew nothing of Battle Creek’s past but admitted to having minuscule background in history.  She has done a splendid job.  The fact that Battle Creek history was fairly well organized and made available to her has been a contributing factor in her success.  This is heartening to know because it proves that the cooperation of librarians and amateur historians has accomplished something tangible, worthwhile and useful.  Mrs. South has been supplied with source material by many besides me.

            My part in all this began in September, 1951.  Our eldest child was married, the second established, the third old enough to go and come independently.  My house was clean, the garden in order, family and travel scrapbooks are uptodate.  And my husband was an obstetrician, I was needed at home to answer phone except during his office hours.  That gave me many hours at home for pastimes in which I alone was interested.  Besides, I had enough household help so that there were free weekday hours to go to the library.  (I have never been an enthusiastic shopper or bridge player and did not learn how to play golf; hospital volunteer work was not for me, both for my sake and my husband’s.)  It was time, I decided, to do what I had always hoped to do – read, read, read.  I even promised to “rock myself into old age, reading.”  Not much of a joiner, I withdrew from AAUW and WNF&G, the premise being that if one is to read with purpose, one should concentrate on that.

            On a beautiful Sunday about two weeks after this major decision was made, my husband and I strolled to our front porch which overlooks Goguac Lake.

            “Reading about Goguac Lake ought to be interesting,” I said.  “You know how I prefer delving into one subject at a time.”

            The following day I went to the Reference Room at Willard Library and asked what was available on Goguac Lake.  The answer was, “Nothing.”  This was not the fault of the librarian as I hoped to make clear.

            In those days I had never heard of County histories (Calhoun County has four) or County atlases (Calhoun has four, one of them in manuscript which I later found in the Marshall Historical Society room) or that City Directories date back to 1869.  It was two years before I learned that a few scrapbooks of historical materials (including clippings on Goguac) had been made up by WPA hirelings in the 1930’s and were right there in the Reference Room.  I was told that back newspapers were available on microfilm, but there was no index and I knew not where to start.  It would be a needle-in-haystack search until I acquired some sort of background.

            The question put to me most often is, “How did you begin?”  Assuming that the answer is still of interest, I shall tell what I recall in some detail.

            The abstract for our property was taken from the bank for study.  It was my first analysis of an abstract for sweet history’s sake but it gave me a dating of the area’s settlement and names of a few pioneers.  One was Hermes Sweet who, I soon learned was the great-grandfather of Forest Sweet, a good man to interview and a gold-mine of both national and local history, his business being the sale of American history autographs.  The Battle Creek Sanitarium occupied the spot where I live for about 30 years, using it as a rest resort for patients and employees, but leased the ground so that there was no lead for deeper research revealed in the abstract.  Next, I tried interviewing old-timers who still had homes at the lake: Charles Jabez Austin and Dr. E. D. Vince and Mrs. Hugh Conklin.

            A trip to Kingman Museum produced the 1877 Calhoun County History with an excellent section on Goguac Prairie and Goguac Lake, also a pre-1850 Calhoun County wall map.  Returning to the library to tell of this great discovery, I was shown the complete set of county histories and atlases.  My surprise was obvious.  “Why, Mrs. Lowe,” the librarian said, “You have written a book on Michigan – surely you knew about the county histories available.”  When I confessed ignorance, stating that my book was largely contemporary, I was also shown the Michigan Pioneer Collections, forerunner of Michigan History Magazine with which I was meagerly acquainted.  Volume V contains much about the Battle Creek area written by that prolific local historian, A. D. P. Vanburen, whose articles had originally appeared in the Battle Creek Journal in the 1870s.

            Inquiry to the Michigan Historical Commission asking where I could find historical collections that might have Battle Creek materials sent me scurrying to Michigan State Library and Burton Historical Collection of the Detroit Public Library.  I already knew about Clements Historical Library and the Rare Book Room of U of M from use in the 1920s while I was living in Ann Arbor.  Also, in the summer of 1951 I had taken the small residue of the once fabulous library of Marcus and Mabel Stone Farley to give away and was able to pass some choice items on to these repositories.  Neither, of course, had anything about Battle Creek, but in the acknowledgment from Clements was a mention of the U of Me archives, Michigan Historical Collections (begun in the late 1930s), to which Clements had sent one of my gifts, a book on Michigan Indians.  My association these twenty years with the Michigan Historical Collections has been full of encouragement for me and assured place of proper care for many Battle Creek documentary items which will be of interest of future researchers.  At least two doctor’s theses have been based on material which I was able to divert to that research center.

