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The Bunker Hill Tornado

8 May

by Heather Gustafson-

The town I live in is Bunker Hill, Illinois. The most common way people give directions to their homes is “Go to the flag pole and…”  I’ve always wondered why they put a flag pole in the middle of the biggest intersection of Bunker Hill and curiosity got the best of me. In my research, I found that a gazebo used to site where the flagpole once stood. It was used for bands to perform in during special occasions and parades. Looking for more information, I found on the Bunker Hill Library’s website that in 1948 a huge tornado struck Bunker Hill with little warning. Up to 80 percent of the town was leveled, 19 people were killed, and 126 injured. Being about thirty minutes from the nearest hospital, and many people without homes, a refugee camp was set up at Meissner School which was one of the few buildings left standing. The school was used as refuge, a temporary treatment center for those injured, and a morgue until the injured and dead could be moved. To help with the devastation the Salvation Army, National Guard, Red Cross, American League and the Veterans of Foreign Wars post all pitched in to help Bunker Hill rebuild and cope with losses.The flag pole was later donated to replace the gazebo.


Meissner School in the Aftermath of the 1948 Tornado

I find it extremely interesting how much information I found searching for a flag pole in my town. A way of telling directions now has historical significance in my eyes. I encourage all of you to think of something simple in your town, something you pass by on a day to day bases and see if you can find history related to why it’s there.


Save the Church or Let It Be?

8 May

by Heather Gustafson-

Before attending SIUE, I graduated with my associates from Lewis and Clark Community College. During breaks I would spend a lot of time on the campus grounds admiring the beautiful architecture of the Main Complex, which is the building facing Godfrey Road. It is the original building from 1838 when the campus was Monticello Female Seminary. Beside the Main Complex is a church, which I found very odd on a community college campus and so I decided to look into it. The Godfrey Memorial Chapel was built in 1854 and originally located across the street in what is now a small shopping complex. The building, in 1979, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places for Illinois due to the fact that it was “one of the six most authentic copies of New England church architecture beyond the North Eastern United States.” It was moved in 1991 to the opposite side of the road on LCCC campus. I remember when I was younger, every time we drove past the church my grandparents would tell me how they watched the church being moved. At the time I didn’t believe them, I mean how could you move a building? The church is currently used as the music department for Lewis and Clark College, and appears to be in good shape.

I have made many observations over the years, which make me wonder if the chapel is being used in the most efficient ways. One observation I made during my freshman year at LCCC, when I was on a tour for orientation. The tour guide took us to each building giving a small description of the history and which classes were located in what building. However, she never mentioned any history about the church which I would assume would be a common question due to the fact that the college has no religious affiliations. Another observation was that the chapel of the building was never opened to the public (although it is open by appointment); all the music classes were held in the basement of the church. I find it a bit odd that the church was saved to be used as a roof for the music department. It’s a beautiful church and it’s sad that it isn’t being used to spread knowledge of the town or college history. It’s just there.

The Top Three Places for Children to Explore History in St. Louis

5 May

by Katie Gieselman-

Upon entering my final year in the elementary education program, I recently received news of where I would be student teaching for an entire year. I was pleased to hear that I would be placed in a 5th grade history and language arts classroom. This school is considered urban and they don’t have the resources that most schools have. I instantly knew that I wanted to give these students an opportunity to experience history in a fun way. I began thinking about field trip ideas to historical locations/museums that wouldn’t cost the school a ton of money. Living so close to St. Louis it would be silly not to take advantage of the resources available. Listed below are the top 3 places I found in St. Louis to keep the world of history alive and exciting in a 5th graders mind. (Note: All of these places could easily be adapted for older and younger students.)

1)  Holocaust Museum and Learning Center in St. Louis

This beautiful museum tells the story of many Jews in the St. Louis area who experienced the Holocaust. This museum is completely free and, upon request, a Holocaust survivor can tell their story to your students. The great thing about this museum is that they understand the importance of a good tour guide. They have tour guides who are specifically used to tell the story to younger students in an appropriate way that they can understand. They are even able to show students how something like the Holocaust can be similar to the hate in America today against certain ethnic groups.

2)  The Museum of Westward Expansion, under the arch in St. Louis

Students will be more than excited to travel here and learn about history! Not only will they get to travel up in the Arch (for a fee) but they will also get to explore the westward expansion and what that meant for St. Louis. The exhibits are fun and eye catching and are sure to keep the students talking long after the field trip is over. The best part… It’s FREE!

