(Re-formatted – Sorry, something went screwy in the layout. I’m such a perfectionist – hopefully this looks better!)
Like a kid in a candy store, I was surrounded by boxes of old documents from the 1850s to 1915, selected for me by the Archivists at the Yolo County Archives at my recent visit to Woodland, California in September. After years of researching my Yolo Pioneer and activist Great-Grandmother using online searches and old family documents, I was eager to locate primary sources, especially personal correspondence. But COVID hit in 2020, and I had to put my research visits on hold for two years.
I’m excited to finally be writing a comprehensive biography of Emily Hoppin, my great-grandmother. Not just as an ancestor, but because she lived in an era where women were coming into new power in their communities. She was part of the struggle for women’s suffrage, and she fought to eliminate the devastating effects of alcohol from the lives of women and children. She was a farmer who ran an 800-acre farm and won the 1915 statewide election for President of the California Federation of Women’s Clubs (CFWC) based on her rural perspective, and she was a WWI peace activist.
Emily Hoppin 1915
But her gift, as Heather Lanctot, Yolo County Archives and Records Center Coordinator noted, is that she left a paper trail. Hundreds of women had joined in her efforts, but Emily left writings and speeches for posterity. Much of what she wrote has wisdom for today and will be part of her biography. Additionally, many Hoppin descendants had the foresight to donate family papers to the archives. Not many people think to do that, according to Mollie Watson, Assistant Director of the Niles History Center in Michigan.
I think about today’s electronic communications and wonder how much of our lives will be lost if not also documented in paper and archived. We may be saving trees and time, but those who follow us will have less access to our history.
As I fill in the details of Emily’s life, the deeper I research, the more content appears – like the multiplying brooms in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice! Yikes! My cousins are now helping with Emily’s early days in Niles, Michigan. Nancy Peters, who lives in Michigan, and Cathy Altuvilla from LA, took my research questions to the archive staff at the Niles History Center to find answers, and while visiting, took photos of Emily’s family house, church, and the nearby St. Joseph River.
Closer to home in California, I had the new experience of watching professional archivists at work. Before my appointment at the Yolo County Archives, I had sent two pages of areas I wanted to research, as well as some perplexing questions I had. Archives and Records Center Coordinator, Heather Lanctot, and Rachel Poutasse, Library Assistant, were on it! I arrived to tables and carts filled with ledgers, maps, voter registrations, deeds, wills, probate records, and fragile bound newspapers from the 1850s to 1915. They not only gave me what I asked for, but as professional archivists, they knew what else would be relevant from their vast archive storage – materials I didn’t even know existed. You may enjoy this link to a behind-the-scenes look at the Yolo Archives: https://youtu.be/SEw0cZNhEdA .
After giving me an overview, I was set loose…like a kid in a candy shop!
There’s nothing comparable to the feel, the smell, even the sound of fragile pages rustling in my hands. But holding my great-grandmother’s actual 1911 voter registration (first woman to register in the Cacheville precinct after California women gained suffrage in 1911!), and examining her hand-written will? Those took my breath away.
And then there’s witnessing a gathering storm as I turned the bound pages of the 1915 Mail of Woodland newspaper and viewed the events leading up to World War I and the parallel events leading to Emily Hoppin’s election as president of the California Federation of Women’s Clubs.
I wonder what people in the future will say about the progression of today’s aggressive headlines and where we are heading.
My dream was still to find Emily Hoppin’s personal letters or journals as a way to glimpse her inner world. The next afternoon, across Woodland at the Yolo County Historical Collection at The Gibson House, Iulia Bodeanu, Yolo County Museum Curator, presented me with more Hoppin file boxes.
I held my breath, for behind the folder of Gold Rush letters from my great-uncle, John Hoppin, was a thick folder of fragile, hand-written pages. Yes, Emily’s handwriting! Not personal letters, but about a dozen of her speeches, written in pencil, words crossed out, edits made, notes on the margins. Some I had never seen before. It was like discovering gold! Of course, Iulia wouldn’t let me have them, so we arranged to have them scanned and sent to me.
I asked these ladies what it takes to be a professional archivist and was impressed with their educational background:
Heather Lanctot: BA in Music History with an emphasis in History and Literature, MA in Musicology (both from University of Oregon), MLIS with a specialization in Archives and Records Management (San Jose State)
Rachel Poutasse: MLIS with a specialization in Archival Studies from UCLA
Iulia Bodeanu: Masters in Museum Studies from San Francisco State University. Bachelor of Arts in Art History and English from UC Berkeley
I returned to my mountain home, not only with a digital trunk load of documents, but with great respect for all the professional and volunteer archivists who work as guardians and guides to our past. Thank you!
Heart Wood is fictional history inspired in part by the life of Emily Hoppin. Many of her life events and writings are incorporated into the novel in the character of Eliza. My initial research on Emily and Charles Hoppin is posted on my website: shirleydickard.com under “Historical Research.”
Heart Wood can be found at your local library, bookstore, and online .