Ledvort ’13 Delved Into the Past to Uncover Her Future Path
Oct. 29, 2014
When Elissa Ledvort ’13 began her internship at the David Davis Mansion State Historic Site in the spring of 2011, she expected to spend her semester conducting
tours and learning more about the Victorian mansion’s prosperous inhabitants. But
the mansion staff had another idea in mind for the English-Literature major: help create a scholarly, searchable database containing the transcripts of
hundreds of letters written to and by the David Davis family.
Davis was a Lincoln confidante who helped engineer Lincoln’s nomination to the presidency
in 1860 and served as his campaign manager. Davis was later named to the U.S. Supreme
Court. The Victorian-style mansion was designed to be a residence for Davis’ wife,
Sarah, who desired to stay in Bloomington rather than move to Washington, D.C. Deeded
to the state of Illinois by the judge’s descendants in 1960, the house is operated
by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency as a state historic site.
In 2004, mansion volunteer Patricia Schley began researching, collecting and transcribing
copies of the Davis family correspondence. After beginning with a collection of microfilmed
letters from the Williams College archives, Schley traveled to different cities throughout
the U.S. to find additional letters and learn more about numerous Davis family relatives,
according to Ledvort.
“Pat Schley started working on that as a volunteer and it became this real passion
of hers, sort of like a treasure hunt,” Ledvort said. For the past nine years, Schley’s
project has been funded by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and by the David
Davis Mansion Foundation, a private, nonprofit corporation that supports the work
of the state-owned historic site.
Though Schley had transcribed the letters, the David Davis Mansion needed a way to
digitize the transcripts and make them accessible to the public. Ledvort was tasked
with figuring out how to do that, and writing a grant to make it possible.
“We were looking for funding to buy scanning equipment so we could scan the already
completed transcriptions ourselves,” Ledvort said. “We also needed a searchable digital
platform to make them accessible to researchers.”
But amongst the numerous digital platforms, Ledvort was not sure which would best
suit the project. Drawing on her Illinois Wesleyan resources, Ledvort enlisted the
help of Meg Miner, University Archivist, Special Collections Librarian and associate
After a meeting with Ledvort and the mansion’s site manager, Miner suggested the CARLI
Digital Collections: a repository for digital content created by over 140 member libraries,
including Illinois Wesleyan. Because of Ledvort’s research and initiative, the David
Davis Mansion and its foundation collaborated with The Ames Library in establishing
the David and Sarah Davis Family Correspondence, a searchable digital database.
Ledvort was assigned with the initial task of reading all the transcripts. As she
began to appreciate their unique historical importance, the transcriptions provided
both inspiration and motivation to move the project forward.
“It was surreal to read the letters at the site where they were written, and to physically
look at what Sarah was describing,” Ledvort said.
“The letters are an invaluable resource to those researching any aspect of the 19th century. David and Sarah were separated for most of the year while he was riding
the Illinois court circuits, so their letters were extremely detailed about their
respective experiences,” she said. “David would write very candidly about political
figures and issues during the tumultuous period before and after the Civil War, while
Sarah would write about her domestic experiences, entertaining Bloomington society
and tending to the house, the garden and the servants.”
Ledvort could not help but notice a theme running throughout every letter. “The letters
are primarily a love story. The important details regarding David’s political life
and Sarah’s domestic life, which are pivotal to researchers today, were simply that
to David and Sarah – just details,” she said. “That was my favorite part about the
letters—they cared for each other so deeply.”
By the end of the project, the number of transcripts available online will be over
1,500. Every transcript will serve an educational purpose to guide future researchers,
students and historians.
Ledvort’s work with museums did not end there. Her experience at the David Davis Mansion
was pivotal in solidifying her desire to work in a museum environment, preserving
the past for future generations. She interned at the McLean County History Museum
in 2012, and now works as a Volunteer and Tour Coordinator at Pleasant Home Foundation,
which supports the Prairie-style historic mansion and National Historic Landmark in
Oak Park, Ill.
Not only did the digitization project establish Ledvort’s career goals, it also exposed
her to the collaboration between different organizations and the community to promote
the common good.
“This project is very near to my heart because it is a collaboration between two institutions
which are so important in my life,” Ledvort said. “The David Davis internship inspired
me to pursue a career in the museum field, and Wesleyan provided me with the resources,
the training and a strong foundation to achieve those goals.
“Words cannot express how grateful I am to the David Davis mansion and Illinois Wesleyan,
and everyone in this process who provided me with such an irreplaceable experience.”