Building a Regional Context for Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

DanielBoone

My primary objective this summer has been to flesh out a regional context for the creation and development of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. It is easy to treat parks as islands by only looking at what occurs inside the boundary. I think one of the hardest challenges for administrators is to reach outside the park to forge meaningful relationships with surrounding communities, while also guiding regional environmental and cultural policy. That is why when I research park histories it is critical that I understand the various historical drivers in the surrounding region that shaped the park. Furthermore, understanding these drivers and past relationships can help guide a park toward better public engagement and resource policy in the future.

Cumberland Gap NHP poses a unique challenge because it lies within three counties in three different states. My research looks at the relationship of social reform, environmental conservation, and historic preservation–charting changes in these relationships over time. My time frame covers three major periods of twentieth century reform: the Progressive Era, New Deal, and Great Society.

This post is about methodology. How am I building this regional context? Well, first I turned to secondary sources and those historians who have already written about the area. Next, I scoured the local newspaper, looking for important events in Bell County, Kentucky, Claiborne County, Tennessee, and Lee County, Virginia. I focused mainly on articles relating to New Deal and Great Society programs. Park records often include newspaper clippings related to the park, which I have already scanned. I was looking for less obvious connections to the park.

For example, I learned through the newspaper that the Bartlett Park area was developed in the 1920s by the local chapter of the Playground Association of America. It was subsequently developed as a Works Progress Administration project during the New Deal. This is important information, because it was later developed into the Gap Job Corps Center. To me, this shows that the Bartlett Park area was heavily shaped by human conservation ideas as early as the 1920s and continued until the 1960s.

Bath House (no longer extant) constructed by Works Progress Administration at Bartlett-Rhodes Park, originally established by Middlesboro Chapter of the Playground Association of America in 1920s. Photo courtesy of Kentucky Digital Library, Goodman-Paxton Collection.

Bath House (no longer extant) constructed by Works Progress Administration at Bartlett-Rhodes Park, originally established by Middlesboro Chapter of the Playground Association of America in 1920s. Photo courtesy of Kentucky Digital Library, Goodman-Paxton Collection.

Cumberland Gap NHP headquarters located in Bartlett Park. Section of building was part of the Gap Job Corps Center. Later expanded for Federal Highway Administration.

Cumberland Gap NHP headquarters located in Bartlett Park. A section of building was part of the Gap Job Corps Center. It was later expanded for Federal Highway Administration.

I also sought out local historical organizations in each county for help. Unfortunately, only the Bell County Historical Society responded to my inquiries. I spent some time at their museum and the Bell County Public Library. Much to my surprise, the library had a whole folio of Job Corps material, mostly camp newspapers. I have talked to historians at Lincoln Memorial University, which have helped in understanding the Claiborne County perspective. However, my understanding of Lee County is thin and no one from the Lee County Historical Society answered my messages.

What could I do? Well, I took a drive. I left Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, and drove through towns I have seen in the records: Rose Hill, Ewing, Jonesville, and Pennington Gap. I stopped briefly at Wilderness Road State Park, which interprets the frontier period. I gazed upwards to White Rocks. It’s a good four to five hour hike to the top—well worth it I hear. I stopped at the Thomas Walker Civitan Park, which serves as a trailhead to White Rocks and Sand Cave. The Civitan group developed the park in the 1960s, and later I found a newspaper article reporting the club’s opposition to the NPS’s 1967 wilderness proposal.

Thomas Walker Civitan Club Pavilion in Ewing, VA

Thomas Walker Civitan Club Pavilion in Ewing, VA

I drove a bit further outside of Lee County to Big Stone Gap in Wise County to explore Southwest Virginia State Park. Although the museum mostly focused on Wise County, the exhibits gave me a better picture of the region’s history of absentee land ownership, coal mining, conservation, and historic preservation in the area. It was well worth the stop.

Southwest Virginia State Park

Southwest Virginia State Park, housed in beautiful 1890s mansion.

