A FAMILY AFFAIR: Finding History in Collective Storytelling

Jillian Marie Jacklin

My life is political. Yet I had no idea when I was growing up in my hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin. As a first-generation, low-income college student, I did not become conscious that my past had meaning, until I took my senior capstone seminar. Although I was already an activist, my chosen causes existed outside of the United States. Not until my professor, who would later become my advisor in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Camille Guérin-Gonzales, suggested that I might have a story to tell about my community, did I become conscious that all of my daily activities were, in some way, ideological by nature. During every weekly meeting of that course, I learned about my privileges, especially regarding race, and I also came to understand the implications of my class status. Since this moment of awareness, I have dedicated my research, writing, and teaching to exploring the lives and sharing the struggles of workers as a social justice advocate.     

As a Ph.D. candidate, I had planned to expound on my master’s thesis. But rather than continue to explore that topic, my advisor strongly suggested I consider changing my trajectory to focus on the region where I grew up, and this recommendation has made all the difference in the way that I look at sources and think about crafting historical narratives. Camille offered me both direction and an opportunity that sparked an intellectual path rooted in the paper-mill lore and folktales of my family members. Thus, in an effort to uncover and share stories about a world of people, whose experiences might have otherwise sat at the margins of historical inquiry, I finally placed myself in the shoes of my subjects in my dissertation “Paper Dreams: Working-Class Cultures and Political Drift in the Fox River Valley, 1850s-1950s.” 

Admittedly, this is a deeply personal project. I am the daughter of working-class parents; my father was an industrial salesman, my mother is a domestic worker, and my stepfather is a carpenter. My mom grew up without a mother and was one of two of her five sisters to graduate high school. Although she wanted to attend college, finances were an issue. She met my dad at nineteen, and after my parents divorced when I was seven, she established her own business cleaning houses and offices. Despite not having gone on into higher education, she inspired an appreciation for music and literature and a love of conversation. From the age of eight until I left for college, I cleaned houses with my mom, and while I knew that I did not want to have her same profession, her hard work motivates the research that I am doing today. I want to tell the stories of people like her, who regardless of the challenges of their labors, found ways to enjoy life and make political change through leisure practices and everyday activities. 

My mom comes from a family of women with a strong and intelligent patriarch.  Grandpa Koski, the son of Finnish immigrants, a Korean War veteran who grew up in the upper peninsula of Michigan, dirt poor during the Great Depression, raised five girls by himself after his wife left. Each one of my aunts is a hardworking, independent, and kind person. They are caring, wise, and cautious, and all are storytellers. Brenda, Debra, Maggie, Marion, and Diane encouraged my method called kinship stories. There are three techniques to this research strategy. One, I use conversations with relatives as oral histories that are as mediated as any other primary source. Two, I use family conversations to get a more complete perspective on particular historical circumstances. The differing opinions on what occurred help to create a better sense of the complexity of past events. Overlapping evidence at times influences whether or not I decide to incorporate certain information but emphasis does as well. The person who most believes their story, and stands up for it with conviction, often becomes the most influential in defining which details I include. Three, I am not always the only one to ask questions. When I get together with my family members to interview a person, others readily join in the conversation, often with more insightful inquiries than I provide, which creates a more textured version of the past and influences how I cultivate their collective voice. 

For example, last summer, I sat around a campfire with family at my grandparents, who live in northern Wisconsin. I inquired if I could ask my step-grandma a few questions about growing up in the Fox Valley, and my aunts and cousins quickly joined in the conversation. When was she born? “Okay, 1939, well that means that you were a kid during World War Two,” I said. Wasn’t Grandpa Wadel in the war?” my aunt asked. “Yes, he suffered terrible injuries,” my grandma answered. “And your first husband died from a heart attack, correct?” I asked. “Wasn’t he, like 35?” my cousin commented. “Then how did you survive?” another cousin exclaimed. “We were on welfare, honey. Times were very hard,” my grandma answered.  This communal form of storytelling is one of the many reasons that I delight in being a historian.

