Elaine Clements Gardner’s 20-year family history journey came to an end last month when she slit open a plain brown packing box, cleared away the packing material, and lifted out a gorgeous gold-embossed, blue-leather legacy book. “I held it close to my heart for a moment,” she recalls. “It was still wrapped in cellophane; it wasn’t even opened yet. I’m not a crier, but my eyes filled up with tears. Then I opened the plastic and looked at it. It was exactly what I would have dreamed of if I had dreamed that big.”
When Elaine started researching her family history two decades ago, she wasn’t initially thinking about creating a legacy book. “I was really just trying to track down your stereotypical genealogy information,” she explains. “I was looking for names, dates of birth and death, who married who and who their kids were. That was my aim.”
However, as she sifted through the past, Elaine found out that behind the names and dates were personal stories—stories that she wanted to preserve for others. “About 10 years ago, my goal changed,” she recalls. “I didn’t have all the information I needed yet, but what I was getting was so fascinating to me that I knew it would be interesting to others as well. I wanted my children and my sisters and their children and our cousins to know these stories too. So I decided to do a book.”
Elaine took another decade to complete her research, focusing on her father’s line and documenting every piece of information she could. She traveled to Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia, sorting through census records, state and national archives, land documents, will and estate records, and much more. She studied the time periods and places in which her ancestors had lived. And she captured it all, writing down everything she could about the stories behind the facts.
Last year Elaine decided it was time to take the final step and complete the book. “I put everything together,” she says, “and it looked like a thesis.” (As an aside, her husband told her she had put so much time and energy into the project that she should at least call it a dissertation.) “I had worked so hard on it that I wanted it to look beautiful, so I decided to find someone who could help me.”
Elaine went online and found several potential partners—everything from self-publishing to complete publishing houses. “But they just didn’t provide what I wanted,” she explains.
Until she found Legacy Books.
“I read their philosophy, I read their blogs, I read everything on their website, and I finally took the plunge and called John (Legacy Books owner),” she recalls. “And from the very beginning, my experience was wonderful. They listened to me and respected what I had to say. I had certain things I wanted, and they honored that vision. They preserved my voice. They listened to my ideas. However, along the way they also made several suggestions, and their expertise made the book even better.”
The layout and design of the book is crucial, Elaine points out, because once you get past the elegant cover and marbled end sheets, people had to be drawn into the book so they would read the stories. “Every visual, every photo and newspaper clipping and deed and record draws them further into the book,” Elaine observes, “and makes them want to read more.”
Among the things that Elaine wanted included in the book were footnotes, an index, detailed sources, and a section of transcribed letters. “Without those, this was just a storybook,” she says. “I wanted to make sure people understood this was real history and real people—these things really happened.”
Elaine wasn’t the only one ecstatic with the final result. She received the books just in time for her husband’s 80th birthday party, and she distributed them to family members during that milestone event. “The could hardly keep their noses out of the books,” she observes. “They were so busy reading, they almost forgot to celebrate the birthday boy!”
One of the first suggestions Legacy Books made, Elaine recalls, is using a compass as a reoccurring motif throughout the book. “That single image captured so perfectly what this history book was about for me,” she reflects. “This is the story of my family’s journey, and just as the compass provided direction for them hundreds of years ago, their lives provide direction and meaning for us today. To be able to capture that all in one book is a dream come true.”