Back in the Zoo: 1920 Meets 2020

1920 meets 2020Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes  about a recent visit to North America’s largest auto museum during a pandemic. —JF

North America’s largest auto museum is ten minutes away from my house. However, despite its close proximity to my childhood residence, I’ve only been there a handful of times. Evidently my parents took me there when I was in a stroller, but I don’t remember it one bit.  I have a vague memory of attending a graduation party in a white tent on the museum’s lawn, and a much clearer one of getting a side-splitting cramp on a cross country course that stretched around its 90-acre grounds. Yet it wasn’t until very recently that I explored the Gilmore Car Museum for myself.

Shortly after I returned to Michigan in March, museums and other non-essential businesses closed due to COVID-19 and the Gilmore Car Museum was no exception. Three months later, with Barry County in phase four of six in Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Michigan Safe Start plan, the institution has re-opened with stringent social distancing measures in place. Looking for something new to do after months of lockdown, curious about what it would be like to visit a socially distanced museum, and suddenly eager to explore the piece of local history immortalized just ten minutes from my house, I decided to make the six-mile trip on a Saturday afternoon. 

With several barns and buildings filled with exhibits and over 400 vintage automobiles, the Gilmore Car Museum is a sight to behold. In one building you can see the first Model A ever produced, which Henry Ford gave to his friend Thomas Edison hot off the assembly line. Another car barn–my personal favorite–houses the “Women Who Motor” exhibit. In addition to an antique Shell gas station and a walk-through timeline of automation in the museum’s main building, Gilmore also displays a mint green Cadillac that I think looks just like Flo from the Pixar movie Cars.

While I was impressed by the exhibits at the museum, I was even more impressed with Gilmore’s strict adherence to social distancing guidelines. When they weren’t answering our questions or directing us through the exhibits (from 6 feet away of course), the limited museum staff kept themselves busy cleaning exhibits and highly-trafficked areas. With the exception of an occasional held door, museum patrons were also diligent about maintaining six feet of social distance. Signs, hand sanitizing stations, and floor markings reminded us of our duty to keep ourselves and others safe and healthy. With the exception of two teenage girls who pulled their masks back over their faces when we came into view, virtually everyone at the museum wore face coverings. I saw more masks there than I’ve seen at the grocery store, the gas station, and the restaurant where I get take-out. 

Unlike hand sanitizer and toilet paper, there’s no shortage of people calling 2020 a historic time. We look back at the moments of our past and catalogue the COVID-19 pandemic alongside the terrorist attacks of 9/11, World War II, and other events that have shaped the nation. Even standing in the middle of a reconstructed past at the Gilmore Car Museum, walking alongside Henry Ford and Thomas Edison and many 20th century automobile-collectors, I was constantly reminded–by the masks, the signs, the floor markings–of our nation’s present moment. The world looked a lot different in 1920 than it does today, and that’s a strange, beautiful, and fascinating thing.

As we continue in our own historic time, we need to remember to check our rear-view mirrors every once in a while.  Often times looking back and tracing our steps is the best way to chart a course forward. Delving into our past through research, books, even socially-distanced museums can help us stand our ground even in the most tumultuous times. In order to know where we’re going, we have to know where we’ve been.

Back in the Zoo: The Hidden History of Battle Creek

ellen white at gc session 1901

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about finding history in her own backyard.  –JF

Rumor has it, if you walk around in downtown Battle Creek you can smell cereal wafting through the streets. Home to Kellogg’s, Post, and Raltson foods, Battle Creek well-deserves the nickname “Cereal City.”  Battle Creek is also home to Binder Park Zoo, where you can feed giraffes pieces of lettuce in the summer or go trick-or-treating at the annual “Zoo Boo” in the fall. It also has my favorite grocery store, Horrocks, and an indoor water park where kids used to have their birthday parties.

I usually don’t advertise that I’m from Battle Creek. In fact, in the very name I chose for this column, I pledge my allegiance to Kalamazoo, not “Cereal City,” which lies about 25 miles to the east. In reality, I live in Augusta which is half-way between the two towns. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against Battle Creek. My church, my school, my grandma’s house were all in Kalamazoo, so I just have a lot more memories there. And, after a year studying at Messiah College I’ve discovered most people haven’t heard of Battle Creek, much less know where it is. Plus, you have to admit that “Out of Battle Creek” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

So, as you can imagine, I was pretty surprised when Battle Creek came up in my “Origins Controversy” class last Friday. It was my first Zoom session of the day, and my professor Dr. Ted Davis was lecturing on the history of scientific creationism. A few slides into his presentation, Dr. Davis introduced us to Ellen G. White, who co-founded the Seventh-day Adventist church and was one of the first to vocally advocate for the young-earth, 24-hour day creation view held by Ken Ham and his team at Answers in Genesis today. While her ideas didn’t really take off outside Seventh-day Adventist circles until George McCready Price and later Henry Morris wrote about them, she remains an important figure in American religious history. Not only that, she was a strong and influential female leader in a time when women still hadn’t gained the right to vote. 

