Few firsthand stories remain of how Wyoming weathered the 1918 flu pandemic and how the virus impacted peoples’ lives in the state just over a century ago.
Archivists and historical organizations across the state are working to collect stories, images and objects to document Wyoming today during the coronavirus pandemic for the historical record. Efforts to collect the varied experiences of Wyoming during this era range from projects collecting stories and experiences through surveys, photographs and journal entries to recording podcasts.
The Wyoming State Archives is among organizations working to collect Wyomingites’ experiences and memories during the pandemic.
“I think a lot of times people think that only famous people make history,” state archivist Kathy Marquis said. “But everybody does. And in the case of this pandemic, the experiences that we’re all going through day to day are going to shape a lot of how we remember this time.”
Collecting Wyoming stories
Photos from around the country during the 1918 flu pandemic show makeshift hospitals and people wearing masks. But few of those photos are from Wyoming, Marquis said. Future histories about the novel coronavirus pandemic are likely to focus on places that faced impacts like New York and Seattle.
“And that’s obviously a hugely important part of what was going on in the country,” she said. “But I want to make sure that the kinds of things that are happening here in Wyoming, where it’s been such a different experience, are also documented. And it also, you know, it’s a way of documenting strength and how we coped with this and what methods we came up with for combating both the illness and the boredom and the upending of everything in your daily life.”
Wyomingites may donate a copies of their written thoughts to the Wyoming State Archives or the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming and use the hashtag #Covid19Wy on social media for the teams to later compile, including pictures of closed business signs, homemade masks or teddy bears in windows.
“We’re interested in people’s personal memories that live in Wyoming and what this time has been like for them,” Marquis said. “So it could be a journal or a diary that you keep or maybe keeping emails that you’ve been sending to family members or even like recording a Zoom call. And then, you know, sometimes the way that people express themselves is more creatively so maybe they’re writing poetry or writing a story or are taking photographs.”
The archive center along with the Wyoming State Museum, the University of Wyoming American Heritage Center and the Wyoming State Historical Society are working to encourage people to share their stories.
To find out more about donating stories and experiences to the Wyoming State Archives, go to wyoarchives.wyo.gov and click on the link to share stories of the COVID-19 pandemic or contact Marquis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Western History Center at Casper College is among organizations working to build a record of accounts from local communities during the pandemic for future researchers.
Its survey geared to the Casper area and other nearby towns offers guided questions for people to share how the pandemic has affected their families, work and school as well as what people think they’ll remember most in 20 or 50 years.
Besides the survey, participants are invited to email photos, letters, pictures of art they’ve created and even songs they’ve written or other creative works to to email@example.com.
The contributions will become part of the center’s collection, which is available for anyone to research. They’re working to gather information during the pandemic, because what people remember later is often different, Wickman said.
“Right now, it’s pretty fresh,” she said. “But that’s kind of the idea behind it is, you know, you live through these things and sometimes you don’t realize how historic and momentous these things are until you come out on the other side.”
Participants so far have shared a variety of local experiences, from how their businesses have had to adapt to benefits of more time with family, archives specialist Johanna Wickman said.
“There’s been a range of responses, which if you look at a similar type situation, like the Spanish flu in 1918, you don’t really have a lot of those accounts,” she said.
Variety of experiences
Wyoming Humanities’ project “Wyoming Pandemic Stories” is an effort to collect stories of how the pandemic has upended lives in Wyoming. The stories will be featured on the organization’s website, Facebook and other social media as well as archived in a collaboration with the Wyoming State Archives, Wyoming Humanities executive producer Emy diGrappa said.
The project invites Wyomingites to email their stories, journal entries, photographs and videos or record a podcast with Wyoming Humanities.
People can submit their stories or schedule a podcast by contacting diGrappa at firstname.lastname@example.org or 307-699-2680 and find out more at thinkwy.org/post/wyoming-pandemic-stories-a-snapshot-in-time.
“And when we started thinking about this important time in history, we felt like this is an opportunity for us to hear from people and just be part of this time capsule that’s taking place,” she said.
She hopes to hear from people in a variety of fields, including groceries, health care, oil fields and women with careers now working at home while homeschooling their children, as well as senior citizens isolated from their families.
Wyoming Humanities is Wyoming’s National Endowment for the Humanities affiliate and an independent nonprofit.
“A lot of our programming is, of course, based around the human experience, because that’s what the humanities are,” diGrappa said. “And so that’s the importance for us to document it in some way and work with the State Archives to make sure it’s in their archives and for future for teaching and remembering.”
The American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming is collecting stories through its COVID-19 Collection Project. People can take a survey of guided questions and contribute photos, videos, audio recordings, art, scrapbooks and more to show how the pandemic has affected people’s lives and their communities. The survey and more information is available at uwyo.edu/ahc or email email@example.com. People can anonymously take the survey and contribute items.
“So the AHC’s project aims to provide a safe space for our community to share their experiences and observations,” university archivist Sara Davis said. “Essentially, we want people 100-plus years from now to be able to view firsthand accounts from our community members how it was impacting them and see how the community turned to creative outlets as a way to express their observations and emotion.”
The Wyoming State Museum is collecting three-dimensional objects for its collection. People can donate items like homemade masks, signs from closed businesses and protest and sanitizer bottles from distilleries’ production as well as crafts and art people create to pass the time at home, supervisor of collections Jennifer Alexander said.
People can donate objects to the museum by contacting Alexander at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“For the future, we want to be able to preserve what people are thinking and feeling and doing and you know, help people in the future understand what life was like in Wyoming in 2020.”
Follow arts & culture reporter Elysia Conner on twitter @erconner