We’ve sped up our blog posting from last Fall’s Public History Intern Workshop in order to have all the graduating seniors who participated in that workshop be able to see and share their blogs. Congratulations to Spenser Bailey, Sean Good, Austin Justice, Giana Poerio, and Jensen Rehn, whose blog posts about their 2019 internship experiences you’ll find among those below. This term some of these senior History students interned again, and you’ll be seeing their new blogs along with those of their fellow graduates Gregory Dustin Farris and Allison Valentino in weeks and months to come. Congratulations to all of you, and our very best wishes for your paths ahead.
In 1973, director Herb E. Smith produced a short film in southeastern Kentucky. Entitled In the Good Old Fashioned Way, his work explored the spirit of the Old Regular Baptists—a small religious denomination based almost exclusively in rural Appalachia. From their riverside baptisms to their traditional line-singing, the “Ole Regulars” were largely unknown to much of the rest of the world prior to Smith’s film. But not to me. To me, the Old Regular Baptist Church in a little concrete meetinghouse on the side of the road had been the place of worship for much of my family. Few things fascinated me more than the past as a child, but the history that In the Good Old Fashioned Way captured wasn’t just an abstraction of a faraway place—it was a real and present part of my own history.
This commitment to community histories led me back to my home state this past summer. Looking to both reconnect with those histories and to build my professional skills, I accepted an internship at Appalshop Archive in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Founded in 1969 during the War on Poverty as the Appalachian Film Workshop, Appalshop today serves Central Appalachia as a regional arts and media center. Its archive unit is responsible for preserving the films and other media produced by Appalshop since its inception (including In the Good Old Fashioned Way, directed by Appalshop’s co-founder).
Interning with Appalshop Archive gave me the chance to expand my archival training and use it to help preserve local historical records. While I did in fact find myself annotating and cataloging unused oral histories originally recorded for Herb E. Smith’s 1973 film, I also found new connections to my region’s past.
With the guidance of moving image archivist Caroline Rubens, I learned basic film handling. Inspecting 16mm film reels from the 1950s to 1980s, I wrote physical condition reports on home movies documenting daily life in some of the places I’d known growing up and then rehoused the historic reels into new archive-safe, acid- free containers.
Many of the historical materials that came across my desk weren’t directly related to Appalshop though. Operating in a rural area where there’s a relative lack of professionally trained archivists, Appalshop Archive also accepts and preserves films, documents, and artifacts from the surrounding communities. One of the most impressive examples of this is the William R. “Pictureman” Mullins Collection, for which I scanned photographic negatives. Mullins, an early twentieth century commercial photographer, snapped more than 3,000 photos documenting life in rural southeastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia. From local baptisms and funerals, to African American family portraits and farm animals, this collection is a window into peoples and places in Appalachia that are often underrepresented in traditional archives or histories.\
At other points in the summer, I processed historical collections of paper materials like Mountain Review magazine, cataloged and created metadata for midcentury Kentucky photographs, and annotated and made accessible online oral histories from some of Appalachia’s first African American women coalminers.
Another highlight from my time at Appalshop Archive was using nineteenth century court records and twentieth century oral history interviews to co-curate and help install a small exhibit on an Appalshop play/film entitled “Red Fox/Second Hangin’”.
While I have been working in archives and museums since 2015, interning with Appalshop Archive proved a unique experience. It exposed me, for the first time, to the processes used to preserve historic films and other audiovisual materials. But more than that, it offered an opportunity to use my professional background to reconnect with and share the histories of my home communities. That, ultimately, is the purpose of professionally preserving items of the past: to ensure they are accessible to people who can connect with or learn from them.
My interest in history began at an early age. Probably because I didn’t have much relatives that told me stories of how the past world was. I only had my grandma and my father who both got me intrigued in the Vietnam War, my dad that fought in it, and WWII, which my grandfather fought in. I would stumble upon memorabilia from these past two wars from them and was naturally drawn to movies that exemplified fictional historical mystery such as Indiana Jones and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which served to only widen my love for history and the mystery around it. For me, history had always been about the adventurers. Whether that dealt with doing research about the Corps of Discovery Expedition or writing a final paper on the Apollo missions. These activities such as seeking history may seem boring and unadventurous but to people fascinated with history it’s almost as though it’s a frontier that’s been unexplored. Of course there are others before us and in our times who may know about the past, but personally to me, it feels like something uncovered becoming known. I’m sure it feels the same for other individuals.
