Local History Makes Good-sometimes


While these and a number of the other old, privately supported state historical societies have deliberately focused their activities upon efforts to assist serious scholars, many of the publicly supported societies, particularly in the Mississippi Valley, have also been concerned with the popularization of local history among the residents of their states. The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, for example, has long combined scholarly activities with an aggressive program of what it likes to call “taking history to the people.” Thus in addition to publishing serious biographies and historical monographs and such valuable works of reference as Guide to Wisconsin Newspapers, 1833-1957 , and a Dictionary of Wisconsin Biography , it issues such juvenile titles as A Merry Briton in Pioneer Wisconsin; It Happened Here; Stones of Wisconsin; and Side Roads: Excursions into Wisconsin’s Past , in which “one of Wisconsin’s favorite storytellers,” Fred Holmes, “spins tales of nostalgia about his native state’s ice cream parlors, barbershops, country stores, German beer gardens, and Christmas customs at the turn of the century.” This nostalgic aspect of the not very distant past is also often emphasized in the society’s museum in Madison by the display of a Model T Ford, barbershop mugs, the reconstruction of a drugstore, or other objects certain to give any citizen of Wisconsin who happens in a pleasing shock of recognition. The society maintains various sites and buildings throughout the state, including a stagecoach inn at Greenbush, a farm and craft museum at Cassville, and the Circus World Museum at Baraboo. At the latter, elephant rides, cotton candy, pink lemonade are to be had, and, among other delights offered by the society’s flyer: You can have yourself photographed in a cage with a living, roaring, black-maned African lion assuring yourself and your children a triumph of indescribable sensations and novel photographs.

And all without risk, for these modern Daniels are well protected by invisible glass from the living, roaring animal into whose cage, for a consideration, they are permitted to enter. The society further encourages children to become “junior historians” —a phrase I find as irritating as the euphemistic “senior citizens, ” so often applied today in the United States to anyone over sixty-five. Operation on so many levels is, of course, only possible in an institution liberally supported by public grants, for much of the appeal “to a wide audience never before exposed to the society or to history” is, consciously or otherwise, a confirmation of a remark made in 1909 by Reuben Gold Thwaites (the distinguished head of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin from 1887 to 1913) that “legislatures and the public at large that they represent require coddling if their support is to be obtained.”

While the state historical societies, whether publicly or privately supported, often contain resources of national as well as local interest, there is a multitude of purely local ones. Although in recent years certain of the larger publicly supported state historical societies, of which Minnesota is the most conspicuous example, have systematically inspired the organization of county counterparts which receive some assistance from taxes, the greater part of local historical societies owe their origin to the interest and devotion of people on the spot who genuinely care for the characteristics of their region. Some go back into the nineteenth century, but the greater part are of twentieth-century foundation.

My own Massachusetts county has its society, the Essex Institute in Salem, organized in 1848 through the amalgamation of societies going back to 1821 and 1833. Among county societies in the United States, it unquestionably takes first place for the extent and richness of its library and manuscripts and its centurylong record of continuous scholarly publication. One might think that the Essex Institute would, by itself, be able to minister to all the historical needs of the immediate region, for Essex is not a large county. It contains 355,840 acres. After deducting tidal marsh, ponds, rivers, and swamps, it has only 299,551 acres useful for tillage, woodlands, and the sites of its thirty-four cities and towns. But this small area has, for the United States, a long and varied history, for its settlement goes back to the i02o’s. It has, in addition, a preoccupation with history that is out of all proportion to its size, for twenty-seven out of its thirty-four cities and towns have local societies of their own. Thus Essex County has a historical society for every 10,660 acres of dry land, which must constitute some sort of a record, even for a country of “joiners.” Some have worthwhile collections, adequate financial support, competent professional staff that justify their existence. Others, at least in my jaundiced view, are centers of nostalgia, serving chiefly as insecure and leaky bastions against change, and scarcely would be missed.