            However, my first visit was to the State Library.  There I met Mrs. Esther B. Loughin who taught me what I longed to know.  When I told her I knew nothing about available Battle Creek history, she believed me.  All of the books she had about Battle Creek were on one shelf.  I learned then of several souvenir editions, mostly published by newspapers.  There was almost nothing in the vertical file about my area.  She showed me some scrapbooks and booklets from other countries and towns, several of them created by school classes.

            Visits to Ann Arbor and Detroit produced the same books, most of which I found later at Willard Library in odd corners and either unknown or forgotten by the librarians.  This taught me that local material was available – it simply had to be listed and organized so that the librarians could find it readily.  There was a policy at Willard at that time that the library served the Battle Creek schools and the general public; that there was neither room nor staff to make it a research center.  By accepting gifts, materials which proved to be useful, the library policy was gradually changed.  I was shown and allowed to use the Roberts collection of pictures and captions which I felt should be typed and microfilmed.

            During the months while I was learning sources, I organized Goguac Lake findings into geographical areas.  When I was asked to speak about Goguac to DAR at the September, 1952, meeting, I had decided upon a policy of my own:  I would speak on the local history I had learned without pay, providing I could beg the audience for materials.  One talk let to another, one attic to another until I was often invited not only to search attics and cellars but to dig into unwanted materials in estates.  I only dealt in books, scrapbooks, documents, pictures; and entirely without financial consideration.  “I do not buy, I do not sell, I only beg and give away” became my cliché.  Anything of local interest, no matter what the locality, was wrapped and shipped to a library or museum in the proper area.  (AAS&LH puts out a museum directory.)  I was asked, “Who pays for this mailing?” This brought forth another cliché:  “My hobby has never yet cost $100 a year and my husband says that any man is lucky who can keep his wife happy with less than $100.”  Mrs. Loughin had taught me about library rates, then very low.

            In 1953 with the cooperation of Kingman Museum staff, the Battle Creek Historical Society was reactivated after a lull of twenty-two years.  From then on for a decade or more, gifts were sent out of town in the name of the society.  Leonard Johnson, member of the Kingman Museum staff was executive secretary of the Society, sending out notices, accepting gifts, cataloguing same after a fashion.  When he left Battle Creek, I assumed the title and shortly began a quarterly, named Up-To-Date.  The Society seldom had more than 75 members.  However, some were devoted to the cause:  Earl Van Huysen, retired city fireman, Bernice and Leo (“Bob”) White, Robert White who had lived on Goguac Lake in his youth and gave me much information about the activities at the lake.

            All artifacts were taken to Kingman Museum whose storage space and staff were equally limited.  Books, clippings and documents were generally given to me.  I repaired them (with instructions from Mrs. Loughin at Mich. State Lib.) and placed them where I thought they would be the most useful to the greatest number of people.  Duplicates were shared with the State Lib. And Mich. His. Colls.  After a few years of this activity Mrs. Loughin said to me, “When you first came here to learn what we had about Battle Creek, your city’s source material was low on the list.  Today our holdings on Battle Creek stand second – next to those on Detroit.”  Who can resist doubling one’s effort on hearing such sweet sounding words?

            In 1953 I heard of a writer who was gathering material for a book on the cereal industry.  Miss Lenna Cooper was a friend of his and gave me his address.  I wrote to him, offering any assistance (for free) that I might give.  This started a long and rewarding friendship with Gerald Carson who ultimately published Corn Flake Crusade.  We had many interests – even collections – in common which have allowed me to contribute bits to some of his later publications as well.  My husband and I visited him and his delightful wife Lettie in August, 1955.  Their charming old house, historical mountainside “Cave Hill,” and the discovery of many mutual interests are lasting memories.

