Street Smarts

This week’s reading from Nearby History was all about cultural landscapes. Walking down the street and observing your surroundings gives the adept local historian insight into the history of a community. Stages of growth, community values, and details about the lives of the people in the community can often be discerned by paying attention. This chapter, like previous ones, listed many practical questions to help historians tease out facts and observations about nearby history. It was one of the most interesting chapters because it deals with the everyday, mundane sights that are often overlooked as rich sources of historical information. Roads, signs, construction materials, and architectural styles can all be used to draw conclusions about the community. Understanding that “people and buildings exist in an organic relationship” is important for the nearby historian. (183)


Looking east on Riverside Street in early Spokane. Source: Northwest Room, Spokane Public Library

One of the best questions posed by Kyvig and Marty is how “natural features, a river for example, shape a city? How did a railway reshape it? And how did an interstate highway or airport reshape it again?” (181) Spokane is the perfect city to examine using this set of questions. Obviously the Spokane River was a key factor in determining the location of Spokane and its first urban development. Railroads also became extremely important to Spokane’s growing industries and economy, and they were established very early in the history of Spokane. That makes sense looking at the layout of the city because the railroad lines are fairly close to Spokane’s source of vitality at the time—the river. When I-90 was built years later, it was set back a bit from where the river and rails were. Spokane was no longer dependent on transporting lumber that had been milled near the river, so the transportation corridor didn’t need to be so close to the water. The airport was built a few miles outside of Spokane’s downtown area, which drew businesses and people to the western reaches of the city. Using questions like this to critically analyze my hometown over the past week has been an interesting exercise, and made me realize how much information is all around me.

This week we also read an example of somebody going out to analyze a town and putting questions like these into practice. Lucy Salmon simply walked down the main street of Apokeepsing with a keen eye and was able to conclude an unbelievable amount of information. Some of her most interesting conclusions had to do with the evolution of Apokeepsing business, the names of streets, and picking up on the ancient and medieval customs that could still be seen in the modern day. She also had a lot to say about the roots of words like those displayed on “the signs of chiropodists, dentists, manicurists,” and other places. Salmon asserts that Main Street would be a “void” if all of the signs were “removed that bear words of Greek or Latin origin.” (2) Salmon points out that we cannot necessarily “reconstruct the history of Main Street in its entirety” with methods like this, but we can certainly “reconstruct its changing and successive interests” and get to know the “mind and spirit of Main Street.” (5)


Actresses and Artifacts


The Auditorium Theater in Spokane, 1899. Source: Ned M. Barnes Northwest Room.

Show Town by Holly George was a fascinating read about early Spokane. One of the most interesting stories told in Show Town is the public battle between actress Jessie Shirley and evangelist Billy Sunday in 1909. Shirley was an actress from the East that took up residence at the Auditorium for over four years. She became a darling of Spokane society, and the Spokanites “adopted her as one of their own.” (154) Billy Sunday came to town with the hope that “his plainspoken, slang-filled style would appeal to the masses of workingmen” that filtered in and out of Spokane. (154) During his stay in town, the newspapers devoted a lot of space to broadcasting his views. He asserted that all actresses were harlots and that theater had no place in a decent Spokane. Shirley fought back by penning an eloquent letter in defense of theater and her piety, then she got her letter published in the Chronicle. Many Spokanites ended up siding with Shirley, and the theater scene in Spokane lived to see another day. This story is interesting because it shows the struggle between old Victorian values and the new wave of “twentieth-century progress.” (155)


A Spokane actress in a risqué costume during the 1920s. Source: Joel E. Ferris Archives.


An actress posing on the Liberty Theater stage in 1920s Spokane. Source: Joel E. Ferris Archives.

Something that Show Town does well it using theater to delve into other avenues of life in Spokane during the turn of the century. This is especially true when it comes to gender relations and the changing role of women in society. The story of Shirley vs. Sunday already shows that the role of women was changing. An actress openly disagreed with a man of God, and she wasn’t chastised for it. She actually received “numerous notes and telephone calls, most of them approving her position.” (155) George also gives the background on some other main players in Spokane’s social scene like Helen Campbell and the Murphey sisters. This is important because it gives the reader background on the women in Spokane that were not actresses, but enjoyed attending the high class theaters.