Many of my questions have led to new questions, but at some point I have to remind myself to not lose track of my objectives. The challenge now is to pull all these threads together in a narrative that enriches the complex history of the park. It is easy to feel overwhelmed when trying to understand so many different aspects—some of which may not appear to be related—but I find it works best when you are able to ground these ideas in the landscape.

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Margaret Brown’s, The Wild East

Margaret Brown, The Wild East: A Biography of the Great Smoky Mountains (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000).

Summer residences at Elkmont that have been held as life leases for most of the twentieth century have provoked outrage from residents and descendants who lost their homes when Great Smoky Mountains National Park was created.

Summer residences at Elkmont that have been held as life leases for most of the twentieth century have provoked outrage from residents and descendants who lost their homes when Great Smoky Mountains National Park was created.

This weekend, I finished reading Margaret Brown’s,  The Wild East, an environmental history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I am sort of embarrassed that this book has been off my radar until my dissertation proposal defense back in April. Several people have mentioned it to me since then and my guilt for not reading it steadily mounted.

Reading this book was definitely a humbling experience. Brown masterfully described the pre-park landscape and subsequent development of the national park all the way until the late-1990s. (She published this work in 2000).  She talked about how park boosters and planners manufactured a wilderness out of an area that had been heavily occupied. They appropriated ideas from western national parks about what they thought a national park should be as they crafted the first eastern national park. For example, the popularity of horseback riding concessions in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is drawn from favorite visitor attractions at national parks in the west.

My chest grew tense when I first picked up the volume fearing that Brown had already accomplished what I am hoping to explore in my dissertation on Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. Those feelings of self-doubt began to subside when I reminded myself that a) Brown worked on this project for ten years, and b) she’s an environmental historian. I have been working on my Cumberland Gap research nowhere near as long. Also, I am not an environmental historian, and I am not trying to write an environmental history. I am, however, trying to weave the environmental story with changing ideas of social reform and historic preservation at Cumberland Gap. My story of Great Smoky Mountains would be a good bit different that Brown’s.

Brown’s work is an excellent point of comparison for Cumberland Gap, though. Park boosters in the Tri-State area were looking at the Great Smoky Mountains as a model for developing Cumberland Gap. However, they saw both the scenic and historical value of the area, which set it apart from its predecessor.  Similarly, the states widely used condemnation to acquire parklands, although Cumberland Gap did not displace nearly as many people as those communities entirely removed from the Great Smoky Mountains.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park was the first park to undergo public wilderness hearings after the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964. Brown described the tensions between park administrators, environmental advocates, and local boosters. Similar to Cumberland Gap, environmental advocates felt that the NPS fell way short in protecting wilderness areas in the park, while park boosters opposed any limitations in park development that might have an adverse impact on the the burgeoning tourism industry. Brown probed the idea of “wilderness” during this debate as I do at Cumberland Gap, since both parks had long histories of human occupation.  I also noted with interest her story about the public’s desires to keep the balds from becoming wilderness in the 1960s and 1970s. The balds are an interesting landscape that resulted from farmers grazing livestock high on the ridgetops . The park biologist at the time recommended designating these landscapes as historic, but instead they were managed as “experimental research zones.” Similar to Hensley settlement at Cumberland Gap, Great Smoky Mountains park managers struggled to reconcile historic landscapes with wilderness values.

However, Brown omits the creation of two Job Corps centers at the park during this same period, even though she spends nearly a chapter talking about the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The NPS and Office of Economic Opportunity approved centers at Tremont near Cades Cove and Oconaluftee near the Eastern Band of Cherokee.  I would think that the Oconaluftee Job Corps Center would be an important part of the relationship between the park and the Cherokee, especially since that center is one of three in national parks still operating today.

Cades Cove is now a popular attraction to see remnants of a former mountain community, although its landscape has been considerably altered by the NPS.

Cades Cove is now a popular attraction to see remnants of a former mountain community, although its landscape has been considerably altered by the NPS.

