Local History is Everywhere!
November 15, 2012: During our first three weeks of the local history workshop we have plunged into the rich history surrounding us on our campus, in our neighborhoods, and in our families. We talked about our own understandings of the definitions of and uses of history in our first session, and we brainstormed topics that we would like to explore further through individual projects. A few of us would like to research our family trees. Two people want to know about the story of their houses and neighborhoods. One participant plans to research local insane asylums, and another is interested in the practice of medicine in the early years of the Pennsylvania Hospital. One person is interested in the history of Butler Pike, and another would like to know more about the historical stone mile markers along Bethlehem Pike.
We took a tour of the cemetery at St. Thomas Whitemarsh with Bill Potts, a member of the church. He showed us how the graves of veterans have different medallions depending on the war in which they served. We learned that there are 14 veterans of the American Revolution buried there, and we saw the oldest grave (from 1727), which was broken by a fallen tree during Hurricane Sandy. Mr. Potts showed us the graves of several prominent members of Philadelphia society. He also gave us a tour of the inside of the church.
Brian Chepulis came to visit us during our second week to share his love of history, his experiences working at local historic sites, and his detective work to solve a photographic mystery. He began by defining history as “his story, her story, our story, my story,” as stories about people or things that do not have to be famous or “important.”
Brian led us to consider how historians prove events in history. He asked, “How can you let someone 200 years from now know what you ate for breakfast?” This question led us to talking about primary sources.
From there, Brian showed us a photograph of a Civil War soldier that he had purchased from an antique shop, and he led us through the process he followed to determine the identity of the soldier. Members of the workshop were very interested in the photographs and documents that Brian shared and the clues he learned from them.
During our second workshop, we also looked at the family trees of two local Quaker families, the Corsons and the Wistars, completed personal history quizzes, and developed questions for interviews.
Our workshop this week began with a visit to the Clifton House up the street, which houses the Historical Society of Fort Washington. Mrs. Costa, the vice president of the Society, told us about the history of the building and showed us artifacts members have donated. One room on the second floor was arranged like the classroom in the 18th century schoolhouse that was built down the street. Another room housed Victorian furnishings and clothing and included an ornate wall decoration crafted from human hair.
We also saw a collection of kitchen, home, and farming tools including a weasel, a wooden wheel that measured yarn and “popped” when it reached the right amount. In the last room of the museum, we saw a display of domestic items unearthed on the grounds of the Clifton House- pots, silverware, and broken pottery from the time during the colonial period when there was a tavern on the property. We also saw a map that showed the movement of Washington’s troops through the hills around Clifton House as they made their way from Germantown to Valley Forge.
Mrs. Costa took us to the library, and we enjoyed looking up our neighborhoods in giant atlases from 1876 and 1916. We told her a bit about the topics we are researching, and she showed us any relevant materials that they had. Several participants were drawn to scan the floor-to-ceiling shelves and pull down a few volumes with intriguing titles, excited to see books written about their towns.
We returned to Talking Stick and played a game of charades, acting out some of the things we learned from our trip. Then we gave updates on how our research is coming. Most participants conducted an interview with someone knowledgeable about their topic. We talked about the stories and themes that emerged and what other questions they would like to pursue. A few participants needed to learn more about their topic before they could identify who they might interview or whether they needed to conduct an interview. From our visit to the Clifton House, we learned that those researching their own houses can check out their local historical societies for clues about their houses and neighborhoods.
We concluded our workshop with some reading from Fever 1793. We have been reading a little bit each week, and I am encouraging everyone to continue reading it at home. It is a powerful work of historical fiction that makes vivid the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic of 1793. We will have an optional field trip on Friday, December 7 to sites mentioned in the book.