Born in 1908 to Louis and Sarah Kessel Burgett, Katherine grew up on the family farm outside of Oquawka, Illinois. In 1924 her parents purchased their own farm in Monmouth, which they later lost due to the devastating impact of the Depression on agriculture, and it was there that she first met her future husband, Kenneth Monroe Irey, a student at Monmouth College. The newlyweds moved to New Jersey in 1931 where Kenneth was transferred for work. As a chemical engineer, Kenneth enjoyed a successful career and comfortably supported his wife and two children. Retiring in 1970, he and Katherine spent their later years pursuing two passions: traveling and bird-watching. Kenneth and Katherine's eldest daughter, June Irey Guild, spent most of her adult life in Massachusetts where she has married twice, raised six children, and operated her own business. During her retirement years, June focused on preserving her family's history by collecting letters and recoding family narratives.
The Burgett-Irey Family Papers chronicle the changes that many twentieth-century American families experienced as the nation descended into an economic depression, entered into a world war, and emerged as one of the most powerful countries in the world. The collection, which will continue to grow, includes approximately 70 letters between Katherine Burgett Irey and her family. There are approximately 250 letters dated between 1834 and 1936 written between various family members and friends as well as June Irey Guild's correspondence from 1978-2012. Most of the letters exchange family updates, particularly precious after Katherine relocated to New Jersey. Among the earliest letters is an account of Katherine and Kenneth's first meeting described as "fast work," since he asked her out on the spot. Also included are some ephemera, photographs, genealogical information and other documents. A notable early document dated 1803 acts as a character reference for Abraham and Rebecca Holmes from their church. Autobiographical writings by Kenneth describing his cross-country trip to California in 1927 and a brief history of his life and career are also included.
The collection is open for research.
Background on Burgett-Irey family
Kenneth Monroe Irey was born in 1905 in Gerlaw, Illinois. Growing up, Kenneth's family moved to a succession of farms until finally settling in house in Monmouth, Illinois. Kenneth attended Alpha High School and after graduating Magna Cum Laude enrolled in Monmouth College. Around this time, Kenneth, then 19, met his future wife, 16 year old Katherine Willard Burgett. After putting himself through Monmouth and earning a Bachelors of Science in 1928, Kenneth was awarded a scholarship and went on to pursue a Master's Degree in Chemical Engineering from Carnegie University.
Katherine Willard Burgett was born in 1908 in Oquawka, Illinois to a large family. The second of seven children, Katherine grew up on the Burgett family farm. In 1923 her father, Louis Porter Burgett, moved the family from Oquawka to a smaller farm in Monmouth, Illinois. Although the Monmouth farm was smaller than the Burgett family farm, the new farmhouse had all of the modern conveniences, including running water and electricity. The new farm also gave the Burgett children the opportunity to attend better schools. Shortly after the move, Katherine enrolled in Monmouth High School. During the summer before her junior year Katherine met her future husband, Kenneth Irey. After graduating from high school Katherine enrolled in Monmouth College. She later left Monmouth after only one year of study in order to pursue a teaching career. For the next two years Katherine taught in a one-room school house and lived with a student's family.
Once Kenneth received his Master's Degree in 1929 he began working for the Commercial Solvents Corporation in Terre Haute, Indiana. Shortly thereafter, Kenneth and Katherine got married and left Illinois for Indiana. After moving out of state, Katherine wrote to her family frequently. Many of Katherine's letters reflect her close relationship with her family and the difficulties she faced living away from them. During Katherine and Kenneth's first years together they lived comfortably, having enough money to purchase a new car and a refrigerator. The newly married couple also experienced some difficulties, however, as the Depression of the 1930s strained finances. Katherine's family in Illinois also experienced significant hardship as the bank foreclosed on their Monmouth farm, forcing them to return to the Burgett family farm in Oquawka.
In 1931, Kenneth was transferred by Commercial Solvents Corporation to Resinox Corporation in Piscataway, New Jersey. Soon after receiving the new position, Kenneth and Katherine moved to New Brunswick, New Jersey. In September of that same year, Katherine gave birth to the couple's first child, June Rebecca Irey. A second child, Richard Kenneth Irey, would come along in 1936. The Irey family moved once again for Kenneth's company in 1939, this time to Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1949, Kenneth resigned from Monsanto and accepted a position as plant manager with Hayden Chemicals, settling with his family in Caldwell, New Jersey. Kenneth retired in 1970, and the couple relocated to Safety Harbor, Florida three years later.
