Tag Archives: Melissa Burns

Reflections: Walking in the Footsteps of the Forgotten Element

6 May

by Melissa Burns-

At some point during my academic career, I became intrigued by prostitutes. The idea of the “oldest profession” being hidden and denied while at the same time acknowledged and tolerated fascinated me. I was truly inspired by the work of Timothy Gilfolye. His book, City of Eros, tracks the history of prostitution in New York City from the eighteenth century to the 1990s. The amount of work that he put into his book astounds me, especially in regard to the maps that he created to indicate where prostitution was located in Manhattan. I can just picture him toiling away in a dusty archive, making notes about each recorded brothel and arrest in order to create his collection of very detailed maps. My own research focuses on prostitution in St. Louis, and there is very little in terms of existing maps or detailed information about where prostitutes plied their trade in the city. Therefore, I would love to be able to put together something similar to what Gilfolye accomplished.

My original idea was to just take Gilfolye’s idea and recreate it for St. Louis by making traditional, static maps. However, after we discussed the pros and cons of online history in class I changed my mind. One of the websites that we looked at was the Spatial History Project at Stanford University. This group of professors, scholars, and students is working to create an online, interactive map of the history of prostitution in Philadelphia. Their maps are similar to the ones that Gilfoyle made, but because they are digital they can be easily manipulated and are more user-friendly.

I also found myself inspired by the walking tour that some of my fellow classmates created for the Lincoln Place Heritage Group. I love the idea of putting something together that can be accessed and followed by simply using your smartphone. So, as I have been introduced to new ideas of public history, I have modified my plan. What I would like to do is put my research to use and make a walking tour of downtown St. Louis. However, instead of highlighting buildings of historic architecture or modern points of interest, I would like to walk the same streets as former streetwalkers and working girls. And, because they so often go hand-in-hand, I would also like to include places associated with gangsterism in the city, like gambling houses and speakeasies.

All too often, St. Louis’s history is discussed in economic terms, either as a hub of commerce in the nineteenth century or as a Rust Belt city of the twentieth.  Very few people actually stop to think about those who actually lived and worked here. As a result, there is a huge amount of buried history in this city. For example, St. Louis is known for its Anheuser Busch brewery, but what happened to its production during Prohibition? In a city used to having ample liquor around surely it did not just go away. But where, then, did it go during those years, and who engaged in it?  There are also few who realize that prostitution was legalized in St. Louis in the late nineteenth century.  Where did these women live and work, and what happened to the profession after it was criminalized again?  These are the questions that I find captivating, and I would love to be able to bring the world of these forgotten people back to life.


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.

Who Pays for Public History?

25 Apr

by Melissa Burns-

As a child, my Mom and Grandma frequently took me on trips to Shawnee National Forest. My Grandma had grown up in the area, so it was important for her that her grandkids experience the world that she had known as a child. We took hiking trips to Garden of the Gods, went swimming at Pound’s Hollow, and picnicked at Cave in Rock, all wonderfully natured-inspired day trips.  What stands out most in my mind, though, are the trips we took to a small museum outside the town of Equality.  Sadly, the future of this museum has recently been in doubt.

Known by several different names, most people, including my Grandma, called the museum the Old Slave House. The museum was really a former estate, built by John Crenshaw in the early part of the nineteenth-century.

Crenshaw House

The Crenshaw House

The Crenshaw family had built their wealth upon the nearby salt mines, and the big house was an outward manifestation of that prosperity. However, the Crenshaw house was not transformed into a museum as an example of historic architecture or even in remembrance of an important local figure. Because salt mining was deemed too laborious for regular workers, Crenshaw was able to secure the only legal permit in the free state of Illinois to own slaves. The Crenshaw House, or the Old Slave House, was therefore a reminder of a little known part of Illinois’ history, a part which many would probably just as rather forget about.

