Of the 400 or so books on file at the Washington Historical Society, an autobiography written by Henry Bleckman (1860-1940) is one of the earliest in the collection.
George Bocklage remembers coming across it on a shelf some 25 years ago when he began volunteering with the group.
“I read it way back when, and I thought, ‘Wow, we really ought to publish this,’ ” said Bocklage, a member of the Historical Society’s publication committee.
It has far more appeal than just the happenings in a single family, said Marc Houseman, Washington Historical Society director and member of its publication committee.
“It was written by someone who was born, raised and lived his entire life in Washington, Mo.,” said Houseman. “Plus, he died nearly 80 years ago, so it’s a first-person glimpse into a Washington, Mo., that almost no one alive will have recollection of. So it’s a true glimpse into the past on an extremely local level.”
That made it a perfect choice for the first book in a new Washington History Series being published by the Historical Society, said Steve Claggett, head of the publications committee.
“Washington’s Early Industrialists,” the autobiography of Henry Bleckman, was made available late last year.
It was quickly followed by the second book in the series, “Civil War Stories of Franklin County,” by Walt Larson.
Both are now for sale through the museum (although closed for the winter, people can order the book by email, email@example.com) or copies are available at the Gary R. Lucy Gallery and Schroeder Drug Healthmart, both in Downtown Washington.
The third book in the series, “Ralph,” a biography of local historian Ralph Gregory written by Claggett, is expected to be available next month.
A book on the Owens family should be finished by May or June, and more books are planned for the series, which the committee expects will be ongoing.
“We have several other projects in the works, but we don’t want to publish them all at once,” said Claggett. “We want to space them out some.”
The committee also is open to hearing about book ideas or seeing historical writings from local families.
“We can’t guarantee that we would publish everything, but we sure would like to consider it,” said Claggett.
Larson noted that one possibility is creating a collected stories volume featuring pieces that are long enough to be a stand-alone book.
“They might only be 10 to 15 pages each, like a story on the women who were merchants in town in the 1800s,” he suggested. “They owned hotels, salons, ladies dress shops. There’s all those types of stories that sometime we would like to gather into a book.”
“There’s certain smaller things that could maybe be happily merged into one volume in this series,” he said.
In addition to Claggett, Houseman, Bocklage and Larson, other members of the publications committee include Bill Schwab, Nancy Ayres, Nancy Wood and Bob Dohrer.
To Disseminate History
Over the years the Washington Historical Society has published a number of books, like the “Washington 150th Anniversary” book and the “I Didn’t Know That” book by Stanley Wilke, which is a compilation of his columns that appeared in The Missourian years ago.
In 2012 the group published “The Development of Missouri, a German Immigrant’s First-Hand Account of Life in the Missouri Backwoods” by Gert Goebel.
Those were all special projects. But this series is a way to disseminate historical information that holds significant interest to the general public.
“You don’t have to be a Bleckman to find it this an interesting read,” said Bill Schwab, publications committee member.
“Originally they were farriers, or blacksmiths,” said Schwab. “Later on they moved to town and worked on other kinds of metal and set up a machine shop.”
And that machine shop is still going strong in 2014, said Claggett. That’s something special.
“It’s an example of a family that has gone through it’s ups and downs and still managed to preserve their business interests of various kinds, including a saw mill,” he commented.
“They were a Case tractor distributor for a while and they were able to adapt as the economy changed. They positioned themselves correctly to survive.”
The book was originally hand-written by Bleckman and later typed by a granddaughter, but never edited, said Bocklage, who handled that task in publishing it for this series. The finished product, Claggett noted, is “more than just a biography. We’ve added sections and explanations.”
Photos too. The committee combed the Historical Society files to find images that matched some of the places Bleckman referenced in his writings.
The committee also worked closely with the Bleckman family, in particular Janie Bleckman, wife of Fred Bleckman.
“She got out the family scrapbook and treated us to pictures we didn’t know existed,” said Claggett.
“Henry was involved in politics and cultural activities, so there is a good deal of information about plays. He was really heavily involved at Borgia too,” said Claggett. “A one-time mayor of Washington.”
‘Civil War Stories’
At the start of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, Larson wrote a recurring column for The Missourian, “Washington and the Civil War,” featuring stories of local men. He collected those stories, added some more information and wrote new stories to include in the “Civil War Stories of Franklin County.”
“In the newspaper, we had limited space for pictures and story, and here we didn’t,” said Larson.
“So it was going back through the notes and adding in.”
The end result is a book that tells detailed stories of many Franklin County men who served in the war.
“The stories are about individuals, something that happened, something they did,” said Larson. “It’s not about the battles or the generals.
“They are privates who suffered hardships. It talks about their families.”
“It’s very personal,” said Schwab. “A lot of people are not aware that so many people from this area were involved.”
The book includes an index, so people can quickly look for their family name.
“The first soldiers from Franklin County who went into St. Louis to join the Union Army, there’s a list of their names,” said Larson.
In local historical and preservation circles, Ralph Gregory need only be referenced by his first name. Which is why Claggett decided to use that as the title for Gregory’s biography.
While coming up with the title wasn’t hard, paring down all of the information on Gregory, 104, was. Just going through all of his writings was a challenge.
“He has written a lot of notes, plus a lot of details on his time in the war,” said Claggett.
“He’s given speeches, interviews and his notes, there’s a lot of information, plus I’m digging around where he hasn’t to shine all the light. He’s a modest person and doesn’t brag about himself.
“When he writes things, he’s very factually oriented and tends to stick to the facts,” said Claggett, noting he has taken “a little more literary license to extoll his virtues.”
“I’ve found out that Ralph liked to sing in his earlier days. There’s a lot of things about Ralph that people don’t know.”
Looking ahead to other possible books, the committee said they are talking with a professor to publish some books that have never been printed in English in the United States, although Claggett said he couldn’t say more on that because they are still in negotiations.
“But it looks positive about getting some original things put together that have not been available in the United States about people who’ve lived here,” he said.
All Part of Education Focus
The new Washington History Series is part of the Historical Society’s mission on preservation and education.
“We are really working a lot with schoolchildren now and we have high school students particularly come in to do research, we find a great deal of interest from the students in local history as we come across this material, this certainly makes it more accessible,” said Schwab.
“This is all complementary to the other education things we are doing too,” said Larson. “The Tuesday Night at the Museum series, the history day for grade school kids, the WOW tour, ghost tour, all for the education on the history of Washington.”
Accepting Diaries, Photos, More
People with old family diaries, photos and such are encouraged to bring them to the museum to share. They don’t have to give the items to the museum to keep, but if they could bring them in to have copies made that would be helpful, said Larson.
Washington Historical Society is printing the books as a small fund-raiser, but the books have more value to them than just profits.
“There’s value in the books historically, which is still our primary mission,” said Claggett.
“It’s been a worthwhile thing to do so far, and we’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback,” said Claggett.
Some of the funding for the preparation of the books was provided by the Wilke Foundation, which has donated money to the Washington Historical Society for education and publication purposes.
The covers for the Washington History Series are designed by Nancy Ayres and her son, David. The books have been published by Mira Digital Publishing.