Friday, December 19, 2014

Ye Olde Toxic Waste Disposal, 1947

In January 1947 the War Assets Administration dumped a trainload of metallic sodium into Washington's Lake Lenore. This is why we can't have nice things:


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ghost Signs, Ghost Town

Last fall I did a quick exploration of Sprague, Washington. Like most of the towns of the wheat country of eastern Washington (and for that matter the rest of rural America), Sprague is a long demographic and economic decline. The wheat still grows on the rolling hills around the town, it just takes far fewer hands to harvest that wheat. This and a host of other reasons have driven the population of Sprague steadily downward for more than a century, from almost 1700 in 1890 to 446 as of 2010. Last summer one of the Main Street buildings just fell down.


There are faint signs of life in Sprague still--a post office, a motel that has seen better days, one grocery store, one tavern, and an antique shop with a note on the door asking you to call the owner if you would like her to open the store.


What really struck me about Sprague, though, were the amazing ghost signs. Regular readers of this blog know my obsession with spotting these faded painted signs on the signs of brick buildings. Sprague has a remarkable collection of surviving signs. Some have been repainted by preservation-minded citizens, others appear to be original. Forgive the quality of the following images, taken with the phone on my camera: 

This obviously repainted sign greets you as you come into town from the east.
The advertised wares point to an earlier time.
See this picture on Flickr
for how the sign appeared in 2012.
Not open on Sunday mornings!

The building owner told me this sign had been "touched up" some years ago.

I tried to frame this shot with the boom from the wheat elevator and
reflections in the puddles. Didn't quite work.

Really well-preserved original sign.

Hertrich and Moylan General Merchandise, plus a Bull Durham.
  
This undated photo from the WSU Library shows the
sign in better shape.

Most of the buildings are boarded up, waiting for the next boom.



Mostly too faint to read

Vacancy!
I would love to know more about the history of Sprague and the efforts to preserve it. Who repainted some of the signs? Was there ever a historical society? Are there important historical papers in any of these buildings that should be rescued--maybe in the church or town hall or a former fraternal organization? If anyone knows more, give me a call.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Nez Perce Tribal Culture and Oral Traditions at the MAC



Interesting event coming up tomorrow night at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture. Josiah Black Eagle Pinkham, cultural resources ethnographer for the Nez Perce (Nimiipuu) tribe in Idaho will be giving a presentation supplemented by a display of cultural material used by his family. The presentation is at 6:30 p.m. at the MAC Auditorium, $5 Suggested Donation.

By the way--what is up with that YouTube video? I wanted to enhance this post with something beyond the bare-bones event description on the MAC website, so I googled the presenter and found the clip. The first bit is a nice introduction by Pinkham, but I am surprised to hear a relation of Chief Joseph say "we are very thankful" that the Chief Joseph Dam was named "in his honor." This is the dam that completely blocks salmon migration--no fish ladder was included. I am teaching tomorrow night so won't be at the MAC, or I would ask him about it.

The above video seems to a spinoff from this six-minute documentary about the dam, which is narrated by Pinkham. It is extremely-well made, though very biased in favor of the dam and downplaying its negative impacts on the environment and on native cultures:

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

No, You Still Cannot be a Professor

The one post I still get comments and emails about is something I wrote three years ago: Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor. It is a dark and intentionally strident post, meant to dispel any illusions that impressionable young people might have about joining a vanishing profession:

No, my esteemed student, you are not going to be a history professor. It isn't going to happen .... you are not going to win the lottery, you are not going to be struck by a meteorite, you are not going to be a professor. All of these things will happen to someone, somewhere, but none of them will happen to you.

The post went viral by the modest standards of this blog, with links from Reddit and MetaFilter and the Atlantic Monthly and eventually racked up over 100,000 page views. It still gets about 1200 views a month, and at least once a month I get an email from some plaintive undergrad, still trying to hold onto some thread of the dream, asking if my advice still stands.

Alas, it does, and this report from the American Historical Association confirms it. The number of academic history jobs has dropped again this year, for the second year in a row. "This decline is especially disconcerting when we consider that the overall economy has been improving and the US jobless rate declining. It raises the possibility that this downturn in academic positions for historians is not entirely attributable to the recession, but may be with us for some time." Here is the data in a chart:


Positions Advertised with the AHA
The thing to remember about this chart is that even the peaks represent a terrible job market, with hundreds of applicants for many jobs. There are far more new PhDs every year than there are jobs, and such has been the case for years, and so there are perhaps thousands of recent PhDs who have not landed a permanent academic position but have not stopped trying either. A friend of mine said "I used to tell students that earning a PhD and landing a tenure-track job was like running a marathon. Now I tell them it is like winning a marathon."

