Niedecker Archive Items Come Home
In late December, the telephone rang at the Hoard Historical Museum in Fort Atkinson. While not an unusual occurrence, the California man on the other end of the call had an unusual story. "He asked if we would like some Lorine Niedecker items," said assistant director Dana Bertelsen. "He was willing to ship them to us if we were interested." Bertelsen contacted director Merrilee Lee, who was visiting family for the holidays. "I was in my parents' kitchen checking my email and saw Dana's message about a man who interested in sending Lorine Niedecker items to us. She was anxiously awaiting the rest of the story from him. It's not every day that someone contacts us about Lorine Niedecker items."
Lorine Niedecker, born in 1903 on Blackhawk Island, was a local poet writing in the Objectivist style. Objectivists view the poem as an object and use the world around them for inspiration. Niedecker is known world-wide for her poems and has gained popularity since her death in 1970.
The caller, Tom, told Lee he had a collection of Lorine Niedecker books that had been in his possession for years. In 1972, 2 years after Lorine passed away, Tom visited the Hoard Historical Museum to research Niedecker as part of his Master's thesis. He met with curator Hannah Swart, who allowed him to borrow some Niedecker books from the museum for his research, after extracting a promise to return the books promptly. In 1976, Swart wrote him asking about the books but Tom didn't reply. The books remained in his possession, stored away for decades, until he rediscovered them and called to see if the museum would like them back. "I quickly emailed Tom and said, yes, we would definitely like the books returned!" said Lee. "Why would we not?" The next week when the large box arrived from California, Lee and Bertelsen carefully opened it. "We still weren't exactly certain what items were in the box and opening it was a bit like the museum version of a Christmas present," said Lee.
It turned out they weren't books written by Niedecker, but books from her personal library. Niedecker's husband, Al Millen, had given a collection of them to the Museum after her passing in 1970. Opening the box, Lee and Bertelsen found works by Cid Corman, Louis Zukofsky, Ian Hamilton Finlay and many more. Many were inscribed to Lorine by the authors. But Lee and Bertlesen, both history museum professionals, soon realized an issue. "We knew they were important but also realized that we aren't familiar enough with the world of poetry to understand their full significance," said Lee. "So we contacted Ann Engelman. I asked her if she'd like to inventory a previously undiscovered box of Lorine Niedecker items."
President of the Friends of Lorine Niedecker and a tireless Niedecker promoter, Engelman jumped at the chance to inventory the box. As Engelman carefully sorted through the books, another surprise was discovered. After Niedecker's death, the bulk of her personal library was believed to be sent to the Dwight Foster Library in Fort Atkinson. However, her personal collection seemed to omit key works by her contemporary poets. Niedecker was greatly influenced by Zukofsky and other contemporary poets, but their works were missing from the Foster Library collection. This omission was puzzling to many Niedecker scholars. But the surprise was that those "missing" works were with Tom in California. The missing books, part of the Hoard Museum collection, have rejoined the other Niedecker papers, books, photos, and works held in the Museum's archival secure storage.
In total, Tom returned 118 Lorine Niedecker items to the Hoard Museum. "This newly rediscovered collection is an absolute treasure trove. It has the potential to re-write what we know about Lorine's relationships with other contemporary poets and authors," said Lee. "Niedecker scholars will be excited to delve into the collection."
Engelman spent days working on a master list of the collection, cross-checking and double-checking her work. Also included in the box were photos of Lorine's cottage and cabin on Blackhawk Island, as well as the 1976 note from Hannah Swart asking Tom about the loaned items.
"Our museum prides itself on its records and the careful handling of all items donated to us. We have artifacts and their records from the 'Dwight Foster Museum' which is what our museum was called before 1957 when we moved to our current location and changed names in honor of the Hoard family," said Lee. "Zida Ivey, Hannah Swart and other early directors kept solid records of items coming into the museum. The fact that Tom was able to borrow items from our collection seems to be an isolated incident." Current museum practices require that all museum artifacts have a signed permanent transfer form or a loan agreement, creating a long-lasting paper trail for tracking artifacts. Museums keep both electronic and paper records for their artifacts. "In fact, the Hoard Museum recently upgraded our PastPerfect museum software program which helps us track both our collection and our membership records. Even though we're a history museum and focus on the past, we keep up-to-date on proper museum practices and protocol," said Lee.
The Hoard Historical Museum contains other collections of Niedecker items which are held in its archives. Scholars frequently travel to Fort Atkinson, the Museum, the Library, and Blackhawk Island to have a fuller appreciation of Niedecker life, work, and story. "It's a pilgrimage for Niedecker fans. Lorine's work is read, studied, and appreciated world-wide. Standing on Blackhawk Island and seeing how the land is defined by the river, scholars are able to gain a new appreciation for her nature-inspired works. It suddenly makes more sense why so many of her works are based on or reference water and nature. She was surrounded by both," said Lee.
To view this and other collections in the archives, please contact the Hoard Historical Museum at 401 Whitewater Ave, Fort Atkinson, WI 53538 or 920.563.7769 or firstname.lastname@example.org.