When I started again at the Champaign County History Museum this year, I expected to do the same things that I did when I started there last fall. The museum is filled with passionate people about history and most especially about this county. The one thing that hinders the museum is previous employment that has caused organization errors throughout the museum. Now I’m not saying this to talk down about the museum at all, but in order to fix the problem you must be courageous enough to diagnose the cause. What the other interns, Thomas, Mitchell, and I have been working on so far are mostly tasks that deal with organization. Whether it’s pictures, documents, online archives etc. we set things in order in the museum. It may seem tedious at times, but in my opinion it’s one of the most important tasks in the museum. It’s one of our main roles as a place of history to have information easily available to the public and from the looks of how things are going now, I feel as though we’re going in the right direction.
We’re ramping up the pace on our Public History Interns Blog series in order to have all the graduating seniors who have contributed to this series represented as we approach what should have been their graduation weekend. There are two new blogs today and will be two more tomorrow. Some additional seniors did internships under extraordinary circumstances this term, and we’ll be featuring all of their posts in coming weeks and months, and congratulating them tomorrow! It’s been great to get to know them all and see their interests in public history unfold!
“Letting the light into the archives vaults”
I’ve always had an interest in history – that only grew stronger when I entered the University of Illinois as a history major. Events from the past can be accessed here in the present through books and photographs, and authors do an excellent job of interpreting past events or painting so vivid a picture of them that modern readers can imagine they are there. However, being able to actually handle historical items – documents, artifacts, and even the aging buildings that populate our campus – is far better than reading about them in an abstract way.
So when I needed an on-campus job, I was excited to apply to work at the University of Illinois archives, and thrilled when I was offered the position. I’ve now worked there for three years, and the things that my job has helped me accomplish and experience are too many to count. I’ve learned so much about the history of the campus of the University, and also about the students who have gone here. Additionally, it lead me to two internships, at the National Archives at Chicago and the Chicago Public Library Special Collections and Preservation Division. While working at the two of those, I’ve handled items signed by presidents and a piece of a bible printed by Johannes Gutenberg.
But this is because I worked there. Anyone from the general public would have to know exactly what they were looking for to see such things. They’d also have to know that they exist at all – before I started working at the archives, I had no idea that one could simply request to see historical materials for free. Archivists can’t wait for the public to come to them; rather, they need to, without a particular occasion or motive, make historical items available to the public in an easily visible place. People might not know that they want to see old documents until they are actually in front of them. That way, we can shed some light into the closed vaults of the archives and let the people see the things that we’re keeping safe for the future.
Museums exist to serve the public and they do so in a variety of ways, but how do museums that are not necessarily “children’s museums” serve youth aside from school tours? In the case of Naper Settlement, programs range from summer camps to volunteer programs that appeal to families and younger audiences.
During Summer 2019, I was a building interpreter intern at the Naper Settlement Museum. The main thing I did at Naper Settlement was create lesson plans for summer camps. Every week we would have one to two camps going on with a different theme. The camps were about six hours and ran Monday through Friday. The camps I planned ranged from “Passport to the World,” Extreme Animals” and “Mad Science.” I also got to help with pre-existing camps like our Civil War Camp and Throwback Camp where we taught campers how to tie dye and use a rotary phone.
We also had several anniversaries at Naper Settlement over the summer that we celebrated with the community. This past July marked the fiftieth year that we have had our chapel at the museum so we invited all of the couples who have gotten married there to come and participate in a group vow renewal with their families. That was also the same day we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing so we had a mini rocket launch and created moon themed activities for the younger guests that day.
Naper Nights is another event that I got to be a part of. Naper Nights is a concert series that takes place on the museum lawn. Every Naper Nights had a historical theme. These themes included the 50th anniversary of Woodstock and the 50th anniversary of the weed ladies, a group of historical society volunteers. I worked three of these events and each one had activities to accommodate children. Chuck E. Cheese was one of our sponsors and they provided games for the children to play. The museum itself also provided “retro” games like rock em sock em robots and rubix cubes. There were two other local businesses also in attendance: Pinot’s Palette who provided paints and canvases and Players Indoor Sports Center who brought in equipment for guests to play gaga ball. All of these activities were free for people to participate in.
I also got to work with our Junior Volunteers. These volunteers wear period clothing and show museum visitors pioneer era games. They also attend a classroom lesson in our school house. Once junior volunteers age out of the program they are also welcome to become interpreter volunteers, where they can work in one of our many buildings.
Naper Settlement is also unique because it is a primarily outdoor museum that revolves around interpretation. This makes it easier for the material being presented to be adapted to best suit the visitor. Children are able to ask questions as the information is being presented to them, whereas in more traditional museums, when they are shown a label or artifact and they do not fully comprehend what they are being shown, they are more likely to simply move on without gaining and sort of understanding on what is being exhibited. We also had different activities and information we had prepared for different age groups. For example, when I interpreted in our print shop, I had stamp sets so younger kids could be printers.