I like Brown’s argument about how park boosters and planners incorporated ideas of the west while manufacturing this eastern wilderness. I think it raises some interesting points, but I fear it does a disservice when considering how this park contributes to Appalachian regional identity. For example, she interprets the management of Cades Cove as contributing to this western image. “ In its own way, the scenic frontier created on the loop road complemented western trail riding in Cataloochee, the ski resort in Gatlinsburg, and the Wild West show in Cherokee” (208). To me, Cades Cove indicates how park planners conceived of, manufactured, and sold the idea of Appalachia to tourists, by removing the residents; razing the more modern buildings of the park and keeping the log cabins; keeping the fields open as meadowland; and building an auto tour loop around the community.

To this point, I have not noticed a “wild west” theme with the development of Cumberland Gap, but it is something I will consider moving forward in my research.

Despite my quibblings, this is a great park history. It is a perfect example of how a park history, when done well, is useful to many audiences. Historians, scientists, administrators, and visitors can all find something to connect to here. I can truly appreciate this as I struggle through my own research and writing.

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Notes from the Landscape: Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

The first time I visited Cumberland Gap National Historical Park was in January 2013. It was freezing and rained the entire week. I also picked up a nice cold on the drive down, which meant I spent a miserable week sniffling in the park archives. I returned last week to continue my dissertation research and was met with sunshine, warm temperature, and long days. I gladly explored the park and surrounding area in the evenings.

View from the Pinnacle

View from the Pinnacle

I met Natalie Sweet immediately upon arriving in Harrogate, Tennessee, for coffee and a tour of Lincoln Memorial University and the town of Cumberland Gap. Natalie was very gracious and knowledgeable of the area, and I enjoyed learning about her research projects.  After lunch, I met with Carol Campbell and Michelle Ganz at the LMU Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum. They, too, were knowledgeable and gracious and gave me a list of contacts as I picked their brains about the local area.

I dropped my bags off at the hotel in Middlesboro and set off to explore park. I travelled up the windy road constructed by the Sky Land Company in 1929, leading up to the Pinnacle. The observation deck at the top offered stunning views. I next parked my car at the Thomas Walker parking area and hiked a portion of Object Lesson Road, a macadamized road built in 1907 with USDA funds for demonstration roads, to the saddle of the gap. New growth marked where the NPS has undertaken restoration work in the past dozen years after US-25 was relocated. I hiked up to Tri-State Peak where the three governors of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee signed a pact to acquire land for the national park.

At the saddle of the gap

At the saddle of the gap

Standing at the intersection of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia

Standing at the intersection of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia

Tuesday morning I started work in the park archives. I pulled files that had information on the area before the park was created, including newspaper clippings on Alexander Arthur and the American Association. I also found records of the Kentucky National Park Commission, which provide much needed insight into the land acquisition process throughout the 1940s and 1950s. It appears that the commission used condemnation pretty frequently at Cumberland Gap.

I met with new park superintendent Sula Jacobs on Wednesday morning to talk about my project. She was enthusiastic and happy to hear that I plan to be finished in May. Martha Wiley, the park historian, continued to be of invaluable help. She burned a disc with a number of oral history transcripts that I cannot wait to read. I also had the chance to listen to a ranger program given by a descendant of one of the families that used to live in the park. In fact, her extended family came that day to hike to the old home site.

Wayside marking home site of Beason family

Wayside marking home site of Beason family

In the evenings I travelled to Pine Mountain State Park and Kentucky Ridge State Forest. Both were New Deal projects and are located near Pineville, Kentucky. When the park was proposed, Kentucky officials really wanted the NPS to absorb both sites into the national park, but the NPS dodged that request. Both are cool New Deal landscapes to explore today. Laurel Cove Amphitheater, home of the Laurel Festival, took my breath away when I first saw it.

