Historians often find old hand-written letters to be a goldmine of information about the past. For James Young, inheriting between 5,000 and 6,000 letters gave him a portal into the lives of now deceased family members.

Most of the letters were retrieved from the attic of a family farmhouse in Oxford. They recount how three pioneer families with deep American roots migrated west from Kentucky, Illinois and Arkansas, and intersected in rural Sumner County, Kansas. 

Over 10 or 15 years, Young - a retired oncologist living outside Boulder, Colorado - digitally scanned all the letters and chose 100 to 200 of the best ones to be printed in his recently published book, “Red Geranium: A Kansas Farm History in Letters 1880-1960.” The book’s title stems from the family’s tradition of placing red geraniums on the graves of dead ancestors on Memorial Day.

Letters in the book cover such things as the early days of Kansas statehood and Sumner County, college life at the University of Kansas around the turn of the century, a first-hand account of the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1910, the Great Flood of the Arkansas River in 1927, the Klu Klux Klan and racism in Kansas, Prohibition, the Great Depression, the New Deal and World War II.

The central characters in the book are Young’s grandparents and their children, who included his father.

Carl Young and his wife, Zella Mitchell Young, who grew up in Wellington, met while going to Sumner County High School. After graduation from high school, they attended the University of Kansas together. Their children were Amelia, Carl, James (James Young’s father) and Theodore. Most of the letters document the directions the siblings went with their lives during and after World War II.

The family did not have enough money to send the kids to college, but Amelia was able to get a clerical job, working for Kansas governor Alf Landon, who had been a classmate of her parents at KU. With the job, Amelia managed to pay her way through Washburn University. Carl received a track scholarship to Pittsburgh State University, Theodore received a full ride scholarship from KU and James attended KU on the GI Bill after the war.

Amelia later got a government job in Washington D.C. and worked for the secretive Manhattan Project in which the atom bomb was built in Los Alamos, New Mexico. She later worked for the CIA. 

For awhile, all four siblings’ lives intersected around the Washington, D.C. area. Amelia worked there, Carl was stationed in Baltimore, Maryland with the Army, James was stationed in Baltimore with the Navy and Theodore was attending medical school there.

Young had grown up hearing heroic stories about his family, but after going through the letters, he came away with a “much more nuanced view,” he said. 

“The family narrative was always that their dad died at the dawn of the Great Depression and through their brilliance and work ethic and pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, they were successful,” Young said. “That’s true but there was a price to be paid that showed up later as the siblings matured. A lot of the dark side emerged. There was alcoholism and addictions.”

A personal journey

Young’s cousin, Anna Russell, who lived in Wellington for 45 years, said, the book would be of interest to anyone who has roots in Sumner County. 

“The letters refer to neighbors and businesses that were in the area from the late 1800’s through the turn of the century and up to 1960,” she said. “Some references could have connections to others who had family in the area during that time period. 

I sent information on the book to the Sumner County Historical and Genealogical Society and they were interested as well.”

Young donated all the family letters to the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka. His book can be purchased through Amazon, but he plans to donate copies to public libraries in Sumner County.

Young said he stopped the story at 1960 because the volume of letters tailed off after that and he didn’t want to write about anybody who was still alive. He said he learned a lot about his father, aunt and uncles through the letters.

“It was a very personal journey, getting to know people who were very beloved in my life,” he said. “I regret that I didn’t have the maturity to ask the right questions until they were gone.”

There was an intimate quality to the letters, Young said. People shared more in writing than they might in conversation.

“Letter writing is a dying art so I think it will be harder to archive history,” he said. “So much of communication today is ephemeral. You can’t save an email in an attic.”

Young is hoping the book will give his other family members a deeper sense of their background and where they came from.

“I’m hoping my other family members can get a more comprehensive view of their roots,” he said.