A Lifetime of Historical Immersion

As I wander along the main street of the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic Site, I am struck by the number of barbecue restaurants and shops selling western memorabilia, and I am having a hard time relating.

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Fort Worth Stockyards buildings

“It is like Albuquerque’s Old Town,” my brother-in-law, Bill reminds me.

I walk right past the Cowboy Hall of Fame Museum thinking I wouldn’t be interested – because of the word ‘cowboy’ in the name. I later realize that was a mistake. It would have provided me with a better grasp of the importance of the cattle industry to that part of Texas, as well as hands-on exhibits about life as a cowboy.

As we wait for the cattle drive to begin, Anne points to a nearby sign and asks, “Did you read this?”

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Fort Worth Stockyards Historical Marker

It summarized the importance of the area and gave me background information I lacked.

Ah, historical markers.

On a family road trip when my sister Chris and I were teenagers, our mother insisted on stopping at every historical marker along our route. We were not at all interested and started calling them hysterical markers.

It left me with the impression that I was not interested in events from the past. Yet earlier that same summer, I had been fascinated to visit Columbia Historic State Park on a Regional Girl Scout Encampment and was intrigued with the Gold Rush saga.

As I began to think back over my life, I realized that I best appreciated history when I could become immersed in it through places that gave me a feel for life at a particular period in time, through museum exhibits that used story-telling and invited participation in some fashion, as well as through well-researched historical fiction that allowed me to experience life in the time and place surrounding the characters.

As a child growing up in Santa Monica, our family visited nearby California missions. San Juan Capistrano was my favorite, where my childhood take-away was the story of the swallows returning every year on my dad’s birthday.

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family visit to San Juan Capistrano – 1950

The legend of the Cliff Swallows returning to Capistrano was that they miraculously arrived to begin building their nests on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19 and left on October 23, San Juan Day to begin their migration to Central and South America. I now know that they begin arriving in early March and leave throughout the month of October. Since many of the nests were destroyed when restoration began on the old church buildings in the 1990’s, not many swallows currently nest at the mission. They are trying to lure them back with artificial nests and recorded calls.

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artificial nests – photo courtesy of National Audubon Society

Knott’s Berry Farm was a family favorite when Orange County was still agricultural and the farm was a free historical site and not a theme and amusement park as it is now.

When I was studying early California history in the fourth grade, our family visited the Casa de Adobe operated by the Southwest Museum and I became enamored with the authentic hacienda that provided a glimpse into life on the early ranchos.

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family visit to Casa de Adobe – 1951

I immediately began reenacting life on a rancho (as I perceived it) in our backyard tent house that our dad had constructed for us in the corner of the yard. In the fifth grade when I studied the westward expansion, the tent house and reenacting morphed into a pioneer’s cottage – a la the Little House on the Prairie books.

“I didn’t get interested in history until I started exploring my own family history,” my friend Barb told me recently.

That resonated with me. While I visited historical sites with my children, with a few exceptions, I don’t think I got interested in the real historical context until later in life.

One of those exceptions, was a visit to Greenfield Village when BJ was five. Not only did we get to see Henry Ford’s Model T, we visited Thomas Edison’s workshop where the electric light bulb was invented and saw the Wright Brother’s Cycle shop where they sold and repaired bicycles to fund their aviation research. Our mid-week November visit allowed us to explore at a five year old’s pace.

When I was in my 50’s, our mother began to write the events of her life, at the urging of my sister Chris, and included snapshots that I had never seen.  Since she was born in England and moved to Canada when she was a year old, it was not early United States history that became my passion, but the historical events in England that framed her family situation and led them to emigrate.

In 2000, a year after our mother died, my sister, brother-in-law, and I visited northeast England to begin to put the puzzle pieces together. It was the Beamish Museum, an open air ‘living’ museum that helped us understand life in a colliery village.

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buildings at Beamish Museum

The descriptive information in the school room helped us learn how our great-grandfather, who could only sign his marriage certificate with an “X,” learned to read and write and eventually leave mining to become a merchant. It was humbling to see pictures of miners attending school in the evening after back-breaking work underground all day.

After our trip, I immersed myself in the novels written by Catherine Cookson, born five years before my mother. The stories and plots were based on her personal experiences growing up in the same part of northeast England where my grandparents lived. Since my grandmother did not talk about her past, these novels provided vital information about what her life was probably like.