Next,  Professor Davis showed us the black-and-white photograph reciprocated above, of E. G. White at a podium, Bible open, speaking to a congregation of men. He asked us to read the description to find out where it was taken. Much to my surprise, the caption read “Battle Creek Tabernacle,” and I excitedly told my class that Battle Creek was only 30 minutes away from my house. Professor Davis continued by explaining that Battle Creek played an important role in the development of the Seventh-day Adventist church, and that the denomination had even founded a college in Michigan. Davis went on to mention that the Kelloggs were also Seventh-day Adventists who first produced cereal as a vegetarian alternative to a traditional breakfast–many Adventists back then chose not to eat meat. 

I finished class that day excited about all the history that took place practically in my backyard. I couldn’t believe that I had grown up twelve miles from Battle Creek and had no idea who Ellen G. White was. My house is even closer to the Kellogg Manor House, yet I had never bothered to learn much about the family’s history. I was blind to the rich history my community had to offer. 

Every community, big or small, has a history. It has a history because it has people–people who lived and worked and impacted other people in a world far different from our own. Sometimes that history is not easy to find, but I challenge you to look for it. You don’t have to live in Gettysburg or New York City or Paris to dig up some fascinating information about your community’s past. There’s history all around you. Sometimes you just need to open your eyes.

The Author’s Corner with Peter Gilmore


Peter Gilmore is a ruling elder at Sixth Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh and teaches history at Carlow University. This interview is based on his new book Irish Presbyterians and the Shaping of Western Pennsylvania, 1770-1830 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018). 

JF:  What led you to write Irish Presbyterians and the Shaping of Western Pennsylvania, 1770-1830?

PG: In Irish Presbyterians and the Shaping of Western Pennsylvania I want to show how Irish immigrants attempting to recreate their religious culture inadvertently laid the foundations of Presbyterianism in a region notable for its Presbyterian density. My goal is to unpack “Scots Irish Presbyterian,” particularly for a time and place in which the terms “Irish” and “Presbyterian” were often interchangeable—a circumstance generally not known or understood, but instructive when thinking about migration, diaspora, and ethnic diversity in the Early Republic.

JF:  In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Irish Presbyterians and the Shaping of Western Pennsylvania, 1770-1830?

PG: Irish migration to the Pennsylvania backcountry, 1770-1830, created mutually reinforcing religious systems and near-subsistence farming communities. The shift to market-driven production eclipsed an old-world religiosity founded on days-long ritual and church discipline.

JF:  Why do we need to read Irish Presbyterians and the Shaping of Western Pennsylvania, 1770-1830?

PG: As a study of an ethnoreligious group in a particular time and place, Irish Presbyterians and the Shaping of Western Pennsylvania is a potentially useful exploration of ethnic and religious diversity and of the significant role of religious values in shaping life in the Early Republic. This book offers an explanation of how religious controversies could be immigrant strategies of assimilation as well as strategies of accommodation to the Market Revolution.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

PG: My grandfather sharing with me Revolutionary War sites in his beloved Boston excited in my childish self an unending sense of wonder and curiosity. In the decades since I’ve been obsessed with the meaning of it all, especially the transnational movement of people and ideas and the intersection of ethnicity, religion, and class. My work is largely in the Early Republic, and yet rooted in eighteenth-century Ireland.

JF: What is your next project?

PG: Following up on the research for this book, I’m working on an article that explores Pittsburgh Presbyterian responses to Ireland’s Great Hunger in the context of intensified anti-Catholicism. I’m also preparing an investigation into “Old School” Presbyterian responses to slavery in the Upper Ohio Valley. Presbyterians of Irish origin didn’t always respond to developments in United States in the same manner as other American Protestants, and the differences (and similarities) are fascinating.

JF: Thanks, Peter!

American Association for State and Local History Opens “Harvey Cultural Relief Fund”


Here it is what you need to know to help:

As Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath continue to unfold on the Gulf Coast of Texas, AASLH staff, Council, and members are preparing to travel to the Lone Star State for #AASLH17 in Austin on September 6-9. The location of the 2017 Annual Meeting allows us the perfect opportunity to give back to our host state and its cultural institutions in a time of great need.

By the time the Annual Meeting kicks off in Texas next week, we still may not know the full extent of the damage to museums and history organizations in the path of the storm. We do, however, have the ability to leave resources behind after we depart to aid our colleagues as they rebuild.

We invite you to contribute to the AASLH Hurricane Harvey Cultural Relief Fund. You can donate online, by mail, or in-person at the AASLH Annual Meeting. All funds collected between August 29 and September 15 will be given to one of our Texas partners to be distributed to cultural organizations hit hard by the storm.

Click one of the links below to donate today or bring your donation with you to the Annual Meeting and you can leave it at the AASLH Registration Desk.

Give Online   Give by Mail

Thank you for helping our Texas colleagues in their time of need.

Master Local Historians

Tennesse State Archives

This looks like a great program.

Humanities Tennessee has awarded the American Association of State and Local History a grant to pilot Master Local Historians (MLS).

Here is the press release and description of the program:

AASLH is proud to announce that we have been awarded a grant from Humanities Tennessee to pilot our newest program, Master Local Historians.

