Letters Project

Ideas for a “Letters” documentary

1. Student plan to put six letters found in family records or community archives on the web (or create a pamphlet for local library), along with interpretations. This will be lead to a 10-minute segment in the finished video.

1st visit: Documentary film crew makes three visits to site. At first visit, interview students and teachers about the “find.’ Film footage of place where letters were located (home or museum) and ask general questions about why students are tackling this project, what they expect to find, what they hope to learn. Get footage of students reading and handling the letters, ask questions about how they care for the documents.

2nd visit: Film students scanning letters, working at computers. Record students reading selections from the letters. Interview them about what they have learned, what they know about the letter writer and his/her times, challenges of this sort of work, successes and frustrations.

3rd visit (after website completed): Interview students focusing on their evaluation of the experience. Get shots of the finished web pages. Interview teachers and any community members touched by the project, about what they see as its value.

2. Students create documentary recreation of the story of Abigail and John Adams, as told through letters. At least three full length plays have been produced based on this correspondence: American Primitive, Rush’s Dream, and Jefferson & Adams.

This material could be turned into a 10-minute video several ways. Staff, including teacher, could create a 10-minute version drawn from the plays, mostly readings of passages of the letters with a bit of voice-over narration to set the context and move the listener through time. Students could then perform these parts as readers theater. This would require no costume work and no staging.

At a different time, a couple actors and a carefully chosen site or two could be used to tape images. The actors would not speak, but the sound would be provided by the student voices from the readers theater, so the taping would be relatively simple, focusing only on getting the “look” right without worrying about talking or sound (Abigail sitting at desk, or feeding chickens with pensive look, etc). This recreation could either be done by students or not, though it would be more fun if they were involved. The two actors (John and Abigail) would probably be older people from the community.

3.  Letters to editor project. Teacher would select a topic from the past that generated letters to the editor over a period of time, possibly a dam or school construction project, though there may be other topics. Teachers would use fellowship money to locate the resources and plan a unit, possibly having students compare a past controversy with a current one, asking questions about what groups are in favor and which oppose, how groups form, the role of leadership, etc.

Film crew would make 3 visits to document the project, following an outline similar to project 1 above.

4. Letter writing project, research based. Students pick a topic which has an associated public comment period or Environmental Impact Statement--something that has generated some research that can be studied. Students read the research, interview locals who may be affected, then write research-based letters to the appropriate agency, demonstrating their knowledge of the issues and offering their opinions.

Video crew makes 3 trips to site, folllowing a schedule similar to project 1 above, with each visit planned in consultation with the teacher.

5. Letter writing project, sense of place. Teacher constructs a letter writing occasion that invites students to do “essay of place” style letters, based on sensory impressions from site visit(s), interviews with people to get traditional or expert insight, and research into the place’s history. The goal is to write detailed letters that convey a strong sense of a place that is personally important or important to a community or to Montana.

This could be introduced by reading letters full of detail sent back home from Montana pioneers (or from the first non-natives in New England).

The letters may be written to people in a different school (across Montana or in another nation), or to the student’s imagined grandchildren who may not be able to experience the place as it now exists, or to any other audience that might “work.”

Film crew would make three visits, accompanying students on site visits, to interviews, and filming their statements at the end of the project.


These are only suggestions. The possiblities are more or less limitless.

We may hire a researcher to locate materials in the Montana Historical Society, and the best materials would be those you are looking for. Any topics or time periods or locations you would like us to look for?

In our meeting later this summer (so far to be attended by Mike, Mary S., Nancy W., and our researcher) at MHS, we can talk about these and any other ideas you have, and plan to provide whatever help you might like.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 05/30 at 09:21 PM
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©2005 Montana Heritage Project

Making Sense of Letters

History Matters (a great site) has a section devoted to making sense of letters and diairies: This guide offers an overview of letters and diaries as historical sources and how historians use them, tips on what questions to ask when reading these personal texts, an annotated bibliography, and a guide to finding and using letters and diaries online. It includes some brief letters together with “model interpretations” by historians. 

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 05/30 at 09:14 PM
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Letters From Butte

Letters from Butte

My Uncle Cog (Harry Cosgriffe) writes to me in a letter dated April 3, 2004, “A friend of mine wrote this poem.  He grew up in Butte....I can’t imagine what it took to go down into those mines.  Desperate men did desperate things.  Your grandfather had to do it so the family could survive....” The poem:

Reflections of Miner’s Son on First Viewing the “Pit”
The hell-deep pit
Reveals the rotting timbers
Copper green, raped, raw and ruptured earth
Stopes, drifts exposed in space
Where earnest men
Labored, despaired, died.

