Mathias J. Alten was a 20th century impressionist painter. Born in Germany in 1871, Alten eventually moved to the then-developing town of Grand Rapids, Michigan. He began his artistic journey exploring landscapes and subjects around the world while other famous artists like Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh did the same. The impressionist artistic style originated in the 19th century, and many impressionists, like Alten, continued to explore the perspective and composition of impressionism even as new artistic techniques were rapidly emerging. Alten painted over 2,500 paintings during his travels in and outside of Grand Rapids.
Alten started as an apprentice for a local artist, Joseph Klein, in the town of Marpingen, Germany. In 1889, after three years of apprenticing, Alten’s family immigrated to the United States, passing through Ellis Island. Settling on the West Side of Grand Rapids, he worked at one of the many booming furniture factories till he met and married Bertha Schwind. A year later Bertha gave birth to their daughter Eleanor, the first of three daughters. Despite his growing family, Alten continued to pursue his artistic aspirations. Six weeks after his second daughter Camelia was born in 1898, Alten left to study in Europe, visiting and painting in Vatican City, Rome, Florence, Naples, Genoa, Alexandria, and Paris. Finally returning to Grand Rapids after nine months abroad, Alten created his first studio and began teaching lessons.
Alten gave studio giving lessons on Tuesday and Friday evenings while improving his mostly self-taught artistic ability. Alten exhibited paintings all at the Michigan State Fair, Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo, Toledo Museum of Art, and National Academy of Design, New York. Alten traveled abroad for a second time in 1911, this time with Bertha and his children. They visited the beach of Scheveningen, Netherlands, where he captured the harbor appeal of a small coastal Dutch town. Alten’s artistic style and composition became brighter as he captures the essence of his subjects. This often required him to be on site with his subject, rather than painting in a studio environment.
“Working directly from nature lends strength and color to the work. Studio work is necessary for certain types of work but never as interesting to me as working under the open sky.” – Mathias Alten
As a Grand Rapids resident, Alten took from the nearby views of the Grand River and its valley. However, many of Alten’s paintings also illustrate his travels in the U.S and Europe. Subjects of his paintings include locales such as Old Lyme, Connecticut; Laguna Beach, California; and Tarpon Springs, Florida. Traveling all across Europe, Alten painted numerous depictions of bridges bounding over beautiful rivers, windmills sprawled across the Netherlands, and collective farmlands and animals. Alten was never without inspiration for his work. After an entire lifetime of a career of canvases and sketches, Alten passed away in his home in Grand Rapids in 1938.
Painting every day of his later life, Alten amassed a large collection of styles and subjects over the years of his travel and experiences. He took his family on numerous excursions to nearby attractions and local beaches to find the next subjects of his paintings. The value of Alten’s artistry has been captured today in Grand Valley’s expansive collection of his work and documentation of his professional and personal life.
Grand Rapids was a large part of Alten’s career and life. The George and Barbara Gordon Gallery displays over forty pieces of Alten’s work. A digital archive of Alten’s work held at Grand Valley State University is available through the GVSU Art Gallery. Biographical stories and additional information about the life and career of Mathias Alten is available at GVSU’s Special Collections.
In this installment of Archives Behind the Scenes, we’ll talk about archival processing. Processing is a shorthand term for all of the steps archivists take to get a collection of archival materials ready for research use.
All materials decay and break down over time, and different materials break down at different rates and for different reasons. The goal of archival preservation is to extend the “lifespan” of materials in the archives so they can be used by researchers well into the future.
One of the best ways that archivists can extend this “lifespan” is by controlling the environment in which the materials are stored. Heat, humidity, climate fluctuations, and the presence of pollutants all have a damaging effect on archival materials. Archives often use specialized HVAC systems to keep the temperature and relative humidity (RH) within acceptable parameters for storing their collections. Because the majority of our holdings are paper-based, we aim to keep our climate around 70°F and between 30%-50% RH.
In addition to systems that provide control over the climate, we also use a redundant climate data logger to record and analyze temperature and humidity in our storage area. This way, we can make adjustments as needed as the weather changes throughout the year. Sometimes even the simplest things, like keeping doors closed and lights off, can improve the conditions in the storage area.
On a smaller scale, we also use containers to hold archival materials that are less likely to cause damage over time. Containing archival materials in acid-free and lignin-free folders and boxes can help to extend their “lifespan.” Lignin is a naturally occurring chemical compound present in many plants. Paper that contains a high percentage of wood pulp also tends to contain a high amount of lignin – which decomposes at a much faster rate than the rest of the plant materials around it.
One great example of the damage caused by the presence of acid and lignin is in old newspapers. Newsprint typically has a very high lignin content, and is highly acidic. Over time, these aspects cause the paper to become extremely brittle. Once the paper has become brittle, there is nothing an archivist can do to reverse it.
In special situations, a conservator may be able to repair some kinds of damage or stabilize very valuable items. More often, when an archivist encounters brittle items that have especially high content value, he or she will use a photocopier to create a copy of the item on acid-free and lignin-free paper.
Other kinds of archival formats need even more attention. As media technology changes, formats become obsolete. Some items, like video and audio tapes, can’t be used in the archives unless there is a player available. As these kinds of media get older, archives run the risk of not being able to preserve and provide access to them due to their obsolescence.