So no, my hopeful correspondents, you are still not going to be a professor. The good news is that there are jobs for people with historical training. You need to play all of your cards exactly right, and you need to be geographically flexible, but it can be done. Check out this great guest post by my recent MA student Lee Nilsson, on how he parlayed an MA in history into jobs at the Library of Congress and now the Department of State. There is life outside the classroom.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Invested in a system that renders us irrelevant

Perhaps you have seen this bit of academic click bait: 10 Reasons Professors Should Start Writing BuzzFeed Articles by Mark Marino. There isn't anything there really (and that is kind of the point), just a listicle with a few poorly-chosen memes with some halfway funny headings: "No one Believes that “The Next 450 Pages will Blow Your Mind!" and "The RT is the purest form of peer-review." This Chronicle of Higher Education article unpacks Marino's listicle with more gravity than perhaps is warranted, and includes a link to a meritorious example of an academic using social media, Post-Structuralism Explained With Hipster Beards: Part 1, by Chris Rodley. Now that is some worthy link bait.

The idea of academics publishing on Buzzfeed is both a great idea and nothing new. The calls for academics to engage the public with shorter, more accessible writing in different venues have been around for decades. With new platforms the old arguments get rehashed--often by people who seem perfectly unaware of how unoriginal they are being. Hell, tens of thousands of us have been doing exactly this sort of writing with academic blogging.

The argument also misses the essential truth--it assumes that the irrelevance of academics is because of the way we write. You know--bloated, impenetrable, designed for an audience of 40 people (and finding an audience of ten). This argument is wrong. The irrelevance of academic writing is not because of the way we write, it is because of the way we publish.

The illustration for this piece at the CHE--the Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka "tell me more" meme where he is saying "And I can read more about this in your 30 page article in JSTOR?" points at the real problem that prevents academics from finding a public audience. It isn't just the poor quality of so much of our prose, plenty of poor-quality prose sells like hotcakes. It is that there is NO FVCKING WAY for most human beings to get to our academic articles on JSTOR. Most people are not a currently enrolled student or a university employee, and are not willing to pay $20 to read a 30 page article. And even if you are one of the tiny portion of humanity that theoretically has access to JSTOR article, clicking on a link on a blog will still most likely take you to a pay wall. And you will back up, then go the website of your university, and use the godawful search engine there to find the article, and click through a half-dozen screens to get to the full text. Or not.

I think that actually a lot of people would be willing to wade through academic prose to learn more about topics that interest them if they would get to the damn prose in the first place. We could seed social media with abstracts of what we are doing--in the form of BuzzFeed listicles or whatever--and some people would follow the crumbs back to our academic writing. It would not take a lot of readers to double the readership of most academic article in the humanities, after all. But we cannot do it, because you can't provide an open, public link to most academic articles.

The problem is not how we write but where we publish. We are invested in a system of publication and copyright that renders us irrelevant.

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Corporate History of Washington Water Power--in Video



I just discovered this series of short videos about the history of Avista, formerly Washington Water Power, online at KSPS. There are ten in all, covering topics from the earliest years of the company to (my favorite) the cartoon advertising icon Reddy Kilowatt.

There is hardly a more historic company in the Inland Northwest than Washington Water Power. Established before Washington was even a state, the company has been at the center of everything from the Great Spokane Fire to the building of hydroelectric dams to modern architecture to Expo 74. In recent decades, as the company changed its name to Avista, it seemed to move away from its history as well as its former name.

Now, on the 125th anniversary of Washington Water Power, there is a renewed commitment to that history. The company produced a rather good 40 page booklet on its history, and has additional historical materials on the company website. And then there is the ten-part series of minute-and-a-half documentaries.

These are well-made, but very much from the company point of view. The first details the role of WWP in the Great Spokane Fire of 1889, it is interesting and full of wonderful images. I especially like this one about the 1940s Home Service Program, in which female WWP employees fanned out across the region to show homemakers how to use the latest electric home appliances. Others show early dam building, electric-powered streetcars, and other aspects of WWP history.