The Old Slave House sits atop an imposing hill and is visible for quite a distance.  Besides the main house, the grounds include a barn and vignettes with the tools used in gathering and processing the salt. The house itself is three stories, the first and second of which were the main living quarters for the family.  Having been authentically restored and housing a collection of the family’s belongings, they serve as the majority of the museum. And, in the fine tradition of deifying all things Lincoln, there is even a bedroom on the first floor that he reportedly slept in one night. The third floor of the main house is unfinished except for the cells and chains. While Crenshaw legally owned several hundred slaves who lived away from the main house, he was also active in the reverse Underground Railroad, kidnapping free blacks and runaway slaves and sending them back to the South. These poor men and women were snuck into the house at night through a hidden doorway and held on the third floor until they could be sent south.

While I was always a little disturbed by the museum’s collection of slave photographs, and definitely freaked out by the main house’s third floor, I enjoyed visiting the museum. Textbooks tell a very cut-and-dry story about slavery in the U.S.; there were slave states and free states. The Old Slave House, however, tells a more complicated tale, one I believe is important to know and understand. Recently, though, the museum has been closed to the public while its future remains undecided.

Closed sign at Crenshaw House

Sign at Entrance to Crenshaw House Property

The house was owned by a private family, and they kept the museum running for several years. In the 1990s, it was sold to the state of Illinois and, for budget reasons, the museum was closed. It was even rumored that the house was scheduled to be torn down. Thankfully, local opinion and outrage saved the Old Slave House. The current state of the museum brings up questions about who should pay to keep historic sites in operation. Should the state foot the bill or should private donations be the sole source of funding? There is not an easy answer to this question, but I do hope that, for the Old Slave House and similar sites, a resolution can be found.

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.

Celebrating Personal History

21 Apr

by Melissa Burns-

As Americans, we all know that our families originated somewhere else. At one point in time our relatives immigrated here from places across the globe. The farther removed we are from those immigrant relatives, the more difficult it is to remember just where our roots are. Some people do not really seem to care where there families came from, and there are others who would like to know but do not have the time or resources to find out. This, I think, is sad, because knowing your family’s history can tell you a lot about yourself and open up a whole new world of friends and relatives that you never knew existed.

Scottish marchers

Men taking part in the Tartan Day Parade

I am fortunate enough to have an aunt who spent a great deal of time researching our family tree. She has traced the family’s roots to Scotland, where my grandma’s side goes back to Clan MacBean and my grandpa’s family is from Clan MacLeod of Lewis.  My husband’s family has also been traced to Scotland.  There, Clan Burns was fairly small and eventually became incorporated as a sept, a family giving allegiance to another, of Clan Campbell.  I do not know the specific villages that my family came from, but I do know the regions of Scotland where they originated.  I hope very much to be able to visit them one day.

Scottish pipe band

March of a Scottish Pipe Band

My family, and especially my mom, is very proud of our Scottish heritage. Growing up, there was always a lot of bagpipe and celtic music playing, and we love traditional Scottish food, like shepherd’s pie, scotch eggs, and pasties. My brother also likes to eat haggis, but I have never gotten over the idea of it long enough to like it. We also like to show our heritage by wearing our clan’s tartan. Every clan has multiple tartans. There are ancient and modern versions, as well as ones for casual and formal wear. The one that my family likes to wear is commonly known as the Loud MacLeod because it is has a bright yellow background with a red and black pattern. My mom and brother both have kilts in this tartan, while I have a tam, a traditional, almost beret-like hat.  There is absolutely no mistaking who you are when you wear the Loud MacLeod tartan. As of yet, I do not have anything with the Clan Campbell tartan, which is also known as the Black Watch tartan, but I have been keeping my eyes open.

Caber Toss

Caber toss in the Highland Games

Visiting with members of the Lincoln Place Heritage Group a couple of weeks ago reminded me of the importance of remaining connected with your heritage.  This is the exact reason why my family goes to the St. Louis Scottish Festival each year.  We were also able to go to Tartan Days in St. Charles this year for the first time.  The fests are always great fun. There is plenty of good, traditional Scottish food, traditional and modern Celtic music and dancing, and the Highland Games are never boring. I will never cease to be amazed at how someone can toss a caber!  Each year we see the same people at the festivals, and we have met other members of Clan MacLeod who are beginning to feel like an extended family. These relationships are a prime example of why maintaining our heritage is so important.  I will always believe that knowing your past is a fantastic way to enrich your future.