In 2018, the Special Collections & University Archives undertook a major project to have its most at-risk obsolete audio and video media digitally reformatted. Over 150 videotapes, audiotapes, and films were digitized during this project, and now the digital files are securely stored. In addition to a networked storage space regularly backed up and maintained by the the university’s IT department, our digital files undergo a series of digital preservation activities and are redundantly backed up in a cloud-based data archive.
While all of these different preservation needs can be complex and sometimes conflicting, archivists do what they can with limited resources to extend the usefulness of their collections.
The next step archivists take when processing collections is arrangement. Arrangement refers to how the physical or digital materials are organized, and it is governed by two main principles: original order and respect des fonds.
The principle of respect des fonds, sometimes referred to as provenance, proposes that archives should group collections according to the organization, individual, or entity by which they were created of from which they were received.
One way this shapes up in Special Collections & University Archives is with the collections we have relating to the author Jim Harrison. In addition to the Jim Harrison Papers, we also have related collections of his biographer Robert DeMott, his sister Mary Harrison Dumsch, and his former sister-in-law Rebecca Newth Harrison. While materials in all four collections relate to Jim Harrison’s life and literary career, they are all grouped according to their fonds, or creator. Researchers interested in Harrison may need to look through all of the collections – and possibly collections at other archives – to get the full picture of Harrison’s life.
The principle of original order is the idea that if the creator of a set of records created and/or maintained them in a particular way, then that organization should be preserved regardless of how easy or difficult it might be to use. Historians and other researchers may be able to infer or make connections within or about the records or their creator due to the original order of the materials. Archivists should strive to preserve or even re-create original order if one is evident.
However, not all collections have evidence of original order when they are evaluated by an archivist. In these cases, an archivist might decide to organize them in some logical manner to facilitate research use. Common arrangements include chronological order and alphabetical arrangements by names or topics.
Arrangements in archival collections can be simple or complex, depending on the size and nature of the collection. Archivists often group similar items together to create files, and group similar files together to create series. Once an archivist has completed the arrangement of a collection, he or she will then create a record that describes the collection.
Archival descriptions can take several forms. Some archives use the same kinds of catalog records as with books to describe their archival collections. Some archives use more complex records, called Finding Aids, to describe the collection and its creator(s), and often to provide an inventory of the series and files that comprise it.
One of the most important aspects of archival description is providing context. Archival collections are often the product of the day-to-day life or business of a person or organization. It is important for researchers to know who created and maintained the materials, when and where this took place and under what circumstances, and how they came to be placed in the archives. In the same way that preserving original order within a collection can lead a researcher to inferences about a collection, so too can the context of a collection’s creation.
Archivists must do their own research in order to provide this context – often by referring to the collection materials themselves – but also by looking into other primary and secondary sources on the subject. However, archivists try to present only the facts of the matter within an archival finding aid, leaving interpretation and drawing of conclusions to historians and other researchers. While many archivists are experts in their own right on a variety of subjects, we also try to remain impartial when presenting a collection of materials to researchers.
Once the finding aid is published, the collection is open for research use. Boxes and folders are neatly labeled and shelved carefully in our storage area. Researchers can request materials in our reading room, or request remote reference assistance by phone or email.
In the next installment of Archives Behind the Scenes, we’ll discuss the development of our Digital Collections through digitization and collaborative partnerships. We’ll also touch back on some of the ins and outs of our digital preservation strategies.
In a departure from our usual exhibit posts highlighting our exciting collections, this post will kick off a short series of “Behind the Scenes” discussions about what goes on in the Special Collections & University Archives at Grand Valley. In this post, we will discuss how we acquire collection materials, what they’re like when they get here, and what we do once we have them.
Within Seidman House, we have one curator, two archivists, one archives assistant and a couple of student assistants who work to collect, organize, document, and preserve archival materials and rare books. We also have several distinct collecting areas. One, the Special Collections, contains materials collected for their historical value, their connection to regional history, or their connection to the research and teaching interests of the Grand Valley community. The other, University Archives, contains the records, photographs, publications, and media created by Grand Valley State that document the university’s history.
Materials that come into our collections are acquired through transfers, donations, and purchases. Materials accepted into the collections are guided by a collection development policy. This policy describes what kinds of materials are (and are not) collected by the Special Collections and University Archives. It details the types and formats of materials collected, as well as what kinds of contents, topics, geographical areas, and time periods we aim to collect.
Transfers happen when a campus office, faculty member, administrator, or staff person officially deposits their inactive records to the University Archives. Transfers can happen at any time of year, but often occur during the spring and summer.
Not all records created at the university are archival. Some records have long-term value and are considered “permanent” records, but they are not archival because they remain in active use. Other kinds of records, such as student transcripts, may be permanent and have long-term value, but are protected by laws or policies that restrict access to them. Records such as these are usually maintained by the office that creates and manages them.
Other kinds of records, such as routine correspondence, invoices and receipts, and scrap notes with no context, have no long-term value. Even when these kinds of records are no longer in active use, they should not be transferred into the University Archives. Instead they can be shredded and disposed of.
The University Archivist often consults with offices before transfers to ensure that the records are archival, and that they have long-term value and are no longer in active use.
Examples of archival university records include reports, committee agendas and minutes, correspondence of high-ranking officials, official memorandums, course catalogs, official publications, budgets, and high-level planning documentation.