Overall, the videos feel more like historically-tinged advertisements for Avista than historical documentaries. This is local history through the rosiest of lenses. An episode named The Fight for Survival even details how WWP fought off the "threat" of becoming a public utility district in the 1950s. Thus was socialist tyranny averted. And the two videos that deal with dam construction have literally no mention of the environmental impact of such projects, or the terrible blow they were to native peoples. None of the videos show any awareness of the larger historic picture of their times--the Great Depression, Cold War culture, or any of the other topics that could have enriched these pieces and made them more interesting.

I suspect that what happened here is that the videos were produced with internal expertise and an outside advertising firm--but they forgot to hire a historian. Still, perhaps these are petty complaints about what are after all a set of 90-second infomercials. It is good to see Avista once again interested in and promoting its own heritage.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Twilight of Columbus Day

This clip from John Oliver reflects pretty well our new understanding of Christopher Columbus:



You probably saw where Seattle just officially ditched Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples' Day. Of course this has been denounced by some on the right as "political correctness" (by which they generally mean "being polite to non-whites").

The charge ignores the fact the Columbus Day is itself a product of political correctness from an earlier era. For most of the 19th-century, Columbus did not occupy a particularly high spot in our historical pantheon. He was certainly in every textbook, but he was lumped in with Cortez and other Spanish conquerors and explorers. Columbus only became an American hero with the rise of the Italian-American community, who by the early 1900s had gained enough economic and political clout in their new home to organize and demand a holiday of their own. Columbus Day became a national holiday in 1937. This pattern--a group is discriminated against, slowly gains acceptance, and uses its political power to push for its own holiday--is of course exactly what gave us Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and now Indigenous Peoples' Day.

Growing up in Connecticut, Columbus Day was kind of a big deal. With our strong and politically active Italian-American population, the day was observed as a general celebration of Italian culture. It was in no way controversial--though it should have been. The current unpopularity of Columbus is not a result of any new information about the man coming to light. We have always known, from his own writings, about the taking of slaves and slaughter of civilians. We just did not used to care, or thought that his skills as a navigator someone balanced things out. This period of willful blindness has come to an end, and we cannot go back.

A hundred years from now some history student will be sifting through some letters and diaries of the 20th century and find references to "Columbus Day?" and wonder--what was that?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Archives Open House in Cheney this Saturday

Did you know that the world's first built-from-the-group-up digital archive is in Cheney? It is true, and this Saturday, October 11 from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. you can get special behind-the-scenes tours to see where the magic happens.

The state had money back in 2004.
Our facility is home to both the Digital Archives and the Eastern Region Branch of the Washington State Archives. This state-of-the-art facility opened it doors in 2004. Downstairs, the Eastern Region Branch preserves precious physical historical records--everything from court transcripts of frontier-
era divorces and murder trials to glass plate photographs of turn-of-the-century Spokane parks. We also have maps and marriage licenses and property record cards and naturalization papers and city council meeting minutes and--well, you get the picture. Archivist Lee Pierce will take visitors into the deep storage to show off some of the treasures that we protect.

 Upstairs, the building houses the Washington State Digital Archives, which preserves almost 150 million digital records for state and local government. You may already know our website (digitalarchives.wa.gov), this is a chance to get to know us a little better. There will be tutorials of how to use our website, featuring some of the more fascinating and lesser-known digital records, tours of the buildings, and Network Administrator Harold Stoehr will even lead a back-room peak at the thingamajigs and whatchamacallits that keep the website up and running.

 The archives are located at 960 Washington Street, in Cheney, Washington, and you can call us at (509) 235-7500. General tours of the facility will start at 10:15 and at 1, the backroom tour of the Digital Archives begins at noon. Or just stop by for a look around. We will see you in Cheney!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Step 1: Hire a Historian!

So this came across my Facebook feed today: Native America Project: Indian Fur Trade and Trading Posts - Google Maps. Naturally, I clicked:


View Native America Project: Indian Fur Trade and Trading Posts in a larger map

A good ten years back at the Fur Trade Conference I met a couple of gentlemen who had used a GIS program to map every fur trading post in North America. The huge print they brought with them was intoxicating in its detail. I asked if I could find it online or if they would share the file. They said no--they had put a lot of work into it and meant to charge for access. When I saw the link above I thought is was that project, available at last.