Because museums are often perceived as places that are full of fragile objects and demand silence, they do not appear to welcome younger audiences, unless they are children’s museums. However, Naper Settlement is one of many museums that serve the community and this includes children. Through their many summer camp programs, special events, volunteer program, and accommodating interpretation style, Naper Settlement offers many ways for the younger members of the community to be involved with the museum despite not being a formal children’s museum.
In our fourth Public History Blog, History Department Senior Thomas Weller describes some of the Champaign Urbana History he found during his Fall 2019 internship at the Champaign County Historical Museum.
On the second floor of the Champaign County Historical Museum, there is the research library. The room is small but it feels homely instead of cramped. The first thing that greets you when you walk into the room is the smell of old paper. Aged books fill all of the shelves, waiting to be read. The library not only contains books but also has, among other things, a filing cabinet filled with manilla folders labeled with titles such as “Krannert Center” or “Savoy, IL”. Each folder is full of papers such as newspaper clippings, maps, and brochures about the corresponding place, person or organization.
Unfortunately these folders have gotten mixed up over the years and it was the job of the interns to sort them out. I had a master list of every single file that was supposed to be in the cabinet and I had to go through each folder, taking out things that didn’t belong and noting on the list what sorts of things were inside. This may sound rather tedious but actually it was a great opportunity to look at different aspects of Champaign County’s history. I found a lot of interesting things in there, one of which I am going to share with you all today.
I found a folder simply titled “Popcorn Wagon”, which piqued my curiosity. Inside there were several newspaper articles about a man named Henry Sansone and his popcorn truck which he operated for over 50 years. Looking up Sansone and the popcorn wagon online yielded few results other than one article by the Champaign County Historical Museum itself. Thus, the only information I had to work with about this man and his wagon were the materials in the folder. Piecing together his story became a sort of puzzle, which is part of the fun of archivist work anyway.
The first newspaper article was from January 24, 1954 and it set up a clash betweenSansone and the Champaign city authorities. The city had passed an ordinance outlawing the sale of merchandise from vehicles parked on the streets. It wasn’t drafted to specifically harm Sansone but his popcorn wagon fell under the ordinence’s requirements. Notice was given to Sansone to cease his sale of popcorn.
The magic of archives allows us to become time travelers, so I was able to skip ahead to the next article from February 17th. Here, Sansone stated that he was temporarily out of business and was looking for a new place to sell his popcorn. Evidently, he didn’t find such a place because on February 23rd he tried to sell his popcorn and was arrested by Champaign police. Sansone indicated at the end of the article that he was planning on getting an attorney and contesting the case. The very next day, he was arrested again for selling popcorn on the street and the case went to trial.
On March 4, 1954, the paper reported that after 45 minutes of deliberation, the jury was divided five to one for Sansone’s acquittal. The judge ruled that a hung jury was equal to an acquittal, leading to Sansone’s release from his charges. Victorious, Sansone resumed his business as usual.
The story then jumped to October 12, 1974 when it was announced that after 57 years of popping, Sansone was ready to sell his popcorn truck and retire. In reflecting on his half-century long career, two historic dates stood out in his mind. “One was a 1939 sale of a bag of popcorn to the late great Cardinal baseball pitcher Dizzy Dean. The other was a 1954 court fight to continue selling popcorn in downtown Champaign.” The article also gave a quick recap not only of the court fight but also of Sansone’s origins. He started his business in 1924, operating from a pushcart. He purchased his famous popcorn truck from his brother in 1935. He died two years after the story about his retirement, in 1976.
Looking at the story of Henry Sansone allows us to ask questions about the importance of local community archives, like the one in the Champaign County Historical Museum. Henry Sansone obviously was well-loved back in his day. And yet, I had never heard of him and I would be surprised if any of you had heard of him either.
His significance comes from his importance to the local community. He is no longer a part of the current culture of Champaign but has instead faded into history. Now his story remains in a manilla folder, one out of hundreds, in a cabinet in a small library. Being just a single story out of hundreds, I doubt that many people have looked through his manilla folder besides myself and other museum staff. This could lead some people to question the purpose of it all. Why keep so much old material if most of it is almost never read?
However, I disagree with this sentiment. Discovering Sansone’s story allows us to immerse ourselves in the experiences of the past. If these documents had not been stored, then Sansone’s story may have been lost forever. At the very least, the documents allowed me to share the tale of Sansone’s popcorn wagon, and the joy it brought to so many people. A little bit of Champaign’s history has been brought back into living memory, if only for a little while.