Laurel Cove Amphitheater at Pine Mountain State Park

Laurel Cove Amphitheater at Pine Mountain State Park

Entrance gates to Kentucky Ridge State Forest, originally a Resettlement Administration project during the New Deal

Entrance gates to Kentucky Ridge State Forest, originally a Resettlement Administration project during the New Deal

I also had the opportunity to ground truth some Job Corps resources in the park landscape.  Similar to Mammoth Cave and Catoctin, park administration regularly uses Job Corps buildings for maintenance and other staff uses. Unfortunately, none of the barracks or education buildings remains. I think the Job Corps administrative building now forms the core of the current park headquarters, however I need to look into that some more. The gymnasium is now used for storage and some of the recreation area remains open space while the rest has been converted into wetlands.  Job Corps work projects may still be seen in the park, such as the Sugar Run picnic area and the restoration work at Fort McCook.

Maintenance shop constructed by the Gap Job Corps

Maintenance shop constructed by the Gap Job Corps

Civil War-Era Fort McCook was restored by the Job Corps

Civil War-Era Fort McCook was restored by the Job Corps

On Friday, I joined a small group tour of Hensley Settlement led by Ranger Matthew Graham. Ranger Graham has worked for the park for nearly thirty years and it was a treat to attend his tour. To get to Hensley, we rode in a van nearly an hour–half of which was up an old logging road. Our tour lasted about two hours. It was a beautiful day with a nice breeze and it was very quiet at 3,200 feet. Twelve to fourteen families lived on this five hundred acre plateau from 1904 to 1951. The Hensleys have a reunion every August. The Job Corps restored a number of buildings back in the 1960s. The NPS used to operate a working living history farm there, but has since scaled back because of resources. It was interesting to learn from Ranger Graham how interpretation has changed at the site.

Willie Gibbons Farm at Hensley Settlement. First restored by Gap Job Corps.

Willie Gibbons Farm at Hensley Settlement. First restored by Gap Job Corps.

Ranger Graham at the grave of Sherman Hensley

Ranger Graham at the grave of Sherman Hensley

Colleen, Volunteer in the Park, gives living history program on Hensley Settlement tour. The NPS has greatly scaled back its living history program at Hensley.

Colleen, Volunteer in the Park, gives living history program on Hensley Settlement tour. The NPS has greatly scaled back its living history program at Hensley.

Overall, I think I made significant progress in filling in some gaps for the area’s Progressive-Era history and the park’s development during Mission 66.  I am also starting to build the regional context for the New Deal and the Great Society.  I have a lot of material to analyze now and many more questions, but this was a very productive trip.

Thanks to all my friends who graciously responded to my last post about historiography issues. I received great feedback. In this case, blogging is way better than being in a seminar class!

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Sweet Gaventa! Grappling Over Appalachian Historiography in the Clear Fork Valley

 

Alexander Arthur Museum in Middlesboro, KY

Alexander Arthur Museum in Middlesboro, KY. Housed in the former office of the American Association, Ltd., built around 1890. Photo by Mark Persons, found on waymarking.com.

I don’t think I could have read two books about the same place that are so different like I did this past week. I delved into material that I hope will give me a better context for the Cumberland Gap area for my dissertation work and trying to determine what exactly was the National Park Service’s role in this particular area of Appalachia.

I began with the most recent publication: Natalie Sweet’s Cumberland Gap and Harrogate, a recent addition to Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. Sweet teaches history at Lincoln Memorial University and is currently a Research Fellow at the Lincoln Institute for Leadership and Public Policy.  These Arcadia books follow a formula that is pretty popular with public audiences. Local historians collect historic photographs and weave them together with minimum narrative. I enjoy Arcadia books because the pictures are usually very helpful and author’s provide the “essence” of place in a relatively short space. Sweet’s narrative touches on themes such as the influence of British corporations, the development of Lincoln Memorial University, and the rise of recreational tourism.

Next, I picked up John Gaventa’s 1980 classic political theory work, Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. Gaventa studies the same general area as Sweet—the Clear Fork Valley—including areas of Bell County, Kentucky and Claiborne County, Tennessee. It has been a while since I have had to wade through thick political theory, but Gaventa paints a much different picture of the Clear Fork Valley than Sweet—a region exploited and neglected by outside corporate interests. Similar to Sweet, his historical analysis begins with the arrival of a British corporation, American Association Ltd., which purchased much of the land in the area for industrial development (ie. coal). Industrial development radically reordered society in that area of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. The Company remained in power and established relationships with locals that became the local elite. Over time the Company and local elite exerted their power over the non-elite, which continued up through the 1970s when a group finally spoke out against strip mining practices that threatened their community. Spoiler alert: They lost.

