If we want to understand our past, we need to look at the informal clutter of daily life, says personal historian Sarah White. That’s why she and her colleagues, Ann Waidelich and Pat Martin, are encouraging people who lived and grew up on Madison East Side to share their memories and informal photographs of life on the front stoops and backyards of their neighborhoods with the East Side History Club.
One early morning, as they sat in a coffeehouse on Atwood Avenue, addressing and stamping flyers announcing the next meeting of the East Side History Club, the three women talked about how and why they decided to organize a club to collect memories.
Becky Steinhoff, executive director of The Goodman Community Center, was the matchmaker. Last spring, after White’s book, “Madison Women Remember Growing Up in Wisconsin’s Capital,” was published, Steinhoff contacted her to see if she’d be interested in working on an oral history project for her organization, which was then still called the Atwood Community Center. Steinhoff introduced White to Martin, who was interested in working on a history of local businesses on Madison’s East Side.
Like White and Martin, Waidelich, a retired librarian who spends an extraordinary amount of time preserving and promulgating Madison history, lives on Madison’s East Side. She frequently gives slide shows and lectures about local history, so including her in a planning session made perfect sense.
At first, the trio considered focusing their efforts on publishing a book about East Side history. Instead, says White, they decided they’d like to engage in an ongoing project to collect and preserve stories and photographs about East Side History, such as the black & white ones accompanying this post.
It was Martin’s idea to call their project a club. “That way we don’t have to draw lines about who’s in and who’s out,” explains White. Anyone interested in East Side history is welcome to attend club meetings. There are no dues and no officers. White, Martin, and Waidelich refer to themselves as the planning council, or, sometimes, just the organizers. All three are volunteers.
The East Side History Club collects memories. Sometimes its meetings focus on reminiscences where people’s stories are tape-recorded.
On other occasions, the club offers special programs. One recent Saturday afternoon, the club featured a presentation by archivist Sally Jacobs, owner of Jacobs Archival Services, who spoke about storing photographs, starting with “what to keep” and ending with “how to keep.”
Jacobs, who also had a website, “The Practical Archivist,” was part of a double bill that also featured White, owner of First Person Productions, talking about how people can save the stories of their lives through writing, guided reminiscing, scrapbooking, and interviewing.
“Older people are very excited about the East Side History Club,” says White. “They don’t just call us to be put on the mailing list, they call us to tell their stories.” When prodded to define “older,” she says participants have included “younger older people” in their late fifties all the way up to nonagenarians
In addition to stories, the East Side History Club is particularly interested in collecting old photos. But thanks to modern day technology, no one has to part with their old photos. Volunteers from the East Side History Club will “literally come to your living room with a laptop and scanner,” says White. Although they’ll work while you tell stories, organizers say it’s extremely helpful if people try to write down some of their reminiscences.
One family that has already shared some of its memories and photos of growing up on Madison’s East Side is the Richter family, whose members include former UW Athletic Director Pat Richter, and his sisters Randi and Jane. The Richter siblings and their parents lived on Rutledge Street and later on Yahara Place.
White says one of the things that struck her about their reminiscences was “how much the lake had to do with their experiences.” The lake, of course, is Lake Monona.
Even though the East Side History Club has no budget or formal structure, its three-member planning council has an ambitious agenda. Since the 1950s, The Goodman Community Center has been housed in a building on Atwood Avenue originally built in 1917 to house single men working in local factories. The organization is currently raising funds to move into larger quarters at the nearby Kupfer Ironworks Building. Once that move is completed, the East Side History Club hopes to have “a closet, a file cabinet, and a display case,” says White.
White, Martin, and Waidelich say the East Side History Club would also love to have a website it could use to share the stories and photographs. “We need a volunteer,” they emphasize.
If you want to volunteer to help the East Side History Club create a website, or you just want to share stories and photographs about life on Madison’s East Side, contact Pat Martin at 241-0895 to join the club’s mailing list.
Note: A slightly different version of this post was published as feature story in the weekly Neighbors section of The Capital Times and Wisconsin State Journal on May 30, 2007.
Update (11/15/2013): The East Side History Club now has a blog — and it’s full of terrific historic photos. Why not pay them a visit?