ST. LOUIS – Stephen Phelps calls it the "family Bible," the "holy grail" that has survived 116 years and three generations of family members. But now the 132-page diary of the 1904 World's Fair written by Phelps' grandmother, Adele Quinette, has found a new home.
Last month, the Phelps family donated the journal to the Missouri Historical Society.
The process started in July, when Phelps reached out to the archivist Molly Kodner. After speaking with Phelps and hearing about the contents, Kodner didn't even need to read through the whole diary to know she wanted it.
"On a regular basis, we're offered tickets, invitations, souvenirs, stockholders tickets and sometimes it has a photograph of the person whose ticket it is," Kodner says. "Those things are important too, but a diary, and especially a diary like this, that has photographs and souvenirs and postcards — it's just very rare."
It marks the society's first World's Fair-related diary donation in 24 years.
"Diaries are crucial for us to collect — and just diaries of everyday people talking about everyday things — because it provides social and cultural history and the daily life of people over time that you can't really get from anything else," Kodner says.
It isn't just the diary form that attracted the Historical Society — it is how the diary is written. Quinette was just 16 years old when she composed this book-length dive into the World's Fair. Family members speculate that Quinette first started the project for school.
"She did this just so deliberately and so detailed," Phelps says. "She went through with this exhaustive review of each and every area, their contents and the buildings. The only time is in the last 10 pages, she gets to the fun part ... she's finally writing like a 16-year-old girl. Up until then, you think this is some author who's trying to write a book on the subject. And that's very cool. It's fascinating."
In neat, cursive handwriting, Quinette reported on a large number of the 62 different nations represented at the fair — from the French, her ancestry, to the Brazilian to the Filipino. She illustrated the famous waterfall running down Art Hill, Cascades, and featured artifacts from her near 85-day exploration of the event, including postcards, personalized invitations, maps of the fair and the famous block-lettered autograph of Apache leader Geronimo.
Quinette, whom Phelps calls "loquacious," would refer to the diary and share memories from the fair. But until Quinette passed away at age 99 in 1987, the diary sat in a box under her bed. Phelps never saw it. "She was necessarily the living diary," Phelps says.
After Quinette died, the diary spent about 20 years with Phelps' father and stepmother. Phelps received the diary in 2008, and when he finally did read through it, he could see it needed care.
After speaking with a conservator, Phelps put acid-free paper between the pages and put it in a safe-deposit box. He made copies of the book for family members to limit the use of the fragile pages.
This year, Phelps turned 79. It's not that he hears "the mortality bells ringing," he says, but after consulting with his family members, he realized it was time to let go of the diary. "Keeping it in a safe-deposit box does no good for anyone," he says.
The Missouri Historical Society will now house the diary in climate-controlled stacks, with digital and in-person access within the next year.
"It has been a long time," Kodner says, "since we got something this exciting."