By Mike Hiestand, Houstory Founder/President
So I’m filling in this month as my brother Dan takes a well-earned summer break from the Herd.
[Shameless Promotion: So is snapping a few pics with your smart phone and spending 15 minutes with your dad while he tells you the story of that interesting knick-knack that has sat on his shelf for as long as you can remember. It’s a part of his life and he’s around to tell you about it now. (Do it. Just do it!. We’ll even give you a free registration to get you started.) That is all.]
As substitute editor, however, I thought I would take a break from Dan’s healthy and important DeathTalk to do a little celebrating.
Yes, Houstory officially turned 8 years old in June. Unofficially, we’re closer to 9 years old as the company was actually “born” the night of October 29, 2006. (In my my hot tub. Keep reading for details….)
It has been quite the ride. Quite the ride indeed. Marked, most recently, with my hand-delivering one of our Premier Home History books – one of just a handful handcrafted by the oldest custom bindery in America — to The Playboy Mansion, one of most famous homes on the planet.
But I’m getting ahead of myself…. Let’s start from the very beginning. It’s a very fine place to start.
The Story of Houstory (or “The Path to the Mansion.”)
If I’m going to really start at the beginning, the story of Houstory probably began when I was born into a military family. My dad was a career Air Force pilot. Which made me a career military brat.
I lived in ten different cities, 12 houses and attended nine different schools before graduating high school in Alaska in 1982. When you ask me the very simple, “So where is home?” like many brats, you sort of stump me. (Although, I pretty much always say Alaska — for the “rugged exotic” factor….)
Having such fluid roots is probably why selling our first house — a place I’d spent more time — by far — than anyplace else I’d ever called home — made such a big impression on me.
Between finishing law school, landing our first long-term jobs, discovering our new city and neighbors, getting a dog/child (that’s one entity, not two), followed, of course, by raising our two human daughters during the decade-plus we lived there, much wonderful family history happened in that same small, unassuming townhouse, outside Washington, DC.
I remember in the spring of 2003, as my wife and I closed the door for the last time, being surprisingly sad at how all that history — all the family stories that had taken place in that cramped, but wonderful townhouse, all the photos of our family’s history within those walls and changes we’d made to home — now stashed in our photo albums, were leaving with us.
But life called, it was time to go and I tucked that emotion away.
Fast forward a couple years to the night of October 29, 2006. I’m in my hot tub. We had moved from Washington, DC, into our new home, nearer to my family in Washington State. It was a perfect fall night, the moon not quite full.
Our beautiful Northern Cascades mountain, Mount Baker, sort of glowed in the distance.
We had started a new phase of our lives. Following September 11th and the appearance of anti-aircraft guns in Northern Virginia’s highway interchanges and bio-warfare sniffing gizmos in my subway station (not to mention the DC sniper, which interfered with kids’ soccer games, and the sky-high price of real estate in DC), we had decided a change was in order. Someplace a bit simpler and less “bulls-eye-ish.” (Although this week’s New Yorker story about the upcoming Cascadia Fault earthquake — aka “The Really Big One” — reminds one there’s no perfect place.) And though it had taken some time, finally — that night with the moon shining on Mt. Baker — I felt like the move and the disruption (including the release of certain professional goals I’d had) was all worthwhile. The moment felt perfect and I was so grateful we’d had the courage and tenacity to follow through. As I sat in my hot tub, gazing at Mt. Baker (known to the natives in the area as Komo Kulshan), I remember wondering how many others had experienced the mountain as I was experiencing her now — and who in the future would enjoy a similar experience from the vantage point of our home. And, seriously, that’s when the idea for the Home History Book spilled out.
One could easily share stories and important thoughts/tips about the home with those who followed in a recordbook/journal of a home that stayed with the home — and was passed from one owner to the next.
Truth be told, I’d get a lot of ideas hanging out in my hot tub, but this one was different. It was so clear – I actually saw the book we would later build. I forced myself to get out of the warm water, dripping, to get a pen and paper to write it down. The idea seemed so simple. So easy. Surely, someone was already doing this, right? Wrong.
In fact, the idea was original and simple. But the execution — if we stuck to the original vision — was not so easy. Planning, market-testing and creating the Home History Book took Dan and I the better part of three years, working full and part-time. Our goal was to build a book that felt like it would be around for 300 years. Most hardcover books being created today are lucky to last 30 years, let alone 300, so it meant talking to paper experts, archivists, book historians, custom bookbinders, specialty printers and traditional letterpressman. We worked with our wonderful designers, Kelli Allen Campbell and Angela Compton, to create the content. We were successful. The finished product exceeded our expectations.