            When I received national recognition for my historical preservations from AAS&LH, I thought Gerald Carson had sent in my name but he disclaims any credit.  Needless to say this honor was a great incentive to continue working on Battle Creek’s past.  In those early years I spent from 20 to 50 hours every week scanning and repairing donated materials and then placing them in public domain.  People would call me with one lead or another.  Like, “I saw a load of books and papers taken from the house next door.  Mr. So-and-so was a great saver.”  This would start my phoning the second-hand and junk dealers and sometimes finding the collection.  Some of the dealers became my friends and saved out old books or stacks of outdated newspapers for me.  An article in the local paper by Cecil Munson dubbed us Historical Society folk “attic archeologists.”  That was a pretty elegant name for diggers into barrels of damp papers, moldy cartons and dust-laden boxes.  Occasionally a prize item showed up.  Sometimes the frustrations were almost enough to cause me to drop Battle Creek history and return to a novel and my rocking chair.

            What were those frustrations?  The worst was spending perhaps a half a day listening to someone who claimed to want to give me some historical items and then, when I had made my selections, tell me those were the things he/she didn’t want to give up.  If I used the word “valuable” it was sometimes understood to mean marketable for a high price.  One day Mrs. Lynn Stoddard and I spent four hours sorting a large library for a real estate dealer who said he thought there were some worth-while books in a house that he wished to sell and thought they ought to be looked over first.  It was the estate of an active Seventh Day Adventist and some of his books with Battle Creek imprints would have been fine additions to Willard Library’s collection.  We saved out about 125 books we would like to have.  He asked the woman in charge to have us phone him when we were through.  We did and he asked what we had saved out.  “Mostly Battle Creek imprints, Review and Herald publications,” I answered.  “I thought there might be something like that,” he commented.  “These are the books I want.  Thank you for sorting them.”  I couldn’t send him a bill for expert handling.  I don’t deal in money…remember?

            Apropos of the example given above, let me assure you that a historian becomes a philosopher.  He discovers for himself that there are good and evil in every group, on every street, in every town.  Historical research has revealed a cheat in every major church in Battle Creek, hiding behind some righteous mask (or excuse).  The proverb “There is a skeleton in every closet” is true even though it is easiest to find it in family histories.  The beauty one discovers in the firm loyalties of many folk more than offsets the cheats.  Each negative has a positive.  Nature continues attempting to strike a balance in human as in other relations.

            Local history is not a one-way street.  Collecting materials is not a “gimme” proposition.  Items that could hurt a family and not help the community can be destroyed.  The giving away is not always to public domain.  I have had the privilege of passing on data, photographs and pleasant stories to augment family histories.  Many children have come to me for help with their school work.  Some are lazy and seek help in desperation, unwilling to do any of the leg-work themselves.  One junior high boy used some of my source material to win a coveted prize.  The collection at Battle Creek High School of its yearbook, The Paean, is now complete, that at Willard Library lacks only one copy.  Request letters passed on to me by the library, Chamber of Commerce and City Hall have been answered to the best of my ability to search out the wanted data.  The library is now equipped to answer such requests.

            After I began delving into Battle Creek history an occasional old-timer would say to me, “Why don’t you research Sojourner Truth?”  By the time I knew that several books about her had appeared during her lifetime and one (Fauset’s) in this century and my answer was that her story had been told.  Attending New York State Historical Society’s “Seminar” at Cooperstown in 1955, I met Prof. Harold Thompson, often spoken of as ‘The father of American folklore.’  We compared notes on Sojourner and he urged me to write up some of the stories I had heard, titling an article for New York Folklore Magazine, “The Michigan Days of Sojourner Truth.”  This I did after several more interviews and considerable study.