3)  Saint Louis Science Center

Many may be asking how the Science Center can be considered a place for students to learn about history. It is one of those great places that can incorporate science and history (Hello, two field trips in one!) that allow students to make the connection of how the two subjects are related. The Science Center is completely free unless you want your students to experience one of the many exhibits that visit the center each year which normally charge for a ticket.

Shared History of the Imagination: The Cathartic Process of Evading the Historical Expert

5 May

by Jeremy Manczuk-

Sylvan Springs Park (located in South St. Louis County) sits in stark historical contrast to its neighbor, Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.  Situated on 331 acres alongside the Mississippi River, Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery is home to nearly 200,000 soldier’s graves and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.  The seemingly endless rows of unadorned, white tombstones are a vivid reminder of the attraction military service holds in the mind of the American public and, in some cases, of the price that attraction can carry.  Jefferson Barracks County Park (the other neighbor of Sylvan Springs and the National Cemetery) was home to the Jefferson Barracks Military Post which was decommissioned in 1946 after 120 years of military presence.  This park is now the residence of several museums – in fact, the Missouri Civil War Museum is scheduled to open there this summer.  Historical recollection, celebration, and interpretation abound!

Sylvan Springs

Poor Sylvan Springs, unfortunately, cannot compete.  Historically speaking, all Sylvan Springs can claim – in the manner of tangible historical artifact – is an old, but well-kept picnic area built around a spring and a sign posted to inform passers-by of its origins.  There are no historical intermediaries to assist the public with conclusions; there are no sweeping generalizations; there is no thesis.  Built by the Missouri 6th Infantry in 1939, in conjunction with the Civilian Conservation Corps, the beverage garden offered only relief from a world destined – as all worlds, I imagine, are so fated –  to change forever.  It is this relief that I daydream about whenever I happen to be in this spot. Though the world was just beginning to become visibly entangled in a horrific war that would alter the lives of so many these young soldiers, they and their guests sought brief solace by this spring in the form of barbeques and nighttime dances.

Sylvan Spring Signs

All of this conjecture is, of course, solely a product of my imagination. I do not know what became of the 6th Infantry as a whole or of the individuals who comprised it.  If I were a better, more diligent historian I imagine I could find out. In the interest of avoiding boredom, I think I will not. For the purpose of this blog posting, however, it does not really matter. Dreams and imagination are constant presences in the construction of human history. When we allow own dreams and imaginations to interact with those of the past…well, I believe that is the point at which limitations evaporate and history becomes incredibly interesting. My point is–and though I feel I am in danger of being labeled an addle-brained, new- age, phony-baloney I will persist–that we interact with history much more than we think we do.  Historians (public or otherwise) generally offer the public a beneficial source of historical information and interpretation. That same public, however, may be best served, at times, left to their own devices.

Reassessing Reenactments

2 May

by Jeremy Manczuk-

Civil War Reenactors

As we are all likely aware (due to the recent commemoration of the event on SIUE’s campus) 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War.  The St. Louis area was, to some extent, a small-scale version of the nation’s larger narrative. Though the state of Missouri never joined the seceding Confederate states, many Missouri citizens sympathized with the South. Indeed, Missouri was an intense battleground that reflected the nation as a whole.  Part of the state adhered to the slave-holding tenets of the South while other Missourians believed slavery was morally, or at least economically, wrong; Much of the state was rural with an agrarian-based economy while other areas (specifically the St. Louis metropolitan area) was part of a burgeoning industrial nation. In order to celebrate and observe this anniversary, the Freedom’s Gateway group “was formed in 2008 to facilitate awareness, interest, learning, and participation” in a number of events held throughout the area over the upcoming year.  The group’s first event Camp Jackson: The Tipping Point was held last weekend (April 29 – May 1, 2011) at Jefferson Barracks County Park.  Since the event included two reenactments (and since I have been critical of these events without ever actually attending one) I attended.

