by Matthew Schaefer
This blog is the closest this archivist gets to modern social media and the digital social network. I’m a bit of a dinosaur in this regard. Facebook, Twitter, Snap-Chat are as foreign to me as Urdu, Swahili and Latin. My social networking is old school. It does not trend. It trades on social capital built over decades working in Iowa, a state where personal and professional lives intertwine like the roots of prairie grasses.
I was recently reminded of this when I got a phone message from Evelyn Birkby. I recognized the name because she had donated her personal papers to the Iowa Women’s Archives, an institution headed by my wife. Before calling Evelyn, I touched base with my wife. She briefly outlined Birkby’s life as a farm woman, radio homemaker and writer of a weekly column, ‘Up a Country Lane’ for the Shenandoah Evening Sentinel. My wife then reminded me that I’d once met Evelyn Birkby at a fundraiser, commenting ‘She’ll remember you; her mind is razor sharp.’
I called Evelyn the next day; she did remember me. She had heard that our current temporary museum exhibit, ‘Tallgrass to Knee-High: A Century of Iowa Farming,’ featured many of her ‘Up a Country Lane’ columns. Evelyn wondered how many of her columns were used, how we found them, and if I’d share some of the titles with her. I could answer none of these questions.
After a bit of legwork, I called Evelyn back with answers. We’d used more than sixty of her columns in our exhibit. We ‘harvested’ them from the Iowa Women’s Archives online exhibit. The columns ranged from her very first publication in 1949 through 2009. The topics spanned Iowa farm life: canning, crops, family picnics, Iowa weather, the seasonal return of sand hill cranes, and recipes. Her first editor advised Evelyn: ‘Write friendly, as if you were talking to a neighbor, and always include a recipe. That way, no matter what the reader thinks of the article, they’ll have a recipe.’
Evelyn Birkby’s interest was not idle curiosity. She was gathering information for her next weekly column for the Shenandoah Evening Sentinel. At age 98 [99 on July 31, 2018], she still writes the column. Her goal is to continue the run until 2019: ‘At age 100, and after 70 years of never missing a week, I think I will retire.’
Although house-bound and nearly blind, Evelyn remains engaged, finding joy in her writing, her family and storytelling. She observed: ‘My weekly columns were the 20th century equivalent of blog posts. I was able to connect with the whole world right at the end of my country lane via my mailbox.’
Unlike me, Evelyn has a Facebook page and a website, http://www.evelynbirkby.com/index.php, rocking social networks old and new.