Helen Campbell in Europe, 1910. Source: Joel E. Ferris Archives

Something that is lacking in Show Town is a more detailed look at the common folk that went to vaudeville and other “lower” forms of theatre. In Show Town’s introduction, George acknowledged that most of her sources came from the perspective of middle class Spokanites. Although it may not be George’s fault that there isn’t much source information about this particular demographic, it is still a disappointment not to see more information about a group that was so large and influential in the theater scene. Knowing more about the people that funneled their money into theater and made it grow into a huge social force in Spokane would be interesting.

On a slightly unrelated note, the reading in Nearby History touched on what artifacts are to a local historian and why they are important. Artifacts, unlike pictures, are actual physical objects from the past. Photographs show us one moment in time, while artifacts can be a tool, furniture, or clothing that was possibly used on a daily basis. Artifacts help historians “understand how earlier generations solved daily problems.” (166) They are extremely useful to nearby historians because they help us “understand an earlier culture and the events that went into the making of it.” (166)

Writing Local History

Show Town: Theatre and Culture in the Pacific Northwest 1890-1920 by Holly George is an engaging read. This is a very enjoyable book, partly because it is focused on Spokane, and partly because George has a knack for writing interesting prose. A quick skimming of Holly George’s sources for Show Town shows that she utilized many unpublished sources like personal letters, diaries, and census records. She also voiced frustrations that most “records about Spokane’s theatrical experience come from middle-class sources,” which is an important detail for readers to be aware of. (5) George, much like Thrush in Native Seattle, successfully used a specific topic to inform readers about a much broader subject. Theatre was used as a jumping off point to examine morality, gender roles, societal norms, class divisions, and sexuality in early Spokane.

As demonstrated by Show Town, local history requires the use of both published and unpublished sources. Chapter 4 of Nearby History points out that, whatever the source, “historians do not passively read documents.” (2) Chapter 5 goes on to say that it is important to examine documents with a critical eye because the people creating these sources did not make them for “the convenience of some hypothetical future historian.” (3) Thankfully, it is a great time to be a local historian. Technology has provided instantaneous access to a vast amount of information, although in the field of local history some legwork is almost always necessary. When considering online access to information, modern researchers should also keep in mind the “perils of relying on private corporations to provide what could be a public utility.” R.I.P. Google Newspaper Archive. Forever in our hearts. It also it worth reiterating that no matter where information is obtained it is possible that it is erroneous.  Often time biases, intentional omissions, or honest to goodness mistakes work their way into documents. “There is a natural tendency to assume that information in cold, hard print must be accurate,” but historians should remember that even the U.S. National Archives has contained information that has proven inaccurate. (6)

Sometimes local historians are required to look to unique sources for information. Even something like a piece of art can communicate information about the person or event depicted and the community that commissioned it. A statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate lieutenant general and the first Grand Wizard of the KKK, has recently caused a stir in Memphis.


Nathan Bedford Forrest in 1863. Source: Library of Congress

The city council voted to move the statue of the Confederate poster boy from a park in downtown Memphis to a cemetery, but the Tennessee Historical Commission denied the relocation. Regardless of the controversy, many details about the past and present community can be gathered from examining the statue.  For example, Nate DiMeo’s podcast “The Memory Palace” explains that even though the artist wanted the statue to face south to catch the light better, the community demanded that Forrest face northwards so it didn’t appear that he was retreating. Information like this may not be apparent when observing something around town, but with a little digging and critical thinking local historians can glean useful information from almost anything.


Reading Your Surroundings

Native Seattle was full of examples of outsiders looking in on the native culture and making determinations about what the natives thought or felt about life in Seattle. One anthropologist from the 1930s declared that the natives of Puget Sound “had come through remarkably well.” (151) They may have lost their homes, traditions, and lifestyle, but at least their culture was celebrated in Seattle by the white Seattleites.  Or at least what the Seattleites viewed as the native culture was celebrated. The Tilikums of Elttaes, a white men’s booster organization that was made up of the “most powerful men in Seattle”, had parades and potlaches. (133) “The potlach became the inspiration for appropriation” and soon native traditions became interwoven with the unique Seattle culture and their tourism industry. (132) What more needed to be done to preserve native culture? Apparently not much in the opinion of the dominant culture. This mindset is not unique to Seattle of course. Even in Spokane one the city’s most “fondly-remembered early white immigrants to Spokane,” Daniel Drumheller, was accused of brutally murdering an Indian man. Mistreatment of natives and their culture is sadly an American tradition.