The Master Local Historians project is a training program that highlights the relevance of historical inquiry for the general public and provides people with an opportunity to hone their historical research, writing, and interpretation skills. Participants will learn the basic tools and methods of the craft of history to better understand, and even explain, the world around them. By the end of the course, they will have a greater appreciation for the work of public history and be better able to assist history organizations in a variety of ways.

This project is funded by a grant from Humanities Tennessee, an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and in-kind matching support from AASLH.

History—both knowledge of the past and the practice of researching and making sense of what happened in the past—is crucially important to the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and the future of our nation. On a state-by-state, community-by-community basis, people are figuring out what history means in the context of today. AASLH continually evaluates the opportunities history organizations have to employ history’s essential role in nurturing personal identity, teaching critical skills, helping to provide vital places to live and work, stimulating economic development, fostering engaged citizens, inspiring leadership, and providing a legacy. The Master Local Historians program is one such opportunity.

In the beginning stages of this project, AASLH has pulled together a team of national and Tennessee humanities scholars and advisors to review existing materials from similar programs and map a framework for a Master Local Historian program. This includes a curriculum that focuses on the basics of the historical profession, with three of those basics being piloted by partner organizations in West, Middle, and East Tennessee, including the Morton Museum of Collierville History, the Tennessee State Library and Archives, and the East Tennessee History Center. After the completion of a successful piloting period, AASLH plans to seek funding to launch the Master Local Historians program nationally.

The institutions will host the workshops in winter 2017/2018. AASLH will evaluate the individual sessions and the success of the program as a whole and in 2018 begin to create the full Master Local Historian curriculum based on the Tennessee pilots. The program highlights the continued relevance of history, a major theme of AASLH strategic plan since 2016.

AASLH is proud to have the following people serve as Humanities Scholars on this project, including Dr. Lorraine McConaghy (Public Historian), Myers Brown (Tennessee State Library and Archives), Dr. Carroll Van West (Tennessee State Historian), Adam Alfrey (East Tennessee History Center), Dr. Larry Cebula (Public Historian), Dr. Teresa Church (Public Historian), Dr. Jay Price (Public Historian), Brooke Mundy (Collierville Museum of History), Steve Murray (Alabama Department of Archives and History), Stuart Sanders (Kentucky Historical Society), Dr. C. Brendan Martin (MTSU) and Local Historians: Betsy Millard (Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum), Carol Kammen (Tompkins County (NY) Historian), and Beverly Tyler (Three Villages Historical Society).

For more information about Master Local Historians, and other Continuing Education opportunities, contact Amber Mitchell at

A Eulogy for Jonathan Wood: Historian, Christian, Friend

BroadThis morning I had the opportunity to eulogize my friend Jonathan Wood.  Several of you in attendance this morning asked for a copy of my remarks.  I have included them below. (Parts of this eulogy were drawn from an earlier blog post commemorating Jonathan’s death.)

Eulogy, Jonathan Wood, April 29, 2017, Old Broad Street Presbyterian Church, Bridgeton, New Jersey.

On my first real “research trip” as a history graduate student at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, I spent some time at Princeton University’s Firestone Library. As I perused the card catalog in the Department of Special Collections I came across a reference to the diary and writings of Philip Vickers Fithian.  I knew the name.  I had read part of the diary he had written in 1773 while serving as a tutor on a tobacco plantation in Virginia’s Northern Neck.  But I had no idea that there was so much more to learn about this seemingly obscure character in the annals of American history.  I also had no idea that I would spend the next twelve years—years raising a young family with my wife, and starting a career as a college professor—trying to understand this 18th-century man and his place in the ever-changing world of revolutionary America.

I  finished the dissertation and eventually published a biography of Fithian titled The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  It was the story of man who lived in two worlds. On the one hand, Philip was an educated gentleman.  He loved to travel (although, unlike Jonathan Wood, he never made it to Germany or Japan or Africa). He loved to learn new things (he was, after all, the graduate of an Ivy League institution–just like Jonathan). He read great books. And he loved to have deep and meaningful conversations about ideas that mattered.  All of these attributes made him a cosmopolitan–a citizen of the world.

On the other hand, Philip was a man committed to his Presbyterian faith—a faith that was nurtured in the soil of what he always referred to as his “beloved Cohansey.” Philip had a deep connection to his homeland.  He knew the rhythms of everyday life in this place. He understood its history and was eager to tell others about it. When he answered his country’s call to serve in the American Revolution he did so gladly, as both a citizen of a new nation built on the radical ideas of liberty and natural rights and as proud inhabitant of a local place—the small communities of Cumberland County nestled along the Cohansey River that he knew so well.

At an early stage in my research someone mentioned that I needed to talk to Jonathan Wood, one of the officers of the Cumberland County Historical Society in Greenwich.  I was born and raised in Morris County, New Jersey, but, to be honest, I had to check the map to see where Cumberland County was located, as I had never been to this part of the state.  I corresponded with Jonathan for several months before finally driving to Greenwich to meet him. I recall it was a crisp Fall weekday in 1996.  I was there to pick his brain about local history.  Jonathan, as always, was ever-gracious.  We got in his Buick and he drove me around town, telling me about his career as a history teacher in Millville, his family history (Jonathan always made it clear that he was NOT from the Wood family that founded WAWA convenience stores), and, of course, the history of what I was soon realizing was also his “belov-ed Cohansey.”

