Hamburg resident Dr. Evan Calkins writes family history
“What do you do with all of this?,” he asks, after giving a tour of the large farmhouse in Hamburg he’s called home for the last 50 years with his wife, Virginia, showing off bookcases full of handwritten journals and boxes full of letters dating back to the 1700s. “It’s the perils of being the family historian.”
A decade later, at the age of 92, Calkins has a four-volume anthology of his family’s history to show for his work, and it’s garnering attention in some prestigious places.
He recently received oral verification that the books would be picked up by the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University, as well as written confirmation that the New England Historic Genealogical Society is picking up all four volumes, and the Massachusetts Historical Society is picking up volumes one, two and three.
“I didn’t know if it would be of interest,” he said.
Not every family is able to keep such an in-depth log of its history, but to Calkins, there isn’t anything special about his family or why they were able to collect such a large amount of material over the years.
“It’s just by happenstance and good luck that we have this material,” he said.
Some of the more interesting artifacts include pictures of Calkins’ uncle, Ormsby Phillips, hanging around with a young George Patton in California, years before Patton went on to lead American forces in World War II, and letters written from the front lines of the Revolutionary War.
The role of the family historian fell to Calkins because he was always interested. As a young boy, he would visit the family cemetery plot in Cambridge, Mass. around Christmas, and he would always ask his father about the people buried there. That interest, combined with a love for taking on various projects both personally and professionally, solidified Calkins as the perfect candidate to take on the responsibilities of the family historian.
“I didn’t do any of the soliciting for the material,” he said. “It just arrived. It was known in the family that I should be the recipient of this.”
It took Calkins until he was 82-years-old to go through the material because he was busy with other things, like raising his family and his medical work.
“I figured it was time and I’d better get going on this material,” he said. “It simply was in those boxes. It was shocking that I waited until I was 82.”
Along with the family history being passed down, traditions have been handed down in the Calkins family from generation to generation as well. One tradition, specifically tied to Christmas, involves the reading of Christmas stories written by Calkins’ uncle, Raymond Calkins every Christmas. The stories were written during the early 1900s, and reflect the time period.
“The stories are very old fashioned and take place around 1915,” he said. “No mention of automobiles, no mention of electronic devices. It’s before the modern era, and my uncle expressed it with tremendous warmth and sweetness.”
In 1924, Calkins’ uncle gave a copy of the Christmas stories to his father. On the Sundays leading up to Christmas, the whole family would gather in the living room and his father would read the stories.
“There are about 10 Christmas stories, and he would read five stories one year, and five stories the next year,” Calkins said.
Calkins has carried on the tradition with his own family, reading one story a year for the last 50 years. Calkins’ father had the stories bound for each of the five children in the family, and several copies have been made since. Notes on each reading for the last 50 years are kept in the front of the book, carrying on the family tradition of keeping a written record of things. Each notation meticulously lays out who was at the reading, who read the story and which story was read.
Three readers are chosen every year, as it’s impossible for one reader to make it through the story without bursting into tears. It’s an emotional combination of the content in the stories and having the family gathered together, Calkins said.
Now that Calkins has compiled much of the material he has into the four volume history, he’s trying to figure out what to do with the boxes of letters and journals and photographs he has. He’s had interest from several museums and libraries, especially in the handwritten letters he has.
“One of the things I have to do is go through all of these boxes and take something that might be of interest to one of these historical libraries and see if they would be interested in having it available to historians and social scientists,” he said.
While putting the books together has been a lot of work, Calkins, who is still a practicing rheumatologist, sharing office space with his daughter, Dr. Joan Calkins in the Village of Hamburg at 17 Long Ave., has enjoyed it quite a bit. After all, it’s allowed him to take on another project.
“I love being creative,” he said. “It’s been interesting.”