Chapters 2 and 3 of Nearby History proved to be a very helpful, informative resource for researchers. I could definitely see myself using it to guide my research in the future because it is full of practical advice on how to focus and plan out your research. In college there seems to be plenty of training on how to find sources, but it is often assumed that students know what questions to ask when researching. This book helps bridge that gap, and was full of many practical, thought-provoking questions to help researchers draw more detail out of their given topic. One of the questions I found most interesting in chapter 2 was “by what criteria—financial, educational, occupational, or social—did the family measure success?” (12) Another important truth Nearby History conveyed is that as researchers we must be flexible to get the most interesting and effective story. Understanding that “as research goes forward obstacles, unexpected resources, better approaches, and more worthwhile topics often reveal themselves” is an important truth that many beginner researchers don’t take to heart. (3)

I also appreciated that chapter 3 discussed training oneself to read the sources that surround us constantly. We take the information communicated to us by buildings, manhole covers, and even post offices for granted, and because of that we are “missing the vast majority of what is happening around [us].” (13)


This photo of a manhole being constructed in Spokane in 1949 shows how much work went into things we take for granted today. Even from simple things, there is information to be gathered for the nearby historian’s research. Source: Washington State Digital Archive

These commonplace things often times don’t seem important to us, but thinking critically about our surroundings can unearth a significant amount of information about the history of a community. For example, one day Winifred Gallagher was thinking about post offices and came to the conclusion that they essentially created the United States. This idea inspired her to write a book entitled How the Post Office Created America.

post office

Winifred Gallagher’s book, How the Post Office Created America, is an example of how simple idea or question can morph into a serious research project.

I am excited to learn more about reading my own surroundings as sources, and look forward to the interesting stories about my community I will discover along the way.

Engaging Nonfiction is Possible!

Native Seattle by Coll Thrush is a great example of an engaging, informative, and thought-provoking book. He skillfully brings readers to the conclusion that “Seattle’s indigenous and urban landscapes were often closer together than they seemed.” (101) Many have bought into the impression that “there was very little room for indigenous people” in Seattle after the white settlers arrived, but Thrush’s narrative shows the many ways that natives stayed connected to Seattle in years to come. (93) Thrush’s writing is a pleasure to read, and is chock-full of specific details about Seattle’s early days.

Comparing Thrush’s Native Seattle and Kyvig and Marty’s Nearby History highlighted a few technical flaws in the latter. Thrush uses a short sentence structure that is easy to read. In contrast, Kyvig and Marty’s sentences often last the length of a paragraph. This disconnects the reader, resulting in material that is skimmed instead of studied. Kyvig and Marty also stuck photos in one big blob, and didn’t even label which photo was of which city. I also noticed that they included a page and a half excerpt from some other book, and didn’t really explain why it was there. I suppose it was to demonstrate the “micro-histories” they were referring to earlier, although I thought the excerpt was poorly written and did not benefit my understanding of the subject at hand. (10) It seemed mostly unnecessary to me. To make matters worse, the photos and excerpt were inserted in seemingly random locations. Sentences were actually split in half by these extras, which disrupted the flow of the book.

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An example of a sentence that disengages the reader from Kyvig and Marty.

Examining the content of Kyvig and Marty’s Nearby History left me wanting a more detailed, modern take on local history. I thought there were some interesting topics discussed, but all-together found the information a bit dated. A specific area that was greatly lacking was the description of the internet as a resource for historical research. The value of the internet seems to be underplayed in this book because the authors are either too lazy or too old-school to explain it. They claim that “a variety of other research methods may be more appropriate and less difficult to master.” (12) This may be true in some cases, but the reality is that the majority of modern research at least begins with the internet. A great improvement could be made to this book by exploring the internet as tool more thoroughly.