Gaventa shows the various ways in which these non-elite could not work through regulatory powers (governmental or corporate) to have their issues addressed.  His work demonstrates that Appalachians themselves are not victims to their own fatalistic attitudes, but the real ways in which power prevents them from protesting.

Sweet’s book omits the American Association’s land grab of nearly 80,000 acres in the 1890s, instead playing up the personality of Alexander Arthur and the vision he had for the area being a respite for the British and American upper and middle class. Gaventa asserted that the Company and local elite developed an ideology in reinforcing the Company’s legitimacy for being in the area. If taken at full value, Gaventa’s indicate that Sweet’s public history book reinforces this ideology that continues today although I am not sure that is her intention.

Gaventa argued that much of the inequality in the area stemmed from land ownership. Not only did the American Association garble up most of the land in the area, but it refused to let anyone use it. Ever. In the 1970s, the Company still owned over 60,000 acres (about 75% of land in the Clear Fork Valley) and objected to any community project using its property, such as for a community center or health clinic to serve the most impoverished in the area. However, it did support development that helped the local middle-class elites, such as recreation and tourism.

This raises several difficult questions for my work. I should first point out that Gaventa did not consider the state and federal government’s own land acquisition during the twentieth century. During the New Deal, the U.S. Department of Agriculture purchased 14,000 acres of land on Pine Mountain, causing hundreds of families to move. This was followed with the establishment of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park that now includes 24,000 acres. Did the government worsen the land use situation in the area by moving people off of land with nowhere to go in the local area? Did these projects work with or against the power structures of the Company and local elite? For example, my research shows that local boosters wanted the government to purchase most of the land between Pine and Cumberland Mountains for a recreational area, but some of that land certainly had to be owned by the Company. Were boosters trying to grab land back from the Company or would the recreation area serve existing power structures? Did the NPS serve or work against these structures later in the twentieth century? Does the national park serve those ideologies today? How did resentment of “outsiders” play into the wilderness movement in the 1960s? And finally, how did the Hensley family amass 500 acres during the early 1900s when so much land was owned by the American Association? More importantly—why?

These are some tough questions I need to grapple with. I suppose I need to go back to David Whisnant’s Modernizing the Mountaineer and Sara Gregg’s Managing the Mountains to see if they have anything to offer.  I also think I will have to stop by the Arthur Alexander Museum in Middlesboro in the former office of American Association Ltd. (listed on the National Register for Historic Places in 1978) on one of my research trips this summer. If any Appalachian historians out there have any insight to offer, I would love to hear it!

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Notes from the Landscape: Mammoth Cave National Park

I spent two days this week at Mammoth Cave National Park. I never saw any caves. I met with a former Job Corps center director that was at Mammoth Cave when the Great Onyx Job Corps Conservation Center opened in June 1965. He hopes to write a book about the center’s early history and his experiences there. We compared notes, visited the former center site and current center, and met with park resources staff.

Visitor Center completed in 2012.

Visitor Center completed in 2012.

When I first arrived, I did a brief loop around the new park visitor center and museum, which opened in 2012. The museum obviously focuses on caving, but it does have an exhibit panel on the families that lived in the park (later I learned that there were 643 families in the park area!) and the Civilian Conservation Corps. The NPS dedicated the new park in 1941 and had four CCC camps during the New Deal. The exhibit includes a timeline of the cave’s history all the way up to 2012 and marks significant events in the park’s development. The Job Corps is notably absent from the panel, although the CCC is referenced.

Timeline in Mammoth Cave Exhibit Showing Impact of CCC

Timeline in Mammoth Cave exhibit noting impact of CCC.