We hit it off immediately.  Jonathan was passionate about his work as a historian.  He quoted passages from Fithian’s diary at the drop of a hat. He told me about trips he took to Virginia and New England where he tried to learn more about Fithian and some of the earliest seventeenth-century settlers of Greenwich, Bridgeton, and the surrounding townships.

I think he saw me as a kindred spirit.  There were very few people in Jonathan’s life able to talk about Fithian and local Presbyterian history at such a deep level. As we said goodbye at the end of that day I noticed that tears were filling his eyes.  At the time I didn’t understand why he was so emotional. After all, he was just showing around a visiting graduate student in search of a dissertation topic. But as I got to know Jonathan I realized that he saw the potential of a friendship that I did not yet see.  And I am glad he did.

We stayed in touch. At least once a month during this period I would go to the mailbox to find a manila envelope, usually bursting at the seams, filled with materials that he thought might be useful to my book project.  I continued to make visits to Greenwich as a way of reinvigorating my passion for the project.  I always looked forward to running my latest ideas past Jonathan. We continued to walk the grounds of his “beloved Cohansey.” He knew the historical value of such a practice and how important it was for making sense of the lost early American world that we were both trying to uncover and explain.  Eventually I began to see this place through his eyes. And as I began to see this place through his eyes, I began to simultaneously see this place through the eyes of Philip Vickers Fithian.  Jonathan taught me well.

After The Way of Improvement Leads Home appeared in 2008, Jonathan started sending me reviews of the book in the form of hand-written letters.  He liked the book, but he also thought that there were a few small dimensions of Fithian’s life that I got wrong.  I always pushed back at his constructive criticism.  He rarely backed down.  Jonathan relished in the give-and-take of historical conversation.

Whenever I returned to Greenwich he always insisted that I stay with him at his home in Millville.  We stayed up late into the evening most nights talking about American history, Cumberland County history, our shared Christian faith, and the many books stacked-up next to his reading chair.   He would always have a hand-written list of things that he needed to talk with me about, and sometimes lecture me about.  He filled the guestroom with early American history books from his personal collection. In the morning he would cook us breakfast before we headed off to the Lummis Library for the day.

I remember during one visit Jonathan told me about a book he was reading called Amish Grace. It was the story of the 2006 shooting in a one room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. (Perhaps some of you remember this).  The focus of the book was the power of forgiveness.  Jonathan was greatly moved by the story of the way the people of the Amish community, as a practical way of exercising their Christian faith, offered forgiveness to the shooter who took five of their children that day.  I remember talking about the incident with Jonathan and at one point in the conversation he paused for about 30 seconds. His mind had clearly drifted away in a moment of reflection.  After this period of silence he turned to me, looked me straight in the eye, pointed to the cover of the book, and said “John, now that is true Christianity.”

I stayed in touch sporadically with Jonathan over the years and made several more visits to Greenwich, often bringing students to help with research. I chronicled some of that history in the blog post that has been circulating. I know some of you have read it.

I had not seen Jonathan in several years when I learned of his passing.  I did not know he had been sick.  It is one of my great regrets that I did not get a chance to say goodbye.  I did not know him as well as most others in this room today, but his friendship toward me, and the things he taught me about how to be a Christian and a historian, I continue to take with me in my work.

Jonathan Wood was a gentleman, a man of deep faith, and, at least from my point of view, the heart and soul of the local history community here in his beloved Cohansey.  If you are part of that community I hope that you see the magnitude of what you have lost.  Today we celebrate one of your wise men.  Jonathan was a seemingly endless source of wisdom who has challenged you, in a quiet and humble way, to see that society cannot move forward without first looking back.  We need more of this kind of thinking.

I am sure Jonathan is absolutely thrilled that we are in Old Broad Street Church today. This is the place where his passion for his Lord met his passion for local religious history. Actually, I am a little bit jealous of him right now.  He is probably watching this service with his good friends Ebenezer Elmer, Jonathan Elmer, Judge Lucius Q.C. Elmer, Rev. William Ramsey, Rev. Enoch Green, Rev. Andrew Hunter, Andrew Hunter Jr., Elizabeth Beatty, and the rest of the eighteenth-century Cohansey Presbyterians—the people he spent most of life getting to know. Right now he is having the kind of reunion that historians dream about.  And I have no doubt he has already had multiple meals with Philip Vickers Fithian.  I can almost picture him leaning over the table, grilling Fithian with questions and getting the answers he has been long awaiting.

Jonathan Wood’s way of improvement has finally led him home.

Rest in peace my good friend.

American Religious History and American Democracy

Old abandoned white wooden chapel on prairie at sunset with cloudy sky.

Recently the good folks at the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) asked me to write a short piece on why we should study American religious history.  It is posted today at the AASLH website.

Here is a taste:

In 1822, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to his friend, the noted physician Benjamin Waterhouse, lamenting the irrationality of much of American religious life. “I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests,” the retired President of the United States wrote, “the genuine doctrine of only one God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian.” 

Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment. As a believer in progress he could not imagine that traditional Christian beliefs—the Trinity, the deity and resurrection of Jesus Christ, or the inspiration of the Bible—would last very long under reason’s relentless assault. 

He could not have been more wrong.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Emma Hart

Emma Hart is Professor of History at University of St. Andrews. This interview is based on the paperback release of her new book, Building Charleston: Town and Society in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic World (University of Virginia Press, 2015).

What led you to write Building Charleston?

I often get asked this question as many Americans wonder how a British person ended up writing a book about Charleston.  Like many first books, this started off as my PhD dissertation.  I went to graduate school with the intention of researching the artisan economy in early American cities.  My supervisor alerted me to the fact that both Charleston and Newport had received the least attention from historians.  I decided to visit Charleston first, and never made it Newport. Coming from the UK, the combination of palmetto trees and Palladian architecture was really striking and, as I soon realized, symbolic of so many of the dissonances in Charleston’s long and eventful history.  Even as I finished the PhD thesis, however, I realized that the people I was looking at were part of a larger group of white townspeople, who all used their labor, and that of their enslaved Africans, to accummulate wealth and property in the city.  Building Charleston became a story about these men and women who were neither planters, enslaved field workers, nor plain folk, yet still made a major contribution to the character of colonial South Carolina.  I also came to feel like a cheerleader for Charleston, which was often overlooked by historians as an important colonial city in favor of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, even though it grew almost as fast as these northern towns.

In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Building Charleston?

In the eighteenth century Charleston was not merely a vehicle of South Carolina’s plantation economy, but rather was a fully functioning participant in the creation of a British Atlantic urban world.  Among other things the growing city fostered the emergence of a middling class of people, who strongly shaped urban culture, politics, and economics, in ways that made the place look very similar to contemporary cities in provincial Britain.

Why do we need to read Building Charleston?

I hope that readers will come away with a new outlook on how important towns were to British America’s plantation societies during the colonial era.  Like Kingston, Jamaica, and Bridgetown, Barbados, Charleston was a dynamic city, whose economy brought wealth to a distinct sector of society.  What is more, enslaved African people were often foundational to these urban wealth-creation activities.  For example, enslaved carpenters and bricklayers were instrumental in the speculative building craze that gathered pace after Charleston’s major fire of 1740. Owned by white builders, such people saw none of the profits, however, which lined the pockets of their masters who used this wealth and property as the basis of a middling social status.  Thus, the story of America’s entrepreneurial middle class starts in the eighteenth century, and is as much a southern story as it is a northern one.  What is more, slavery was right there at the inception.  The important role of urban society in shaping South Carolina society at this time also reminds us that we shouldn’t read the state’s archetypal antebellum southern character back to the eighteenth century as it wasn’t always so.  There was a time in the eighteenth century that Charleston’s importance gave the region a much more urban quality, and townspeople even challenged the authority of the plantation elite.

When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

I decided to become a historian when I was only 13 years old – I had a very dynamic history teacher at school who persuaded me pretty early on that my future lay in the past! When I got to university I started to do more eighteenth century history, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I liked the rambunctious nature of eighteenth century society, which is embodied in so many of William Hogarth’s pictures.  When I got the opportunity to do a special topic on Revolutionary America, I knew I’d found my historical home – early America was not only more rowdy than Europe, it was also a society that grew incredibly quickly, and incorporated so many contradictions of slavery and freedom, success and failure, and violence and refinement.  Once I’d decided to commit myself to an academic career by starting a PhD, there was no question about which field I’d study.

What is your next project?

I’m working on a history of marketing in early America, tentatively titled Trading Spaces: The Early Modern Marketplace and the Creation of the American Economy.  The research continues my fascination with how humans interact with space and landscape in past societies.  I’m trying to unearth the places, customs, and institutions that characterized ordinary peoples’ daily trading practices.  American historians have usually portrayed “the market” as an ideological abstraction.  However, the majority of early modern people encountered the market as a physical space entangled in local social and economic relationships.  I think that it is only by investigating the early American market place on these terms can we grasp the foundational role of the colonial era in the long-term formation of an American market economy.

Thanks, Emma! 

Call For Papers: Pennsylvania Historical Association Annual Meeting

This is a great conference for those of you interested in Pennsylvania and Mid-Atlantic history.  I encourage you to submit a proposal.

The Pennsylvania Historical Association invites proposals for its 2016 Annual Meeting to be hosted by Shippensburg University, Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, October 6-8, 2016. 

The conference theme will be “Technology, Business, and the Environment,” but the program committee welcomes proposals on all aspects of Pennsylvania and Mid-Atlantic history. In addition to sessions focused on traditional scholarship, the program committee encourages panels that feature pedagogy, public history, and material culture. Roundtable discussions that foster audience involvement are welcome as well. Full session proposals are strongly preferred, but the committee will also consider individual papers. Graduate students are encouraged to submit proposals. The PHA also supports student research with a poster session showcasing work focused on all aspects of Mid-Atlantic history. 

All program participants must be PHA members at the time of the annual meeting. 