Civil war reenactors

Saturday was the Camp Jackson Affair–an “incident of civil unrest” culminating in the killing of several dozen citizens by Northern troops.  This reenactment–especially since it had to be held in a wide area to accommodate a large crowd–was hard to follow. With little prior knowledge of the event, I was relatively clueless as to the proceedings.  From my viewpoint, soldiers paraded about in formation, 19th century ethnic slurs were exchanged, and, eventually, the whole affair devolved into a frantic mess of faux mob violence. Sunday’s “action” was a more conventional reenactment of the Battle of Blackwell–a skirmish that originally took place some 40 miles south of St. Louis.  This event was much less confusing and even, to my surprise, somewhat entertaining. I still stand by my original claims – that reenactors are, for the most part, minutiae-driven bores with little to contribute to a historical dialogue – but I have to admit, it was kind of fun.  Rather than merely snicker at their ceaseless maneuverings and over-dramatic death plunges, I found myself slightly (sorry, but this confession will only go so far) intrigued.  While I am unwilling to concede the importance of their genuine musket powder pouches or fancy mustaches I will go so far as to say it was not a complete waste of an afternoon – I may even go to another reenactment.  Someday.

Drama in the Campbell House

1 May

by Gemma Tennyson-

The Campbell House is a great house museum in St. Louis. It was built in the 1850s and occupied until 1938. During this long period of occupation there was little changed in interior decoration. They were able to restore much of the inside decoration to make it look as it did in the 1880s. The Campbell House museum was able to keep most of the original furnishings from the home.

The museum also found photographs of many of the rooms in the house from the 1880s in the archival material left by the Campbell family. This allowed them to set up the house in a historically accurate way. They also have hand-held photo boards for visitors to compare the present to the 1880s pictures. The house is set up as historically correct as the archival material has allowed. There are only a few upgrades for the museum to function.

This historic house also provides a new type of historical reenactment. The museum offers historical theatrical productions. The museum works with a local theater company, Senior Theatre Company, to produce a historical themed script from the archival material from the Campbell family. The script tells the story of different issues through the Campbell family, especially stories involving conflict in St. Louis surrounding the Civil War. The actors also do fashion research so the costumes are accurate with the time they are portraying. The actors use the house museum’s artifacts and living spaces as a stage while spectators stand in the viewing area.

We have talked a lot about reenactment in the class. This is a little different from the typical reenactment. I haven’t seen this show yet but I think of it like a historical drama. How can this be a help to public history? I think that it can draw in a different type of visitor to the museum. I also believe that by doing all the research to make the show accurate that it provides a good glimpse into the past for many visitors. Could this be the new theme in house museums?

Click here for information about the next show.

Messing with the Laws of Physics: Can One Historic Site be in Two Locations at Once?

29 Apr

by Melissa Burns-

Historic locations are among America’s most valuable resources, and their preservation is of vital importance.  They remind us of where we have been and where we are going. Without them, our nation is afloat, untethered to its past and uncertain of its future. But what happens when the exact location of a site is in question?  Do we accept defeat and forget about the location, or do we choose an uncertain spot to commemorate history? And what happens if two different places both lay claim to the same historic site?  I began to ponder these issues on a recent visit to the Lewis and Clark Historic Site in Hartford, Illinois, which memorializes a historic event in an inaccurate location.

Lewis and Clark Museum

The Visitor's Center at the Lewis and Clark Historic Site

The museum records the time spent by the Lewis and Clark Expedition at Camp River Dubois, shortly before departing on their now famous journey.  During the winter of 1803, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and their men, were stationed at Fort River Dubois while making the final preparations for their trip and waiting for the day when the Louisiana Purchase officially changed from French to American territory. The story of the expedition’s time at the fort is quite well told by the museum, in my opinion. Through a combination of film, interactive exhibits, and life-size recreations, including a replica of the fort itself, visitors are forced to confront some of the reality of daily life in an early-nineteenth century military fort.

Fort Dubois

Recreation of Fort River Dubois

No matter how great the museum and replicated fort are, though, there is still a question of uncertainty and misrepresentation about them. The original camp and fort were located near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers because this allowed for an easily navigable start to the expedition. But, while Fort River Dubois was situated on the Illinois side of the Mississippi, it did not stand in the same spot as the modern version. About half a mile separates the two fort locations. The reason for this has to do with the changed course of the Mississippi River.  This is a more than valid reason for building the reproduced fort in a new location, and the museum is very up front about the site difference.  However, I wonder how many people travel to the museum thinking they are going to the exact spot where Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1803, and I am also curious as to how many pay close enough attention to actually catch the switch.

