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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, September 22, 2011

Stories from the stove make history online

Every inhabited place has a history. But it takes effort to record, unearth, and preserve that history so that it can be passed on to future generations.

In this week’s paper, our long-time Altamont correspondent, Rosemary Caruso, writes of finding a yellowed copy of The Altamont Enterprise from the 1970s as if it were a treasure. She highlights the bits and pieces in that edition that tell of recent community history. We in the newspaper business, of course, are fond of the often-quoted sentiment that journalism is the first take of history.

In the modern era, those takes, recorded for a particular community, now have far broader reach. Last week, for example, we received an e-mail from a staff member at a Florida college. One of the students there, Brigham Robst, died last Tuesday, saddening the campus. A classmate of his had gone online and found the front-page part of a story we had written about Brigham when he was a boy living in Altamont. They wanted to read the whole story and we were happy to oblige.

It gave us a chance, too, to catch up on what had happened to Brigham Robst after he left Altamont, and to record his all-too-brief life in an obituary for posterity. He spent a lifetime enduring unspeakable pain, from cancer, rickets, and other ailments — “Every bone in his body has been fractured and broken…He couldn’t even open his mouth to cry,” his father told us — and yet, somehow, he managed to rise above the pain.

“An hour before he died,” we were told, “he was still smiling.”

His is a story worth telling.

This Sunday, residents of Altamont will have a chance to hear myriad stories that together weave the threads that form the fabric of a community. Cindy Pollard is spearheading the forum. Pollard and her husband, Jack, own the Home Front Café, which serves as the community’s parlor. Cross-table talk there, with Cindy Pollard encouraging the sharing, often sparks memories.

Sunday’s gathering, billed as “Around the Pot-Belly Stove,” will be held at the village hall so it can be taped for future generations. Several broad categories are planned with able discussion leaders, as outlined in a story this week. One of the leaders is Marijo Dougherty, the village archivist. She has done research, from the archives and beyond, on Stephen Venaer, Altamont’s pharmacist from 1926 to 1954.

She discovered that he had emigrated from Russia to California and wanted to enlist to serve in World War I. Because he could speak the Russian language, he was enlisted to serve in the American Relief Administration and was “put in charge of helping the starving Russians after the war,” said Dougherty.

Herbert Hoover directed ARA, formed by Congress in 1919, which offered relief first to war-torn Europe and then to Soviet Russia. Aid escalated when the Russian famine broke out in 1921.  Three-hundred Americans and more than 120,000 Russians fed more than 10 million starving people a day during the height of ARA’s work, which ended in 1923. ARA’s medical division helped combat the typhus epidemic that ravaged Russia.

The Altamont Archives have photos of Venaer with starving Russian children, Dougherty said, and a New York Times article calling him the “Hero of Crimea.” Venaer was invited to attend President Herbert Hoover’s inauguration, said Dougherty, and she has perused 90 pages of information on him from the Hoover Library.

Venaer and his wife, Lucy, whom Dougherty described as “a White Russian princess,” settled quietly in Altamont with very few aware of their history. “They spoke without accents,” she said.

A recent book on the relief effort in Bolshevik Russia — The Big Show in Bololand: The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921 — by a Stanford professor, Bertrand M. Patenaude, describes the dire situation where hundreds of thousands of people were subsisting on “grass, weeds, acorns, twigs, bark, roots, and worse” — the human flesh of those who had died of starvation. 

Patenaude devoted two pages to Venaer, but, said Dougherty, “He said he would have devoted an entire chapter to him if he knew about our records.” She went on, “He was just floored. That’s the tragedy of not having our archives online. People don’t know what we have.”

She credited volunteer Ron Ginsburg with painstakingly scanning the records. We commend him for his work and hope others will join in the effort, to make Altamont history accessible in the modern age.

At the same time, Dougherty is eager to collect information on the farm families, the European pioneers that originally settled the area that is now called Altamont. “We have zero on the farm families, and it’s a shame,” she said, surmising they worked the land for long hours with little time or inclination to record their tasks. “They just quietly died and were buried on the land,” said Dougherty.

She urges those with deep roots in the region to look in their family Bibles and to share any diaries that may have been passed down through the generations. Once recorded and scanned for the Internet, pieces of local history can be accessible to the world.

In the meantime, the old-fashioned way of sharing history, through oral tradition, around a pot-bellied stove, is accessible to all of us who want to tell of our memories or learn more about our community. We urge our readers to take part. Our history is worth understanding and preserving.

Melissa Hale-Spencer

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