BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Those newspaper clippings in your shoebox, the vacation photos in the drawer, the recollections of family holidays when four generations got together: Matthew Nickerson, creator of the company aptly called the Private Historian, finds the book buried inside these illusive rainy-day projects and personal memories. Using your words and treasures, he creates distinctive books, websites, and videos for your family.
Nickerson, equal parts journalist, historian, and academic, describes his mission as preserving his client’s accomplishments and passing on their values. This journey often embarks with the clients’ family trees. “I create two kinds of books: memory books and history sagas,” he explains. “In the memory books, the family tells the story to me in their own words. I record them, heavily edit and organize, pairing this with everything from old dance cards, programs and clippings, and all types of visual histories using many photographs through the years.”
He continues, “For history sagas, I visit libraries, view old newspaper clippings, do online research, and trace your family to its origins. I chronicle its trip to the New World, and tell the story of its rise in America. The result: a saga that places your family’s tale in U.S. history with period photographs, color maps, and glossy illustrations. Imagine Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton or Niall Ferguson’s House of Rothschild, but this book is not sold in a bookstore. It is only for you and your family.”
Margaret Mary Stoetzel shares her recent experience working with Nickerson: “My mother assembled beautiful family scrapbooks of my father’s family, her family, her children, and grandchildren. I wanted to find a way to share them with all of our extended family. Matt used the photos as the basis of the book he wrote for us, which was a combination of family history and my mother’s memories. He used multiple elements to give the book dimension. It includes candid and formal photos, articles from the papers, love letters, awards and stories, all found in her scrapbooks.”
“Matt was patient and a pleasure to work with. Our book is a family history that is fun to read and a treasure for the generations that follow us,” she adds.
Some clients find Nickerson with very particular expectations in lieu of sweeping sagas, however: “I do get some pretty specific requests at times. One client wanted to know the medical causes of death for every family member.”
An American history graduate from the University of Chicago, Nickerson worked for 25 years as a reporter and editor at five metropolitan Chicago newspapers, most recently on the Tribune‘s business desk. While a journalist, he got a master’s in European history. In 2014 he paired his newspaper skills and historical knowledge and became a family and company historian.
When he began in 2016, most of his clients were retired, now half of his clients are mid-career: “Some want to know where their families came from, particularly in Eastern Europe—many borders have been blurred due to war.”
Some of Nickerson’s books take his research even farther afield. One of his creations, Survival and Success, narrates a family’s beginnings in Iceland and their amazing accomplishments in America: “The book was about the family of Norm Asbjornson of Tulsa, Oklahoma. His daughter baked him cookies every year for his birthday. One year, she wanted to give him something different. Her husband told her that a college classmate of his, Matt Nickerson, was writing family histories. So instead of cookies, she gave him a book!”
“The Asbjornsons were my first book and intriguing because they are Icelandic-American—a very small ethnic group!” he shares. “A couple of thousand came to the U.S. after a volcano exploded in Iceland in 1875, including the Asbjornsons. The family moved to Minnesota, where they endured brutal winters, then in 1913 homesteaded in central Montana, where they suffered through droughts and the Depression.
“Norm had me fly to little Winifred, Montana, population 200, where he grew up. He showed me around and I did research. Being in central Montana—there’s no skiing or celebrity ranches, just farmers and tiny towns—made me realize how rural communities spawn self-reliance. There simply is no one around to help. When Norm was born in 1935, the town had no electricity. Then his father built a power plant and lit up the town. Norm said his small-town experiences helped him learn independence at an early age.”
Nickerson says that most clients usually print at least 100 copies of their books, handing them out to friends and family—and the odd cousin or two that come out of the woodwork and ask for a copy. “Norm has sent copies of his family history to the kids who get the college scholarships he gives out,” he says.
Many young people are choosing memory books to honor their elders. But, we couldn’t help but wondering, in the quest to celebrate those who came before, do many skeletons get unearthed from their places deep in family closets? “A few,” Nickerson concedes, though “most people know where the closet was and who was in it.”
Most of the time he finds good news, however, and even inspiration: “I believe a family history book inspires the next generations—they can look back and see how they came to be living in comfort.”
And uncovering these histories begins with genealogy—Nickerson counts ancestry.com as a “good friend.” Though the names and dates it provides are important to his work, he says what really matters are the flesh and blood stories we attach to them: “I am inspired by every book I write, by the people who show up in America and achieve amazing things. I am thinking of one grandfather, a Russian Jew, who fled from the Bolsheviks and landed here, speaking no English. He managed to set up a small department store which at first thrived but failed during the Depression. Later he began a very successful shoe business. I have a lot of stories of people who just don’t quit. I have done a company history and have found many creative entrepreneurs among my clients.”
Despite the age of the Internet we find ourselves in, Nickerson assures us that his clients all want hard copy books, not digital files—even his former client, the software executive. “Funnily enough,” he shares, “it was an older couple who briefly considered a website!” But it appears the prevailing hunger is for histories we can touch and feel.
Like any good reporter, Nickerson’s attention is drawn to the stories out in the world around him, meaning he has not yet tackled his own family’s history. To this he replies, “I guess the grass is always greener on the other side.”
For more information, visit privatehistorian.net.