Manuscripts Relocated to a Temporary Home

Guest post by Barb Mayes Boustead

The Detroit Public Library long has been the home of the handwritten original manuscripts of The Long Winter and These Happy Golden Years.  As a part of my Hard Winter research for my Ph.D., viewing the manuscript for The Long Winter was high on my list of research necessities.  The University of Nebraska’s Center for Great Plains Studies was even kind enough to bestow on me a travel grant to cover the expenses of traveling to Detroit to conduct this research.  I planned my visit to Detroit in the midst of a long summer trip that took me to LauraPalooza, then to eastern Iowa for a friend’s wedding, and finally to Michigan to do research and then visit family.

I was expecting to view the manuscript on the Tuesday after LauraPalooza.  I called ahead on Friday, as a courtesy call and to see if I needed to set an appointment.  I almost drove off the road, though, when I heard these dreaded words from the librarian in the historical collection:

“The manuscripts are out on loan…

… until September 2013.”

What?!  They’re manuscripts!  They can’t just be loaned willy-nilly!

Upon further investigation, I learned that the manuscripts had been sent to the Michigan Historical Archives in Lansing to be used in a museum display.  I asked the librarian in Detroit if I would be able to view the manuscripts up there, and he said I’d have to get in touch with them.

I scrounged around online until I found the Archives of Michigan, which oddly is now a part of the Department of Natural Resources.  I called the number and spoke to a young lady who gave me the name of the person who has been charged as the keeper of the manuscripts – a Julie Meyerle.  I left a message for her on Friday afternoon and hoped that she’d be around to return a call.

And I waited.  The weekend passed with no word.  I tried to call her again on Saturday and Monday and still had no success.  Hubby and I spent our time in Detroit at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village to get a taste of history.  We even watched a Laura presentation at Greenfield Village (not bad, if you ever catch it there!).  But it was no replacement for the deep research I needed to do for my dissertation and writing.  Our trip continued on to Higgins Lake, Michigan, as we still had no word on whether it was worth our time to stop in Lansing.

Finally, on Tuesday at about 1 p.m., I got a call from Julie:  Yes, I could come down and view the manuscripts in Lansing!  I got her message at 1:30 p.m., and we were on the road by 2 p.m.  It was a 2-hour drive from Higgins Lake to Lansing, with my husband graciously speeding to save me a few precious minutes while also allowing me a chance to prepare my mind.  I was going to see Laura’s own words, in her own handwriting!

I know that museums and archives have rules and standards for handling and viewing manuscripts and other historical documents.  I had a vague sense that in Detroit, it’s OK to take non-flash pictures, but I wasn’t sure if handling the manuscripts was allowed there.  And I had no idea what the Archives would allow.  Hubby and I checked in with our drivers licenses, put all belongings in a locker (except for an iPad that they allowed, without its case), and sat at a desk.  We were sternly lectured to not take any photographs (even non-flash) of the manuscripts, which I had actually been counting on doing.  Hubby did coax them to let him take a couple of pictures of me, hard at work.

The archivist brought out the manuscripts and laid them on the table in front of me.  Breathless and shaking, I opened the tablets and read her words, her pages.  I noted differences from the published version, including many juicy tidbits that may help me identify the weather events a little more specifically and have given insight into how the family coped.  (I will not be revealing the details on those… you’ll have to wait for the book!) [Editor’s note: WHAT BOOK, Barb?!]


Barb hard at work on the manuscript review. Photo by Josh Boustead.


I had arrived at 4 p.m., and the Archives closed promptly at 5 p.m.  It was nowhere near enough time to page through the Hard Long Winter manuscript and take all the notes I needed.  I was only about two-thirds of the way through, and that had been rushed and frantic.  I’d have to come back the next day, sacrificing a trip to the wineries of northwest Michigan with my mom to do so.  From opening time promptly at 1pm until around 3pm, I continued to diligently take iPad notes.  I even left myself enough time to glance through These Happy Golden Years for some of my favorite weather events, with a few more juicy tidbits that you’ll have to wait to hear!

Thus ended my research time with the Archives.  I’ve since learned that the Detroit Public Library only allows handling with gloves, and that mainly by their own people.  I have to admit that I was pretty shocked about being able to handle the manuscripts myself, bare-handed.  Actually, when I mentioned it to Julie after my visit, she also was surprised.  (The archivists seemed more concerned with being able to see that I wasn’t pocketing the books – I was asked a couple of times to move items to the side so that they could watch me from their desk unimpeded.)  Take heart, historians – I washed my hands and used the utmost of care when handling those books.  And perhaps the group will be more careful to ask any viewers to use gloves from here forward, now that they are aware that my viewing was without gloves.

I learned from Julie after my visit that the books will be a part of the display called “Put it on Paper,” which celebrates the process of taking creative vision (art and writing) from the mind to the paper.  The exhibit will be on display in Lansing from September 29, 2012, through the fall of 2013, and a link will be posted from the Archives website once the exhibit is up.  During the display, the manuscripts will not be available for private viewing and research.  If you had designs on doing research on either of these manuscripts, this will certainly affect your timeline!  I am lucky that I viewed the manuscripts in the nick of time.  And I’m thankful that I did, because some of my findings are just THAT good!

Posted in The Long Winter, These Happy Golden Years
13 comments on “Manuscripts Relocated to a Temporary Home
  1. laura says:

    Can’t wait for “the book” Barb!

  2. TLynn says:

    Really looking forward to the book!

    I’ve done a bit of historical research myself, and there is actually a movement away from gloves. They are finding that the oils from well-washed and dried hands does less damage than the extra-hard “rubbing” that gloves usually require.

  3. Mom says:

    Although the trip to the wineries of Northwest Michigan along Old Mission Drive would have been fabulous, it certainly was worth the sacrifice of missing it so you could continue your research. We will have to try again next year. It was great to hear your reactions to the viewings and see your excitement first hand. Most of us are lucky if we get to pursue our passion, you get to pursue two of your passions simultaneously in the name of science and education. Enjoy the journey!

  4. LauriOH says:

    There’s a Laura exhibit at Greenfield village?

    • It was a speaker/reenactor. She did a 15-minute presentation as though she was talking to the audience before going in to teach her first class at Brewster, and she basically covered the highlights of Little Town on the Prairie. She then took time after her presentation to talk to the kids who were listening. Her talk was outside of one of the historic schoolhouses on site.

      • LauriOH says:

        I’ve not made my reservations for next month in Michigan yet. I was about to start wondering if I needed to add a day in Greenfield Village. Instead of going straight up to Northwest Michigan near those wineries. 😉

  5. laura says:

    I love “mom’s” comment above. I wondered how she felt about missing the wine tour. Now we know. The love of mothers is boundless.

    • She was very understanding — she’s been my mom a long time, and it’s not the first time that I’ve had school or work get in the way of fun! We did find a bottle of wine at home to share, at least :).

  6. Sarah Manley says:

    Hoping the publish date of your book happens soon because waiting until 2015 for some good research/findings is too long!

  7. Laura Welser says:

    Three (or four) things:
    Great post, Barb! I’m always worried about what will become of the manuscripts (and letters and photos) that the Detroit Public Library has if something should happen (Detroit’s financial woes)
    I’ll definitely be planning a trip to Lansing to see this exhibit, just so I can see the manuscripts again.
    I haven’t been to Greenfield Village in a good many years, but would love to visit with their Laura.
    And thanks to your mom for the mention of the Northwest Michigan wineries. I’m going to Traverse City for a meeting in October. Sounds like a great side trip. 🙂