Donations and Purchases
When collecting archival materials and rare books for our Special Collections, we have a modest budget for purchasing materials, and we also accept donations. Collecting decisions made by the curator and archivists are guided by the collection development policy that defines the collecting strategies for the department.
When donations occur, a curator or archivist works closely with the donor to determine if the materials fit our collecting policy and to negotiate the terms of the gift. Donors who own copyrights to the materials can choose to transfer those rights to the university as well. Donors sign a Deed of Gift form that records the donation and details the terms. Once this has taken place, the materials become the property of the university.
When purchasing materials for the Special Collections, the curator reviews catalogs and websites of rare book and manuscript dealers, searches online auction sites like eBay.com, or works directly with the item’s owner to acquire materials that fit our collection development policy. The curator also often consults with archivists and faculty in various disciplines to find out if items available on the market might fill a particular gap or be of interest for classroom or research use.
Once we have received the materials at Seidman House, they may be in any state of condition or arrangement. We are careful to look for certain kinds of problems, like evidence of mold or pests. If left unsolved, these problems can spread and damage other materials in the library. Once we determine that the materials are safe to take in, we accession them, or create an official record of what we acquired, where it came from, how much is there, and any special instructions or restrictions relating to the materials. We then label these new accessions and set them aside for cataloging and processing.
In the next “Behind the Scenes” installment, we’ll discuss archival processing, highlighting the steps an archivist takes to bring a new collection to life.
For Valentine’s Day this year, we’re taking a peek into some of the most romantic correspondence collections in Special Collections and University Archives. We managed to whittle the choices down to two correspondence collections that really exude love. We hope you enjoy these snippets as much as we do!
First is the Edward Manley and Jean Worthington Letters, which includes a total of 60 letters written by Jean “Jeannie” Worthington and 159 written by Edward “Ned” Manley. The letters were sent between February 15, 1945-June 27, 1946 while Ned was serving in the U.S. Army. Jeannie, however, was a teenager, still in school in Cleveland, Ohio, trying to decide what she wanted to do with her life. A U.S. Army Private, Ned was assigned to an anti-tank company in the 27th Infantry Regiment in Japan.
The love between these two is heartwarming. Though it’s harder to imagine in today’s world of instant connections, letters were one of the only ways separated couples could communicate during the war. The only way to actually “see” your significant other was via photograph or in your dreams. Ned’s and Jeannie’s letters try to show the other person how much they cared through added emphases, terms of endearment, and the occasional inside joke. They both mention how they will be together “always”, sometimes underlining the world, call each other “sweetheart”, and frequently mention 28–the number of children they joke they will have once they are married. They both mention seeing each other in “Dreamland” at the end of some of their letters, alluding to the place they can at least pretend they are with each other. One example is the end of a letter Ned wrote to Jeannie on February 23rd, 1945:
The love these two share is evident, whether they’re talking about their daily routines or how much they miss each other. Many of these letters mention “Someday”, typically in quotation marks, likely referring to their hopes of being reunited after the war. Jeannie mentions “Someday” twice in the conclusion of a letter she sent to Ned on March 2nd, 1945:
The second collection we chose to highlight is the Doris Keirn and Burley Yehnert Letters, containing a total of 34 letters, 21 from Doris (nicknamed “Dorrie”) between November 13th, 1944 – February 4th, 1946 and 13 by Burley “Burl” between December 13th, 1946 and July 29th, 1947. Dorrie’s letters typically discuss school events, since she was attending the Altoona School of Commerce in Pennsylvania, early musical talent, and her heartache over her separation from her fiancée, Burl. During this time, Burl was a Private at various Army Air Force postings before receiving a promotion to Sergeant, stationed in Tampa, Florida in late 1945. While his letters were written after he was discharged from the Army, he struggled to find postwar work, preventing him from moving to Phoenix, Arizona to be with Dorrie.
Through these letters, it is easy to feel the deep love these two had for each other, which make their separation all the most heart-wrenching. For example, on November 25, 1944, Dorrie is listening to a song from one of her records and has to write out all of the lyrics to Burl because she thought it “suits us perfect”. The song is titled ‘Just Plain Lonesome’ by Burke-Van Heusen for the 1942 Kyser film “My Favorite Spy”. To write out every lyric shows just how much she was relating to this song, missing her fiancée and the moments they shared together. Listening to the music while you read the lyrics she wrote out evokes the loneliness she felt and her yearning to be with Burl.
The letters Dorrie sends to Burl are filled with romantic reminders. Some of the envelopes from Dorrie include special notes written on the flap, such as this example from January 21st, 1945 that reads “Close to you I will always stay/Close to you though you’re far away”:
Two letters even contain lipstick kisses:
A few of her letters include her picture glued on, creating a more personal stationery (and one that Burl would enjoy):
These letters are full of references to her love for Burl. She refers to him as her ‘husband’ even though they had not wed yet, and writes continually about how much she misses him and cannot wait until their time together truly begins.
Burl’s letters are also full of his love for Dorrie. Where Dorrie calls him ‘husband’ he refers to her as ‘wife’ – and even points out how often people believe they are already married! He also is sure to tell her how lucky he is to have a person like her love him in return.
One letter even contains an “I Love You My Darling Dorrie” doodle:
Both Dorrie and Burl begin and end each letter by explaining how much they love the other person. These two truly fit the definition of true love.
We hope you enjoyed this peak into these two love related correspondence collections in our Special Collections. If you’d like to see more romantic letters in our Special Collections, be sure to check out the Olexa letters. Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!
