Sunday, February 3, 2008

"Attics and Basements"

Corn Market in Ledbury, England

I'm feeling nostalgic and grateful today.
Dee received advice from a wise man twenty years ago that changed our lives.

(I need to give some background first.)

Dee decided to change careers in 1985, yada, yada, yada, and we moved to York, England for a year while he got a master's degree in Historic Preservation.

During that time, the Mormon Church was preparing to celebrate 150 years in the British Isles, and a professor at BYU knew we were living there. He was writing a book, and searching for some particular historical sites in England. Memorable events and locations were detailed in diaries written 150 years before (by Heber C. Kimball and Wilford Woodruff,) however the places had disappeared from modern maps.

Farms, churches and landmarks mentioned were called Hilltop Farm, Castle Frome, Benbow Pond or Job Pingree's Mill. Although the names were well-known to LDS historians, the actual places were lost in the "depths of the country." Dee was asked to follow the journals to discover appropriate locations where the Church could place historic plaques, hold celebrations, and even purchase property for the British saints to enjoy.

Yorkshire Countryside

Over several months we traveled the length and breadth of England's tiny, crooked village roads, using 100-year-old ordnance maps, and collecting information from local folks. Church members had immigrated en masse to Utah in the 1850's, and their important places weren't important to the people now living in England.

Most of the modern Mormons didn't know the history of their earlier counterparts who had left, and were unfamiliar with the church sites themselves. (This was the reason for the celebrations, plaques and book in the first place.) Without the aid of a computer, satellite map, or GPS, we felt like real-life explorers gathering a bit of information here and there for a basic primer the saints could study.

Ours was an unpaid position; we actually paid all our own expenses, too. It was a hard time in our life to go a second year without income. But we discovered that we loved gathering history and assembling the pieces together, like a puzzle. Until places, facts and human stories are compiled and put into written form, they are inaccessible. Students can't easily learn what the information is until it's organized into a book. We wondered if anyone would pay for this kind of on-the-ground research. It was valuable, necessary and we were getting good at it.

Using a magnifying glass to read the old maps, we found markets, lodgings, and ponds, and then transposed them onto modern maps. Sometimes the roads were gone; often we had to climb out of the car and peer through high hedgerows to see the ruins behind them. Luckily things don't change too quickly in England and we eventually sent our author friend directions from a cemetery in Llanelli, Wales to a home on the Isle of Man, to a stone wall in Downham, Lancashire, with many significant farms, chapels, and rivers in between.

When we returned home, Dee served on the committee that prepared the historical markers. He also put together a private preservation trust and raised money to purchase and rebuild some of the buildings we had found in ruins. There are guided tours in Britain designed around these sites today.

Gadfield Elm Chapel

The next year we went back to England for a month to set up displays in town halls and libraries around the country, and transport the plaques to their destinations. When it was all over, it was time to find a real job.

Dee had a chance to interview Gordon B. Hinckley during this time. He was a counselor in the 1st Presidency. He asked Dee about his career plans after the Sesquicentennial was over and Dee told him he was considering a job in the church archives.

President Hinckley recognized some characteristics and talents unique to Dee. He said this:
"Dee, history is not just in the archives. Most of it is in the attics and basements of everyday people, waiting to be discovered. You tell those stories."

Dee in his office.

And so, Dee decided on a career of Gathering History. There wasn't much of a job description for his made up profession, but over the years he's gathered those pieces, too. Offhand Words of a Prophet: Dee took them to heart and figured out how to make them applicable to himself. Now he spends weeks in attics and basements all over the world finding treasures, and giving life to long dead heroes.

And his assistant couldn't be happier.

Me in library Amesbury, MA


Holly (2 Kids and Tired) said...

Fascinating! I loved this. What an awesome career.

Ashlee said...

What a great story! It sounds like you've had just an AMAZING life.

Christie said...

I cannot imagine doing all this with seven children. You guys are inspiring. I love the stories from these days.

Sheri said...

My husband is one of those church historians who works in the archives. Sounds like Dee's way of collecting and writing history is much more fun!

Jessica said...

You tell the best stories...are you by any chance a grandma and historian's assistant?!

mama jo said...

it's always great to find something you love to do and then do it...