The Story Behind Everything

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WHEN WE’RE FIGURING out where to go for lunch, history probably isn’t so important a guide as the certainty of good food or the hope of an affordable bill. Still, dining with the past can add real splendor to a meal, as J. M. Fenster shows in our lead story on historic restaurants. “They make a shaft of light even through generations, and if nothing of importance changes, then that is how it happens that a moment that began in 1810 or 1883, or 1912 or 1939, is still lit today, at a table in a room at one of the few hundred historic restaurants in America.”

How well history is lit today depends, of course, on the interest of the beholder. Not long ago I was traveling on a Madison Avenue bus in New York City, shamelessly eavesdropping on the conversations going on around me, when I heard the following exchange. TOT : What does Madison mean? MOTHER : It’s just the name of a street. TOT : But what does it mean ? MOTHER : Nothing. It’s the name of a street.

In New York City, one may freely listen in on fellow travelers—it’s part of the bus rider’s gestalt —but short of halting a pickpocket at work, one rarely speaks up. So I didn’t tell the little girl that the street was named in honor of James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, as were many other Madisons across this country, including a river port in Indiana and the capital of Wisconsin. Exactly why or when New York honored the President I didn’t find out until later when I consulted The Street Book , by Henry Moscow, and learned that the avenue was created and named in 1836, the year Madison died.

But that child surely saw, as her mother did not, that there’s a story behind everything we pass on our daily rounds, be it a street sign, an eating place, or even a clump of ferns. In her article on the Adirondack Museum, Jane Colihan writes, “Admire the ferns on a shady hill, and you’ll find a sign explaining that many of the plants are descendants of ones that came in hanging baskets brought by tourists to the hotel here a century ago, when people stayed for as long as three months and kept gardens.” To a degree this sense of place always informs American Heritage , but it becomes most concentrated each April when our travel issue appears.

One child’s curiosity about the life of another inspired Lisa Blumberg’s article on the landscape that shaped Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Before Blumberg was five, she made her mother read aloud the entire series, and, she reports, “When I learned to read, I went back to them again and again.” A lawyer by trade, she is also something of a Wilder junkie: “Some people collect stamps. Learning about the Ingallses ... is what I do.” So it was inevitable that Blumberg would venture to the prairie towns of De Smet, South Dakota, and Walnut Grove, Minnesota. She came away with a sharper sense of what had made the Ingallses pit themselves against the soil and the weather and why “for a brief time Pa had thought that with hard work the family could ‘live like kings’ on the prairie.” Interestingly, the photographer Leslie A. Kelly, whose work adorns Blumberg’s article and who has turned his camera on every single site connected with Wilder, came to his vocation twenty-three years ago because his young daughter, Erin, like so many others, was captivated by Wilder’s life on the prairie.

Every parent knows that “once upon a time” is the most powerful lure you can throw a child; once snared, we are historians for all our travels through life.