Proposals must be submitted electronically by February 15, 2016 to: 

For further information, please contact Beverly Tomek, Assistant Professor of History, University of Houston-Victoria:

SoJourn: A Journal of South Jersey History and Culture

As someone who has written a few things about the early history of southern New Jersey, I am thrilled to see this call for articles:

Call for Articles: SoJourn: Journal of South Jersey History & Culture 

In spring 2016, the South Jersey Culture & History Center at Stockton University will publish its inaugural issue of SoJourn, a new journal devoted to the history, culture, and geography of southern New Jersey. We are seeking community members, avocational historians, and scholars to contribute essays on topics related to South Jersey. Illustrations to accompany these articles will be a plus. Articles should be written for laypersons who are interested and curious about South Jersey topics, but do not necessarily have expertise in the areas covered. Potential authors should check SJCHC’s website in mid-October 2015 ( for a link to a simplified style sheet guide for article preparation. Journal editors will be happy to guide any would be authors. 

Sample topics might include: 

Biographical sketches of important but forgotten local people; the development or succession of a community’s roads or bridges; local transportation (focused by mode or area) and what changes it wrought in the served communities; history of community businesses and industries (wineries, garment factories, agriculture, etc.); old school houses, old hotels, or meeting halls; narrative descriptions of local geographical features; essays concerned with folklore, music, arts; and reviews of new local interest publications. Photo essays and old photograph and postcard reproductions are welcome with applicable captions. In short, if a South Jersey topic interests you, it will likely interest SoJourn’s readers. 

Parameters for submissions: 

• Submissions must pertain to topics bounded within the 8 southernmost counties of New Jersey (Burlington & Ocean Counties and south)

 • Manuscripts should be approximately 3,000–4,000 words long (5 to 7 pages of singlespaced text and 9 to 12 pages including images) • Manuscripts should conform to the SoJourn style sheet, available here: 

• Manuscripts, if at all possible, should be submitted in digital format (Word- or pdf-formatted documents preferred) • Images should be submitted as high-resolution tiff- or jpeg-formatted files (editors can assist with digital conversion of photos if necessary) 

• Appropriate citations printed as endnotes should be employed (see style sheet). 

• Original submissions only. Copyright licenses for all images must be obtained by the author or should be copyright-free figures and/or figures in the public domain. • Articles need to be more than just a chronology of the given topic. The author should be able to properly contextualize the subject by answering such questions as: a) why is this important?; b) what is the impact on the local or regional history? and c) how does it compare to similar events/personages/changes/processes in other localities? 

Call for submissions

Submissions are due by December 31, 2015. Send inquiries or submissions to

Pennsylvania History 2.0

The Cathedral of St. Patrick, Harrisburg, PA

Some of you who read this blog carefully and have a good memory will recall that in Spring 2014 I developed a course on Pennsylvania history.

The course serves several student constituencies at Messiah College.  First, it counts as an upper-division history course for Messiah history majors. Second, it counts as an elective in our public history program.  We are not only using this course to teach content (Lenape Indians to Three Mile Island and beyond), but our students also gain basic training in how to do oral history, local history, and even a very small amount of digital history. Third, this course counts as a general education course that meets Messiah’s “pluralism” requirement. As a result we spend a lot of time discussing questions of religious, ethnic, class, and racial identity as it relates to events that happened in the history of the state.  I challenge the students to ask whether or not William Penn’s so-called “Holy Experiment” has been a success.

Once again, I have decided to use Randall Miller and Bill Pencak’s book Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth.  I like this book because it offers chronological coverage of Pennsylvania’s past alongside chapters related to the skills and practices–oral history, folklore, genealogy, etc.–of doing Pennsylvania history.

Last year students had two major assignments.  First, they had to visit local archives and create an online exhibit using Omeka software.  Second, they had to conduct an oral history interview, transcribe the interview, and write an eight-page paper placing the subject of the interview in a larger historical context.

This year I have kept the oral history assignment.  Students are writing oral history papers based on interviews with longtime employees of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, people who lived through Three Mile Island, steelworkers who suffered through de-industrialization, and those who experienced the Pennsylvania home front during World War II, to name a few of the topics.

I have replaced the Omeka assignment with two smaller projects related to the work of our ongoing Digital Harrisburg Initiative.  First, students will be doing research that will eventually lead to the mapping of the Harrisburg Presbyterian community in 1900.  They are using church membership lists from Harrisburg’s historic Market Street Presbyterian Church and comparing the names and addresses with the 1900 census that David Pettegrew and his team of students have digitized.  Since the 1900 census has been mapped on a 1900 fire insurance map, it will be easy to develop the map further to include the location of Presbyterians.  This assignment is due next week, giving David’s team plenty of time to create the Presbyterian map in preparation for our analysis in class next month.

Second, we will be exploring the history of Catholics in Harrisburg in the years between 1900 and 1910.  Each student is assigned a 6-9 month section of the Harrisburg Daily Independent and the Harrisburg Telegraph.  Using, they will find every article related to Catholicism in the city and write a five-page history of Catholicism in Harrisburg for their assigned 6-9 month period.  We will then spend several 90-minute class periods discussing these reports and piecing together the history of Harrisburg in this particular decade.  We are especially interested in the building of the Cathedral of St. Patrick’s on State Street.