In 2009, the thunderbolt struck once again — and in similar fashion as I stood in front of our family grandfather clock, whose handwritten provenance had been thumbtacked to the back of the clock by my grandpa (it had been purchased as a wedding gift for my great grandmother by her father in the late 1880s).
Over the years, I’d seen similar stories attached or scribbled on the backs of other things in our house and in the homes of other friends and relatives. Standing there, it hit me, those stories matter. In fact, in many ways, it’s the story about a thing that matters most. And the idea for what would become the Heirloom Registry was born.
Again, there was a lot of research and development work, but about a year later working with our software designer extraordinaire Karl Nelson, one of Dan’s good friends at the time and now our partner and Technical Adviser, we launched our permanent online registration service. (You can read find the registration for the grandfather clock here.)
It was such a simple, beautiful solution that not only helps create legacy, but also can help us all redefine our relationship with the stuff in our lives. You’re more inclined to take care — rather than trash and replace — something whose story you know and care about. For Dan, who — I’m not kidding — has been known to turn the engine off and push his car through a drive-thru to limit his environmental impact, it’s a win-win.
And things started falling into place. The Universe seemed to be winking at us.
For example, Antique Trader, the leading trade publication for antique aficionados and dealers of old stuff with stories – our people — published a wonderful story and review about Houstory.
We scored coveted invites to the VIP Breakfast at RootsTech, the largest genealogy and family history conference held in North America. It was, we learned, a very rare honor for a brand new company. (For an additional “wink,” and unbeknownst to me until we showed up that morning, I was seated at one of the front tables with a bunch of head honchos from FamilySearch, sponsor of the breakfast and the largest genealogy organization in the world.)
In January 2013, we were invited to the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting to present our products to the ALA’s Genealogy Committee , an honor extended to just one company a year that the group feels is doing something new and noteworthy in the field of genealogy.
One of my favorite “winks,” however, occurred as we were working to find the best, most durable way of affixing the brass address plate to our trademarked “door cover” on the Home History Book. We had tested several different ideas and thought we’d found the right solution until we sent a “test” book to my sister-in-law in Minnesota for Christmas. It was Minnesota cold and the book had sat outside on her doorstep for several hours. When my sister-in-law opened the box and held up the book, the plate promptly fell into her lap. (It was, I will add, the only time that has ever happened.) That seems like a bad thing, right? Nope, my sister-in-law had just recently started dating an adhesive engineer from 3-M (yeah, the inventor of the Stickie Pad and all things tacky.) An adhesive engineer. Seriously, how many of those are there in the world? He took our little problem under advisement and helped us find the perfect solution (a speciality, double-sided, manufacture-grade tape used in place of rivets to secure automotive parts.) Thanks Universe.
Dan and I have learned so much in the process. (New biz tip: Don’t invest in an 800 number. Nobody calls anyone if they can help it anymore.) And we’ve gotten to work together doing things we enjoy. Doing some traveling. And meeting lots and lots of interesting people in a whole new world along the way. (Genealogists, especially, are a fun, quirky bunch.)
And though we’re not quite ready to hit the rocking chairs, not long ago we paid off our bank loan and are now proudly 100 percent family-owned and operated.
(If you’re waiting to hear about how our book ended up in the Playboy Mansion, I promise it’s coming.)
Before the idea for the Home History Book hit, I worked for more than two decades for the nonprofit Student Press Law Center where I was a media law and First Amendent attorney providing legal help and information to students and teachers. It was, for a journalist/lawyer, my dream job and I traveled the country (with a few international stops thrown in) helping young people avoid trouble as they said what they needed to say.
But I was starting to feel an itch. I’d started my job at a time when students would send me an actual stamped letter to ask a legal question or, if the problem was urgent, pay for a long distance phone call. That fairly quickly morphed into fax machines and the speed of connection ramped up. A couple years later, we were one of the first to experiment with this new thing called email. It took. And the speed of connection was now only limited by how quickly the players chose to play the new game. Of course, this was followed by Web sites and social media and texting and whatever, I’m sure, popped up yesterday.
I appreciate the power of Facebook, but I don’t love it. The truth is I enjoy life “off the grid” and I tend to only look at my personal page a few times a month. But Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, etc., is where the young people I was helping (like my two daughters) live. Rock on!
I felt they needed a lawyer who loved Facebook, too.
I loved the SPLC. Young people are the future. It’s always been that way. They bring new ideas and different ways of being in the world. They are not tied — at least initially — to the status quo and doing things the way they’ve always been done. Thank god! Instead of fearing what they have to say, it’s important that we listen. They bring gifts we need and messages that can help.