Alfred Jacob Miller - The Lost Greenhorn
No such luck. This map is just a mess. For my backyard, the interior Pacific Northwest, the majority of the information is wrong. Spokane House, the fur trading post, is in two different places. The interpretive text is dry and somewhat inaccurate and seems to have been copied from Wikipedia. The military fort of Fort Spokane is mixed up with Spokane House, the description is completely wrong. Fort Okanagan and the Nez Perce people are misplaced.

Historian friends, how does this map do in your regions of expertise?

Sadly, this sort of thing happens all the time in public and digital history. Exhibits, interpretive panels, and digital projects are created by technicians who are experts in presentation. Then fuss over color schemes and illustrations and interactivity. Then they pull some content off Wikipedia or some terrible regional history book published in 1950 to fill in their interpretive captions and metadata fields. Garbage in...

Friends, hire a historian. We know things, and can save you a lot of wasted effort. It is not even like we cost a lot of money!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Creek Indian Artist Todd Harder Coming to Spokane



There is something of a cultural florescence happening in Native America these days, and some of the cultural mixing is surprising and even playful. Take for example the Creek artist Todd Harder and his amazing native-themed skateboard decks:



Harder is quite prolific--you can see more of his work here. A nationally-prominent figure, the New York Times ran a piece on Harder and the annual All Nations Skate Jam that he organized--an alcohol and drug-free gathering of Indian skateboarders that takes place in Albuquerque. Harder is also a central figure in the Smithsonian exhibit "Ramp it Up: Native Skateboard Culture in America."

Harder will speaking at Gonzaga on Thursday, September 18, at 5:00 p.m.  in the Globe Room of Cataldo Hall. A map of Gonzaga campus is here.The event is free and open to the public, and is sponsored by Gonzaga’s Native American Studies program and by the College of Arts and Sciences. For more information on this event, please contact Laurie Arnold, Director of Native American Studies, arnoldL@gonzaga.edu.



Friday, September 5, 2014

It is Time for a New State Song,,,

...and I know what is should be.

Our current Washington State song, Washington, My Home is terrible. Seriously, listen if you dare. As I have written before, it sounds like it was written by a committee of Girl Scouts. And to think we could have had Louie, Louie as the state song!

I want to propose a new state song--catchy, funny, historical, and written right here in Washington State. The song is The Old Settler. It was written by Judge Francis Henry of Pierce County around 1874 and was an instant hit. In fact when the state Constitutional Convention finished their work in 1889, they finished up by singing The Old Settler. The song was was forgotten until the early 20th century, when it was revived by Ivar Haglund--yeah, that Ivar. This charming video from MOHAI tells the story:





Additional information at this webpage from the Northwest Folklore Society. The one thing that the experts are missing is that the tune is not original--Henry set his lyrics to the tune of the traditional Irish folk (by which I men drinking) song, Rosin' the Bow.

Clearly, this is our song. Join me, Washingtonians, let's make this our state song. I know it is pretty west-side focused, but in this case we can let that pass. Acres of clams, people, acres of clams! Can't you see crowds of Washingtonians raising their voices to sing the Old Settler at Fourth of July picnics, or Seahawks games? We need to make this happen.

Here is how you can contact your state representatives. Do it today!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Nice Piece About James Glover in the Inlander

The Inlander is our mildly-alternative weekly here in Spokane. They run local history stories from time to time. Last week's cover story, Facing History  by Lisa Waananen Jones takes a hard look at the "Father of Spokane," James Glover, and the wife who he had committed to an insane asylum.

Behold my mustache, hipsters,
and despair!
I think that every western town has its Glover--the white male founding father who, despite having streets and parks and like named after him, does not bear close inspection.Our Glover was not actually the first person on the ground here in Spokane--not even the first white person. His 1873 settlement was proceeded in the proximate area by area by the Northwest Fur Company's Spokane House (founded in 1810), Tshimakain Mission (1838), Plante's Ferry (1852) and the bustling settlement of Moran Prairie which began in 1860 and had perhaps more than a dozen families when Glover arrived. Even on the very ground where Glover platted his Spokan Falls, there were two men and a sawmill. Glover would later tell everyone they had been horse thieves--though as historian Tony Bamonte says in Jones' article, they were not.

And yet a town must have a founder and he must be white and male and mustachioed and so James Glover is the Father of Spokane. To be fair, he did a lot for the community, relentlessly promoting it to settlers and to the Territorial government, all in the service of making himself wealthy. And he did strike it rich with the new town--at least until one of those pesky 19th-century financial panics stripped it all away.

