Why does history matter, especially local history if you are living in a relatively young community, i.e., one less than a hundred years old, with few visible artifacts from the past? And why am I bothering to ask this question?
It all started when someone from the Eastside Heritage Center (EHC) asked me to join the organization’s board of directors. I said no to that request and, instead, offered to write something about them in my biweekly column for the local newspaper. So, in the past week, I’ve toured the center’s administrative offices, churned milk fat into butter at a one of their community events, and interviewed Jane Morton, the center’s Education Coordinator, a friend from the school district where I used to work. I asked her some of the questions that were niggling me. Why should I care and why should the thirty percent of the population represented by new immigrants care about local history? How do you help them make a personal connection to the past when it’s not their past?
Jane suggested two reasons to study local lore: “we learn about our history to know where we came from and to feel grateful to the early settlers who brought a strong work ethic with them and a vision for the future.” Good answer, but not compelling enough for me.
She said that people turn out in significant numbers to events that highlight aspects of our community’s history, evidence that I may be the only one asking skeptical questions, and that new immigrants from India and Latin America are some of the biggest partakers of the area’s history exhibits. They bring their children, who immerse themselves in the artifacts they find in the center’s “treasure kits,” and test out every hands-on activity.
My aha! came when Jane showed me an accordion file of original source documents related to the experiences of twelve families living in the region when, as a result of the construction of a ship canal around 1916, Lake Washington was lowered. Here’s what I learned:
Mr. Anderson ended up with more room for his boatyard, but Mr. Burrows lost his fishing camp because the Black River dried up. Mr. Eitel speculated that in the future land values would rise, so he bought a huge tract of lakeside property as soon as he learned about the project; his investment paid off. Mr. Hewitt lost his lumber mill and sued. King County Superior Court saw that the county paid him $125,000 for his losses.
These are only a few of the changes that occurred in people’s lives as a result of a public works project. This isn’t history so much as it is a story, and a contemporary story at that. Right now, nearly one hundred years later, the state is building a new bridge across Lake Washington, which is changing the lives of the householders living nearby. Some people will gain financially from this project and others will lose.
History, even the everyday local version, is at its best when it helps us see connections between the past and the present, between ourselves and the people who lived then. Jane said that adults from India tell her the artifacts she displays from pioneer days remind them of tools still in use in rural settings back home, a perfect example of local history helping newcomers make personal connections.
According to Lisa Cron, in her new book, Wired for Story, “Neuroscientists believe the reason our already overloaded brain devotes…time and space to allowing us to get lost in a story is that without stories we’d be toast. Stories allow us to simulate intense experiences without having to live through them.” Storytelling, she says, is the most effective way the brain has devised to share wisdom from the past and to help us remember and apply what we learn from it. And stories are what diaries, artifacts, and photos from the past are trying to share with us if only we’ll listen.