Coming into the Grand Valley Special Collections and University Archives this summer, I had very little idea of what archivists actually did. As an English major, I had studied the wide range of career fields through studying abroad, teaching, and mentoring. However, my History minor remained untouched. As I hurtled toward my senior year here at Grand Valley, I began to wonder what kinds of job opportunities I could find with my minor and discovered archivist was among them. The first place I contacted was the Grand Valley Special Collections and University Archives and I am glad I did. Thanks to the Archivist for Collection Management, Annie Benefiel, I was able to get an overview of what the job of an archivist entails. Her passion and patience in mentoring me through every task, led me to have a greater understanding and appreciation for the important work archivists do.
In my first few days, I was given tasks to help preserve and promote just some of the documents Grand Valley has to offer. I began with transcribing and scanning letters from World War II, reliving the blossoming relationship of a young couple separated by the sea. Next, I tracked down papers for a researcher, sifting through an unfamiliar world of politics from committee meetings to luncheons, to letters about planning and numerous copies of speeches. Then came my biggest task: the papers of Mike McDonnell.
When I began working on the Mike McDonnell collection, I had no idea who this man was or what his story was. Through researching his own work, interviews, and photos, I feel like I’ve met a friend. In organizing and processing the collection, it became clear that Mike McDonnell was someone who understood that his life’s passion was to make art, it was as simple as that. In many of the newspaper articles I scanned, he said time and time again, that making art was never about money. He acknowledged he could make a respectable amount on a painting, but never had the idea of money in his mind. I believe he was interested in seeing how far his art could go. Whether it was a specific subject, or a certain style of painting, he was always experimenting and documenting those important artistic journeys.
Though his interviews provided insight into his professional life, Mike McDonnell’s personal photos also revealed who he truly was. Looking through the pictures, you get the sense that he was hardworking, friendly, and goofy person who liked to hang out with his friends and farm animals. In the photographs donated to Grand Valley, his work can be seen lingering in the background or even taking center stage. His life was surrounded by art in various forms and his paintings, I believe, reflected that.
After getting up close and personal with his donated belongings, it becomes clear why this collection needed to be preserved. Mike McDonnell is a key figure in the history of Michigan painters. His attention to detail, the wide range of subjects he experiments with, and his precision through the medium of watercolor allowed me to appreciate the fact that Grand Valley has this collection, pieces of his work on display on its campuses, and that I was lucky enough to process this one of kind collection.
Every Wednesday, I’d arrive on the Grand Valley Allendale Campus, go over to the Seidman House and get lost for the next four hours in paintings, receipts, slides, and photos all relating to Mike McDonnell and his work. I would walk out into the hot summer afternoon and think of how to see the world like an artist of his caliber would. Looking back at this summer, it has seemed to fly by in a sea of green folders and papers of all shapes, sizes, and ages, and I’ll miss it all. I’m so grateful to the Grand Valley Special Collections and Archives Department for taking me under their wing, allowing me to have been a part of processing this wonderful collection, and getting the grand tour of life as an archivist. It has been truly unforgettable.
The Mike McDonnell papers (RHC-120) were given to GVSU Special Collections & University Archives in May 2017 in conjunction with a gift of McDonnell’s art to the GVSU Art Gallery. The materials are available for research use in the reading room in Seidman House.
Personal and Public Perspectives of American Wartime
In times of war or military strife, the experiences of individual soldiers are often eclipsed by the civilian population’s understanding of the conflict. Influenced by media, politics, and propaganda, the public experience of a war is far removed from that of the individuals fighting it.
Soldiers and veterans find ways to understand, cope, and connect with others over their experiences. Sometimes they choose to share those experiences – in letters, diaries, memoirs, photographs, or recordings.
This exhibit features materials from Grand Valley State University Libraries’ Special Collections & University Archives that illustrate both the public perception and personal experiences of war. Special Collections & University Archives is actively collecting the stories of veterans – to remember, to honor, and to learn from their service and their sacrifice – through their unique collections of documents, photographs, media, and digital objects. The objects and memories presented in this exhibit are only a small portion of the resources available for research use.
John Bennitt was born on March 24, 1830 in Pulteney, New York. He received an M.D. from Cleveland Medical College in 1850 and entered medical practice in Centreville, Michigan in March of the same year. During the Civil War he served as an assistant surgeon in the 19th Michigan Volunteer Infantry. He and part of his regiment were captured in March of 1863, but were released and he continued his service until the end of the war. During the war he compiled three diaries and wrote over 200 letters to his family detailing his experiences in the army.
In letters to his wife:
Camp Chase, May 24th 1863
“I cannot claim any particular merit in that I am trying to do my duty to my country, and to those who go forth risking their lives for their country’s sake, yet I feel that those who remain at home, and have no near & dear friends in this terrible war, know nothing of the sacrifices that are made for our common country. People of the North in the midst of their unparalleled prosperity at home almost forget that there is a war, and it is only those who are made to feel it in the absence and loss of dear ones & the desolations of homes.”
McMinnville, Tenn. April 7th 1864
“I do so much wish I could be at home now, for I feel that a great responsibility rests on us which I would be glad to share with you. But my Country not only calls, but demands my services now, and I am unworthy of a heritage in this goodly land, if I shrink from doing my whole duty, but the time is not far distant I hope when that duty in the present capacity will cease and I can return to peaceful avocations and Live with those I love. Let us live in hope trusting in Him who orders all things for good.”
