Rose O'Keefe grew up in the suburbs of New York City, except for four years as a girl living with her family outside Paris, France. After graduating from SUNY Potsdam, Rose moved to Rochester, New York, and discovered the Genesee River Valley and Finger Lakes on camping outings.
Since then, she has become a history author with a special interest in the Frederick Douglass family's years in Rochester from 1847 to 1872. She enjoys presenting slide shows on Rochester's South Wedge, the southeast side of the city, the Douglass family, and most recently, an "Armchair Tour of the Genesee Valley."
Her three books are: Historic Genesee Country (History Press, 2010) Southeast Rochester (Arcadia, 2006) and Rochester's South Wedge, (Arcadia, 2005).
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Looking back to 2004 or 5, what decided you to work on the South Wedge book for Arcadia?
I had already volunteered for The Wedge neighborhood newspaper for a number of years, had printed a history series in it in 2000 and was having informal History Club meetings in our Highland Branch library. In early March 2005, S.W.P.C. (South Wedge Planning Committee) board member David Halter handed me the proposal form for an Arcadia book, and told me to take it, I was the only one who could do it.
So, I casually printed out some captions for a few black and white copies of local sites, cut the captions and taped them on each page and then mailed it all in. To my surprise, Arcadia accepted the proposal and said they had a gap in their publishing schedule and if I could, my deadline was the end of May.
I thought of The Wedge deadlines and figured I could do it. Ha! Little did I know.
It took weeks to contact people, borrow their family photos, have copies made, return them to the owners, and keep at until I had 200 images and captions, but I did it.
As a total newbie to this process, my learning curve was pretty steep and unlike some people, I did't have access to an exising collection of old photos.
I had to scout and search for all of them as well as pay for prints of many of them.
What were your primary sources? (I'm assuming the Rochester Public Library and its photo collection provide much of the visual information).
And did any of the photographs come from sources other than the library, such as the private collections of residents?
Quite a few came from family photos of people I knew or knew of, in the South Wedge area. One of my main contributors, to whom I dedicated "Rochester's South Wedge" (Arcadia 2005) was Josh Canfield, who grew up in the neighborhood and loaned me family photos and vintage postcards from his large collection.
I was more than half-way through the project before I stumbled into Rochester Public Library's online image collection.
At some point, I spent hours sorting through the City of Rochester Photo Lab's collection of vintage slides.
They had about a dozen binders that have now been merged with the library's online collection.
I would also ask my husband to take a ride so he could take pictures of things I needed, like an old willow tree in Mount Hope Cemetery.
I'm not shy about calling people and asking if I can borrow photos. Most people are pretty friendly, but if I had a dollar for everyone who said someone in the family has a box of pictures in the attic (or closet) but I'll have to call them first and get back to you. Well, that's the way it goes.
But after the first book came out, a number of neighbors called to say they had pictures that would have been good in it, and since I knew what I was getting into, I did the research for "Southeast Rochester" (Arcadia, 2006) much more easily.
After that, my learning curve for Historic Genesee Country (History Press, 2010) was even better, but the technological changes have been both a blessing and a challenge.
Searching through vintage books in the Local History at the downtown library is one of my favorite things to do now. You can get any page from them scanned for a dollar. What a fabulous deal. I used that quite a bit for HGC.
Getting my computer to shake hands and talk to theirs for some reason was not smooth for almost a dozen images, but I kept at it.
What publishing venture are you working on currently?
Because Historic Genesee Country has a specific format and length, I had way more information for it than fit in that book.
So I've decided to put a lot of the extra information and juicy little tidbits into a blog. It's been up for several weeks now, and I figure once I get fifty or so entries, I'll have enough for an e-book. Once I learn how to do something technical, I can generally understand the process, but it took me a long time to figure out how to 'enter' my entries on my own website.
Now I have to learn how to add images. I don't know yet if that slows things down too much or not. Some feedback from readers would help on that. I also have to learn how to do photo albums on Facebook. That's on my list of to-dos.
What writers and historians have inspired you from early in your career or your avocation?
That's what got me started. I'd read something like Henry's Clune's The Rochester I Know and get all excited. He's such a fabulous writer and he was describing places and events I knew nothing about. I had also fun taking one whole winter to read all that tiny print in Orsamus Turner's rambling Pioneer History of the Phelps and Gorham Purchase.
Blake McKelvey's history series online are great starting places, but I often wanted much more specific information that he shares, so I had to do my own digging after that.
Any advice for would-be writers/historians?
Once you get started on a project, remember to breath, eat right and exercise. The pace and pressure of my first two books wore me down and it's taken a few years to get my stamina back.
Another point of interest that occurs to me is of your not only living in the Wedge now, but also of your having lived near Paris. Both of which may be considered more-or-(perhaps)less "Bohemian". Scarsdale "suburbs of New York" was probably a different matter. Do you think any of these residencies may have helped fuel an interest in history? If so, in what way?
Some people know my family lived outside of Paris from 1957 to 1961. What they may not know is that several of us kids had the experience of total language immersion cold turkey. Four of us went to a French Catholic girls' school and had to hang in there until we understood what they were saying. My mother said we cried every day for several months before we caught on. By the time we moved back to the same house and school that I had left, I spoke French better than English and didn't feel like an American until I left home to go to college. So, even in a middle class New York City suburb, I never saw things the same after we moved back.
Coming to Rochester after college in the early seventies, I knew next to nothing about this area and was able to get to know it with fresh eyes.