GILLETTE, Wyo. — It all started with a homemade book.
It was 2006, and Christmas was approaching. Kathy Downey was trying to think of a gift she could give her brothers, and she decided to sit down with her mom, Viola Foulks, and tell her story. Downey made a memory book — similar to a photo album — full of pictures and stories of Foulks that she gave to her brothers.
At the time, Downey didn’t know how important that book would be. She just thought it was a neat Christmas present. But soon after, Foulks was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and it was worse than Downey ever imagined.
“I just imagined that she’d be this nice lady that just forgot things sometimes,” Downey said. “It’s not like that. . Every day is worse than the one before.”
As Foulks’ memory worsened, that book stayed by her side. It wasn’t a very long book, but Foulks would look at it for hours, Kathy said.
When Foulks went down to a memory center in Denver, “the people taking care of her could read her book and know more about her, who to talk about, things to bring up with her,” Downey said.
During the last few weeks of Foulks’ life, she could no longer talk, but Downey’s brother, Dana Foulks, would read the book to her, and she would smile.
“Somewhere in (her mind), she remembered,” Kathy said. “That’s why she was smiling.”
Foulks died in 2014, but she inspired Downey and her family. They wondered if there was a way to replicate her book on a computer. Online searches turned up no results.
“That’s when we said, ‘We need to do this,'” Downey said.
In 2015, she and her brother started Touchstone Memories, a custom publishing company based in Rozet that specializes in preserving people’s stories.
There are two sides to Touchstone Memories. There’s the website, where people can design the books, and there’s the book barn, where the book is actually put together. And although the focus is memory books, users can make any type of book.
It’s all in the family. Dana takes care of graphic design, and Downey handles the actual bookbinding. And Downey’s son, John, handles the technology side of things.
John, who graduated from the University of Wyoming in 2016 with a degree in computer science, programmed the website, and he was concerned about making it perfect.
“It just took a long time for him to say, ‘Yes, we can turn it on,'” Kathy said.
His goal, he said, was to design it so that even those who aren’t that great with technology can use it without a problem. Users can visit touchstonememories.com, and create an account. They’ll then be led through a number of tutorials walking them through the entire process.
The website offers nine categories of questions to guide users in the making of memory books, such as, “How did you spend your summers as a child?” or “When was the first time you fell in love?” Users also can choose their own questions.
They can type in the answers — John hopes to add dictation to the website in the future — and attach pictures, and the website will make the words and the pictures flow together. When it’s complete, the user will get a PDF of the book, and if he chooses, he can place an order and Kathy will put it all together into a hardcover book. But everything that happens before that is free of charge.
The original idea was to create an app and subcontract with short-run publishers to make the books. But they had problems with outsourcing the work.
“We got one that was missing a whole chunk of pages, and when I told them and they went to make a new one, the pages were out of order,” Kathy said.
And the level of customization wasn’t as high as they wanted, so they decided to cut out the middle man and do the publishing themselves.
The Downeys had a barn that used to house horses, chickens, pigs and sheep. Those days were long gone, so they converted it into a book barn, where the magic happens.
They spent much of 2017 learning how to make books and stocking up on equipment, and every single piece is used.
Kathy got a press from the city of Gillette’s online auction, a binding machine from a print shop in Nebraska, a case maker built by her husband, Jeff, and a paper cutter scavenged from behind the Denver Post.
A medical transcriptionist by trade, Kathy has had to teach herself bookbinding for the most part — although YouTube has helped — and sometimes she’ll take months to figure something out. But she’s got it nailed down now.
“It’s a lot more fun than transcribing medical records,” she said.
Whether it’s cutting an eighth of an inch off a stack of pages or gluing those pages to a cover, bookbinding requires precision and steady hands, two things Downey didn’t have until she started this venture.
“I can cut a straight line with a razor blade, which never happened before in my life,” she said.
Downey estimates she’s made a few hundred books, but the thrill she gets when she completes a new book is still there.
“I still open it up and think, ‘This is so cool, I made a book!'” she said.
In the summer of 2017, Downey made a memory book for her aunt, Chris Clark, who wanted to write down some of her history for her grandchildren and had spent months gathering stories from her childhood. Even though Clark knew what was in it, having provided the photos and proofread it, “she didn’t stop until she’d looked through every page and photo,” Downey said.
“It’s amazing,” said Clark, who asked Downey to make a few more to take on her upcoming trip to South Africa.
It included stories of her time as a young girl living in Germany during World War II, stories that her friends and even her family didn’t know.
Although Kathy Downey was able to tell her mom’s and aunt’s stories, she regrets not taking the time to ask questions of her husband’s parents and her dad, all of whom have passed away, taking with them dozens of stories that no one will ever hear.
“My husband knows virtually nothing (about his family’s history), and the people who do know it are slowly leaving,” she said.
Downey’s passion for preserving history goes beyond her family. She saw how important that book was to her mother, and she wants to share that with as many people as she can.
There are many people in Campbell County who have stories to tell, but a lot of them are getting up in years. Downey said she’s working with the Legacy Living and Rehabilitation Center to make a free book for every resident who wants one.
She’s also in talks with Ann Rossi of the Campbell County Senior Center to offer discounted books to seniors, because she doesn’t want anyone to feel left out.
“What (Ann) was saying is they see one person doing it and they feel bad because they can’t afford it. I don’t want that,” she said, adding that she’ll make a senior a free book if she has to.
“This shouldn’t be a luxury,” she said. “Everybody should have this. I want these people’s stories to be out there.”
Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com