An extraordinary find: Mills receives a family’s saga


[img_inline align=”right” src=”” caption=”The Crombie daughters, Hildegard (born: May 1907), Vivian (born: Aug. 1911) illustrated and hand-painted many of the literary farm journals of Edward Rubidge Crombie and family. Click here for FULL size. Photo credit: Deborah McIvor”]One of the most intriguing new additions to Mills Library's Archives is the Crombie family fonds, a vast and varied collection of letters, illustrated diaries, official documents and pictures that chronicles a farm family's trials and tribulations from 1760 to 2002. The collection chronicles all members of the nuclear family and its various branches over several generations, encompassing the Crombie, Craddock and Atkins families of Brant County, Ontario, offering an extensive account of the daily life of an ordinary immigrant, farming family.

Chris Crombie donated his family's collection of memories to McMaster after realizing that the large amount of papers and photographs had “a unique social history that should be remembered.” Crombie's father had told him about his family's farming past but had never let on how well the history had been documented. It was not until after the death of his mother that Crombie realized the extent to which family memories had been collected.

Crombie was cleaning up his mother's estate when he stumbled upon the many boxes containing his family heritage in the basement of her house. If stacked, the collection would measure 8.5 metres high. Crombie knew that the family had held onto commission papers and family portraits but was unaware that the family records would fill so many boxes and would be so informative. As Crombie sorted through the letters and diaries he was surprised as the dates reached further and further into the past, eventually touching the Napoleonic era.

“I became increasingly alarmed by the damage that was being caused by water leaking into the basement where the records where stored,” explained Crombie of his motivation to salvage his family archives. Crombie decided that the documents needed better care than he would be able to provide to preserve them. “I wanted to do this snapshot of our family justice.”

After seeing an ad in a local newspaper about McMaster collecting regional papers, Crombie decided the University would be a perfect fit for his family records.

Carl Spadoni, the head research collections librarian at McMaster, visited Crombie and immediately realized the collection's potential.

“There is an extraordinary portrait of family life in Canada and letters that highlight local history and discuss social, political, and cultural events of the times which would be beneficial to scholars and the like,” says Spadoni. The literary farm journals of Edward Rubidge Crombie, he says, are a specifically unique find because some of the diary entries are accompanied by pencil and watercolour drawings done by Crombie's daughters Hildegard and Vivian. “I doubt very much if such journals exist elsewhere in typed form with illustrations.”

After Crombie's collection was brought to McMaster, the boxes of information were handed to the library's conservationist, Audri Schell.

“The collection arrived in a variety of large plastic tubs and other containers. It was disorganized, heaped in a haphazard fashion within these containers and completely unsorted,” says Schell. She went to work cleaning items that had accumulated dirt and fixing tears in the paper documents. The emphasis of Schell's work, however, was not on repairing the collection but to get the items into some kind of order and to store them appropriately to prevent further damage.

“Proper storage is a keystone of collection management as well as a way to mitigate risk and vulnerability to agents of deterioration such as light, fluctuations in temperature and humidity, physical forces and poor handling.”

Upon the completion of her work Schell says she had grown attached to the family.

“I found it very satisfying to put this collection in order. As I did so, the people came to life for me. The many letters, diaries and photo albums gave me a glimpse into their world and I felt good about ensuring these words and their images are to last for many years to come. All the collecting effort by the family and all the words so carefully written down would not be lost.”

Kathy Garay, an archivist with Mills Library said that an important detail around the preparation of the Crombie collection is that it brought the library team together because of the condition and size of the collection. “Teamwork made the result better and shortened the arrangement process.”

Spadoni hopes that the effort the team has put into archiving the Crombie family fonds will encourage scholars and historians to read them to learn about family history, the history of Brant county and perhaps even publish a study or edition of the Edward Rubidge Crombie journals.

“It is hard to predict the way research is going to go, things are always coming out of the woodwork, so we have done what we can and now we just sit back and wait,” she says. “But the fonds are an excellent resource for social and cultural history, because of its continuity of the family making it an invaluable resource to scholars.”

“There are little diamonds to be found in this great big collection,” says Garay.