Reading a variety of nonfiction books has made me extremely aware of the value of presenting your research from a specific angle. A great example of this is the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture’s Waterlines webpage that “examines the history of Seattle through a focus on its shorelines.” Taking a broad area of research and framing it from a certain perspective makes it much more engaging for the reader. As previously discussed, another excellent example of using a specific angle to tell a narrative is Thrush’s Native Seattle.

Atypical Sources for History Research

Historians often have a limited view of sources—newspapers, journals and scholarly articles are cited without fail. Obviously, these tried-and-true sources have great value, but it is a mistake to overlook less typical sources when researching a community. Buildings, Sanborn maps, graveyards, and historic register nomination forms are all examples of possible sources that are often overlooked. These sources are especially valuable when researching for local history projects where other sources aren’t readily available.

A great example of synthesizing atypical sources is Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place by Coll Thrush. Thrush “used sources typical of any ethnohistorical project” like oral histories, anthropologists’ notes, and archeological studies, but he didn’t stop there. (XV) He also utilized engineers’ reports, neighborhood studies, and indigenous topical names. In the preface of his book, Thrush discusses the process of “triangulating between these sources” to form a cohesive story. Reading between the lines is very important when using abnormal sources. For example, Thrush argues that in many documents “absences [turn] into evidence.” (XV) Drawing conclusions based on both information that is there and information that is missing can be vital to researching specific topics.

In Native Seattle, Thrush examines the native history that both precedes and continued after the arrival of white settlers in the Seattle area. His choice of topic was interesting to me because he selected two subjects that the general public doesn’t associate with one another—urban life and Native Americans. Showing how these topics overlap requires the use of many unusual sources because there aren’t a many sources that reference both subjects. For example, Thrush used Pioneer Square, which he described as “an archive of urban narratives,” as a source in his writing. (14)

Another interesting approach Thrush used was framing his story through the lens of a location. Thrush explained that his book is “about a place as much as it is a story about a people, and it is a story about us in the present as much as it is about historical actors.” (7) This was an interesting move on his part, and this choice helped keep his writing engaging because it continually brings the reader back to Seattle and its people. Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place by Coll Thrush is an interesting read as a history student, not only for its content, but also for its writing methods.

The Connection Between History and Land

What connection does land and history have? The National Park Service had its beginnings in 1872 with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park. Since then the land protected by the National Park Service has grown to 84.6 million acres. The NPS originally managed lands that had been chosen for its natural beauty and for the enjoyment of the public. Soon afterward they started to acquire land with historic value as well. It was until 1931 that the National Park Service hired its first chief historian, Verne Chatelain.

“Chatelain envisioned turning the haphazard collection of NPS historic properties into an integrated national program that presented a coherent, thematic, narrative of American history.” From that point on, the NPS began the precarious act of balancing the preservation of historic sites and the desire to offer an interpretation of these sites to visitors by establishing “a vital relationship between visitors and the memorialized people and events.” At the time it was presumed that a well-informed historian could create a perfectly accurate interpretation. No thought was given to the idea of shared-authority, and it was expected that the historians creating the interpretation would come to “noncontroversial” conclusions that would “spare NPS from criticism.”

Some people don’t seem to care how controversial they are, especially when it comes to the topic of the Civil War in the South. Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz is a compelling combination of entertaining, ridiculous, and horrifying material. Horwitz embarks on a journey across the South intent on discovering why so many people still hold so tightly to the Civil War and Confederacy. He is met by the completely obsessed, well-intentioned farbs, downright racists, and some people who are simply dreaming of a simpler 19th century style life. Horwitz found that those in favor of reenactments viewed it as an “escapism” for those that “want to get back to a simpler time.” (16) On the other side of the spectrum, the author of Imperiled Promise fears that “these battlefields become memorial and commemorative sites, rather than places that prompted historical reflection.”

As The Presence of the Past pointed out, people interact with history in a wide variety of ways. One of the ways that was particularly discussed in Confederates in the Attic was reenactments, especially of the Civil War. Reenactments take place on a regular basis nation-wide, but are especially prominent in the South. Another popular history hobby for many is tracing your family genealogy. In the South, many people pride themselves on tracing ancestry back to Civil War soldiers, and even join societies like Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy. Organizations like these have sparked many controversies. Should people be paying homage to the Confederacy? Many people, especially blacks, take great offense at the flying of the Confederate flag. It is easy to see why the hoisting of the Confederate banner is offensive, yet many Sothern’s refuse to let their proud Confederate past die. As Horwitz touched on, the flying of the Confederate flag has even ignited senseless killings in recent years.

