SALT LAKE CITY — Getting to know an ancestor through journals, stories and old photographs is one thing.
It’s quite another to actually hear that ancestor’s voice.
A friend's recent discovery of a 1950s recorded interview gave Brittany A. Chapman the rare opportunity to listen to the voice of her 103-year-old pioneer great-great-grandmother, Ruth May Fox. How it came about is another classic example of how digging through family history can sometimes yield an unforeseen treasure.
“There is nothing like connecting with a person through photographs … but what did this person say when talking in real time, face to face? What would it have been like to just hear her words, her syntax?” Chapman said. “It was awesome to hear her speak about herself, her life experiences. To hear the sound of her voice was amazing … a very enriching experience.”
Ruth May Fox
Chapman is a historian in the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She is also a co-editor with Richard E. Turley Jr. of the seven-volume series titled “Women of Faith in the Latter Days.”
For the past six years, Chapman has researched her ancestor’s life for two projects. One is an autobiography that will be published by the University of Utah press in 2015. Chapman has also been writing a chapter about her great-great-grandmother for Volume 3 of the “Women of Faith in the Latter Days” series, which is scheduled for release in May.
Ruth May Fox was born in England in 1853. Her family converted to Mormonism and immigrated to the United States in the 1860s. They traveled by covered ox cart and on foot to Salt Lake City in 1867.
In 1873, she married Jesse W. Fox. She experienced polygamy when her husband added a second wife 15 years later. (The LDS Church discontinued the practice of polygamy in 1890.)
Fox delivered 12 children, with 10 living to adulthood. By her 100th birthday, Fox had 256 living direct descendants. There are more than 3,000 descendants living today.
Fox was active in women’s suffrage and other civic causes. She met Susan B. Anthony and Anna Howard Shaw when they visited Utah in 1895.
Fox served in the general presidency of the LDS Church’s Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association, including president, for nearly four decades.
Members of the LDS Church's First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, as well as state and city officials, attended her milestone birthday parties. She was 103 when she flew on an airplane to her son’s golden wedding anniversary. She died in Salt Lake City at age 104 in 1958.
“She was on the forefront of things happening with women around the turn of the century,” Chapman said.
Kathryn Jones, a granddaughter, grew up in the same house as Ruth May Fox.
“Her eyesight declined, but she could always see whether we had too short of skirts or wore pants because she didn’t like that," Jones said. "She always noticed that."
What Jones remembers most about grandma Ruth is her memory. One time Jones was asked to go downtown and buy thread but she forgot.
“She shook her finger at me and said, ‘Kathryn, you’ll never forget if you learn to remember first,’ ” Jones said.
Fox wrote hundreds of poems and memorized each one. On her 100th birthday, she quoted a poem she had written at age 40.
“She had the greatest memory of anybody. I’m hoping I can keep my memory like that,” Jones said. “The day she died at the house, she said, “ ‘Well, my bags are packed.’ ”
One day, Chapman was telling a friend, Ronald Fox, about her projects and mentioned how much she would love to hear her great-great-grandmother’s voice.
Ron Fox, not related to Ruth May Fox, said Chapman’s wish stuck in the back of his mind.
A short time later, he was going through some volumes in the reference section at the Utah State Historical Society Library at the Rio Grande Station and stumbled on a 1961 published volume called “Utah Firsts,” a master’s thesis by Arthur T. Challis. This man had scoured the Deseret News from 1850 to 1896 to find references to things that happened in Utah for the first time during the territorial period (1847-1896). On the very last page of his thesis, Challis cited an oral interview he’d had with Ruth May Fox on Aug. 9, 1957, using a reel-to-reel device.
Fox did a quick search online for Challis but only found his obituary. He died in 2001, after serving as director of the library at Southern Utah University for 42 years. Fox called SUU to see if the recording was in the school’s collection. It was not.
But Challis had a daughter named Joy who works at Dixie State College. Fox contacted her, and to his delight, she knew exactly where the recording was located in her home. Soon enough, she was on the phone with Chapman arranging to bring the tapes to Salt Lake City and donate them to the Church History Library.
“It was out of the blue and very exciting,” Joy Challis said. “Because of my dad’s interest in recording, I also had an interest in recording. I’m glad we kept those tapes safe. He taught us to preserve our history. I’ve been looking for a reel-to-reel to be able to play these, but I haven’t been able to find anything.”
On Tuesday, Nov. 26, Chapman, Challis, Jones and another family member were permitted into a preservation room at the Church History Library where they heard the voice of Ruth May Fox for the first time in more than 50 years. They were all amazed at the quality of the recording.
Chapman said the experience was very meaningful.
“It was an exciting moment where we could hear her voice. Her voice was deeper than I imagined, more resounding,” Chapman said. “She was 13 when she came over from England. I wondered if she still had part of a British accent, and she did. You could still hear little bits and pieces of ways she pronounced certain words. Her past was still part of her at 103.”
Chapman also marveled that she was listening to a true Mormon pioneer.
“That is awesome, in itself, that you can still hear the voice of a woman who traveled across the Plains and who could recall and talk about her experience,” Chapman said. “That is a priceless bit of history.”
Jones smiled as she recalled the memory of her grandmother.
“To recognize her voice again … she always had a strong voice,” Jones said.
Challis relished hearing her father’s voice again.
“It was really a great experience and I felt very close to my father. I know he is very happy at this time because his work still lives, along with Ruth May Fox and her work. To have that connection is a great honor,” Challis said. “It’s also great to connect with these people.”
The recording is about an hour in length. In the interview, Fox displays a strong voice as she speaks of crossing the Plains before the railroad, the first electric light and meeting Brigham Young as a young girl. She also reads poetry and comments on her marriage, among other topics. When Arthur Challis asked if “her testimony is as strong today as it was (before),” Ruth May Fox replied, “Oh yes, I am nothing but Mormon.”
In addition to the historical value of the interview and the joy of hearing voices from the dust, Joy Challis and Chapman talked about what they will take away from the experience.
“Make sure you hold on to your history, the items that you have, even though you feel you may not be able to use them. These recordings would have been lost if we had just said, 'Well, we can’t digitize them now, so no way to do that,' ” Challis said. “Hold on to those things because they are valuable.”
Chapman expressed thanks for Ron Fox, Challis and Jones, her new network of friends. She encouraged people to continue learning about their ancestors and to keep looking in attics and basements for items that should be preserved for future generations.
“Don’t underestimate what information might be out there in people’s attics and unknown places,” Chapman said. “You never know what you will find that has been preserved.”
The Church History Library collects and preserves materials in various formats, from paper-based books, pamphlets, journals and diaries to audio-visual materials including sound recordings, video recordings and oral histories. Many materials in paper-based formats are presently being digitized and made available to the public through the library catalog, which can be found at history.lds.org.
The Church History Department is presently developing plans to digitize and make audio-visual formats available through the catalog in the near future.
The Church History Library acquisitions staff will gladly review materials with individuals interested in donating items to the library. To contact them, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 801-240-5696 Monday-Friday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
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