The scarred and broken hill
Laid desolate and waste
Mocks hymns of praise
To Him who authored earth.

Sterile statistics boast
With ill-claimed pride
Of record take of health from hill.
The “flats” claimed the human toll
With no memorial account
Of injustice, grief and pain
The price that flesh and spirit paid.

Yet, please God, let those
Who look upon this scene Remember in pride and silent prayer
Those men of many faiths and creed
Who gave their best for others’ gain.

Arthur E. McCartan

This piece of poetry brings to mind my grandfather’s letters, of which only three survive, written home to Harlowton in the winter of 1936 as he began his pursuit of work in the mines at Butte.  He is writing home to my grandmother, Annie Arthur Cosgriffe, who is in charge of the four children (a son, twin daughters, one my mother, and the baby, another son), making ends meet somehow and working with my great-grandmother Blanche Cosgriffe in the family business, a dray and freight operation.  The letters are dignified and heartbreaking as Harry Senior chronicles his efforts to find work and a way to survive in an alien, to him, world.  My grandfather’s father died when Harry was but twelve years old, living his final years in a tiny house behind the family home, a “sanitorium” built for him as he suffered through the final stages of tuberculosis, a residual from his enlistment and service in the Spanish American War.  My grandfather became the “man of the family” and, quitting school, helped run the family business, only once running from his responsibilities when he decided to decamp with a traveling circus and had a glorious sixteen-year-old summer driving animal cages and circus wagons about Montana.  He was an “outside” man and used to the high plains and friendliness of a small town.  Thrust into the “desperate” world of job hunting in Butte, he tells of the difficulties he faces:
Nov. 1st, 36
No luck as yet. There were three hundred men rustiling [?] at the Belmont mine the toughest mine in camp to work in and they hired about a doz of them.  And they only hire once a week, so you can see how tough it is....I’ve sure been rustling.  I’ve even got my name in at the transfer co’s. I mite go out to a small mine out of Anaconda next week if I don’t land something here.. Could have went today but I was a little afraid as I have been pretty sick with a cold and flu and damn homesick along with it....they say it has been tough for two months now they keep putting out card’s....Well kiss the kids even Jr and write me all the news.  All my love Harry.

Sat 12th , 36
This is all that i can spare this time as I am a little behind myself.  I stay with Butte long enough to get a payday anyhow.  I haven’t time to get a money order so I’ll mail it this way.  There is alway’s along string at both post offices....The shifter jumped onto my pardner twice last week but never has said anything to me.  Day before yesterday he came into the stops just as I was starting to timber and helped me about an hour.  All my love Harry.  If you haven’t gone to the bank again do so because I think the money will be here.

Dec.. 18TH, 1936
Am enclosing a ten so you’ll be sure to have enough for Xmas.  I had to miss a shift today its a wet place where I am now and my cold got me down.  Was sure sick this morning.  We work Sunday instead of Xmas so I’ll surely be home now.  And if I don’t get to feeling better before then...I had to buy myself a pair of miners rubbers today as much as I hated to part with the money.  My feet are soaking wet all the time and I never will get well that way.  We dident make the place we were in pay again this last week and they gave us another place much to my suprise.  I thought that it would be the can.  We get the five and quarter whether it pays or not thats why they get tuff if it dont.  Well only six more shifts and I’ll be seeing you.  As ever Harry.

The circle continues as my grandfather, too, dies relatively young thirty years later, when he is 56 years old, from a weakness of the lungs contacted during those difficult years in the mines.  For years, my mother would say, “My dad should never have gone to those mines....they gave him emphysema.” He certainly became part of the human toll of the “richest hill on earth.”
I have many emotions when I re-read the letters, penciled in on cheap lined paper—I feel close to my grandfather and think often of my little grandmother, struggling through those times, waiting for those “ten” dollar bills in the mail.  And I think of the power of letters, and the bits of story that they tell to people who care. 
I am grateful for those three short, poignant letters home to “Dearest”; they have told me more of the mystical relationship between two of the people I loved most in my life than any conversation I ever had with either of them.

Nancy E. Widdicombe
The poem and the letters are published as “found.”

Posted by nancywiddicombe on 04/26 at 08:54 AM
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