Although I see the problems inherent in not knowing with absolute certainty the location of historic events, I am not bothered by the problem unless the doubt leads to the abandonment of commemoration.  And even though things do become more difficult when two cities or states lay claim to the same event, as is so often the case when it comes to Illinois and Missouri and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, I am still not worried.  The disagreement means that the historic site is sure not to be forgotten, and it allows for the public to see that history is not something set in stone but, rather, open for tremendous variations in interpretation. In the end, I believe that it is better to erect a museum or historic marker in an inaccurate spot than to forget altogether.  After all, half a mile is not really that far off.

Choosing What to Remember

28 Apr

by Melissa Burns-

Not long ago I read an article online about historically important African American communities in the United States.  A few of them I had heard of, but several were new to me. I was particularly surprised to read about two of them, because they were located in Southwestern Illinois. Both towns were begun by free slaves and were also home to large numbers of runaway slaves. The towns were each integrated as well. But what really struck me was the different ways in which these two communities have been remembered. While one enjoys active local preservation efforts the other has been all but forgotten. This got me thinking. How do we decide what gets remembered and what gets forgotten? Is it simply a matter of luck that certain places and objects get preserved, or is a conscious choice made?

New Philadelphia, IL

The New Philadelphia Site

One of the nearby African American communities mentioned in the article was called New Philadelphia. Situated in Pike County, it was founded by a family of former slaves in 1836 and became an active, racially integrated town even before the outbreak of the Civil War. When the railroad was laid in the area, though, it bypassed New Philadelphia, and the town started to lose its population in the 1880s. Today, however, the site it once occupied is commemorated and preserved by both locals and archaeologists. Since 2001, there have been at least three archaeological studies done at the site, and a New Philadelphia Association and website have been created to encourage the preservation of what local citizens feel is an important part of their history.

The story of the other village, known as Pin Oak Colony, is quite different.  Pin Oak was located just east of Edwardsville, Illinois, on the Marine Road near Silver Creek, virtually in my backyard. When I read about this village for the first time it was just a small blip in a larger article, so I set out to find more. To my dismay I found that it was not going to be easy. I could only find a couple of articles online about it, and there were no community groups formed for its preservation. My husband and I then went for a drive to find the site where the village had once stood. Unlike New Philadelphia, there are no commemorative signs alerting passersby to the fact that they are in the location of a historic site. All we could find was a road and a nursing home named Pin Oak on the outskirts of Edwardsville and a Pin Oak Township within Madison County. These small, almost bureaucratic markers of a former historic site seem quite inadequate to me. If one did not know of Pin Oak Colony, these modern names would do nothing to inform of it’s existence.

Why would the fates of these two similar communities by so different? I believe that New Philadelphia has been remembered because its location is quite rural, and there are fewer historical sites to commemorate. But I think the story of Pin Oak is more complicated. I am sure that part of the mystery can be explained by the growing city of Edwardsville. Pin Oak was simply taken over and incorporated into the larger metropolitan area. But the troubled history of segregationists and abolitionists in Edwardsville needs to be taken into account as well. Perhaps it was political quicksand to attempt a preservation of a nearby African American community, and, after some time, Pin Oak was all but forgotten. This is worrisome for me, though. How much of our history has been forgotten and left in the past simply because it is too controversial?  I do not think that we should shy away from thorny issues, because they, too, had an active hand in shaping our present.

Giving Lip Service to Preservation

22 Apr

by Melissa Burns-

Living in Southwestern Illinois, you find Cahokia Mounds almost in your backyard. Growing up, I, like everyone else, took the requisite school field trips and learned about the people who once lived there. I was fascinated by its size and scope and how it once rivaled  cities like London, Paris, or Mexico City in its influence. Now, working in the tourism industry, I give directions and encourage people to go see the mounds. I sometimes wonder, though, how much we really think about Cahokia Mounds or work to preserve them.

Monk's Mound

Monk's Mound

The first thing that always stands out to me when I visit Cahokia Mounds is not the number of mounds or the impressive height of Monk’s Mound, but the billboards that have been placed right in the heart of the site and the highway that cuts it in half. I am always amazed that such a wonderfully historic place as Cahokia Mounds has been so recklessly treated. Of course, one could make the argument that the mounds are available to everyone at no charge, and some trade-offs are therefore to be expected. After all, commerce and expansion do have a way of making themselves known in even the least likely of places. But even this open availability has become limited recently. With the budget crisis that the state of Illinois is in, the hours and days that the Cahokia Mounds Interpretive Center is open to the public has been drastically cut for the majority of the year.  The question I have to ask, then, is are we truly trying to preserve Cahokia Mounds and, if we are, what is going wrong with that attempt?

