Posted by: justawriter | July 22, 2009

Far Afield – Touching History When It Is All Around You

One of my favorite television shows these days is History Detectives on Prairie Public. If you haven’t seen it, the premise is that viewers contact the show about artifacts they own which have interesting and historically significant stories attributed to them. The History Detectives determine, to the best of their abilities, whether the artifact is authentic and if the story connected to them is true.
I think I like the show because history detective is something close to my dream job. It sits at the corner of history and science and combines both to tell a compelling story.
The stories the program has told range from the monumental – patent drawings from the Manhattan Project where the atomic bomb was first developed – to the personal – a pair of gloves that may have been Charles Lindberg’s when he was an airmail pilot.
The program has documented movements such as women’s suffrage that swept across the nations and the personal and private thoughts left in a journal of a B-17 pilot who disappeared in WWII. They have examined things as large as a home that may have been part of a 300 year old fort and as small as a coin that was likely shot out of the air by Annie Oakley. They have looked at documents that may have come from the hands of both presidents and slaves.
It makes you wonder what stories are sitting in the attics and barns of Mercer County.
History is thick in Mercer County. The Knife River is named for the quarries that were worked for the raw material for stone tools over 12 millennia. Prosperous nations traded the flint and grew their crops in the rich Missouri Valley soil. They were here to meet the first Americans when the United States was still an upstart pup of a nation. The fur trade brought more people and tragically, the diseases that would nearly wipe out the native people.
Steamboats came and went, replaced by the railroad. Settlers came in those railcars to raise cattle and crops. Very quickly they discovered the black rock under the soil which brought a whole new industry to the region. Miners dug the lignite which one day generated electricity for millions of people. Men left to fight and die on foreign shores from Normandy to Iwo Jima. The veterans returned home and witnessed the building of one of the largest dams in the world and the filling of one of the largest reservoirs in the United States.
In the years that followed, the world has seemingly gotten smaller. The telephone and television went from status objects to everyday appliances. The personal computer and Internet are well along that same transition today. There are games available which rival the power of the supercomputers from 30 years ago.
Each generation has left its mark on Mercer County and left behind bits of itself and how it lived. It’s not all wagon wheels or the threshing machines that dot the countryside like dinosaur skeletons. There are letters, saved out of love or maybe just thrift. Letters that tell of wars, of drought, of new life and great hopes. There are small things, a cup that held camp coffee for a weary cowboy or the baptismal gown for the first child born in a new country. There are so many stories, if we just try to find them and tell them.
What artifacts are we leaving behind that will tell future generations how we lived? What is going to interest them the most? Will it be the Wii’s and iPhones? Or will they be fascinated with the small handmade things that marked significant events, like the tack that was awarded at the Dodge Rodeo on the Fourth of July? If I knew the future, I would have a big trunk of Star Wars and other collectibles from the 1970s and wouldn’t have to work for a living.
What I do know is that people will be interested in the stories we create today. The tools and trinkets we use to create those stories will remain just that – tools and trinkets. What will give them significance to those who follow us will be the stories that those artifacts carry into the future.
I can imagine the questions they may ask future History Detectives. Did this Hannah Montana notebook record the first writings of a great poet or novelist? Is that really a picture of the first North Dakota born president of the United States tying a goat in the Dodge Rodeo in that yellowing 50-year-old copy of the Beulah Beacon?
We owe it to the future to leave behind some really good stories for historians to tell.

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