Note: A version of this appears as “Finding the Pitchfork in the Haystack: Designing a Research Plan to Incorporate Agricultural History into Your Local Story” in the 2011 ALHFAM Conference Proceedings (2012). Debra A. Reid, Eastern Illinois University
John Krugler is one of few historians who have analyzed the depth and breadth of research conducted by staff in historic houses and historic sites. He emphasized that documentation must be done well because the public learns their history by visiting these sites. As he said: “Villages and towns, estates and plantations, historic houses and other sites – all rebuilt or restored according to the best available historical, archaeological, and architectural data – are the chief way many Americans learn their history and chiefly what they envision when they think of history” [John D. Krugler, “Behind the Public Presentations,” The William and Mary Quarterly (1991): 347].
Others have argued the same, particularly Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen whose book, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (Columbia University Press, 1998), remains an important study of how the public learns about the past. Rosenzweig and Thelen stress even more the importance of museums to the public’s edification about the past. (Table 2, p. 235).
Such findings provided important justification for site staff to take some of their valuable time and invest it in historic research. John Krugler claimed that staff at historic sites and house museums “conduct research to discover and record what it is they are saving and to inform their educational programs” (Krugler, 347). Dedicating time to this important task is not easy.
Research can be an overwhelming task when daily chores consume all daylight hours. Yet, without a deep understanding of the story that a historic site can tell, the story will appeal only to local audiences, though not all locals may even be interested. In fact, local history makes no sense; it has no significance, if staff does not put the story into larger and broader themes in national and international history. Finally, the research of one site must incorporate objects, landscapes, traditional practices, and living plants and animals, as evidence.
The more varied the evidence, the greater the appeal to the broadest number of potential visitors, each with distinct learning preferences and personality traits. Sites can use their array of evidence to intellectually engage the visitors. Then, visitors can transition from being passive observers or guests at sites to being participants in minds-on programming and collaborators in the process of history discovery.
A well-constructed research plan will help you identify the artifacts that you need to tell your story. Research must start with general reading so you can identify major trends, and only after having an idea of major themes should research more on to more specific fact finding. Thus, Step 1 entails review of relevant secondary sources (articles and monographs) that relate geographically, chronologically and topically to your local story. Step 2 involves research into specific published and unpublished primary documents traditionally associated with historic research, and Step 3 incorporates material evidence and multidisciplinary sources to support your local history. The research findings can help you say “yes” to selected artifacts as well as “no” to donors who want to offer something that is not central to your local story, and for which you cannot properly care. The research plan will help you develop intellectual control over collections, and is systematic enough so paid and unpaid staff can participate in the process.
Step 1: Secondary Sources
Research takes a lot of time, and few have time to waste when the future of a historic site is at stake. The American Association for State and Local History, through its Nearby History Series, now available through AltaMira Press (and other presses) has published “how-to” books that remain standard reading. Follow their suggestions, consider the context of your site, and develop a plan with a sequence of events to help you conduct effective and thorough research.
Research begins with an understanding of the big picture. This is instrumental for site development and interpretive planning.
The following are good places to start.
· Read surveys to get a sense of the major historical themes that relate to the time period of your site. You can get this from textbooks, including two that relate specifically to rural and agricultural history.
· Consult state historical societies in your area for suggestions about the best published state and regional histories
From here one can narrow down to:
· Find monographs that focus on a place and time and explore it in some depth using a variety of sources (see Stellar Examples in Appendix A). You can start with monographs about the specific geographic area, community, class and ethnic group, but also look for scholarship that explores the same time period but discusses different regions, or ethnic groups, or classes. This can help you gain broad knowledge about a place and people, and can help you identify more subjects to explore.
· Peruse archival resources such as: personal papers, public records such as tax assessments and census return
Step 2: Published and Unpublished Primary Sources
Research in primary documents works best when organized. Once you have the themes of significance that your site can support, you can start by identifying primary sources that can help you put your site into historic context and justify its significance. You can do this in a table format (Table 1). The most thorough research results from knowing what sources cannot tell you and determining other sources that can fill in those blanks.
