Preserving Betty’s words
In May 1946, Betty Van Loh and her husband, John, moved into their first home, which was once a chicken coop.
Betty, who was pregnant with her first child, started writing in a diary, something that she would do for more than 60 years.
From 1946 until 2007, Betty Van Loh kept a diary, recording various events that happened in her and her family’s life. Mainly, Betty Van Loh used calendars given by local businesses as her diaries.
“These also served as appointment calendars, and then she’d fill in the details,” said Carolyn Van Loh, Betty’s daughter-in-law.
Betty Van Loh died in 2009, and Carolyn Van Loh has taken those diaries and memories of her in-laws and wrote the book “A Place of Interest: One Family’s Journey to the Farmlands of Minnesota,” telling about how Betty and her husband John settled on their farm in rural Westbrook.
Betty’s diary entries weren’t long, maybe just a few lines. Van Loh said one of her favorite entries was “Washed. Big one,” referring to the days when Betty used a wringer washer to wash her family’s clothes.
“She had her own little shorthand, the way she’d spell people’s names,” Van Loh said.
Van Loh started every chapter with a Bible verse that related to what the chapter was about. And each chapter’s title stems from an entry in Betty’s diaries. For example, one of the chapters is titled “Bean Field All Day.”
One would have to “read between the lines” with Betty’s diaries, said Van Loh. An entry may say that Betty baked a cake for a funeral, but she wouldn’t say whose funeral it was.
“Her diary would not be enlightening, you had to take the whole picture,” Van Loh said.
Calendars from the 1950s and 1960s were missing, Van Loh said, when Betty Van Loh was raising her four children and probably didn’t have the time to write. But when Betty did keep her diaries somewhat regularly, they weren’t too far away.
“My mother-in-law kept them close by where she sat,” Van Loh said.
Family was important to Betty, Van Loh said, but she didn’t put a lot of feeling into what she wrote in her diaries. For example, when Betty’s son Dave was born, one of the lines she wrote was “John left at 2, and I slept.” She also wrote a list of the baby gifts she received.
“I look at these diaries as the skeleton I hang the story on,” Van Loh said.
The second chapter of “A Place of Interest” was fun to work on, Van Loh said. The chapter is titled “Katie’s Secret,” and she said she enjoyed it because she could trace social mores by the way Betty wrote about pregnancy, once an unspoken topic. In Betty’s day, pregnancies were rarely announced until the mother was showing, she said.
Van Loh said she also interviewed a few people to get information about Westbrook’s history. She also looked through bound copies of the town’s newspaper, asking publisher Tom Merchant if she could use them as resources.
“He very graciously let me take them home,” Van Loh said.
Van Loh said she wrote about how the hospital and nursing home were built in Westbrook, as well as the senior apartments.
Before Betty died, Van Loh started typing the diaries onto the computer. Van Loh said she asked her mother-in-law questions, and she also asked her in-laws for some input from them.
“There were some e-mail conversations back and forth,” Van Loh said.
“A Place of Interest” is Van Loh’s third book. She said that in the heat of summer while on a riding lawnmower, the thought “I want to write a book” crossed her mind. Her first book “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” is about the 50-year history of Pillsbury Baptist Bible College that was in Owatonna. Van Loh had attended the school as well as her husband, and her children graduated from the school. She got input from alumni and went through the school’s photo archives to put the book together, which was published in 2006.
“I didn’t realize the significance it would have because two years later, it (Pillsbury) closed its doors,” Van Loh said.
Her second book, “Strong Roots,” is about the history of the Minnesota Farm Bureau. Van Loh was a feature writer for the Sentinel Tribune in Westbrook and is a freelance writer for The Land and River Valley Extra magazines.
“A Place of Interest” was the first book Van Loh did on her own as she self-published through WinePress Publishing. The book is available at Treasured Times in Marshall, through her publisher, on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, through her page on Facebook and e-mailing her at email@example.com.
The primary motivation for “A Place of Interest,” Van Loh said, was to give to her five grandchildren.
“To have them know about the great-grandparents they didn’t know,” she said.