Living in the Past

Study the past if you would define the future. 

                                                                       – Confucius

I’m living in the past again!

For over 30 years I’ve been collecting news clippings, census data, photographs, official records and miscellaneous items as part of a sometimes sporadic, sometimes intense research project focused on my family history. The Brett branch of the family set the wheels in motion.

The project started in the late 1970s when Aunt Elaine (Brett) Cascadden agreed to tell me about changes in the town of Essex over the course of her lifetime so that I could do a high school history assignment. After we finished talking about things like the Great Depression and the two World Wars she’d lived through, our conversations turned to family history. We spent many hours pouring over boxes of memorabilia that Aunt Elaine had collected – news clippings, funeral cards, marriage invitations, sympathy and birthday cards, and letters. In the days before easy access to photocopiers my options for reproducing some of these items were limited. So I did the thing that I knew best… I copied it all down by hand. And I took pages and pages of notes about everyone and everything Aunt Elaine mentioned.

When I had exhausted Aunt Elaine’s resources I turned to my next project – a thorough review of the old bound annual volumes of The Essex Free Press. Under the watchful eye of Uncle Ken Brett, then publisher of the town’s weekly community newspaper, I spent day after day standing at the slate layout tables, reading one issue of the paper after another, and taking meticulous notes about all the Brett relatives and ancestors mentioned. Photocopying was still a few years off, so I recorded the date of the paper and the page on which a particular item appeared. I had no idea then how useful my notes would be until my dad, Wilber Brett, the third generation owner of the newspaper, decided to send the backfiles to be microfilmed. In the 1990s the town’s public library purchased a copy of the microfilm and made the Free Press available using a microfilm reader with photocopy capability. Using the library’s resources I was able to locate all of the clippings and make copies.

I also had no idea then that I would become the publisher of that newspaper from 2004 to May 2011, or that I would marry a systems librarian, Art Rhyno, who would spearhead a large newspaper digitization project in Essex County. Local history and genealogical research has become so much easier since our historic community newspapers (The Essex Free Press, The Kingsville Reporter, The Leamington Post and The Amherstburg Echo) have been made searchable and freely available over the Internet (http://ink.ourontario.ca). It’s still a work in progress but I’m proud to have been part of the movement to provide open access to important historical resources for our community.

Today my children accuse me of asking too many questions. I have to believe that it’s just a phase in their development and that some day they will understand and appreciate that very little of their family history would have survived into this century had someone not asked questions and recorded the answers. That’s not to say that all the questions have been answered – indeed, there are many details I have yet to sort out – but I’m much further along in my information gathering than I was in the 1970s and I hope that the blog entries that are to follow do justice to our past.

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