Big Mound

Artist's sketch of Big Mound in St. Louis, shortly before it was demolished

Not long ago, I read an article in National Geographic titled “America’s Forgotten City.”  Written by former magazine staffer Glenn Hodges, who had only recently learned of the mounds existence, the story gave me a new perspective on something that we take largely for granted. Hodges’ opinion was that, as a site of Native American history, Cahokia Mounds has fallen victim to the long tradition of American disdain and ambivalence toward Indian culture.  According to this theory, the mounds’ historical significance went against the prevailing eighteenth and nineteenth-century opinion that Native Americans were savage peoples who were incapable of living a “modern” or “civilized” existence. An Indian city was simply too much for Americans to comprehend. As such, farmers in Illinois and city planners in Missouri demolished the mounds with careless abandon, finding them either a nuisance in the middle of a cornfield or more valuable as fill dirt in the city.  This is an intriguing hypothesis, and, while I am not sure if I am totally sold that this is the exact answer, I do think that it provides some interesting insight.

Loaf Mound

Loaf Mound, St. Louis's final standing mound

When it comes to Cahokia Mounds, or any historical site, what preservation ultimately comes down to is personal involvement. Local or national politics will always have an agenda, one which usually runs counter to the best interests of history in favor of more immediate financial goals.  It is up to us to actively engage with history and show its importance, whether you are the teacher who leads the fieldtrip, the hotel clerk who gives suggestions to tourists, or, as featured in the National Geographic article, a local man who takes it upon himself to care for and maintain a neighborhood historical marker.

Civil War Cell Phones? Reenactments at SIUE’s Sesquicentennial Celebration

21 Apr

by Christina Carlson-

Sitting in a tent with the wind whipping around the edges of its white canvas, I watch a man in an immaculate 19th century wool uniform carefully tie up paper gun cartridges with twine. As he works, the man explains the way the cartridges are made and why he believes it is important to make them that way. Suddenly, a cheery jingle fills the tent and the man reaches in his pocket, pulling out a cellular phone. “I invented that last night,” he says jokingly, then turns off the phone and continues working on the cartridges. Thus begins my first experience with Civil War reenactors.

Civil War bivouac

Photo by Laura Fowler

Our class has covered the topic of reenactments and their relationship to public history before, but I wanted to convey my own personal experience observing and interacting with Civil War reenactors this weekend on the campus of SIUE. Although I was not working directly with the reenactors at the sesquicentennial events, I did find time to wander around their bivouac site. Aside from the slightly humorous incident with the ringing cell phone, I encountered several other parts of the encampment that seemed slightly contradictory. As Jeremy talked about in his recent post, many reenactors, perhaps particularly Civil War reenactors, tend to focus on the details of their uniform, weapon, and aspects of camp life. Yet, even as a “captain” in the sesquicentennial group talked about how accurately the cannon they fired was to the original, the group did not fire actual cannon balls; the noise and smoke were caused by gun powder wrapped in aluminum foil. In another instance, a “nurse” had bandages that she noted were very close to what civil war-era surgeons would have used, but a plastic bottled labeled “fake blood” was in plain view beside the bandages.

Civil War camp

Photo by Laura Fowler

Inconsistencies such as this are quite revealing when it comes to reenactment as a whole. As has been noted before, although reenactors strive for accuracy in many aspects they can never truly reach back into another time or situation. After all, they do not shoot real cannons, or bleed real blood. In general, reenactment does not attempt to address larger historical questions, even as it attempts to convey a sense of authority about a certain historical time and situation.

Scene from Civil War Bivouac

Photo by Laura Fowler

Despite the shortcomings of reenactment as a form of public history, does it hold some value for public historians? I saw many people at the sesquicentennial events become excited about history and its possibilities. Both children and adults were enthralled with the working of an “actual” Civil War encampment in a way that is not always present in a more formal historical setting. Although I have often shied away from reenacting–as I see it as a form of history which generally does not address the larger themes of historical discourse–I now wonder if it cannot have some place in public history. Perhaps if we as public historians attempt to connect the finite details of camp life, military drills, and bandages to larger themes, reenactments could serve as an important link between the public and important historical questions. In this environment, discrepancies such as ringing cell phones could serve us and the public we address quite well. We could make the point that, although they did not have our modern technology, people in a certain time period were much like ourselves. It is this attempt to understand the humanity behind history that makes it worthwhile as a study at all.