Fortunately, Houstory was on the launch pad. It gave me courage. It’s not easy leaving a dream job even when you feel in your heart it’s time. But the Universe seemed to be providing a kind nudge. So, in 2012 — foolish as it felt — I took the leap from full-time attorney to being the SPLC’s very part-time “Special Project Attorney.”
And before I could settle into Houstory, a special project showed up. Again, in the hot tub. (Please let me know if you’re ever in Central Cascadia and are looking for inspiration. I’m thinking of making of renting it out on Air BNB. It seems to be a pretty good spot.)
The Tinker Tour
The idea for what would become the international Tinker Tour — a journey that covered nearly 25,000 miles while traveling through 41 states, three nations, and stopping at more than 100 schools, colleges, libraries, churches, juvenile detention facilities, and conventions — was born just after I received an email from Mary Beth Tinker congratulating me on an award I’d won. Mary Beth was one of the named student plaintiffs in the landmark 1969 Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, which set the precedent for student speech in American schools and whose iconic story is routinely included in high school, college and law school textbooks. As an attorney focused specifically on the rights of students, I had been writing about and telling Mary Beth’s story for over two decades In 2012, she was named one of America’s 101 most important changemakers. Her case has been cited more than 10,000 times by judges and legal scholars. But, unlike Rosa Parks and most other “important historical figures” discussed in their history book, Mary Beth can actually stand in front of an auditorium of students and teachers and answer questions.
So, once again, sitting in my hot tub, pondering what lay ahead, the idea for the Tinker Tour forced me once again, dripping wet, out of the hot tub. It was clear – Mary Beth Tinker and I needed to go on a free speech bus tour. And a very long story short (which you can read lots more about here) – we did.
And it was a smash success!
In fact, at the end of the tour, we were named the 2014 recipient of the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award in the education category. (Here comes the Playboy Mansion connection I promised!) It’s actually a pretty big deal in First Amendment and civil rights circles. In fact, we shared the honor with Glenn Greenwald, the reporter at the forefront of the Edward Snowden disclosures who won the journalism category. And if the recognition – and the generous cash award weren’t enough – a couple months after receiving the award, I received an email from the foundation asking if I would be one of the three judges — along with Hugh’s daughter, Christie — for the 2015 awards. The judging would happen at the Playboy Mansion in Beverly Hills.
I was headed to the Mansion, one of the most famous and storied homes in all the world.
The Playboy Mansion Gets a Home History Book!
It didn’t click at first, but finally I realized the Universe was throwing me a softball. I was the creator of the Home History Book and the Playboy Mansion — a home with history, if ever there was one — damn well needed a book!
Oddly, I was still a little reluctant. My reluctance melted, however, when Christie, who knew nothing about the book at the time, told me during a fun, private tour of the Mansion that her dad “should be in the Guinness World Record Book for scrapbooking” as he loves clipping articles, photos and keeping track of all the things that have happened at his most famous of homes over the years.
So Mr. Hefner is now the owner of what I think is probably the most beautiful, sturdiest scrapbook ever made.
It’s a crazy, fun world we live in. I love this stuff! I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Happy birthday, Houstory.
Now, on to The Herd for this month…
What is “The Hearth Herd.” It’s simply a roundup (hence the name “Herd”) of a few stories we’ve seen recently that we feel our fellow Houstorians would be interested in. The Herd’s content will be confined to three main categories, or related offshoots: 1) House and property history; 2) Family heirlooms; 3) Natural Resource Conservation. Basically, the things you’ve come to expect when you visit our blog.
This is where you come in: If you see stories you think would make our monthly collection, please shoot me an e-mail to info (at) houstory (dot) com, say hello on our Facebook page or send us a Tweet.
Author: By Charles Ornstein, NPR.org
Herd-Worthy Because: The author, who lost his mother a couple years ago, talks about his discovery of voicemails from her in his iPhone’s cache of deleted messages and how much they mean today: “I have many treasured memories of my mom, who died two years ago this month. I cherish her parents’ naturalization certificates upon becoming U.S. citizens. I have serving platters, wine glasses, and photos of her as a girl and with my children. I, of course, have videos of her at my Bar Mitzvah and wedding. But somehow, oddly, the voice mails — those unscripted moments of everyday life — are the ones I turn to most often.”
Author: Lizzy Duffy, Digital Producer, Oregon Public Radio
Herd-Worthy Because: An old home with a quirky past looks for new life in the center of one of our favorite small towns.
Finally, a big congratulations to lucky podcast listener, Barry Breslow. He won last month’s podcast contest by correctly answering that my dad learned to play basketball from nuns at his Catholic school. He’ll receive a copy of Denise Levenick’s wonderful new book, “How to Archive Family Photos.”
Dan and I are both taking off July and August. The Herd will be back in September.
Until we “Herd” again…