Our mother wrote that when she arrived in Canada in 1911 with her mother and brother, they were not able to leave the boat until they were vaccinated. This led me to visit Grosse Isle in 2006, another open air historical site that served as the immigration entry point for Quebec Province. It was there that I learned about the 1832 worldwide cholera pandemic that led to building the island’s public health facilities which were used until 1937 to prevent immigrants from bringing diseases to Canada.

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Grosse Isle disinfection station

They were not in Canada long before World War I broke out and my grandfather joined the Canadian Expeditionary Forces. I really don’t know a lot about the participation of the United States in World War I, but my since my grandmother, uncle and mother followed him back to England, I have first-hand accounts from my mother’s written recollections, my grandfather’s medical records and his letters, every one of which my grandmother saved.

In 2015, Chris, Bill and I followed his path in northern France. Our experience was enhanced by reading the daily diary kept by another soldier in his regiment, as well as the excellent exhibits at the Musee de la Grande Guerre in Meaux.  It prompted me, as a writer, to record our experiences and impressions for our families.

After our first trip to the UK, including a visit to the Culloden battlefield

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Culloden battlefield infirmary

where we discovered our Brodie ancestors were not Jacobites, a coworker loaned me the first three volumes in the Outlander series. While the starkness of the battlefield and class markers were sobering, it was the vivid narrative in Dragonfly in Amber, and more recently the made-for-TV movie, that made it real for me. I have since read all of Diana Gabaldon’s books. These well-researched novels provided me a unique view of simultaneously occurring historical events in Scotland, England, France and the United States, and really put these events in perspective.

But not all history is personal.

My first visit to our nation’s capital was in 1959 right after I graduated from high school. Our Dad had been able to secure tickets to visit the White House and watch congressional debate from the gallery. While it was not passed into law for another 6 years, I remember watching the debate about whether to establish the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

When I worked for the University of New Mexico, my work often took me to Washington, DC where I had the opportunity to participate in history by meeting with members of Congress about legislation to benefit people with disabilities. On some trips, I was able to visit the various museums around the Mall when my meetings were finished.

In 2001 I added some vacation days, rented a car and drove south where I explored the settlement at Jamestown and then Williamsburg – both living history sites. In a Williamsburg pub I engaged in a lively debate with the reenactor about the capital of New Mexico being older than the settlement in Virginia.

While I was already a fan of Tony Hillerman, when I moved to New Mexico in 1994, my sister Chris gave me the names of several additional books she insisted I read to better understand my newly adopted state. Both fiction and nonfiction, they covered the gamut from northern New Mexico Hispanic culture, to the Pueblo revolt, to life in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project.

Being immersed in the chronicled background of Native American tribes, early Hispanic settlers and those who arrived for the Manhattan Project helped me as I explored New Mexico’s various National Monuments and National Historical Parks.

I was fortunate that my first visit to Chaco National Historical Park was part of a University of New Mexico Continuing Education’s Story of New Mexico class. When I saw the day trip offered in their catalog, I scheduled a vacation day to take advantage of this one-day class. My first introduction to Chaco Canyon had been through Tony Hillerman’s riveting novel, Thief of Time.  The class put the site in a broader frame of reference, including how the village was connected to the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde

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Chaco Historical Park – ancient stairway out of canyon

and how the Chacoan people constructed their Great Houses with an orientation to solar and lunar events.

While most of my visits to National Monuments and Natural Historical Parks are primarily for the natural history, I try to stop and read the signs that give me a historical perspective about the site.

Thinking back over my lifetime of exposure to historical events and locations, has given me some insight into how I learn, understand and interpret events.

I admire the documentation of filmmaker Ken Burns. His various series on PBS combine skillful use of narrated source documents, archival footage, and magnificent story-telling. His documentaries have motivated me to learn about historical events that I would not otherwise sought out. He has inspired me as a story-teller.

A sign is just a sign unless it can be put in perspective. I often will take a picture of a sign so I can learn more about it later, such as this sign at Fenton Lake State Park.

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I took the time to research information about the Santa Fe Northwestern Railroad to share with my sister, Chris – a train buff.

At other times, the historical information never gets researched, like the picture of this sign

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I took while sitting on Deer Trap Mesa in Los Alamos hoping to get a glimpse of a Zone-tailed Hawk.

My aversion to historical markers as a teenager was probably more than just age-related boredom. I feel the same way about museums where I have to stand and read exhibit-after-exhibit with little visual interpretation. I have realized that I learn best when I can become involved, when I can record the experience through visual images, and when I can interpret information and source documents through my own story-telling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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