As the launch date for A Settler’s Year: Pioneer Life Through The Seasons approaches, I’ve been thinking about the journey I’ve taken with this book. Why did I spend two years living with this project, and why was I confident that readers would care?
My interest in the topic goes back to 1981, when I first toured the fledgling historic site called Old World Wisconsin.
I was so captivated by the stories, the setting, and the museum’s mission that the following spring I packed up, moved to Wisconsin, and went to work as an interpreter in the museum’s German area.
After two years on-site I moved behind the scenes, and was hired as curator of interpretation and collections. For the next decade I worked closely with Marty Perkins. You can read more about Marty here.
On one of my visits after I’d left the site, Marty told me he’d been working with a photographer named Loyd Heath, and showed me some of Loyd’s incredible photographs. “You’d love Loyd,” Marty told me. “He’s a great guy.”
The last time I saw Marty, he told me about a book proposal he was developing for the Wisconsin Historical Society Press about pioneer life in Wisconsin, featuring Loyd’s photographs. Marty was happy to be working on a topic so near to his heart, and delighted that the book would bring Loyd’s work to a bigger audience.
Marty died suddenly two weeks later.
Some months after that, my friend Kathy Borkowski, publisher at the WHSP, asked me if I’d like to pick up the project. “I couldn’t possibly,” I said. “Just think about it,” she said. We went through that routine several times over the next month or so.
Finally I sat down with Kathy and Kate, the senior editor. “I can’t write the book Marty would have written,” I said. “Nobody can do that.” They said they understood. I talked with Marty’s wife about it. She said she and the kids understood, too.
Finally I realized how much I did want to pick up the project. It was something I could do in honor of my former friend and colleague.
In addition, there are few topics I feel as passionate about as the lives of early immigrants. I’ve spent the last three decades thinking about them, interpreting them, writing about them, creating museum events and television programs and poems and books about them. The immigrant experience is, at its essence, about people searching for a new home, in a new place. That journey has meaning for almost all of us—whether in our own lives, or in our ancestors’ lives.And as frosting on the cake, I was delighted with the opportunity to work on such a visual book. Loyd takes gorgeous photographs, and the WHSP produces gorgeous books.
I’ll always wish I could have read the book that Marty would have written, but I’m enormously grateful to have had the opportunity to be involved. Reading the immigrants’ accounts, and pairing their stories with Loyd’s photographs, was a healing, rewarding, and often moving experience.
I hope that you, too, are moved as you experience A Settler’s Year: Pioneer Life Through The Seasons.