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"My Dear Aunt Martha" Collection

March 24, 2014

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MACOMB, IL -- A premier manuscript collection, "My Dear Aunt Martha," is now housed within the Western Illinois University Archives thanks to the generosity of alumna Barbara (Lynn) Shave.

"We are very honored to house this tremendous collection," WIU Libraries Associate Professor and Archives Unit Director Jeff Hancks said. "We will preserve it as a significant resource for future generations."

"My Dear Aunt Martha: A 19th Century American Epic from the Letters of Those Who Lived It" is the publication of 80 letters, exchanged between Pennsylvania and Illinois individuals, belonging to several families of long association, who immigrated to Illinois from the same community in Pennsylvania.

"Just as their grandparents had built the tiny community of Fannettsburg in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, these pioneers built the tiny community of Fountain Green in Hancock County, Illinois," Shave explained.

Written from 1811 to 1893, the letters depict their pioneer trials and tribulations in Hancock County, Illinois. They also describe the evolution of their community and provide first person perspectives on the affairs of the nation: the War of 182, the Mormon War, the Mexican War, the Mississippi River boat trade, the Colorado Gold Rush, the Civil War, the California Gold Rush and the emancipation of women.

"Many of the Illinois letters were written to my great-grandfather, who saved them for descendants," she added. "Several years ago, these letters were passed to me as next-in-line caretaker."

Coincidentally, an entirely separate collection of letters then turned up in Pennsylvania. These were the letters that the Illinois transplants wrote back to their Pennsylvania relatives. Beginning with the title character, Aunt Martha McConnell Walker of Fannettsburg, whose teenaged nieces wrote despairingly from frontier Illinois about having to live at the end of the earth, successive generations preserved this second collection for 200 years in Pennsylvania.

Martha's descendant gave the Pennsylvania letters to Shave in 2006, along with the directive: "Write the book." The result was "My Dear Aunt Martha: A 19th Century American Epic from the Letter of Those Who Lived It," which the Illinois State Historical Society chose for its 2011 Outstanding Achievement Award.

"With the book to breathe life into the brittle documents, it was time to house the letters where they could be properly preserved for another 200 years," said Shave. "The Western Illinois University Library Archive was first choice."

Shave earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Education from Western in 1963. Both of her parents attended Western, as have many other relatives.

"I have a particular soft spot for this university," she said. "Western's location also makes it the appropriate home for these documents, which pertain to regional history."

The documents of the "My Dear Aunt Martha" Collection are housed in the Archives and Special Collections unit of the WIU Malpass Library, and are accessible to researchers and other interested parties.

"It immediately becomes one of the best collections in the archives," said Hancks."Barb did the hard work of interpreting the documents and putting the letters into context. WIU has the pleasure of preserving the original documents and final product."

"My Dear Aunt Martha: A 19th Century American Epic from the Letters of Those Who Lived It" is available through

Posted By: Julie Murphy, WIU Foundation (
Office of University Relations