Stay tuned:  I hope to do some posts on how these projects are progressing.

Commemorating St. Michael’s Marblehead, 1714

Over the last few years I have had the opportunity to work closely with several local congregations as they have explored their history.  This work has been fun, but it has also been meaningful and rewarding.  It seems that more and more historic congregations want accessible and popular histories that do not skimp on scholarly integrity.  I am glad to see that congregations, or at least the one’s I have worked with, want to move away from the hagiography that has come to define too many of these congregational histories.

I was thus very pleased to see that the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts is sponsoring a day-long conference devoted to St. Michael’s Anglican Church of Marblehead.  The church turns 300 this year.  According to J.L. Bell of Boston 1775 (HT), it is “the oldest Episcopal congregation in New England holding services in its original building.”  The Peabody Essex Museum has invited a star-studded cast of scholars to discuss the history of this church, including Donald Friary, Christopher Magra, David D. Hall, Carl Lounsbury, and Louis Nelson.


I would love to see more historic congregations do this kind of thing.

Digital Harrisburg

As some of you may recall, the Messiah College History Department recently revamped its public history concentration to include courses and training in digital history, local history, oral history, public archaeology, and the teaching of history (at all levels to all audiences).  Students pursuing the concentration are required to take courses in subjects such as event planning, public relations writing, museum studies, digital media, business administration, graphic design, or website design.  Whether or not students pursue a career in public history, we believe that this concentration provides them with a host of transferable skills as they enter an ever-changing marketplace.

This semester the department is offering two courses that meet requirements in the public history concentration.  David Pettegrew is teaching a course in digital history.  In this course students are getting training in Zotero, GIS, Omeka (digital exhibits), and social media.  I am teaching a course in Pennsylvania history that provides training in Omeka, local history, and oral history.  Both courses are using local archives extensively.
Part of the department’s digital initiative is the creation of a project we are calling Digital Harrisburg. This project is only a few months old, but we are excited about the possibilities.  We have created a website devoted to the history and society of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  The Digital History class is doing archival research and digital exhibits related to Harrisburg’s successful City Beautiful Movement.  The students are also linking U.S. census records of Harrisburg in 1900 to contemporary digitized maps.  My class is working on digital exhibits related to archival collections related to the region’s cultural, religious, and African-American history.
We hope you will check in periodically with Digital Harrisburg to see what we are up to.  Don’t know where to begin?  Check out the blog posts from David Pettegrew’s Digital History students.

Omeka and Pennsylvania History

Unfortunately no student chose to work on the Harrisburg Senators collection

Over the last week or so I have been doing a few posts on the Pennsylvania History course I am teaching this Fall.  Today I gave a lecture which I called “People in Pennsylvania Before William Penn.”  We talked about the native populations in the region and the Dutch and Swedish presence in the Delaware Valley.  Thursday will be devoted to an “Oral History Workshop and a discussion of Donald Ritchie’s Doing Oral History.  So far I am enjoying the balance in this course between content and the practical skills needed for doing public history.

Speaking of skills, the students have finally chosen subjects for their Omeka digital exhibits. Here are some of the things that they are working on:
At the Pennsylvania State Archives (Harrisburg, PA):
  • The Explorers Club of Pennsylvania
  • The Harrisburg Community Theater
  • The Society for Better Pennsylvania Libraries
At the Cumberland County Historical Society (Carlisle, PA):
  • Camp Michaux (CCC camp in the 1930s and POW interrogation camp in the 1940s)
  • The McClintock Slave Rebellion of 1847
  • The Underground Railroad in Carlisle
At Ye Olde Sulphur Springs Historical Society (York Springs, PA):
  • The Mademoiselle Club (A women’s reading group dating back to the 1940s)
At the Messiah College and Brethren in Christ Church Archives (Grantham, PA):
  • The Messiah Home Orphanage
  • The Messiah College Solar Car
  • The Grantham Brethren in Christ Church
  • The Roxbury Holiness Camp Meeting
  • The Carlisle Brethren in Christ Church
At the Northern York Historical Society (Dillsburg, PA):
  • The Dillsburg Farm Fair
  • The Dillsburg One Room Schoolhouse
At the Dauphin County Historical Society (Harrisburg, PA):
  • The Paxton Street Presbyterian Church
I will be visiting all of these collections with my students in the next two weeks to get them oriented and then they will be conducting research on their own in preparation for their exhibit.  Stay tuned.

More Fun in Local Historical Societies

Maple Shade Barn: Home of the Northern York County Historical Society

Messiah College did not have class today due to the snow and ice in south-central Pennsylvania so I used the day to rustle up a few more collections for my students to examine as part of my Pennsylvania History course. (Can you tell I am having fun with this.  I love being in historical libraries and archives, especially local ones.).

