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How To: Collect the History of Your Area

The district that desires to have a history of its development compiled is lucky if, amongst its own citizens, it can discover an individual who knows the district intimately and is sufficiently interested to secure and record the facts relating to community growth. This is the most satisfactory method of getting a local history written.

If no such interested and capable person is available to undertake the work, a committee of interested citizens may collect the material while it is still available and hold it in readiness for someone, perhaps not so closely informed as they may be, who can write the story of the district from the facts they have assembled.

The following are suggestions for the collection of necessary material that will assist a future writer to get the overall picture of the district so necessary before she/he undertakes the work. Some of these suggestions may seem unnecessarily detailed, but experience has proven their worth. For example, it may seem superfluous to list the names of all councillors, trustees, teachers, doctors, station agents, merchants etc. Whether or not they will be incorporated into the story of the community must be left to the judgment of the future writer, depending on their relevance to the context of the story; but, if such lists are available, the historian may be enabled to make contact with the persons so listed, or their descendants and secure from them information that will fill out the picture of by-gone days.

Prepare a scrapbook with accounts and pictures of people and events in your community. The use of a loose-leaf scrapbook is recommended so that, as the pages accumulate, they may be changed from one position to another so that the record may be kept chronologically, or topically:

  • Attach names, dates, and specific location to each clipping or picture.
  • Old photographs of persons, buildings, farm implements etc. are valuable records if care is taken to mark the date of the photograph, the names of the persons, and the event portrayed. When labelling photographs, be sure to write captions on the back, in pencil only. Ink will tend to bleed through the photograph over time.
  • Obituary accounts are often the best source of facts and dates that concerned the citizens.

Find one or more interested persons in each school district who will undertake to discover:

  • the names of the original holders of each section, or part thereof, in the school district, and the names of subsequent owners;
  • the district in Eastern Canada, the British Isles, the United States, Europe or elsewhere from which the original settlers came;
  • whether the land was a homestead or purchased property; and, if the latter, from what source it was purchased: Hudson’s Bay Company, Canadian Pacific Railway, The Department of Education (was it a school section?), land speculators in Eastern Canada, or elsewhere, and other sources.

Make a map of the municipality or county with the names of the original settlers from the information collected through the school districts as above.

Make a map of the municipality or county showing present owners.

Secure stories of the early settlement of each school district, note when and how the district was formed, and secure stories of the original pioneers as told by their descendants or from diaries or old letters These may be inserted in the scrapbook or kept in some secure place until a historian is found, or if not actually procured, the place where they are to be found may be listed and such information kept in the scrapbook. Photocopies may be made of letters or documents which families are unwilling to part with, or they can be copied using a computer and scanner. Likewise, copies of cherished photographs can be scanned at high resolution.

List the names of chairmen, secretaries and if possible, the trustees in each school district, with the dates of their service from the school’s founding to the present, as well as the names and dates of teachers. These can usually be found in school registers.

Discover what use was made of early school buildings for religious services and other meetings. What men or women were connected with early church organization?

Set down any information that can be obtained from municipal records, letters, diaries, or by questioning pioneers or their families, regarding the early municipalities:

  • their date of establishment;
  • changes in size, shape, and organization;’
  • lists of reeves and councillors with, dates;
  • notable incidents regarding early council meetings or municipal undertakings with dates if possible.

Record the beginning of towns and villages, with dates. Relate this to:

  • the coming of the railways
  • need for markets
  • proximity to other towns
  • tell of choice of name, and why
  • list names of mayors and councillors, with dates
  • give accounts of laying sidewalks, of street lighting, of erecting public buildings
  • give kind of industries begun with dates, and names of persons connected with each. Tell how long these industries continued to operate and, if they were discontinued, why
  • list names of merchants and tell what lines of merchandise they handled. Mention particularly the types of farm machinery, household goods, clothing and foods sold; if possible, give prices of commodities at specific times

Find out where the merchants lived, from where they had come, whether they or their descendants are still in town; if not, why they left and where they went. Secure any stories or adventures or interesting events connected with their businesses.

Describe the earliest homes how they were furnished, how they were heated. Tell with what type of homes they were replaced.

In connection with agriculture, discover:

  • the type of soil was it suited to grain growing or stock raising
  • what water supply was available
  • what market centres were nearby
  • what methods of sowing grain, of reaping, threshing, and cultivating were employed
  • when new types of implements were introduced’, and by whom
  • who were outstanding farmers or farm leaders in the district, and what they were noted for

Determine the first farm organization in your district, such as Farmers’ Institute, Agricultural Societies, Grain Growers, United Farmers, Federation of Agriculture, Pool Elevators, and others. Note what part the local farmers played in each organization. List names of officers and directors of such organizations, with dates. Secure the history of fairs in the district. Note outstanding exhibits by local persons through the years, changes in the types and quality of exhibits, and the continuity of interest shown by certain farm families.

Collect the history of local churches. Note:

  • the names and dates of ministers
  • church organizations and the it officers
  • special events and interesting happenings
  • changes in attitudes to churches and religion through the years, with examples and instances

Record the beginnings and history of voluntary organizations, such as Masons, Rotary, Odd Fellows, Orange Order, etc.

Name outstanding women and their organizations, such as Ladies Aid Societies, Women’s Institutes, Hospital Aid Societies, Lodges, etc.

Secure names of doctors, station agents, lawyers, notaries, grain buyers, etc. with any stories of outstanding interest connected with them.

Record the recreation or sports the early settlers enjoyed, and changes in these. Name outstanding participants, and tell stories of interest connected with them.

Determine the history of education in the community, noting:

  • teachers, with dates
  • changes in school buildings and equipment
  • teaching methods and organization
  • changing attitudes of the community towards education through the years

Collect stories connected with the school or with outstanding teachers.

Collect the history of the district in World Wars I, World War II, Korean War, and elsewhere:

  • the names of those who served
  • the names of those killed
  • community organizations for war work
  • memorials

Be on the alert for human interest stories to illustrate or to enliven the narrative.

Suggested sources of information:

  • letters and diaries of the pioneers or later citizens
  • municipal records
  • school registers and school board records
  • church records
  • agricultural Society records
  • records of other organizations in the district
  • old account books of firms or individuals
  • files of weekly newspapers

If these files are not available locally, they may be found, either in original or microfilm copy, at regional, provincial/state, and national archives. In Manitoba, papers can be read at the Provincial Legislative Library in Winnipeg. The use of newspaper files would require some interested citizen or ex-citizen to give considerable time to their perusal, noting:

  • goods offered for sale, and their prices
  • when certain businesses began advertising
  • biographical facts regarding outstanding citizens

These will be found particularly in the local and personal column, and in the obituary accounts.

If a historian is not well acquainted with the district about which she/he means to write, reading through the files of the local newspaper will provide a picture of the community’s life and give a background of knowledge that will prove invaluable.

Page revised: 13 May 2013

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