Michael Bartolf is a walking, breathing historical library.
With shelves, countertops, tables and whole rooms stacked with books, magazines, newspaper clippings and self-made indexes to many of his collections, Bartolf is far beyond what one would call an avid collector.
If you ask him about the history of Saskatchewan, he has over 300 community history books to point you towards. He also has an index documenting every post office opening and closing date in the province, as well as the land descriptions.
In addition, the 84-year-old retired farmer has also created numerous indexes from The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Western Producer, National Geographic and a number of local newspapers. These indexes track all references to anyone who ever came from Oxbow and area, with entries including the publication, date, edition and page number where things like obituaries and feature stories can be found.
“I read about four or five newspapers every week and I watch for anything that is historical. The people can be a day old or 105 years old, as long as they have roots back here in Oxbow, I’ll index it,” said Bartolf.
Collecting historical information consumes almost every waking hour of Bartolf’s day as he rises at 6 a.m. and makes his way directly to his computer. At midnight, he is often found in the same spot in the corner of his document-filled living room.
“Sometimes you’d think he was married to that computer,” laughed Michael’s wife Ruth.
Otto Neuman, chairperson of Oxbow’s Ralph Allen Memorial Railway Museum, said the Bartolfs have made an invaluable contribution to the community both as volunteers and as historical document keepers. He said Michael has spent countless hours at the museum cataloguing donated items, maintaining the building and providing information to visitors who are in search of family information.
“He has spent hours and hours keeping records for the museum and he does a lot of that work at home,” said Neuman.
The most rewarding part for Bartolf is when he can connect visitors with a piece of their past. His most memorable visitor was a lady from Baltimore, Maryland who travelled to Oxbow two years ago to trace her roots. With help from Bartolf, the woman spent two weeks in the area, eventually finding information about her grandfather, who was the mayor of Oxbow at the turn of the century. Bartolf, through use of historical record-keeping, was able to find the homestead of the family, as well as information about her uncle, a First World War veteran, who was killed in a runaway horse accident involving a binder.
“It’s all in the paper — you just have to open it up,” said Bartolf, who added that he also tracked another uncle of the Baltimore woman. This particular uncle was a stonemason, so Bartolf was able to take the visitor to one of four buildings in Oxbow that were constructed by him.
One of Bartolf’s most prized possessions is a 100-year-old copy of the Oxbow Herald which he keeps in a plastic covering in a manila envelope.
When asked why he spends his days and nights at his computer documenting the story of Saskatchewan and the area from which he came, Bartolf said, “I drink very little, I hunt somewhat and I don’t go coffeeing. I keep history books.” †