Today I’d like to introduce you to Jacqueline Dougan Jackson, family historian, author, and retired professor. I met Jackie online when she and her daughter discovered our blog and the Family Locket Book Club. She has been writing for over eighty years and promised her grandfather at age fifteen that she’d write the story of the Round Barn, the unique barn he built in 1911 for his growing family dairy business. We’ll be featuring volume one of her Round Barn series for our January Book Club Selection. Let’s find out a little more about Jackie and how she got started in her writing career.
How I Became a Family Historian
by Jacqueline Dougan Jackson
I never set out to write “family history,” or history at all. I just wrote; I loved to read and write. In second grade, I wrote a poem about ducks. At eight, I wrote a short essay titled “My Pet Pig” –no doubt a runt from behind my grandma’s stove that I nursed it with a baby bottle. At the end, I say matter-of-factly, “He is going to be butchered.” I was a farm kid with a realistic view of life.
Most of my works, though, were fanciful—fairies, elves, make believe, reflecting the Oz books I devoured. But my fourth grade book—it won a prize in the city-wide hobby show (not even an adult had entered a book)–might be called family history. Two anthropomorphic dogs lived on a farm and did all the things I and my sibs did, or wanted to do. Our creek was in spring spate and so we were not allowed to float an old barn door on it: we went to sea on the flooded ditches instead. But Bumpy and Billy Bones got to venture onto the dangerous waters. Successfully, of course.
A real book of family history emerged when I was 13—some forty pages of a novel I only recently unearthed. It’s history in reverse, though. I’d had a humiliating experience at the 4 H fair, with my calf misbehaving in the show ring, and in my story, the heroine does everything right, trains her calf properly, and wins a blue ribbon. Fiction, yes, to heal a bruised soul though I didn’t realize that was what I was doing. But it is our farm, our barn, my calf, and the Janesville fair and show ring, described in accurate detail.
My dad was a raconteur. The stories we heard over and over were family history. At fourteen I jotted down several pages of sentences, each about an oft heard story, then did nothing further. But these may have lain in some recess of my brain when I told my deaf grandfather, a year later, “I’m going to write you a book, and call it ‘The Round Barn.” It would be full of true farm stories. I didn’t fulfill that promise before his death, but have been working on the book, off and on, ever since. An early volume came out in 1996—and when I found that notebook, again recently, I saw that every one of my dad’s stories had been related in Stories from the Round Barn. The boy who milked on his feet, the time my dad carved his name on the school backhouse door, the little girl who pulled down her drawers to show him that girls were different—well, I could go on and on. And I have, in my books, which I now recognize as family history.
Writing was not a part of the curriculum of my grade school and high school, I did some writing on my own. But I remember well the jolt of thrill when I discovered I could actually take creative writing at college! The poet Chad Walsh was my first mentor; his professor at University of Michigan, Roy Cowden, my second. My third, and current mentor is Reginald Gibbons, poet, theorist, and novelist, head of writing at Northwestern, who heard my unpublished stories and became their publisher. These three have been essential to me—but none stressed family history per se.
I’ve never thought of myself as a genealogist, though of course I am. The pursuit and gathering of ancestors’ origins has been a by-product, though an important one. It is the stories of those people that I’ve coveted, sought out, and written up—I’ve made the farm a family, as it actually was, and so am including the stories of the workers, the university, the vets, the scientists, everyone connected, including family. Genealogy often falls in place.
What personality traits, hobbies, professional pursuits have helped me in my research, is a question Diana asked. The first: I was always a watcher, as listener, a little pitcher with big ears. I remembered, and I wrote things down. With a deaf grandfather, we were all used to writing things down, always carrying writing materials. His disability nourished my habit. Also, I learned by third grade that people liked what I wrote down, and I won prizes in hobby shows where any age could enter—though I never thought, “writing is my hobby.”
Mindful, though, of my promise to my grandfather, and possessing a green book where my mother had written down many brief episodes from her children’s growing up. I kept all family papers. I asked, got, and received, a large leather briefcase for Christmas when I was 9. Eventually I saved all personal and business papers having to do with the family and farm, tons of stuff! I am not a “hoarder” though my house belies that. I am “an archivist.” In the old Shoe cartoons, “Uncle Cosmo” and his impossible desk, is my hero. He claims he’s not a slob, he’s an archivist.
I publish a poem every week in Illinois Times. I’ll finish with two about an ancestor. When I recently asked my sister how I knew this stuff, I couldn’t make up that bluejay or the tramps, she responded, “Aunt Lillian TOLD us!” So she remembers stories, too. It must be a family trait.
I’ll tell you of great aunt lillian
young in 1890 a train dispatcher
alone in a remote rural wisconsin
shed kept a stout stick beneath
her desk just in case had a large
dog for company also a bluejay
the jay would bend straight pins
into circles when my aunt threw
a bunch on the floor also it would
wait till the dog was snoozing and
whuffling by the stove then peck
him on the belly one frigid night
nine men entered one by one each
tipped his hat evening ma’am sat
on the long bench said not a word
my aunt relaxed her hold on the
hidden stick the men took turns
stoking the fire at dawn they all
filed out tipped their hats thank
you ma’am (there’ll be a sequel to
this aunt’s tale you’ll have to wait)
to go on with great aunt lillian’s
story: it was a lonely boring job
there in the country train station
she listened in (illegally) to the
dots and dashes the morse code
chatter between various engineers
one day she overheard a passenger
was coming on one track a freight
on the same track they would meet
right at her station what to do no time
to warn the trains of this fateful error
she rushed outside cranked the handle
shunted the freight onto the siding
the engineer cussed her out from his
window just as his caboose cleared the
main track the passenger whooshed by
the freight engineer shut up was this
act of bravery ever lauded rewarded?
no neither engineer nor the company
breathed a word about it she was an
unsung heroine I sing of it now to you
–Jacqueline Dougan Jackson