Pop’s Finger

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The Lyda Hill Texas Collection of Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. https://www.loc.gov/resource/highsm.26720

In his November editor’s message, Carl Harvey shares a story to remind us of the importance of primary sources. If you’re sharing Thanksgving with relatives this year, be sure to ask them about their stories, look for the primary sources that go with those stories, and be sure to ask about that jar at the back of the cupboard!

Our November issue is all about primary sources. All kinds of primary sources. Subscribers can view the issue online here. Not a subscriber yet? Click here for information on how to become one. 

When I was in high school and college, my mother and I used to work on our family genealogy. In the years that have followed, we’ve continued to do that but jobs, family, and life seem to keep us from spending as much time on it as we might like. Through all our searching, primary sources have been so powerful. We’ve been able to prove—and disprove—so many myths and legends in the family because of the information we’ve uncovered.

One of my favorite stories (and the kids at school always got a kick out of this one) was the story of Pop’s finger. Fred S. Cogdill, who we all called Pop, was my great-grandfather. He passed away at the age of 96 in 1987. Pop was a very old man by the time I was born, but I still have memories of going to visit him in the nursing home. My Mom commented once that Pop was missing a finger, and he always told his grandchildren (there were thirty-three of them) that a lump of coal had fallen on it when he worked in the coal mines in the early 1910s.

As Pop aged, he finally had to go into the nursing home, and as his eleven children were cleaning out his house they stumbled across a newspaper article from 1917 that showed that Pop had actually saved a man’s life by pushing the runaway coal car out of the way in the mine. In the process, he lost his finger. It was so fascinating to read this story about how Pop had done this amazing thing and yet never really told anyone the true story.

Now the really funny part (well, depending on your perspective) is that after Pop was in the nursing home, my Mom’s cousin was digging around in the kitchen cabinets. She came running out screaming—she had discovered Pop’s finger in a jar of formaldehyde, saved all those years because he wanted to be buried with all his parts. So, when he passed seventy years after the accident, the jar with his finger was put in the casket.

So, I digressed there a bit, but the purpose in telling that family story is to demonstrate that by digging up that newspaper article, we got a whole different perspective on the story of Pop and his finger. While we always knew Pop was a kind man, we saw that he was also a very humble hero. Primary sources allow us these opportunities to make history come alive for our students. Every year when we talked about family histories in class, I would share this story with students. It made that period of history so much more exciting and real for them.

One of the other things we have is a letter Pop wrote in the 1950s talking about his family and growing up. It is so fascinating to be able to see the handwriting and read stories of your great-grandfather. These are the things that help our students to better understand the history of our country.

Luckily, with many of the resources shared in this issue, all sorts of families from all different times have these stories and relics and documentation that bring the history of our country alive for the future.  The digitization and preservation made possible by advancements in technology will ensure that some of these primary sources will be around for years to come. All of this makes them so much more accessible to our students and available in our school libraries. What an exciting time to be exploring!


topiccarlharveyCarl A. Harvey II, MS, is instructor of school librarianship at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia. Harvey received his master’s degree from Indiana University and is the author of five books, most recently Leading the Common Core Initiative: A Guide for K-5 School Librarians (with coauthor Linda Mills). He is a past-president of the American Association of School Librarians, and his school has been the recipient of the National School Library Program of the Year.

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