Likewise, my dad loves history, and majored in it during college. He generated an interest in politics and told me that I should become a professor. Being one of six children, he grew up in a middle-class household, raised by working-class parents. My dad and his siblings are close and are intelligent human beings who are devoted parents. They all love each other and are cordial; and they are all, excellent storytellers. Their vastly polarizing political, racial, and religious perspectives reveal the complicated ideological world that can transpire within one close-knit family. Their ability to forgive each other after intensely emotional disputes reflects the genuine romantic love that existed between my grandparents, Doris Jean and Gordon as well as profound Catholic guilt. Their humor and grace influence the way that I approach my subject matter, with a faithful and respectful heart. My grandpa encouraged a loyalty to family, and although she died at only 58, my grandma has imprinted an interest in personal narratives on my psyche.

Around the time of my tenth birthday, my father shared something intimate with me about my grandmother. Apparently she had spent a considerable portion of her adult life studying family history, tracing immigration and settlement patterns, maintaining records of the types of jobs people worked, whom they married, and what they did for entertainment. Significantly, she created what she called, the “Cemetery Safari,” which became an important pastime for my dad and his siblings. I remember how old I was when he told me these details about my grandma’s life, because it was the spring after I turned ten that my dad took my brother and I on the journey that Doris Jean Jacklin had created. Winding through acres of gravestones, from church cemeteries to local family-owned farms, the “Cemetery Safari,” narrates a story of struggle, strife, and love. Although she died when I was only two years old, her memory is alive in the gift she left for future generations of storytellers. Her passion for history continuously inspires my research, and her desire to reveal the skeletons she unearthed about the challenges of workers in the Fox River Valley has fueled my dedication to becoming a scholar of labor history.

The affect and dedication that my stepfather and brother display in their animation about hard work during their leisure time also shapes my research and writing process as well as the topics that I discuss in my scholarship. Mike, my mom’s husband, is a finish carpenter and general contractor for one of the biggest construction firms in the Fox Valley; and as a skilled worker, he is one of Wisconsin’s most respected.  He builds the homes of wealthy area residents, and he does an exceptional job.  His work ethic is impeccable and his storytelling hilarious. Our conversations remind me to look for the adventure in each daily activity and passion that one can have about their profession.  My brother provides these methodological ideas as well, though in different ways.  A gifted musician and golf professional, my stepdad thinks Ben also has the capability of being a highly accomplished finish carpenter.  My brother is also an expert storyteller.  He has been entertaining audiences since we had our talent shows and impersonated Chris Farley from Saturday Night Live.  His ability to capture human emotion is immense and on point.  And I take the interest and joy that I experience when I listen to his song lyrics, and I apply them to my trips to the archives and writing sessions with my MacBook. The seasonal and cyclical work life that he both endures and embraces have helped to sculpt the framework for my work, and his ideas are scattered throughout “Paper Dreams.”

These are the people that inspire my writing and make it meaningful. Working-class people, like my family members, shaped the Fox Valley’s cultural landscape, and their struggles have changed our political present. Although not always overtly electoral in their actions, their insistence upon living in ways that reflect their preferences regarding labor and relaxation guides my scholarship as well as the ways in which I craft and narrate stories about Wisconsin’s past.

For instance, when I refer to my mother as a domestic worker, she always reminds me that she is self-employed, which to her indicates more control over her schedule and free time.  Although I had never thought of her as a political activist, I do remember that she called me during my freshman year of college to remind me to vote, because “women had worked so hard to win that right!” But since graduate school, I have thought back to her resistance to the smoking ban in Appleton as ideological.  She refused to accept the law and continued to enjoy her favorite leisure time activities, regardless of their health effects or illegality.  As she told television reporters, she was going to sit and use tobacco in taverns, because it was not only her right, but also the choice of the business owner to permit the practice. She did not care what local authorities told her to do; rather, it was her decision.  On Wisconsin!

Essay Photo: Courtesy of Appleton Historical Society


Jillian Marie Jacklin is a Ph.D. candidate and lecturer in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  She is both a scholar and an activist whose research and writing explore how Fox Valley workers have shaped the political landscape of Wisconsin in ways that represented their cultural values and entertainment practices.