Many Southerners feel very connected to their Confederate past, and one reason is that the war was fought in their backyards. They have battlefields and cemeteries filled with soldiers pervading their modern lives. In a way they are still immersed in the landscape of the past, and perhaps that is one of the reasons many Southerners have trouble letting go of the Civil War. There is certainly a strong connection between history and the land that it happened on.

Emotion, Shared-Authority, and Public Participation in History

Should historians allow emotions to affect their research, or should they maintain a clinical distance from their subject? Cauvin argues that “historians have been trained to avoid any personal involvement in their writing and personal connection with the subject of their research.” (217) There are obviously reasons that policies like this are in place. Protecting academia from a researchers’ unfair bias or an ulterior motive is important, but is this guiding principle distancing historians from the public?

According to Rosenzweig and Thelen’s research, the public is extremely interested in history. Americans stated that “they wanted to participate in the larger past, to experience it, to reach into history by reaching outward from their own lives.” (115) Most people are in fact interested in the broader history of nations, but that interest is often rooted in the past of that individual’s family. Ignoring the humanity of events like the World Wars, the Vietnam War, or the Great Depression cuts out the part of history that most of the public is interested in—the people. That being said, emotions and nostalgia that are not based in facts are not beneficial to the public. Because of this, facts and figures serve an extremely important purpose. They should always be available to the public to back up the narrative that they are being presented with.

Cauvin goes on to discuss the impact historians have on “conveying the history of voiceless people who have suffered” in the past, especially minorities. (241) In the survey completed for in Rosenzweig and Thelen’s book, many members of minority groups shared their candid thoughts about history, the government, traditions, and family. For example, when talking with Mexican American citizens the interviewers found that “the family became a medium for navigating between personal and group identity.” (143) Cauvin reminds historians that they “should not speak in place of native populations,” and that history should “not just about native populations, but also be produced with them.” (233)

The discussion surrounding the relationship between historians and the public leads into a current hot-topic in the public history world—shared authority. Should the public have a say in how history is presented? How much of a say? Should historians trust the accounts of people who were there over their scholarly research? This is still a debated topic amongst historians and Cauvin references many scholarly works that have been written within the past decade on this topic. Cauvin concludes that “everyone can participate in public history, but not every opinion is equal.” (225)

Historians’ understanding of the past gives them a unique opportunity to participate in political activism in the present. They are often tentative to participate in political activism, because they have been trained not to impose their own biases on events, but Cauvin points out that “history can help people understand the complexities of the present.” (230) Studying the past gives historians valuable insight into the smaller social movements that made larger national movements possible. Understanding the interplay between these two forces gives historians the ability to “help people to become better citizens.” (Cauvin, 230)

Public historians should embrace the unique set of specialties that they possess. Skills in researching, a specialized knowledge of the past, and an interest in a well-informed public lends itself quite nicely to participation in activism and social justice. Interacting closely with marginalized people groups, and understanding the ripples of the past that are still being felt today by many people allows public historians to be passionate, empathetic, and well-informed political activists.

Writing for the Public

In 1994, a survey conducted by the Center for Survey Research at Indiana University interviewed over 1,000 U.S. citizens of varying ages, occupations, and ethnic backgrounds about how they use history in their everyday lives. In The Presence of the Past, Rosenzwig and Thelen relate the findings of this survey. Some of the most popular uses of history included looking at “photographs with family and friends,” and taking “photographs or videos to preserve memories.” (19) Only 53% of those interviewed claimed to have read a book about the past in the last 12 months, and the study found that people didn’t feel nearly as connected to the past reading a book as they did “celebrating a holiday,” or venturing to a historic site with family and friends. (19-20) Why does reading the opinions and findings of history professionals rank so lowly in the public’s mind? Perhaps it is because many academic historians do not know how to write in a way that captures the interest of the public.