Mailing envelopes with patriotic imagery or emblems printed on them appeared at the outset of the Civil War soon after South Carolina’s secession from the Union in December of 1860. Production of the envelopes in the South ceased after 1863, but continued in the North until the end of the war. The envelopes were created to encourage patriotism and allowed printers to add new product lines to their inventory. Early in the war some Northern printers produced envelopes for the South as well. Vendors marketed them to soldiers to send letters home from the battlefields, but most envelopes used in mailing letters were sent to soldiers from their families in the North. The envelopes were most often purchased as keepsakes, kept in scrapbooks, and were never mailed.
Opposition to President Lincoln
Though President Abraham Lincoln is one of the most commemorated presidents in American History today, he was an extremely controversial figure during his time in office. Opposition and hostility toward Lincoln came not only from the people of the Confederacy and many in the southern border states, but also from his political opponents in the Democratic party in the North, and even elements within his own Republican Party. The ballad “Nobody Hurt” was composed by John Ross Dix, a Unionist and native of Bristol, England, in response to a speech Lincoln gave shortly after he was elected. During the speech, Lincoln implied that no one would be hurt during his first term as president and that people would have an opportunity to vote for another candidate in four years. The ballad shows how public criticism of President Lincoln was not limited to the Confederacy, and that even small statements had a large impact on public opinion.
Archibald Irvine McColl (1893-1981)
Irvine McColl was a resident of Grand Rapids and attended the University of Michigan, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in 1917. McColl enlisted in the Army later that year and was a Sergeant in Battery C in the 119th Field Artillery from 1917 – 1919.
Though we have no photographs of McColl, we have many of the letters he wrote to his family. The photographs presented here are from the D.J. Angus photograph and film collection.
From the letters of Irvine McColl:
January 31, 1919
“I wonder a lot what it will be like to be back again, and to be a chooser to some extent of what I can and cannot do and the men I will be with, and to actually be on speaking terms with English talking women, and to have a bath more than once a fortnight, and to eat real meals and not to have to mess as we do when we eat. I’m afraid I’ll seem a bit rough, at first at least, and a bit wild, for dispite [sic] our continual lament about nothing to do there is something going on, a fight or a fire or a wild party of some kind or other … And to come back to chocolate and sodas and canned excitement and adventures will seem tame, perhaps, but I am certainly ready to try the civilized ways again.
Mother and Aunt Hattie … both seem to think I am somehow different than I used to be, but I am afraid I’ll disappoint them, for really, Al, I am only what I am, and can’t borrow much from the thing we have been over here for. It is only the fellows who were popped off that are the real heroes of the war. Their memory is as glorious as the immortal soul of the United States, but the rest of us are only poor weak mortals after all.”
Posters to Sell the War
During World War I, the U.S. Government recruited advertisers, designers, and illustrators to communicate key messages about the war to the American public. Propaganda posters such as these were created to encourage citizens to join the military and help the U.S. defend its European allies. Posted along the street and in store windows, they were used to inspire patriotism and nationalism and to dehumanize the enemy. Their bright colors and intense graphics made them eye‐catching and easily noticeable.
“I Want You…”
This World War I poster was designed in 1917 by James Montgomery Flagg, who contributed 46 posters to the government. Originally published on the cover of Leslie’s Weekly, the portrait of “Uncle Sam” went on to become one of the most famous posters in the world. Over four million copies were printed between 1917 and 1918. Due to its overwhelming popularity, the image was later adapted for use during World War II. This is perhaps one of the most recognizable images of this era, and has become an icon of American patriotism.
“Destroy This Mad Brute”
During World War I, German soldiers were often depicted as apes in American propaganda. This poster posed American allies England and France as “civilization” and Germany as a ”mad brute.” In this poster, the ape is holding Lady Liberty, symbolizing the perceived peril to the American values of liberty and democracy. In the background you can see Europe in ruins as the ape steps onto American shores. Due to propaganda like this, many German Americans whose families may have lived in America for centuries faced persecution during the war.
Joseph P. Olexa (1918-2000)
Joe Olexa enlisted in the Army on December 9, 1940 and fought in the 26th Infantry Division, Company “L”. During his time in the Army, Olexa was stationed in Northern Africa, Sicily, France, Belgium, and Germany, fighting in some of the most remembered battles of World War II, including the Invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. While stationed in America and overseas Olexa sparked a romance with Agnes Van Der Weide, a young woman in Grand Rapids. They kept in constant contact while he was overseas fighting and the couple married on July 23, 1945, and settled in the Grand Rapids area.
Though we have no photographs of Olexa, we have hundreds of his letters to Agnes as well as his personal memoir, written after the war. The photographs below come from the World War II collections of James W. Ochs, F.W. Beasecker, and Otto Kuxhaus.
Dedication in the memoir “As I Remember,” by Joseph Olexa
“To all who served in the Armed Forces giving their lives, limbs and unselfish devotion to their country to achieve victory in a struggle to fight tyranny and oppression and be free from men who seek power and conquest the world over.”
