Barbara Shave has an unusual connection to Illinois State. She is tied to the University through words penned 145 years ago by her great, great aunt Laura Geddes, who enrolled during the 1800s.
The words are badly faded now, which is one reason Shave contacted Illinois State from her home in British Columbia, Canada. She needed help preserving the letter Geddes wrote from campus to her mother on May 7, 1865.
Shave also sought someone to share her family’s enthusiasm over the letter’s content, which includes an account of President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train as it passed near campus on its way to Springfield. She found both with Beth Schobernd, associate dean for technical services at Milner Library.
Schobernd oversees the Center for Conservation and Preservation, which is another hidden gem at Milner. Started through a grant, the center has equipment to protect and repair everything from damaged book bindings to individual pages tattered over time. Beyond maintaining Milner’s collection, the center does recovery work for other libraries.
By the time she found Schobernd last summer, Shave had spent months looking for a way to protect the priceless letter that was discovered behind a brick in the basement wall of a relative’s Illinois home.
“We humidified and flattened the document, encapsulated it in Mylar, and scanned it,” Schobernd said of the letter that sparked enormous excitement at Milner, as it dates back to Illinois State’s first decade.
Geddes mentioned all of the writing required for then Illinois State President Richard Edwards, who led her class on the theory and art of teaching. The work curtailed her ability to write home as often as she intended, however, she did take time to send the letter that detailed her memories from “a week long to be remembered at Normal.”
Geddes joined other students at 3 a.m. for the historic moment as Lincoln’s body was returned to Springfield for burial. “The station house was draped in mourning and there were several appropriate mottoes. They raised an arch over the track. It was all wreathed with cedar and white plum blossoms and across it was the motto ‘Go to thy rest,’” Geddes wrote.
“The lady students got up a wreath of the most beautiful flowers I ever saw to be placed on the coffin. On a card was written ‘Here is a man whose like we shall never see again’ on one side, on the other ‘We bring flowers because we loved him, Normal Students.’ This card was fastened on with the richest bow of white ribbon and crepe.”
Shave recognized the letter as a “treasure that so closely relates to the earliest history of Illinois State University.” She eagerly shared it during a campus visit last summer with Schobernd and University Archivist Jo Rayfield. They soon learned the Geddes document was just one of many historical treasures Shave collected while tracing her family’s legacy from Ireland and Scotland to Pennsylvania and Illinois.
“I have 55,000 relatives in my database,” said Shave, who has letters from four branches of her extended family. Their words reveal lives interwoven for 60 years by events that changed the nation. Dating back to the War of 1812, the letters document brothers split during the Civil War, the pioneer experience, and the Gold Rush.
Other letters specific to events of the Midwest tell of the Mormon Church’s early history in Illinois, and Lincoln’s career as a young politician taking on Stephen Douglas. Shave collected other documents that are equally priceless, including parchments signed by Martin Van Buren, and a school edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin referenced by Geddes in her letter home.
“These letters hold an American and Illinois epic that is waiting to be told,” Shave said. As a writer, Shave hopes the University can provide the partnership she needs to publish the wealth of information that has been protected by her family for generations. She also hopes she will be able to transfer the entire estate collection to Illinois State’s archives to be preserved for generations to come.
“We are ecstatic,” Rayfield said, noting the University has never received such an extensive and extraordinary collection. “These letters are not just gold, they are platinum,” she said. Most archival materials are obtained from individuals within the campus community, making Shave’s gift even more unique and appreciated.
Rayfield and Schobernd are assembling a team across disciplines that will include faculty and students to research, decipher, and share the invaluable collection. Shave expressed relief and joy that the University can help her achieve the goal of voicing the history recorded by her relatives.
“I need to entrust these letters somewhere and get these stories out, or they will disappear,” Shave said. “If we don’t tell their stories, who will tell ours?”