Jones does a nice job in her article of poking around the seedier side of Glover--who had sharp elbows in business, abandoned a mentally ill wife and had her committed that he might remarry, and rewrote our early history to make himself the hero. He was also a key figure in the establishment of our city, like him or not. We will always have Glover.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Ghost Signs of Spokane, Part Two

EWU grad students Anna Harbine and Frank Oesterheld leading
a tour of the ghost signs of Spokane
Some time back I posted about a unique class project that I was forcing my unwilling students to do using to enrich my class on Local History Research Methods--the Ghost Sign Project. I thought I should bring the subject up-to-date.

Ghost signs are those faded, painted advertisements that you see on the sides of buildings in the historic areas of many American cities. Painted in thick layers of lead paint, many have long outlived the products and businesses they were created to advertise. In the spring of 2013, my students fanned out across Spokane and did an inventory of the surviving ghost signs.  I thought it would be fun to have my students map and record as many of the signs as they could find, then research the background of these vanished businesses.

The assignment worked better than I dared imagine. The students loved prowling the alleyways (always in pairs!) and finding the old signs. They became quite competitive, trying to see who could find the most. They took with them clipboard, cameras, and a form that we developed together to record their data. You can see the form here.

An online version of the form, created by my student Frank Oesterheld, automagically dropped their information into a Google Fusion Table. This generated a map of the ghost signs of Spokane:



Pretty cool, yes? We found signs for blacksmiths and buggy manufacturers, for early car dealerships and Single Room Occupancy hotels, for cigars and chewing tobacco, for paints and coffee and flour. All in all the signs, most created between 1890 and 1920, painted a picture of a workingman's town where people wanted an inexpensive place to stay and a cheap cigar.

Then we took to the archives to research the histories of the signs. City directories and Sanborn maps were the most valuable sources, but we also dug through Google News Archives, historic register nominations, census records, marriage and other vital records, and oral histories. I told my students to look for interesting stories behind the signs--stories of the business, stories of the owners, stories about the kind of town that Spokane was during the era in which their sign was painted. They found some great stuff, including Japanese hotel owners, the era of cheap downtown lodging, life in the rail yards, and Spokane's "cracker war." The stories were written from our local history smartphone app and website, Spokane Historical. The best of them appear there as a walking tour, Ghost Signs of Spokane.

It was a tremendously successful class exercise. And yet when class was over some of us felt like the topic was not exhausted. How else could this research be presented?

This spring two of my graduate students, Anna Harbine and Frank Oesterheld, developed a face-to-face walking tour of the signs that they would lead. Adapting the digital to the analog proved an interesting challenge. Which signs do we include? How far do we want to walk? Should the tour be one-way or a loop? Oesterheld and Harbine chose a route, developed scripts, and practiced the walk a half-dozen times. Last Friday they went live, leading a group from the Northwest Archivists Conference through the back alleys of Spokane in search of ghosts. It was a hit! Here are some pictures of the event, taken by Benjamin Helle of the Washington State Archives ~ Olympia Regional Branch. Here we are getting started:


Don't despair if you missed the tour, we are looking at ways to make it happen again, perhaps as part of a First Friday event.

As a teaching exercise in public history, I am delighted how this project has evolved. The class itself was part research seminar and part treasure hunt, both educational and engaging. They course laid the building blocks of a digital tour, and then a physical tour, also spearheaded by public history students. Four of the students in the course also presented their work as a poster session at the National Council for Public History conference this spring. The project built a lot of bridges with the local historic preservation community and most importantly brought attention to some of my students and their work.

I teach Research Methods in Local History again in the coming school year--what should we do as a group research project next time around?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Come see Spokane Historical at the Nostalgia Radio Hour

So here is something a little different. My friend Garrin Hertel, publisher of Nostalgia Magazine and band leader of the Hot Club of Spokane, is putting on a radio show.

The Nostalgia Radio hour is conceived as an variety show, with music, interviews, and etc. around the loose theme of Spokane history and historical nostalgia. The first episode will be recorded live the Wednesday at 6:30 at the historic Glover Mansion. The first episode will be recorded live the Wednesday at 6:30 at the historic Glover Mansion Some of my students will be there, along with myself, to talk about Spokane Historical.

This is the first of what Garrin plans as a monthly broadcast and podcast. The event is open to the public and there is even a no-hot bar. Hope to see some of you there!