Same timeline that omits the creation of the Great Onyx Job Corps Center in 1965

Same timeline that omits the creation of the Great Onyx Job Corps Center in 1965

Very little remains of the first Great Onyx Job Corps Center, which is unfortunate because it has a very interesting story.  According to park staff, a group from Chicago built the Blue Grass Country Club and Golf Course on the site (now referred to as Flint Ridge) in 1919. The business did not last long because the climate meant a very short golf season. The CCC chose the golf course for its first CCC camp and placed an African American company there. The CCC tried to move the African American company elsewhere in the park, but received resistance from the local community and so they went to Fort Knox instead. The company returned to Flint Ridge, which the CCC named “Camp Mammoth.” Similar to the Catoctin Job Corps Center, the Office of Economic Opportunity and NPS chose the former CCC site as a Job Corps center location in 1964. The center opened in June 1965. The Great Onyx center survived the 1969 cuts, which closed most of the centers administered by the NPS. However, the center moved to a new location several years later. Apparently a sewage lagoon was leaking into the Chrystal Cave below causing environmental issues. The Job Corps relocated the Great Onyx center across the river where it remains today.

View down road leading to former Great Onyx Job Corps Conservation Center site at Flint Ridge area of Mammoth Cave National Park.

View down road leading to former Great Onyx Job Corps Conservation Center site at Flint Ridge area of Mammoth Cave National Park.

We had a chance to tour the new center where we met with staff and some of the corpsmen (although the corpsmen now refer to themselves as students). Much of the structure and goals from the War on Poverty remain today. This center is residential and serves young adults along the east coast. But now this center is co-ed and administered by the U.S. Forest Service. Students can train in carpentry, plumbing, welding, urban forestry, computer tech, and business administration. One of the more successful programs is the urban forestry program, which trains students to trim and remove trees in populated settings. The instructor proudly pointed out that many of his students are in high demand and go on to have successful careers in top-tier companies. It seems that these urban foresters are carrying on the CCC’s legacy in conservation training.

Inside Urban Forestry classroom at present Great Onyx Job Corps Center.

Inside the Urban Forestry classroom at present Great Onyx Job Corps Center. Students use tree to learn how to tie different knots and other skills.

While not much remains of the first Great Onyx Job Corps Center, the work of the corpsmen  lives on in the park landscape. I saw almost ten buildings from the Job Corps-era in the central administration area. These buildings co-exist with structures built by the CCC creating a fascinating landscape of both New Deal and Great Society architecture. This occurs in two distinct areas of the central administration area: facilities management and housing. Corpsmen also did a significant amount of work outside the park in local communities. I would like to know if any of those work projects remain today.

Two CCC-era maintenance buildings flank a long Job Corps shop and garage. All are still in use today.

Two CCC-era maintenance buildings flank a long Job Corps shop and garage. All are still in use today.

Plaque on seasonal housing building indicating that it was built by the Great Onyx Job Corps.

Plaque on seasonal housing dormitory indicating that it was built by the Great Onyx Job Corps.

Cluster of New Deal houses built for staff quarters.

Cluster of New Deal houses built for staff quarters.

House that was identified as being built by Job Corps across the lane from New Deal park staff quarters.

House that was identified as being built by Job Corps across the lane from New Deal park staff quarters. There are also MISSION 66 houses in this area.

I believe that Mammoth Cave shares similarities to both Catoctin and Cumberland Gap and is an interesting point of comparison for the two. I think the park could benefit from a study on social reform programs (similar to the one at Catoctin), which would shape how the park’s history is interpreted. It also contributes to our understanding of park development in Appalachia. Like Cumberland Gap, this park has a long history of human occupation and as a park staff person told us, “wilderness” was the “dirty word” in the 1960s. This park had the added pressure of dealing with concessioners and science-oriented friends groups, notably the Cave Research Foundation.

Special thanks to park and Job Corps staff for being so accommodating, curious, and helpful! My apologies to the Job Corps students who thought I was a new enrollee touring the center.