The Irey's retirement years were marked by the couple's interest in genealogy and bird-watching. Kenneth took up his daughter June's suggestion that he work on genealogy, which he pursued with gusto, preparing binders for all the Burgetts as well as the Ireys. Together, Kenneth and Katherine planned numerous birding excursions, traveling across the U.S. In 1980 they were the first couple in the American Birding Association (ABA) to spot 700 species of birds as a pair. That same year Katherine was credited by the ABA as being the number one female birder in the nation and the first woman to reach 700. Kenneth and Katherine continued to pursue their passion for birding up until Kenneth's death in 1994. Ten years after Kenneth's death, Katherine relocated to Amherst, Massachusetts to live with her daughter June until her death at 99 in 2007.
June Irey Guild, born September 1931, is the only daughter of Katherine and Kenneth Irey. After graduating from Classical High School in 1949, June enrolled in the University of Vermont. June later left UVM after her sophomore year in order to attend secretarial school in Montclair, New Jersey. In October 1951 June married her first husband, Curt Guild, and relocated with him to Springfield, Massachusetts. June and Curt had six children together, but later divorced in 1968. Curt and June would remarry in 1972, but divorced once more in 1982. June married her second husband, Leonard Day, in 1989. That same year, June bought a blueberry farm in Heath, Massachusetts, where she served as Town Accountant for ten years and Town Clerk for four years. In 1998 June and Leonard separated and ultimately divorced. After selling the farm in 1999, June moved to Amherst, Massachusetts and retired. During her retirement June joined the Five College Learning in Retirement program. Over the years, she took several courses--one being an autobiographical writing seminar--and served as Treasurer from 2004-2007. June also spent her free time working as a guide at Historic Deerfield from 2001 to 2004.
The collection is divided into three series: Personal and Biographical, Correspondence, and Photographs. Personal and biographical information dates from 1803 to 2012 and consists of materials such as autobiographical and composition writing, remembrances, personal records from community and religious organizations, diaries, family genealogies, and newspaper clippings regarding the Burgett-Irey family. Correspondence is composed of letters written by members of the Burgett-Irey family and family friends between 1834 and 2012. One significant group of these letters were written between 1929 and 1933 by Katherine Irey and are addressed to her mother and other family members. Another large portion of the letters include those written between 1834 and 1936 to Louisa Gass Kessel from friends and family; more contemporary family letters between 2005 and 2012; and Christmas and birthday cards June Irey Guild received from family and friends. Finally, photographs include a portrait of Marion Weakly ca. 1880 and 35mm color slides dating from 1984 to 1987. The slides primarily document family vacations June Irey Guild took with her second husband, Leonard Day. In addition, the circa 1870s photo album, listed as the "Boden Family Album," holds portraits of Boden family members, distant relatives of the Burgetts.
This series includes creative and autobiographical accounts, family records, diaries, family genealogies, and newspaper clippings. The largest portion of the series documents June Irey Guild's Learning in Retirement courses, which she took from 1999 to 2009, the notes she kept as a guide at Historic Deerfield from 2001-2004 and the Sunday Services Committee meeting notes from 2004-2008. In addition to these accounts, documents from schools, churches, and organizations record the Irey family's social activities and involvement in the local community. Newspaper clippings contain stories of local interest and history, including a photo from the Oquawka Current showing Katherine and her sister Mary with classmates from Oquawka High School in 1922. One of the earliest documents is a page from the Youth Temperance Advocate in 1842 which includes a song, pledge and a cautionary tale about drinking. The most noteworthy pieces of this series include a birding journal written by Kenneth and Katherine and three remembrance booklets created by June Irey Guild in honor of her mother and father.
Katherine and Kenneth's "Bird Chase Book," chronicles their bird-watching trips from 1979 to 1989. In this journal, the Ireys document their birding adventures in great detail. The journal begins after the Ireys spotted their 700th bird species in 1980, a remarkable feat in the birding world. According to the American Birding Association (ABA) the Ireys were the first couple to spot 700 bird species. In 1980 and 1981 Katherine was ranked the top female birder in the nation. By 1992 the Ireys had spotted a total of 740 species.
The remembrance booklets entitled "Katherine Willard Burgett Irey," "Dad, Grandpa, Poppop: Kenneth Monroe Irey," and "The Irey Family: 1929-1930" were all compiled by June Guild as a means to commemorate the lives of her parents Kenneth and Katherine Irey; these booklets offer a comprehensive history for both Katherine and Kenneth.