Olexa recalls reaching Omaha Beach, Normandy
“Three Hundred yards from shore our L.C.I. hit two underwater mines making the launch sink enough so it would not clear the sand bar. We jumped into the water from the front side like rats escaping a fiery doom. The water here was deep as we sank into its murky depths from the weight of our equipment. What seemed like ages I finally hit bottom with my feet springing enough to send me back towards the top. My lungs were now crying for air as I used my arms in powerful strokes to surface. The extra 77 pounds of equipment I carried slowed me down.”
On the Home Front
While American soldiers braved the European and Pacific Theaters of World War II, the American way of life was drastically altered at home. Science and technology saw a flurry of innovation. Radar, plastics, electronics, and of course, nuclear weapons, saw huge advancements during this period. Once male-dominated areas of industry, science, and business saw an influx of women workers. Women found employment as engineers, welders, manufacturers, and electricians to help build the armaments to defend U.S. troops. The lack of men pursuing traditional leisure-time activities, such as baseball, created avenues for women to compete in public like never before.
Esterline-Angus Graphic Instrument
Esterline-Angus Recording Milliammeter
Advertising brochure from the Esterline-Angus Company
The Esterline-Angus Company, partly owned by D.J. Angus, was an early pioneer in engineering and manufacturing of electrical instruments. Angus invented a number of continuous-recording instruments and filled orders for the U.S. government and military during World War II. One such invention was the Recording Milliammeter, used by the research team of the Manhattan Project. In Chicago, Illinois on December 2, 1942 one of these devices was used to measure the first sustained, controlled nuclear reaction.
Women Take The Field
With the draft calling many of the country’s baseball players away to war, Philip K. Wrigley decided to create a women’s professional baseball league. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League began in the spring of 1943 and entertained thousands throughout the Midwest before disbanding in 1954. As the first professional women’s baseball league on record, these women brought communities together and helped keep spirits high on the home front.
Heroes Under Cover: the Flying Tigers
The American Volunteer Group (AVG) was a small force of American aviators and mechanics led by Colonel Claire L. Chennault to aid United States’ ally China in its defense against deadly Japanese air raids and bombings. Many of the group’s members traveled to China in an undercover mission, their passports identifying them as farmers or mechanics so they could travel without hassle. Several of the pilots painted the noses of their P-40 fighter planes with shark mouths. Their Chinese allies, mistaking the shark teeth for a tiger’s intimidating scowl, began to refer to the pilots as Fei Hu, or “Flying Tigers.” After the United States officially entered the Pacific Theater of the war due to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the AVG disbanded, many of its pilots returning to their service in the United States Army Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. News reels about the Flying Tigers’ success in China were played in cinemas in the U.S. to bolster support for the war effort and boost morale on the home front.
Michael Woods was born in Natchez, Mississippi and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. He enlisted in the Marines at the age of 17. After basic training he was sent to Camp Pendleton, and stationed in Okinawa in January of 1963. Sent to Vietnam with one of the first Marine units assigned there, Woods participated in a number of combat actions of varying size. After his tour in Vietnam was over, he stayed in the Marines until 1979, but did not return to Vietnam.
“The system in the military although stressful and demanding was the fairest system I had been exposed to at the time…You’re looking for, ‘Where can my ability take me? Just based on my personal ability, nothing else.’…The military itself is one of those places that operates under that principle.”
“The experience of leaving this training and going back to be with your buddies [back home, after training] is amazing. You find you don’t have anything in common with them anymore. You find that the things that they are doing seems childish and not grown up. So you lose that connection that you have had with these friends…and you start seeing yourself differently, maybe a cut above…”
“Every serviceman that came back experienced the hatred that many Americans showed them. For the black serviceman it was a little different…There is a civil rights movement here, and there are dogs being put on black people, and there are [fire] hoses being put on black people. Your fight is here on the streets of America, not in Vietnam. You are fighting for the Vietnamese to get rights when you don’t have those same rights here at home… Your own community had ostracized you…It wasn’t an easy time for black military people.”
During Vietnam about one-quarter of American troops were drafted into military service, most of whom were selected from poor or working class families. Men with physical limitations, college students, or men who were essential to financially supporting their families could apply for deferments. Many draft age men fled to Canada to avoid the military service. By 1972 over 200,000 draftees who protested their selection were involved in legal cases. Those who fled faced imprisonment or forced military service. In 1974, President Gerald Ford offered conditional amnesty to these men. On his first day in office in 1977, President Jimmy Carter offered a full pardon to all who requested it.
Protests at Home
The conflict in Vietnam and the mandatory draft of young men into military service polarized American political discourse. Public protests, both in favor of and against the war, became a frequent occurrence. Many students here at Grand Valley had strong feelings about the Vietnam war. Protesters had sit-ins, chanted slogans, and held signs that voiced their divided opinions: “Stay in Vietnam to keep Freedom” and “Support LBJ kill a friend today.”
These propaganda posters depict the Communist Party of Vietnam’s efforts to gain support for the war from their own population. Using bright, eye-catching colors and strong language, they sought to inspire nationalism and support for the communist regime. The language on these posters translates to phrases such as “Assault and defeat our enemies,” “Uncle Ho says victory, it means victory,” and “All armies fight to win.”