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Back in the Volunteer State

I submitted the first draft of residency study to the NPS on April 15 and made my way back to Middle Tennessee shortly thereafter to meet with my committee for my portfolio and dissertation proposal defense. I submitted a twenty-plus page reflection essay, online portfolio, and dissertation proposal to my committee and met with them so they could probe me and test my mettle one more time before they send me off to write my dissertation. Severe thunderstorms rolled through Middle Tennessee that day–the kind of storms that can easily morph into tornadoes. Fortunately no funnel clouds emerged and I passed! Overall, the defense was a pretty enjoyable experience–almost the complete opposite of my oral exams back in August.

Another piece of good news is that MTSU has awarded me the Provost Writing Fellowship. I am so excited that this opportunity will allow me to focus exclusively on my dissertation so I can graduate next May. (POTENTIAL EMPLOYERS: I AM GRADUATING NEXT MAY)

While I was yammering during my defense, I received an email from the George Wright Society informing me that the digital issue of the Forum is available. This particular issue has my paper on New Deal parks that I presented in March 2013. Conference attendance was decimated that year because of travel limitations for federal employees so I am glad my paper has a second life in the journal. Later in the week, my good friends at Living Landscape Observer published my guest piece, “Observing the War on Poverty on the Landscape.” You can find both articles and my dissertation abstract in my brand new “Landscape Writings” section.

May is National Preservation Month. To celebrate preservation and being back in the Volunteer State, I traveled to Germantown for the Tennessee Preservation Trust conference, May 1-2. This was my first time visiting the Memphis area and attending this particular conference. I drove down early to visit the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel. The museum recently re-opened after a sixteen month, $27.5 million renovation. I had only one word for my experience: overwhelming. The scholarship was outstanding. The exhibit design and artifacts were powerful. I felt that I read a book on the Civil Rights movement by the end and that I had gone on some national Civil Rights driving tour, but really I was only in one place for three hours. Fortunately, Central BBQ is right next door so I could reflect over a half rack of ribs.

National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN

National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN

All the speakers were expert storytellers, which made the conference far more engaging had they been focused on just bricks and mortar. I am so glad to see that preservationists truly care about the character and significance of these sites rather than just focusing on the “pretty buildings.” Also, their ability to communicate these values through engaging narratives is truly impressive. Here are few projects/organizations/people highlighted during the conference that are worth checking out.

Community Garden at Bobby Lanier Farm Park in Germantown, TN

Community Garden at Bobby Lanier Farm Park in Germantown, TN

  • Bobby Lanier Farm Park in Germantown is a new community project that teaches sustainable agriculture while weaving in the area’s agricultural heritage in a growing urban area.
  • Dr. Michael Birdwell talked about the World War I centennial in Tennessee and is trying to compile stories of county histories of the war. Here is an exhibit from the Tennessee State Museum.
  • Alex Ginsberg, photographer, talked about his growing business in photograph restoration.
  • Deborah York, descendant of Sergeant Albert C. York and Executive Director of the Sergeant York Patriotic Foundation, described her organization’s attempts to save the York Institute from demolition.
  • June West of Memphis Heritage described the legal battle over the 19th Century Club. Sounds like an excellent case study of Historical Administration classes of how not to handle finances in a non-profit.
  • West briefly mentioned a fascinating project in which Memphis Heritage is trying to help the Memphis Comic and Fantasy Convention preserve Ashlar Hall.
  • David Currey discussed the Tennessee Preservation Trust’s decision to help preserve the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle with the intention of turning it over to another non-profit. The property’s history encompasses the social gospel, labor, and civil rights movements.
  • Elaine Taylor, a participant in the Memphis civil rights movement, spoke about her decision to start a heritage tour company in Memphis to teach children (and adults) their history. She credits knowing her family’s painful past for giving her the strength and courage to participate in the civil rights movement.

I plan to remain in Middle Tennessee throughout the summer to complete the bulk of my dissertation research while also revising my residency study. I hope this post is an indication of how I plan to remain engaged with the public and professional organizations during what can be a pretty isolating time.

 

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NCPH Panel Recap on History@Work!

I did not write a recap of the National Council on Public History conference in Monterey for Landscape Redux because I was working on this post for NCPH’s blog, History@Work.  Read it here! 

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