People used to spend more time journaling than they do now.

While it's by no means a lost art, I think more people from past generations wrote down their daily events as a way to remember and learn. If you took good notes on how a particular harvest went, for example, you might be able to improve your results the next year. You surely would recall things that resulted in disaster that way. Perhaps they also felt their mortality a bit more than we do today, and felt the need to pass down their ways in case they didn't make it.

I don’t really know, but I do believe there were a lot of good reasons to take notes — and still are.

We are in an interesting time right now. We're in a pandemic. Pandemics have happened before in history, but every one has been unique in some ways, as is this one today, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Newspapers and media as a whole have for years done a wonderful job of documenting the overall happenings, the public side of things and big news related to pandemics. Personal journals offer another perspective, taking us right into the minds of the people, individually, on the front lines of life. At the Becker County Museum, as historians and researchers, we understand the value of the treasures found in journals.

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To illustrate, the following are excerpts from the personal journal of Elizabeth “Jane” (Green) Weston, written in 1917 and 1918, as the Spanish flu pandemic was beginning. Bill ("Will") and Jane Weston and their son and only child, Jay, came to the United States from Ontario, Canada in 1879. They first homesteaded in Burlington Township, and in 1890, moved to Lake View Township. Jane died in 1935 and was buried next to her husband, who died in 1932. They are buried in Lake View Cemetery.

(Notes by Jane's great-granddaughter, Virginia Weston, are in parenthesis.)

May 15, 1917: Hot – 86°. S.W. wind and very dry. Will fixing fence. I cleaned the cellar and started to clean the kitchen.

Mar. 4 1918: (Date of first case of Spanish flu in the United States) Misty and foggy, did not freeze last night – Will filled his tanks. I canned some beef, and we cleaned two bush of clover seed and two bush of timothy seed.

March 31, 1918: Colder. Wind turned to N.W. this morning. Had a dust storm this afternoon. Herbert Holcomb and family, Davis, Flo and Mrs. Huston, Ed and family and ourselves were over at Jay’s for dinner. Lyle Greenlaw died in California on Tuesday, March 26th of pneumonia (often associated with Spanish flu). He belonged to the Coast Guard Artillery, and had only been there two weeks. The lake out in front of the house has opened up and half the ice is out.

April 26, 1918: Seth Swetland died at Camp Dodge with pneumonia and his remains arrived at Detroit this afternoon.

May 22 1918: Will and I finished soliciting for the Government Red Cross. I got $31.

May 25 1918: About 60 of the boys left for training camps today, Ed Beug and one of the Daring boys among them. Red Cross Auction Sale at Detroit.

June 2, 1918: We all went to town to the War S. Stampa parade and speeches. We went up with Jay in the car. Gov. Burnquist and a soldier from Pershing’s army spoke in the afternoon and J. Adam Bede in the evening.

These are from an era where a pandemic was seizing the nation, and yet we can see that was not the only concern folks had. The rest of life was still happening, as well.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, one of my daughter Emma's first “distance learning” assignments was to write every day about what life is like, and what she did each day. Here are a couple of excerpts from the seventh grader's journal, which began in the days just after schools closed.

A page from Emma Mitchell's journal, handwritten during the current COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Kevin Mitchell / Becker County Museum)
A page from Emma Mitchell's journal, handwritten during the current COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Kevin Mitchell / Becker County Museum)

Wednesday, March 18 2020

Day 1: It is currently 8:36, I woke up about an hour ago. I am babysitting my little sister, Eden. We are watching my favorite movie, "The Kissing Booth," while I heat up the leftover pancakes and eggs. I just finished making breakfast. I am going to take a break so I do not get syrup on my journal. It is now 11:30. I am extremely hungry. But as soon as I got up to make food, my best friend, Ella, Facetimed me. Somehow I got the brilliant idea to make microwave pancakes. I made them first with chocolate chips ... then I made pink pancakes ... Then Ella dyed her hair purple. It turned out cool. Goodbye for now. It is now 2:45 and Ella had to go. My parents are still at work. It's now 8:30 and I am going to shower then go to bed.

Sunday, March 22 2020

Day 5: Hello, today started off with me cleaning all eight kennels. Yuck! ... Today I am cleaning my room. For supper I had manicotti, my mom made it. Tonight Ella and I are Facetiming all night. It is now 11 pm. And we just got on call and are playing truth or brutal truth. It is now 1 am. and we are watching a movie over Facetime. The movie is "The Kissing Booth." It's my favorite. It is now 3 am. I'm watching "The Kissing Booth" again. I forgot to tell you! Earlier I played Scrabble with my mom for the first time. Well we made it the whole night, time to get ready for the day.

If you look at the photo of her journal, compared to Weston's journal from 100 years earlier, you can see how similar they are, despite the fact that Emma lives in a very “tech immersed” home with all the modern goodies at her disposal. Her phone is full of pictures, and some of her journal entries refer to video conferencing or video calling, but her core journal is a simple bound notebook, handwritten.

The value of journaling is incredible. The Minnesota State Historical society has recently done a call-out to gather journals, and we at the Becker County Museum have done the same. You can enter your stories at http://beckercountyhistory.org/journals/. They can be from life right now, or from days of yore. Either way, we will archive them in our Digital Archive,

As we spend this time staying at home more and learning new ways of doing things, don’t forget to journal it for the generations to come. You can do that on the museum’s website, on your smartphone, with a camera, on your computer, or a digital tablet. You can post on social media, maybe even go as far as to start your own YouTube channel. You can make a scrapbook, of a photo album. Or you can grab a composition notebook for about 99 cents at the store and write everything down with a pen or pencil.

It doesn't matter how you do it, just do it. Then, when the next big thing comes around, we can all compare notes again.