Writing for public history purposes needs to be concise, purposeful, and appeal to “non-specialist readers” (Cauvin, 115). According to Cauvin, “the main point/argument should be available in the first paragraph,” and hook the reader’s interest. (118) If the reader cannot tell what the article or book is about, they probably won’t keep reading it. A great example of this from previous readings can be found on the Spokane Historic Preservation Office’s website. Recently, the Spokane HPO received an in-depth report that was over 200 pages long about the history of Riverfront Park. The report contained a lot of interesting information, but they knew the public wouldn’t read something so long and technical. The Spokane HPO’s solution was to create a few public-friendly webpages that related the most pertinent and interesting information, and made the longer report accessible to the public if people wanted to read more.


Cauvin also notes that professional historians usually “try to be objective,” which results in writing that is considered dull by many public audiences. (118) Failing to “overcome habits of professionalization,” as Rosenzwig and Thelen call it, disconnects the reader emotionally. (4) That is not to say that we should sensationalize history, or blow emotions out of proportion, but embracing the humanity of history is something that helps better engage the public. Taking a cue from writers, such as journalists, trained to tell an interesting story focused on people, might be necessary to relate with the public at large.

Another important aspect of public history writing is the modern technology widely available to writers. Web-based content has the potential to be enhanced with photos, videos, links to relevant information, and much more. Cauvin points out that this reality has made many forms of public history writing “like creating a tradition exhibit, with multiple components and media.” (123) The complexity and layers of content that are possible, even in a simple blog post, are staggering. When writing for a general audience, public historians should focus on creating content that is clear and concise. The material should also take advantage of the technological tools that are available to them.

Small Town History

The landscape of eastern Washington is undeniably defined by Spokane. With a population of over 210,000 it dominates the area, but there was a time when a small town nearby held the county seat for Spokane County. Cheney, Washington is currently considered little more than a college town by many, but Cheney actually has a very rich history of its own.

Cheney was founded in 1878, and it was initially predicted to become the railroad hub of eastern Washington. This plan didn’t pan out however, so Cheney was left looking for something to set them apart from neighboring Spokane. The answer came in the form of an abandoned school building, originally constructed to house the Benjamin P. Cheney Academy in 1882. The Cheney Academy only lasted a few years after construction, and the abandoned school building became the State Normal School at Cheney, which would one day become the Eastern Washington University we know today.

Cheney’s history is interesting in many ways, and is both peculiar and tragic at times. The first interesting incident in the small town’s history involved Cheney stealing the county seat from Spokane Falls in 1881. After a disagreement about the vote count, Spokane Falls claimed the county seat as their own. Cheney didn’t like this, so they snuck into Spokane Falls in the dead of night and stole all of the county books. Spokane Falls didn’t regain the county seat until a reelection 5 years later. Cheney has also been victim of two fires that devastated the city, one in 1891 and one in 1912. These fires both occurred on the school campus, and were devastating blows to the already financially-struggling Cheney.

For Spokane Historical, I am interested in telling the story of the Philena Apartments in Cheney. These apartments are located along the Cheney local bus route, so I have noticed them many times before. The building is currently owned by the fraternity organization Sigma Phi Epsilon, but in the early 1900s was occupied by EWU faculty. I am also interested in telling the story of the Bennett Block in downtown Spokane, constructed in 1890. Bennett Block currently houses locally-owned businesses like Indaba Coffee and Mizuna. I am very interested in telling the story of buildings that I already interact with on a consistent basis.

There are many resources available for researching local history, and the Cheney/Spokane area is no exception. The Washington State Digital Archives and Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture are both great resources for researching eastern Washington. They both house documents and photos in a format that is easily accessible to the public. For more specific information about Cheney, the Eastern Washington University Libraries Digital Collection holds many helpful photographs and diagrams. The Cheney Historic Preservation Commission has also published guides for both the Central Cheney Historic District and the Eastern Washington University Historic District. Some helpful resources for researching the history of Spokane include the Northwest Room, located in the downtown Spokane Public Library, and the Spokane Historic Preservation Office’s website.

People often times look at a small town like Cheney and don’t think that anything interesting has happened in its history. However, if you know the right places to look, small towns often come alive with interesting, tragic, and fascinating stories of their own.