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Neighbors of Kane County

Family letters bring Civil War history to life during program at The Holmstad

May 01, 2017 10:51AM ● By Neighbors Magazines

David Ritchie lives at The Holmstad retirement community in Batavia. He reads aloud letters from his great-grandfather, James Crawford, a Union soldier during the Civil War, to fellow residents as part of a program called, “Civil War Letters.”

Quill and pen are far removed from David Ritchie’s background as a high-energy physicist who worked at Fermilab. But his great grandfather, James Crawford, was a prolific writer who penned letters detailing his time as a Union soldier in the Civil War. Ritchie, who lives at The Holmstad retirement community, has been reading the family letters aloud each week to fellow residents as part of a program called, “Civil War Letters.” The readings began last August.

Handed down through generations from his mother’s side of the family, the original hand-written letters are safely housed in the Illinois State Historical Museum in Springfield. The recent batch of carefully typed copies of letters Ritchie read were dated March 1865, and tell of harrowing days as he fought with the 80th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Company G, offering a taste of what life was like to a Union foot soldier.

“It’s why I come back every week, because we are getting so much historical information about the war,” said resident Ellie Fusaro. “He was a dedicated soldier, talking about how the Union must prevail in all his letters. I find it fascinating. David is so helpful and so willing to do this.”

The topics within the letters - the realization he wouldn’t be home in time to harvest the wheat, a few lines of poetry on the travesty of slavery and the need for a unified country - spark lively discussions among the group. When the group discovered Ritchie’s family turned letters from Jimmy to his sweetheart into a book, titled “Dear Lizzie,” further options of script writing were considered.

“This program is great,” said Bruce Larson, 76. “I taught American history for 40 years, so this is fascinating to hear what the soldiers write about. You don’t get this information in other ways.”

Ritchie said he values the weekly gathering to share the letters with fellow residents.

“It rejuvenates me every time I come to read the letters,” Ritchie said, who admits this is his first time reading them from start to finish.

“I knew if I didn’t start to read the letters, there would be a disaster at some point and I might lose them,” said Ritchie. “What’s so great about the exercise of reading the letters is telling Jimmy’s life,” Ritchie said. “The Holmstad doesn’t put any bureaucracy in the way for me to do this.”

“Resident-initiated programs like David’s are the hallmark of LifeConnect®, our wellness partnership with residents,” said Resident Life Director Nicole Sickafoose. “Working closely with residents to plan activities and programs allows them to share their interests and knowledge with others and foster new relationships.”

Sickafoose said there are dozens of resident-initiated programs and activities, including: The Holmstad Home Store, which sells gently used furniture and home décor to the greater Batavia community; the woodworking group and Creative Arts Center, which are responsible for creating the life-sized yard art displayed during the Christmas Open House; SoulCollage® Workshops; the ArtWise exhibit; the Jeopardy game; and more.

To learn more about The Holmstad or to arrange for a visit, call 877-226-7310 or visit or Facebook.