Discovered journals tell firsthand story of Southeast Missouri teenager during Great Depression

Elisabeth Hartsell wrote in her diary every day from 1931 to mid-1942, with a large portion of that time spent in Southeast Missouri. Her grandson has created a podcast where he and his friend read and discuss the writings. (Submitted photo)

Elisabeth Hartsell lived as a teenage girl in Arkansas; Poplar Bluff, Mo.; Marble Hill, Mo.; Cape Girardeau and Belle, Mo., during the Great Depression. The daughter of a tenant farmer who couldn’t find work, she kept a positive perspective as she dreamt of her future, experiencing dating and getting her heart broken, going to dances and the movies, and holding on to her family and her faith. Amidst her everyday teenage experiences, she and her parents and four siblings lived in a tent for more than a year, and there were periods of time when she couldn’t attend school, because they couldn’t afford shoes.

Every day for 10 and a half years, Hartsell chronicled these experiences in her diary, beginning on Jan. 1, 1931, when she was 13 years old, and ending in mid-1942. The diaries see her through her teenage years, her marriage, and the early years of raising her children, from the Great Depression through the beginning of World War II.

Hartsell never shared these experiences with her children or grandchildren; her diary held these stories for decades, waiting for someone to read and discover them.

Approximately six years ago, Hartsell’s grandson Mark McKinney, who lives in South Carolina where he grew up, inherited the diaries when his parents moved. They had previously been boxed in his parents’ house since the 1970s; because Hartsell’s writing was so small, no one in the family had been able to read the words. McKinney stored the four diaries on his bookshelf, waiting for someone to come along who would be able to read them.

In 2022, McKinney showed the diaries to his longtime friend Liz Duren, who immediately saw the importance of them and was able to decipher the handwriting. They started a TikTok account where Duren narrated the diaries, and McKinney, who is a video editor, created videos to help listeners visualize the text. In May 2023, they created a podcast called “My Grandma’s Diaries.”

McKinney never knew his grandmother because she died before he was born. He does, however, remember a photograph of his grandmother sitting by the telephone in his family’s house while he grew up, so he says he saw her image every day of his life.

“There’d been a little bit of wonder in my mind about who my grandmother was,” McKinney says. “Somewhere deep in the back of my mind, I knew there was a story there.”

A lover of reading and cinema, as well as a short story writer who sent her stories to magazines for consideration of publication, McKinney and Duren believe Hartsell wrote these diaries for her family to later discover and enjoy. Realizing that eased any trepidation McKinney initially felt about reading the diaries.

Because Hartsell’s handwriting is tiny, McKinney and Duren photographed every page of the diaries, then enlarged them on a computer screen, so Duren could see the words better. Finally, Duren rewrote each entry in her own handwriting, so she could better read the transcript to narrate the podcast.

Along with Hartsell’s writing about her firsthand experiences, the podcast incorporates local news from the time period, genealogical history and reflections McKinney and Duren research and discuss, which help situate Hartsell’s writing in a broader context. McKinney says the diaries are a story about farming and about the land around Southeast Missouri.

Duren describes Hartsell as “a wonderful homemaker and mother,” who “focused … 100% on family.” This, she says, has helped her focus on her family more, too.

“Learning from her, I have grounded myself more into my family, even taken more time to do the … homemade things that she would’ve done, because those are the memories that his mom and her children have about her — ‘Oh, her chocolate pie,’ and ‘Oh, her clean house,’” Duren says. “Some of that is an important way to just kind of ground you … and that’s kind of what it’s done for me. It’s slown me down a little bit, which I like.”

Hartsell passed away in 1969, at the age of 51. Her twin daughters live in South Carolina, her son lives in Marble Hill and her youngest daughter lives in North Carolina. Hartsell’s daughter — McKinney’s aunt — Carolyn Begley grew up in Marble Hill and lived most of her adult life in Cape Girardeau until she and her husband moved to South Carolina in 2016; she says it was difficult to lose their mother, and listening to the podcast of her diaries has helped re-establish a connection with her.

“If they hadn’t found these diaries, we really wouldn’t have much of a memory of our mother, because she died so young, and we didn’t know anything about her childhood,” Begley says.

The project has more than 300,000 followers on social media, and McKinney and Duren hope to turn it into lesson plans, a book and a television series for a streaming platform.

Duren says she hopes the diaries remind listeners to talk to their grandparents and others who are older than them, to find out their stories firsthand.

“Ask questions,” Duren says. “Don’t leave the things unanswered, because people have stories to tell, and everybody should be jotting them down. Appreciate everyone’s life story.”

 

For more information, check out mygrandmasdiaries.com/, and follow the project on Instagram, TikTok and Facebook for the latest updates. Hear the podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you like to listen.

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