Capturing Veterans’ Voices
GVSU and the Special Collections & University Archives are dedicated to preserving the history of veterans. Currently the Special Collections hold very little documentation of the Korean War or the wars and conflicts following Vietnam. Aside from oral history recordings collected by the GVSU Veterans History Project, Special Collections collects photographs, letters, journals and diaries, small artifacts, and other documents and memorabilia from veterans. With the help of our community, we can preserve these unique resources for future generations to discover and explore. Please contact Special Collections & University Archives at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
This exhibit was curated by Special Collections & University Archives, Greg Bevier ’16, and Helen Kurtz ’16. Title and heading images were designed by Jeremy Shane ’17.
The ravines winding though the Allendale campus of Grand Valley Sate are among the university’s most prominent physical features. They are a place of learning and scientific discovery, of recreation and leisure, and of inspiration and quiet reflection.
“The ravines formed by the episodic erosion of small streams over the last 15,000 years. Water flowing off the upland, upon which Grand Valley State University is built, drains eastward into the Grand River Valley via the ravines. This broad, gently sloping, upland was formed during the Ice Age by a glacier lobe depositing sediment in a large glacial lake. Following this glaciation, the Grand River began eroding its valley through this landscape. The ravines probably began forming at about the same time, and by about 6,000 years ago they had grown to roughly their present dimensions. During the last 6,000 years the ravines have grown during brief episodes of erosion alternating with long periods of stability.”
The first Grand Rapids Carnival of Fun was held in October 1897 and organized by the Hesperus Club. Modeled after the “Carnival of Rome,” Grand Rapids’ carnival was a four-day festival of parades, music, Midway acts and games, and the election of Carnival King and Queen. Advertisements and souvenirs featured images of leprechauns, devils, jesters, and people in fanciful costumes.
At a meeting of the Hesperus Club in November 1897, heated debate arose about the worth and morality of the recently concluded festivities. It was reported in the Grand Rapids Herald that during the 4 days of the carnival there were 61 arrests for drunkenness, compared to 8 from the preceding week and 10 for the following week. Such public displays of “immorality and degradation” were met with furious opposition from a number of the city’s prominent businessmen and ministers, including Gen. Byron M. Cutcheon, the very founder of the Hesperus Club itself.
However, since the carnival’s events and attractions brought a great financial boost to the city, Grand Rapids’ Mayor, Lathrop C. Stow, declared that the city was none the worse for having held it. The following summer the organizers petitioned the city once again to repeat the Carnival of Fun. The new mayor, George R. Perry, citing “no law to prevent” the holding of the carnival, granted permission for its use of public streets once again.
The 1898 Carnival of Fun was nearly twice as large as the previous year. It held opening ceremonies, three parades, free shows on four stages, fireworks, Midway games, food stands, and more. Local businesses even ran special carnival sales to attract both locals and out-of-towners.
Following the rousing “hot time” of the 1898 Carnival of Fun, a conference of ministers gathered to oppose the “immorality and drunkenness” of the carnival. The conference demanded that the carnival never be repeated, noting that arrests for public drunkenness increased threefold from the first year to the second. They vowed to fight any future proposals of carnivals with all of the weapons at their disposal. Their efforts were victorious, and the Grand Rapids Carnival of Fun was never held again.
February is Black History Month, and many documents preserved in the Grand Valley State University Archives illustrate the valuable contributions made by African-Americans to the campus community, to West Michigan, and to the country as a whole.
For Grand Valley, the 1970s constituted a rich period for the founding of new organizations dedicated to supporting students of color, defending civil rights, and promoting a greater awareness of African-American history and culture.
In February 1973, the Black Student Union at Grand Valley hosted multiple on-campus screenings of a documentary about Fred Hampton, deputy chairman of the Black Panther Party at the time of his death in December 1969.
Through his work with the Black Panthers, Hampton was a founding member of the Rainbow Coalition, founded in the 1960s to unite many Chicago ethnic organizations in the struggle against discriminatory housing practices, police violence, and other abuses. In this capacity, Hampton worked alongside members of the Young Lords, a community organization formed in response to the displacement of working-class Latinos by gentrification and urban renewal programs.
By 1979, students at Grand Valley had established a campus chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The existing records of this student organization include a booklet of the Constitution and Bylaws to be observed by NAACP branches, published in 1978.
The Grand Valley State Colleges Black Alumni Association was also established in 1979, earning commendation from GVSC President Arend “Don” Lubbers.
Black History in Grand Rapids
With regard to African-American history in Grand Rapids, the GVSU Special Collections are also home to the papers of Paul I. Phillips, Executive Director of the Grand Rapids Urban League from 1947 to 1976. Phillips became the first African-American to hold elected office in the city when he won a position on the Grand Rapids Charter Commission in 1951. He was also elected to the Grand Rapids Board of Education, on which he served from 1962 to 1970. Phillips received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Grand Valley in 1972, and was appointed by Governor William G. Milliken to the institution’s Board of Control in May 1976. He passed away late in December of that year.
For his distinguished record of public service, Phillips was the recipient of many posthumous honors. Several scholarship funds and local athletic awards came to bear his name. In 1979, the Kent County Board of Commissioners dedicated its new Social Services facility in Grand Rapids to his memory.
From Grand Valley to Grand Rapids and beyond, these collections at the GVSU Special Collections & University Archives help to document the history and contributions of African-Americans in our communities.
Every writer develops his or her own process for creation. Some writers make copious notes, doodles, and drafts to flesh out their ideas. Others allow an idea to germinate and grow internally before committing the nearly-complete story or poem to paper. In Conversations with Jim Harrison, edited by Robert DeMott, Harrison describes his own process thusly: “I write my original drafts by hand – The Road Home was in pen on yellow, lined legal paper. Then Joyce Bahle types my manuscript and gives it to me and then I check it against the manuscript, go through it again and give it to her. I don’t revise substantively” (204).