            A year or so after the publication of this article I discovered an error in my findings, it concerned a picture of her that had been given to me as a photo of Sojourner; it was really of her daughter Diana, instead.  Further digging showed me that I must not trust reminiscences (even my own!) as fact unless I find a second proof.  In learning this angle I also found other questionable legends about Sojourner.  The data I gathered in trying to separate legends about her from the facts brought a greater and greater respect for that old reformer; she was no less important when proved to be younger than her successive tombstones have proclaimed.  That data is now on microfilm in several historical centers and the source material housed at Michigan Historical Collections, Ann Arbor.  It has led to my sharing my findings with Hertha Pauli, author of HER NAME WAS SOJOURNER TRUTH and Jaqueline Bernard who wrote JOURNEY TO FREEDOM and others with an interest in our ‘first famous citizen,’ which Sojourner Truth was.

            Early in my search for Battle Creek’s history I contacted the public schools to learn what might be available for children.  There was a third-grade book of stories, largely inaccurate.  I urged that in-service credit be given to third-grade teachers for writing stories for their students.  This material was the springboard for a writer employed by the Board of Education to compose some stories that could be used as a third-grade history text.  Teachers in the Springfield system had written a good text for their pupils for the study of local Indians.  (I had no part in this.)  I did speak to and help the Harper Creek teachers prepare an historical pageant.  (The Battle Creek Historical Society was presented $25 for its part in finding the name Harper Creek for that school system of several townships.)  I also spoke for the Lakeview teachers trying to arouse their interest in local history but caused no ripple.  Later, junior high teacher, Ray Sikkenga, has helped his classes write their own texts and form their own Junior Historical Society.  After Kimball House was acquired this group shoveled snow from the walks for the first open house in December, 1966.  A city-wide Junior Historical Society could be of great benefit to “intensify interest in the heritage of the Battle Creek area” which is the slogan for Kimball House Museum.  To start such a project and keep it functioning takes devoted leadership.

            Battle Creek has long needed a social history museum.  Mrs. Josephine Kimball Buckminster offered first to sell, and then decided to give the Kimball home at 196 Capital Avenue, N.E., for such a purpose.  The Historical Society did not have the strength to accept such a responsibility.  The Junior League was looking for a new project at the time, was already history museum interested and accepted the gift.  Its members supplied money and manpower to refurbish the house whose Victorian atmosphere had been preserved.  Artifacts belonging to the Society were removed from Kingman Museum of Natural History’s storage to Kimball House.  Additional gifts were soon contributed.

            Cooperation between the Society and the League was not always complete.  Development of a city-wide board of control for the museum was slow to materialize and then slow to function efficiently.  Now, in 1971 a membership campaign has tripled the Society’s membership while cooperation with the museum board including the handling of funds is both beneficial and smooth.  The Junior League still contributes the major budget, leaving its management to the Museum Board.

            The Junior League has inaugurated and executed an educational program of tours through Kimball House for school children.  There is no director although Mrs. Charles (Carol) Kime is hostess two afternoons a week and functions as the Board’s executive secretary.  Mrs. Sherman (Arlene) Lavigna has assumed responsibility as volunteer librarian and archivist.  She works closely with the reference department at Willard Library in order to create the best possible resources for researchers.  My contributions to Kimball House Museum have been only whatever I could do that filled current needs.  I did inaugurate the Looking Back column in the Enquirer and News (with the help of the late Hobart Chipman) to give the museum weekly publicity, writing 65 stories until a replacement could be found.

            The foregoing account has stressed the constructive activity that I have seen come about.  As to my own history search, I hope the stress has been on the joy it has brought me, and omitted the details of long searches, detective style, for data and materials.  It skips the travail of trying to keep the Historical Society active; of putting on a “fashion show” for Battle Creek’s 125th birthday with a minimum of committee helpers writing the script and the publicity, planning and directing the show; of wearing the mask while working in dust after a unhappy experience that ended in the hospital; of having choice pictures and my favorite map filched by befriended “researchers” of untold rewards and satisfactions from hours spent simply “listening.”

            My mistakes were those of the amateur groping for know-how.  My failures, largely in not taking more complete notes and not filing and cataloguing data properly, may perhaps be excused because I did not at first realize that my pastime was producing valuable resource material.  Then there is the matter of time.  One can’t be top professional without an office, assistants and a secretary.  As Vannevar Bush says, it was “My way, mine alone.”