From diaries to vinyl records to the most minute happenings in Missourians’ lives, the Western Historical Manuscript Collection in MU’s Ellis Library details the history and culture of mid-Missouri. There are many places to do research at MU, but the collection, arguably one of the best, is often overlooked.
The collection began in Columbia in 1943 with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Its materials were combined with those of the State Historical Society of Missouri in 1963. Five years later, the collection expanded to offices on all four University of Missouri System campuses.
Today, the collection houses the manuscript holdings of both the UM system and the State Historical Society of Missouri. These holdings, with more than 16,000 feet of paper records and 31,000 photographs, include the works and stories of many Missouri citizens.
Allen Walker Read
Perhaps the most surprising collection is that of linguist Allen Walker Read, a professor of English and semantics who taught MU freshmen from 1926 to 1928. Not one to throw things away, Read saved not only photos, genealogy charts and diaries, but also every flyer, appointment card and ticket stub he’d ever received.
“When he was nearing death in 2002, his wife told us that it was time to pick up his things,” said David Moore, associate director of the Western Historical Manuscript Collection’s Columbia office. “When I and another gentleman opened up the closet in his study, we literally spent days pulling things out. You could tell that he had spent a lot of time in that room.”
Read’s diaries, in which he wrote from 1925 until at least 1969, document every detail of his life, from meals to social encounters. Whenever he took public transportation or attended a stage production, he would affix the ticket stub to his diary.
William Stolz, a senior manuscript specialist at the collection, said that Read went on to become a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and a professor at Columbia University in New York. He became known for tracing the origin of the term “OK,” Stolz said.
The Read collection contains 120 boxes, five rolls of microfilms and several recordings.
Lester B. Dent
While Read’s documents showcase the work of an academic professional, other collections show the works of people who wrote to entertain. One such person was Lester B. Dent, a native of La Plata who became famous for his “Doc Savage” stories in pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s.
“Doc Savage was one of the first examples of what you’d consider a modern superhero,” Stolz said. “He was given superhuman strength and secret fortresses, and the novels have art closely resembling that of comic books. Most people don’t know, or don’t even expect, that we’d have something like this.”
The novels include common comic book characters, such as mad scientists and physically dominating monsters. The novels have more text than art, but they introduce each new character with a drawing and short backstory.
One ongoing project at the collection seeks to tell the stories of Missouri soldiers put in German and Japanese prisoner-of-war camps during World War II. As part of the Missouri ex-POWs Oral History Project, manuscript specialist Tom Miller has interviewed more than 80 prisoners of war and transcribed the conversations.
“I believe we have the third largest collection of ex-POW histories in the country, and it’s a valuable resource,” Miller said. “I’d like to educate as many people as possible about the sacrifices these heroes made.”
Miller said the interviews offer interesting bits of Missouri history and culture. One man he interviewed was originally from Midco, a town that no longer exists.
Miller said the interviews include the experiences of people stationed at Guam and Wake Island as well as examples of different defense tactics, such as the Germans disguising weapon shipments with red crosses. Miller said he would like to continue the project for as long as possible.
Some collections document the histories of Missouri’s land and waters. E.B. Trail, a dentist originally from New Haven, took up the hobby of steamboating in the early 20th century and used maps to document happenings on the Missouri River, Moore said. Trail eventually found out that the river had an average of one wreck every three miles.
The Columbia office also houses the collection of Mary Paxton Keeley, the first female graduate of MU’s School of Journalism. Part of the collection is a diary that Keeley kept about her experiences building a house in Columbia in 1937. Keeley’s diary shows that she kept a sense of humor about the situation. One entry from Aug. 20, 1937, reads: “Send in application for F.H.A. loan. Sign myself into slavery for the next 20 years, slavery to my house.” Stolz said that the house was near what is now Hospital Drive.
Moore said that manuscript collections are important because understanding what people did in the past is relevant to what people do today.
“I don’t want to say that one of our collections is the best because the next one always supersedes previous ones,” Moore said. “They’re all unique. It just depends on what your topic is.”