Many historians delight in describing history in terms of grand armies on the march, explorers traveling across vast distances and great men brooding in their palaces. Really, though, much of history is made by families living in one place – perhaps moving there from far away, true – and making their lives there. If, as Rep. Tip O’Neil once said, “All politics are local,” then certainly so is history.
It seems a contradiction in terms, but discovering the history of a place is a new beginning. Unless you have lived in a place all of your life, in fact unless your family has lived there for generations, the history of your local area is probably a blank slate to you. Even if you do come from a local family, you may not really know the complete, unvarnished (what a polite term) history of the locale you call home.
History is like a story, stretching back hundreds, even thousands of years. Since people naturally enjoy hearing, and telling stories, it’s only to be expected that they gather the histories of their local county, town, village and those vague in-between “unincorporated” areas. Suburbs should also be seen in an historical context: Many were originally small villages or railroad depots that were subsumed by expanding metropolitan areas. Even planned subdivisions demand serious consideration: Who planned it? Why? What was there before? How has it changed over the years?
If you’re interested in learning more about local history, the best place to begin is at the local library. Almost every library has an historical collection, ranging from glossy books on state history to mimeographed, bound pamphlets produced by a local enthusiast. Libraries also make the best place to contact the local historical society. You can be sure that the librarian is very familiar with the society and, perhaps, is even a member.
If you attend one of the meetings of the historical society, expect a warm welcome. These societies enjoy nothing more than being able to help a new person understand the back-story of their community. It might be a good idea to have read up at least a little bit on the history of the area, so you can put what you hear at the meeting in context, but be prepared to be given the “real” story from members – and probably more than one true and only set of facts! Take your time, get to know the people and, should you decide to join the society, be prepared to have them fall upon your shoulders with joy and thanksgiving. Historical societies are always happy to have new members who share their interest.
How can you participate and contribute? That depends upon your talents and interests. Some need help organizing their archives, a task some find onerous, while others enjoy it a great deal. Helping with events, working on fund raisers, assisting with setting up and taking down exhibitions – all of these activities, and more, require willing volunteers. One small historical society in the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan, famed for its history of copper mining and logging, has an extensive collection of original period clothing from the 1860s through the 1930s, which is in need of constant upkeep and repair.
In the end, though, the purpose of belonging to a local historical society is to connect to the community through its past. Add your story to theirs.