Local history: Join Slate’s Rebecca Onion on a quest to learn more about the places where we live.

The Slate Local History Project: Discover Your Town’s Past With Slate’s History Writer

The Slate Local History Project: Discover Your Town’s Past With Slate’s History Writer

Then, again.
Aug. 20 2015 12:05 PM

What Happened Here?

I’m a historian who knows almost nothing about the history of my town. I’m setting out to remedy that.

A relic coal chute.
A relic coal chute.

Photo by Rebecca Onion/Instagram

For a person who writes about the past for a living, I can be remarkably incurious about the history of the place where I live. I didn’t discover until I was out of college that H.H. Holmes, the serial killer made famous in Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, grew up in my hometown of Gilmanton, New Hampshire, back when he was Herman Webster Mudgett. It’s possible my parents withheld this information to prevent night terrors, but it also took me years to find out about the exodus of farmers in the late 19th century that shaped the local landscape, or the fancy resort hotel that once brought summer visitors, before it burned down in the early 20th century.

Rebecca Onion Rebecca Onion

Rebecca Onion is a Slate staff writer and the author of Innocent Experiments

Now I live in Athens, Ohio, a lovely town in the Appalachian part of the state, and I find out about its local history piecemeal, through newspaper articles and chance conversations. (There were once 30 Adena Indian burial mounds in the area, but most of them were destroyed over the years. I found out about this only when a few Athenians happened to drive me by one of the remaining mounds, which sits on its own lot in a suburban neighborhood, surrounded by houses.) I want to fix this! One of my goals, before the summer is out, is to do more to learn about the history of the town where I live. So I’m embarking on a scavenger hunt.

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The hunt is inspired by Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly’s “The Big Here” quiz, which he posted on his blog back in 2008. His open-ended questions assess local ecological knowledge, and the test functions as a wake-up call for the unobservant. (The quiz includes questions like “From what direction do storms usually come?” and “How many people live in your watershed?” When I first took it, I scored absurdly low.) I’m also influenced by historian Carol Kammen’s book On Doing Local History—especially the chapter “The Subjects of Local History.” Kammen points out that local history—because it’s usually written by people who still live in the communities they take as their subject—tends to focus on milestones, continuity, and successes, while ignoring failures and possible sources of strife. That’s why local histories can sometimes feel empty or inert, in comparison to academic historical studies, which look at conflict and change, and more often have the clarity of an outsider’s view.

If the idea of this hunt intrigues you, and you’d like to participate, let’s do it together. Send me your answers by Sept. 8. (If you get more intrigued by one area of inquiry than another, and don’t get a chance to finish everything, no worries; go deep, and send me what you find out.) I’ll be publishing the results of my search, along with some notes on the pleasures and challenges of doing history in your own backyard. And if I get good responses from you all, I will try to figure out a way to publish the results of your efforts on Slate as well.

Note: I’m using the shorthand “your town,” but if you live in a big place like Brooklyn or Los Angeles, it’d probably be better to narrow down your scope to a neighborhood, lest this scavenger hunt turn into a book-length study.

Here are the questions I’m setting out to answer about Athens:

  • Which Native American tribes lived in your area? What happened to them? 
  • Why was your town settled?
  • What did most people in your town do for work 50/100/150 years ago? 
  • What forms of transportation served your town that are now gone?
  • What major town controversies occurred in the past? (Things that had people going to meetings or campaigning hard for candidates for town office?) 
  • Have there ever been any major failures—of businesses or banks—that affected your town? What were the repercussions?
  • What were the most significant development projects to take place in your town? When did they happen? Were they contested?
  • Did your town ever suffer a serious economic downturn? What happened, and how was it reversed (if it was)?
  • When did women get the right to vote in your town? What’s the history of women’s political participation in town governance?
  • Were there ever any major disasters, tragedies, or famous crimes in your town? What happened? 
  • What about more everyday crimes? What were the most common offenses 50/100/150 years ago, and how were they handled?
  • Was there ever a time when your town had a large population of some ethnic or minority group, that's now gone? When was that, and who were they? 
  • What’s the history of labor in your town? Of union presence? Were there ever any notable strikes?
  • Was slavery ever legal in your town? When? If it was, how many enslaved people lived in the area, and what kind of work did they do? Why did the law change when it did? (Example: Slavery was outlawed in Massachusetts in 1783 because the state’s Supreme Judicial Court issued a ruling declaring that its new constitution rendered the practice illegal. Slavery was formally abolished in Mississippi in 2013, after the state corrected an oversight and submitted documentation that ratified the 1865 passage of the 13th Amendment.)
  • Are there flora and fauna that used to grow in your town that are now gone? Conversely, does the area now have any common flora and fauna that weren’t around 50 years ago? 

On sources: I recommend starting at your local historical society. Ask whether they have old copies of town newspapers. (You may find digitized versions for some local papers through the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America project.) Ask what other primary sources they might have—ledgers from defunct businesses? Docket books from local courts? They may keep a shelf of published books about the town, or manuscript copies of unpublished histories that have been produced over the years. Of course, conversations—with people who work at the historical society, or with people who have lived in the town for a long time and are interested in its past—can serve as valuable starting points for research. For more on possible sources to tap in investigating these questions, Kammen recommends the book Nearby History: Exploring the Past Around You, by David E. Kyvig and Myron A. Marty.

I’m excited to find out something new about Athens, and can’t wait to hear what everyone else digs up. Keep me posted, and let me know if you have questions!