Well before Jessica Weible knew anything about Brookville and its surrounding communities, a brilliant book idea was hatched by a veteran writer driving through the Village of Howe more than 20 years ago.
The veteran writer was Joan Swigart, a former reporter for the Courier Express and award-winning writer and photographer as far back as the 1960s. Still active and full of story ideas, she struck up a relationship with Weible a few years ago, eventually handing her a stack of old letters.
How old? More than 100 years – undelivered letters dated between 1902 and 1910.
Thus, the name of the book “Dead Letters: Delivering Unopened Mail from a Pennsylvania Ghost Town.”
So, where is Howe? Go north on Route 36 about five miles and in the Greeley Road area, that’s where Howe was. It had a general store at the turn of the 20th century and that’s how far back these letter dated.
Swigart had already given Weible plenty of story leads since they had met, so when she was able to find that stack of papers she found while going through the old general store as it was being torn down in the 1990s, the journey began.
“She started giving me leads on stories and I wouldn’t know what one would be about and I would pursue it and it would end up being just the most fantastic story, so it was the same thing with the letters,” Weible said. “I didn’t recognize what I had and I didn’t see what she saw necessarily when I first got them. But the fact that she sort of trusted me with the story and she had such stellar instincts, that’s what really prompted me to take it seriously and excited me to work on it and investigate.”
The century-plus old papers were mostly letters and with great care, Weible had to figure out how to research what she had. They were pieces of mail not delivered by then-Howe postmaster George Gayley, the owner of the store.
“I didn’t know the first thing about doing genealogical research,” Weible said. “I had never written specifically like history stuff. I’ve done some on local history with the Jefferson County History Center, but it was daunting. When I first got them, I put on some latex gloves so that I would be able to handle them. They’re very delicate and I wanted to make sure that I was being very careful and then I sort of took notes as I went and I’m so glad that I did it this way. I took notes immediately after every session that I would have talking with Joan and every phone call.
“When I would sit down and go through the letters, I’d sort through everything and organized things as best I could to see what exactly had, because it wasn’t just the letters, but it was also a box full of old papers and lists that George Gayley had written – stuff, invoices and receipts and junk mail. There’s tons of junk mail from, whether it was targeted advertisements to residents for laundry soap or whatever.”
Weible said that the letters were written in not only English, but Italian, Hungarian and Yiddish.
“I’d never seen Yiddish before and even identifying it as Yiddish was a big hurdle for that and once I did, finding someone to translate Yiddish, that was one of the most difficult parts of the research, because it’s not every day you find anyone who can do that,” Weible said.
She found herself connecting with individuals and families locally or as far away as the state of Washington to California to Pittsburgh.
“When I was able to reach out to descendants, like out of the blue in some cases, they were like gold, a wealth of information and some of them were family historians themselves,” Weible said. “I was able to get pictures and personal handwritten stories that were passed down from generation to generation and the whole thing just kind of broke loose and came alive.
“In some cases, when I brought information to the descendant, they had no idea about their ancestors or anything,” she added. “So, in both cases, it was really rewarding because in one case I’m able to fill in a tiny piece of a puzzle that someone has been working on meticulously for years, and in some cases I was able to just shine this light on somebody whose heritage that they just had no idea about.”
As the time period might suggest, Weible learned how immigration was part of the early 20th century Jefferson County and its large timber industry.
“This is something that I didn’t know about until I researched it but some people during that time, just came to work, and then would go home (to Europe), even if it was all the way across the ocean to Italy,” Weible said. “They would come here and work and have their families back in the old country and they would kind of go back and forth, and for years and years. So that’s another reason why some of these letters, I would imagine, were never delivered because people were moving around wherever the work was.”
Weible is a stay-at-home mother of two children, 8-year-old Owen and 4-year-old Everett. Her husband Brian, a DuBois native, is an administrator for DuBois Area School District. She’s a Mechanicsburg native, but her family makes its home in Brookville. Weible has certainly embraced Brookville and its surrounding communities, even a “ghost” town like Howe.
“I’m still not sure I’d characterize myself exclusively as a history writer,” Weible said. “I’m a journalist and I write poetry and love writing fiction, so I want to explore all of those things, but I’ll say that the stories around here are just so compelling. And there’s so much interest and reverence for the past and opportunity to talk about the people and places in this area.
“Representation is so important here. A lot of these stories don’t get the recognition that others in mainstream culture might. So I feel compelled to wherever those stories are to pursue them.”
The investigative mystery that started when Swigart’s nose for news found her digging around an old building a couple decades ago was finished off by Weible, who started writing last summer and finished the manuscript for her publisher by New Year’s Eve.
“There are these 10 letters and in my mind there was a story there and for Joan too,” Weible said. “And then there’s the story of Howe and what happened in that post office and why weren’t these letters delivered. I was able to answer, to an extent, those questions for a lot of these letters. The directions that it took, the story and the investigation, I would have never anticipated. It’s just an interesting exploration base on these artifacts.”