Within the Jim Harrison papers, this process is documented again and again. The collection, donated to Grand Valley State University in 2005, comprises over 360 boxes of drafts, correspondence, publications, photographs, and other material by and about the Michigan-born writer, and spans his life from 1938 to the present day.
Though possibly most famous for his fiction and as the author of Legends of the Fall, the novella which inspired a 1994 film adaptation starring Brad Pitt, Harrison identifies himself first and foremost as a poet. The “yellow, lined legal paper” Harrison describes in the quote above can be found throughout the many boxes of his own writings, which include poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and screenplays.
In the image below, a section of Harrison’s poem “Geo-Beastiary” is shown in its three development phases: first as a handwritten draft, then as a computer typescript (this one is dated April 1998), and finally as a printed broadside. The 34-part poem was initially published in full in The Shape of the Journey: New & Collected Poems (1998).
Later in the same conversation with DeMott, Jim elaborates on his creative journey:
“This outpouring is a cumulative process, and when it ends, as with The Road Home, and then with “Geo-Bestiary,” you just don’t always have any idea how it happened. You think maybe it was more like a seizure, a long seizure” (208).
What is particularly striking about Harrison’s creative process is his sheer prolificacy coupled with the near-completeness of his first drafts. He is the author of 20 major works of fiction, 5 non-fiction books, 18 books of poetry, a children’s book, and either scripted or co-wrote three screenplays.
DeMott, Robert, ed. Conversations with Jim Harrison, Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2002.
Harrison, Jim. “Geo-Beastiary,” The Shape of the Journey: New & Collected Poems, Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 1998.
The people, places, and things that captured the imagination of a Midwestern original
Donald James Angus (1887-1966), born in Wisconsin, was a self-educated electrical engineer specializing in measuring and recording devices. He was co-owner of Esterline-Angus Co. of Indianapolis, and was an amateur radio enthusiast and photographer.
D. J. Angus was especially interested in photographing man-made engineering feats, and recorded dams, mills, bridges, and Mt. Rushmore under construction. He was drawn to the culture and architecture of ancient civilizations and traveled to the Southwest for cliff-dwellings and Aztec ruins, and to Mexico for pre-Columbian pyramids. Angus traveled at a time when the National Parks were being established and before restrictions were placed on access by visitors. He photographed natural phenomena — geysers, lava fields, canyons, and craters and natural disasters. His documentation of the aftermath of floods, shipwrecks, tornadoes and cyclones throughout the mid-West captured his adventurous spirit as well as these one-time events. His images provide a visual chronicle of technological changes at a time when the country was undergoing rapid modernization and provide a lasting record of the country during the late 1920s – mid 1930s.
D. J. Angus grew up in Wisconsin, and lived most of his life in Indiana and Michigan. He had an understanding and an eye for the Midwest and the lives of Midwesterners. His family and friends were willing subjects of some of his most interesting photos.
Angus was often on site recording the latest disasters, from cyclones to shipwrecks.
Personal Interests and Travel
Angus was a founder of the Indianapolis Radio Club in 1914 and a licensed ham radio operator. He helped design the first portable radio sending and receiving units for the Indiana State Police.
D. J. Angus spent many summer camping trips exploring the American Southwest. Traveling during the 1930s, gave him unprecedented access to the National Parks and wilderness areas not available to visitors today.
The country was rapidly changing to accommodate Westward expansion, and National Parks protected the country’s natural wonders for the enjoyment of future generations. Angus traveled west in 1934 when George Washington’s face was dedicated at Mt. Rushmore and the Hoover Dam was under construction.
In all, D.J. Angus traveled throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
The collection was donated to Grand Valley State University Libraries, Special Collections & University Archives by Charles Angus in 1986.
There are often surprises to be found in collections of family papers. One such serendipitous discovery among the Bachelder, Curtis, and Kellogg Family Correspondence (RHC-75) is a series of ten invitations to social events held at the Hallowell House in Hallowell, Maine between 1835 and 1840. All are printed on one side of a folded sheet of paper. On the back of each is a single line of handwriting, “Miss Curtis,” which suggests that these were delivered by hand rather than sent in the mail. The recipient was Massachusetts-born Susan Wheelwright Curtis (1818-1855).
Hallowell House was a five-storey hotel constructed in 1832 that contained not only rooms, but a restaurant, a ballroom, a bank, and a post office. The Federal-style building was designed by John D. Lord who supervised the construction of the Maine State Capitol building. From the invitations it is clear that Hallowell House hosted a variety of community gatherings and events, from grand balls to political assemblies.
It is most likely that the invitations were printed by the Hallowell firm of Glazier, Masters & Smith who were active in that town between 1820 and the late 1840s, publishing political and religious tracts, proceedings of the Maine legislature, speeches, among others.
Susan Curtis evidently saved these invitations as souvenirs of enjoyable times. On a few of them can be discerned a lightly-penciled response, “accepted” or “declined.” It is of interest to note that the cotillion party of October 1840 was organized by C. G. Bachelder (1810-1871), whom Susan would marry in 1841. By their very nature as ephemera, these invitations are most probably the only surviving copies.