This morning I headed out to the Cumberland County Historical Society in Carlisle.  Because of the weather I was the only one in the library today and thus got to work closely with both the society’s librarian and photography curator on possible collections that might work for my student’s digital exhibit project.  I examined some great collections, but decided to offer five of them to my students:
  • A collection on the underground railroad in Carlisle, PA.  
  • A collection on the McClintock Slave Riot of 1847
  • A collection on the Carlisle YMCA
  • A collection on the Girls Scouts in Cumberland County, NJ
  • A collection on a camp in Cumberland County used as a camp for the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and a secret interrogation camps of German and Japanese soldiers in 1943.
Later in the day I headed to nearby Dillsburg to visit the Northern York County Historical & Preservation Society where I added two more collections to the list:  a collection on a local farmer’s fair and parade in the town and a collection related to one-room schoolhouses in the area.
Since we lost electricity at my house early yesterday morning and it had still not come back on by 6:30pm or so, my daughter and I headed over to my office at Messiah College (it had heat, electricity, and WiFi) where I wrote up a student guide for choosing collections and working in archives.
So I think I made the best of my snow day.  Tomorrow morning I will be part of a group of Messiah College faculty interested in creating a “Digital Harrisburg” project and I have a meeting with the archivist at the Messiah College Archives.  I teach Pennsylvania history at 12:25 and then I hope to spend an hour or so at the Dauphin County Historical Society in Harrisburg browsing some of the collections at that repository.  
The day ends with my daughter Caroline’s middle school basketball game!

In Praise of Local Historical Societies

Minutes of the York Springs Mademoiselle Club

One of the great joys of my job is that I get to visit small historical societies.  As a history professor who is trying to figure out what it means to be a public scholar/historian, I get energized by the work going on in places like the Ye Olde Sulphur Spa Historical Society in York Springs, PA.  (I wrote about my work in these kinds of local historical societies here).

My connection to this place comes through my colleague and friend Cathay Snyder, who is part of the team that runs the show at the historical society. The society tells the story of York Springs, a small rural community located between Harrisburg and Gettysburg that is famous for being the site of a very popular nineteenth-century summer resort that attracted visitors as far away as Philadelphia and Baltimore. According to the society website, York Spring’s sulphur spa was known throughout the region for its health-restoring properties.  It drew regular summer visitors until the advent of the railroad made the Atlantic beach resorts a more attractive destination.

Thanks to Cathay’s work, we in the Messiah College History Department have become fascinated by this community.  There are even plans to do an archaeological dig around the site of the resort hotel that once stood in the town.  Stay tuned.

On Tuesday night I braved the extreme cold and snow and took the short trip down to York Springs to do some exploring.  Beginning in February I will be teaching a course on Pennsylvania history and one of the assignments will require students to work in an archive to create an online history exhibit using Omeka software.  I want the students to learn how to use the software, how to work with historical records, and how to gain skills at telling local stories from the past.

With Cathay’s help, I was able to find some really manageable projects that can be accomplished over the course of the semester.  Here are a few:

The York Springs Mademoiselle Club:  This was a reading group started in the 1940s by nine York Springs women.  What attracted me to this club was the record-keeping of its members.  Yearly notebooks trace the activities of the club and the books they were reading.  This will make a nice student project on the reading habits and social history of rural women in the post-war period.

The York Spring Senior Citizens Club:  As I was looking through the extensive records and scrapbooks kept by this organization I began to wonder when the term “Senior Citizen” came into vogue in America.

York Springs High School:  Records are available tracing education in York Springs from the one-room schoolhouse days of the 19th century to the present.  This would make a nice little online exhibit.

There are a few more projects at York Springs that we are trying to firm up.  Other students will be working in the Dauphin County Historical Society, the Brethren in Christ Church Archives, and a few other places.  It should be a fun course.

And if you get a chance, pay a visit to your local historical society.  You may never know what you might find.

Why Your Historical Organization Should Apply for a AASLH Leadership Award

The American Association for State and Local History has an extensive awards program.  Sign up for this free webinar to learn more about it.  Here is the announcement:

Have you always wondered what the AASLH awards program is? Do you feel that your organization is too small to win a national award? AASLH knows that organizations across the country do amazing work in the field of state and local history and want to recognize your efforts. Join this free informational webinar to learn about the program and why you should apply, no matter what your budget size. Also get tips for how to put together an award-winning nomination. January 9, 2014; 2 to 3 p.m. Eastern; Registration opens November 1. Preregistration Required 

Learn more here.

Documenting Hurricane Sandy

I just learned that the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), along with Historypin, Google, the New York Library Council, and the Society of American Archivists are working on an online project to document Hurricane Sandy.  Learn more about it here or watch this video:

Here is a taste of the AASLH’s call for participants:

Seven months after Hurricane Sandy swept over the Caribbean and up the Eastern seaboard of the United States, communities are still rebuilding in its wake. The deadliest and most destructive hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, Sandy left at least 285 people dead across seven countries, with additional material damages of over $75 billion.
It is very important for our nation’s history organizations to participate in projects like this. When a national disaster strikes our country, the power of history plays a crucial role in the cultural preservation and long term recovery of devastated communities. As keepers of our nation’s history, we hold the records and memories of state and local history. 
AASLH strongly encourages history organizations and those with connections to the areas affected by Hurricane Sandy to contribute to this important project so that history is not lost forever. 
Local historical societies give us a unique perspective on the patterns of natural disasters. The Newport Historical Society, for example, has shared photos of Sandy and other hurricanes reaching back to 1938, documenting the way people have come together to help one another again and again.