Michelle Kanaar | Staff Photographer
Oliver Archives Center assistant Amanda Holt reads and organizes the Miller Family Papers before the collection is sent to Rutgers University to become part of the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project.
Sometime in the next months, the 16 gray coffin-like archival boxes holding the Miller Family Papers will leave the Oliver Archives Center in Chautauqua, N.Y., and journey to Rutgers University, N.J., to become part of the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project at Rutgers.
A note of clarification is required. The Miller Family Papers are the collected correspondence, diaries and memorabilia of the family of Lewis Miller, one of Chautauqua Institution’s founders. The papers include the letters of Mina Miller Edison, the second wife of Thomas Edison. The Thomas A. Edison Papers Project is a research center based at Rutgers University, and it is described as “one of the most ambitious editing projects ever undertaken by an American university.”
How the papers came to the Oliver Archives and subsequently to the Edison project is a meandering tale combining the generosity of Chautauquan Ted Arnn, great-grandson of Lewis Miller; this summer’s Archives staff, especially Kelly Sallander and Amanda Holt; and the curiosity of the Edison Papers Project researchers. In the future, the correspondence that is selected will be digitized and available in the future by searching for “Edison-Miller Family Papers” online. Some may also be published in the project volumes.
Paul B. Israel is director and editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project. He described how historical research reveals unexpected resources, which can offer dramatic new knowledge about the subject, in this case Edison.
“During the research for Volume 8 of the Edison Papers project, one of our researchers noticed references to Chautauqua. So a group of editors went up last summer,” Israel said. “That’s when we realized how important the material was. It is the last known large collection of family papers which relate to Edison.”
Identifying the historical value of the papers was the easy part. The meticulous work of organizing them became the responsibility of Chautauqua Institution archivist Jonathan Schmitz. Kelly Sallander, a University at Buffalo Masters of Library and Information Science candidate focusing on archives, and Amanda Holt, a Ohio Wesleyan history and medieval studies graduate, have spent this summer reading and organizing the correspondence under his guidance.
Their reward is lifting the covers of the gray coffin-like archival boxes and finding — life. Gradually, hours of reading the handwritten letters, the crinkly copies of typed business letters, diaries, cards, etc., reveal Thomas and Mina Miller Edison as spouses, parents, business partners.
The letters and other documents Sallander and Holt have regimented into a workable research system offered them more than a nodding acquaintance with the family, in particular Mina. Their fresh appraisal is worth hearing.
“I was surprised at how peripheral Edison’s presence was in the family papers we have,” Holt said.
Both agreed that the papers reveal much of Mina’s influence in the family.
“The papers tell a lot about (Edison’s) wife,” Sallander said. “Her presence is very much in this collection. She is definitely the dominant voice.
“She liked things to get done and done her way.”
Which brings the story to the gracious Miller Cottage, which retains Mina’s landscaping and interior design. It can’t be shipped to New Jersey. Arnn, her great-nephew, explained why Mina designed a small but charming kitchen.
“She didn’t cook and had a reserved table at the Athenaeum for lunch and dinner,” he said.
Arnn, one of the landmark cottage’s current owners, told how his mother, Nancy Miller Arnn, and his cousin Margaret collected the family letters including the estimated 1,400 letters between Mina and her son Theodore. He talked about his and the family’s pleasure that the Miller Family Papers were valued, not only by Chautauqua, but as part of a larger effort to document Edison’s life and work.
As every family knows, there is always something new to hear about even the most celebrated member. Arnn was surprised to learn Edison had earned a Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle diploma. His spontaneous response was typical of a bemused family member, proving that all families are the same, even famous ones.
“Figures she’d railroad him into it, though he was a prolific reader of both fiction and science,” Arnn said.
The tale ends at the Oliver Archives Center where it began. When the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project is finished its copying of the Miller Family Papers, the staff will return to the center. Perhaps in some future time, a curious Chautauquan will reopen the gray archival boxes and discover life. Maybe he or she will write a biography of Mina Miller Edison, who, some have suggested, would make a fascinating study. Maybe. But what is guaranteed, thanks to the Oliver Archives Center, is that the handwritten letters, the crinkly copies of business letters, diaries, cards, will be there — waiting.