The "Kenneth Monroe Irey" remembrance booklet contains three photocopied pieces originally written by Kenneth collaboratively with Katherine in 1979 and provides valuable biographical details and photographic evidence pertaining to the couple. Set in 1927, Kenneth's adventure story "California or Bust!" details his colorful road trip from Illinois to California at age 22, taken with three college friends in a Model-T Ford. In many ways, his retrospective travel narrative conveys the optimism of 1920s America. The second portion includes Kenneth's autobiographical account of his career history in the field of chemical engineering from 1930 until 1970. The final piece of the booklet includes a letter written by Kenneth and Katherine to their two children describing their plans for a bird-watching trip to Attu Island, Alaska.
The "Katherine Willard Burgett Irey" remembrance booklet records the memorial service held for Katherine Irey after her death in 2007. The booklet also contains information about Katherine's impressive bird-watching career, a pastime she thoroughly enjoyed with her husband during their retirement years. Included are two photocopied newspaper articles about Katherine and Kenneth and their birding exploits.
The "Irey Family" remembrance booklet documents Katherine and Kenneth's first ten years of marriage. The most noteworthy aspect of this booklet is the collection of photocopied family photos, the originals not being a part of the larger Burgett-Irey collection. The booklet was made by June Irey Guild as a Christmas present for her children and grandchildren and is comprised of different chapters she originally wrote for her autobiographical writing seminars.
This series contains letters written to and from the Burgett-Irey family. Approximately 250 of these letters were written between 1832-1936. Many of the letters concern health and death, depicting the effects of prominent illnesses of the times like small pox, consumption, typhoid fever and whooping cough. The comings and goings of various family members are chronicled as well as accounts of visitors, weather, and day to day life in the late 19th century to early 20th century. The more notable individuals highlighted in this series are James Holmes, Geo Stevenson, Louisa Gass Kessel, Samp King, Kenneth Irey, Katherine Burgett Irey, and June Irey Guild. Included are many letters to and from Louisa (Lou) Gass Kessel, Katherine's grandmother, between 1863-1904. Her experiences teaching in Illinois are a frequent topic as are her travels and friends.
Letters Katherine Burgett Irey wrote to her family in Illinois after marrying Kenneth in 1929 make up another segment of the collection. The letters document her life as a new wife and mother from 1929 to 1933, highlighting the day to day responsibilities of a married, middle class woman during the early 1930s. Of particular interest are three letters from March 1933 in which Katherine writes about the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Great Depression bank crises.
The letter written by James Holmes to his Mother, Rebecca Weakly Holmes Boden, is particularly interesting because it documents James's duties as a missionary to the Chickasaw Indians. Another letter written by James Holmes dated 1834 vividly details his grief over his mother's death and his religious beliefs.
George Stevenson's fiery letter to his friend Samuel Gass in 1834 on the topic of Temperance is also notable. It is obvious that the two men wrote back and forth on the subject and the debate intensified. Stevenson rebukes the ideology of Temperance and the actions of its supporters, pointing out the hypocrisy of some of the leaders of the movement and the poor decisions of their followers.
Letters from Samp King to Louisa Gass Kessel in 1871 delve into topics such as bigotry in the church, Temperance, health, quality of schools, business, anti-war Democrat "Copperheads" and elections. In one letter he recounts the story of a controversial trial of a boy accused of arson and killing his family.
The effects of the Civil War are noted in multiple letters. Cousin Bobby writes to Lousia Gass Kessel urging her to send him listings of men killed from his regiment. He writes of the enormous number of soldiers killed and quesses that he has seen an average of 13 soldiers die in the hospital every day. In a letter written by an unknown author, the effects of the war on daily life are noted from the suspension of mail delivery to rebel forces occupying and plundering homes.
Other letters in the series include mention of Abraham Lincoln's death in 1865, preserving food and growing flowers. The remainder of the correspondence is comprised of Christmas and birthday cards June Irey Guild received from friends and family, more contemporary family letters and emails.
This series primarily consists of 35mm color slides of vacations taken by June Irey Guild and her second husband, Leonard Day. The circa 1880 photograph of Marion Weakley, and the circa 1870s photograph album entitled "Boden Family Album" are of particular note. The album contains portraits of the Boden family members, distant relatives of the Burgetts.
Part 1; VHS tape.
Part 2; VHS tape.
Acquired from June Rebecca Irey Guild, daughter of Kenneth and Katherine Irey, 2009-2011.
Processed by Molly Campbell, July 2011.
Cite as: Burgett-Irey Family Papers (MS 605). Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst.