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Thursday, May 12, 2011 09:44 am

All history is personal

Why a place’s past comes to matter

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The Sangamon County Historical Society turns 50 years old this year. Judged by such new initiatives as a Web-based encyclopedia of area history, the Society is – it pains me to say this – more spry than most of its members who, like me, were already well out of diapers when the Society was founded in 1961.

As anniversaries should, this one prompts me to reflect on matters historical. Why, for instance, are younger people so indifferent to history, which is the surest guide to the future they will have to make sense of? What prompted its founders to organize a society dedicated to local history, after so many years without one? Why is it that Springfield, a city that for years tested the touring public with museum displays devoted to topics as arcane as coal is formed, telephones, funeral customs, even bloodletting, has no museum explaining its own past?

Those topics are tantalizing, at least to those of us who have had to give up more savory pastimes, but for the moment I am interested in a more fundamental question: Why does any person, old or young, become interested in local history? For people growing up in smallish provincial cities of the Midwest, it was easy to conclude that history is something that happens elsewhere. True, Springfield offered an exception in Lincoln that was impossible to ignore, but that had happened a century before I became aware of the late president as something more than a face on a penny. Lincoln’s Springfield seemed to me closer in time to the Romans’ age than to mine, and in some ways was.

There was, and is, plenty of history to be curious about. The past explains the present, indeed, the past is the present in many ways. It persists in the form of streets named after forgotten local worthies, even the layout of the town, and most eloquently in the town’s older buildings. However, as I noted in “A school by any other name” (March 10, 2011) these connections were not explained to Springfield schoolkids of the 1950s. Not that I’d have cared.

Age seldom brings wisdom, but in my case it at least brought self-consciousness. I became interested in the history of Springfield in my 20s, when I first began to perceive it as a place. (Before that I understood the city only as a collection of neighborhoods.) And I was interested in Springfield as a place because it was the place I grew up in. Put another way, history mattered because Springfield mattered, and Springfield mattered because I mattered, at least to me. All history is personal in the way that all politics is local.

For many a person, that sense of history’s relevance begins not with the self but with the clan. Richard E. Hart, the Springfield attorney who is the Gibbon of the antebellum capital, has recalled how one of his family’s regular Sunday afternoon drives when he was a boy took him into the countryside west of town. There, at Farmingdale, his parents explained that a station in the Civil War-era Underground Railroad had once operated there. “Coming back to Springfield from those Sunday afternoon drives,” Hart wrote, “I imagined runaway slaves being taken in and hidden at Farmington and then transported in the dead of night to the next stop on the Underground Railroad.” He recalls wondering whether there had been an Underground Railroad station in Springfield, and if so where, and who ran it, and whether Lincoln knew about it.

In some settled families, local lore is indistinguishable from their own family history. My situation, alas, was more commonplace, my being a child of a typically mobile American family, one side of which hadn’t stayed in the same town for more than one generation until well into the 20th century. The history of my immediate ancestors – grand- and great-grandparents – was lived in and around western Illinois and Chicago, but that is not where I grew up. No point in asking the parents “What is that?” as we motored around Springfield, because they usually didn’t know, having lived here scarcely longer than I had.

As I said, Springfield history first appealed to my younger self because it explained the present of which I was, however reluctantly, a part. I’m not sure that Springfield’s past – that is, the period 50 years ago and earlier – explains today’s Springfield in the way it did 50 years ago. Springfield hadn’t changed much between 1920 and 1970. Since 1970 it has been franchised and chain-stored and mass-media-ed and suburbanized beyond all recognition. It is not that things are different, it’s that they are different in ways that no longer reflect Springfield’s own culture and sometimes peculiar preoccupations.

Readers curious to know more about the doings at the Sangamon County Historical Society should visit www.sancohis.org.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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