Some evidence may prove particularly elusive. In that case, leave a research question for the time being, and move on to another topic. Do not get discouraged, but be realistic. Talk to others, share your findings, keep your nose to the scent, and the effort you put into research will reap benefits of a well-documented site with confident staff ready to share the information.
Evidence can also take on new meaning as the basis for public programs that immerse visitors in the process of research. You realize the thrill of the hunt as you conduct research, and you gain new understanding as you compile the material and interpret it. Design a program that allows visitors to experience the thrill of the historic evidence hunt similar to the hands-on, minds-on programming that makes living history so memorable for so many, rather than having visitors be simply receivers of information.
Table 1: Type of Source and Information Contained
Type of Source
What the Source May Tell
What the Source Cannot Tell
Population Census (manuscript returns) 1870-1930
Live-text searchable online via free sites, i.e. FamilySearch.org or proprietary sites, i.e. Ancestry.com
Microfilm; Soundex cards at local genealogy society or public library
Birthplace of each member of household will allow for construction of pattern if families had children in more than one place; if parents came from different places
Compare information in various sources to identify patterns; compare them to document change over time
Town of origin or birth not listed.
Years of birth and ages may not be accurate.
Not all members of family may appear in enumeration.
County court house
Date of naturalization, sometimes date of immigration and place of origin.
Usually male heads of household naturalized; women and children did not.
Agricultural Census (manuscript returns) 1870, 1880
Live-text searchable online via Ancestry.com
Microfilm at local genealogy society or public library
Detailed listing of land holdings and farm production (crops, livestock, truck/market garden, woodlot), organized by farmer (head of household).
No context inherent in the document. Must be cross-referenced with Population Census manuscript returns to document race, family size, age. Does not indicate how many laborers worked, just the weeks a year.
County History (i.e. County Biographical Atlases published during the 1870s and 1880s)
Local public library or county historical society or genealogy society
Biographies of individuals and their involvement in the community
Scope of agriculture practiced at the time of publication
Identify businesses in town that processed agricultural staples (flour mills, distilleries, grain elevators)
Includes those who had economic clout in a community, not those who did not.
Focuses on the more notable industries and individuals.
With primary sources identified and their strengths and weaknesses noted, you can move toward scheduling research. Sort the table by sources. Sources in one place can be accessed at one time. County histories and biographical atlases helped you identify major themes relevant in your area, and likely helped you identify your site’s significance. Consult the source again for more information that can help you put your site into broader context relative to specific themes. You could plan to access these published sources early in your research, in the first three months, for instance, and then you will have specific names to guide you in more labor intensive archival research
Step 3: Material Evidence and Multidisciplinary Sources
Site research is incomplete if it does not incorporate evidence such as artifacts, landscapes, traditional practices, and living plants and animals. Your research plan should factor in the time it takes to learn how each artifact in your collection contributes to your site’s story. But for that to happen, the artifact must be treated as a primary source that has the potential to tell you as much about your local history as other primary sources such as diaries, letters, census returns, oral histories and Sanborn maps can tell.
Historians have been slow to expand their definition of primary sources to include material culture because the discipline of history has traditionally concentrated on written sources. Historians must learn anthropological techniques to read material culture effectively
Artifacts, broadly defined, include anything made by people or modified by people. This can include barns and sheds, fences and landscapes, heritage varieties of plants and animals, and traditional skills and trades that utilize agricultural products such as soap making and broommaking. Archaeologists, anthropologists, and folklorists have long studied what they call “material culture” as evidence of cultural practices or “the study through artifacts of the beliefs – values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions – of a particular community or society at a given time” (Prown, “Mind in Matter,” 1982).
I recommend starting with Schlereth who has written the most comprehensive overview of different approaches to reading material culture, and the ways these approaches have changed over time. Other sources useful to understanding various methods of reading material culture include models provide by Barbara Carson and Thomas Woods and Georgi Reillo (See Living History Farm Research Bibliography).
Most studies of material culture, according to Peter Burke, “stress the classic trio of topics – food, clothes, and housing” (What is Cultural History, 2nd ed., 2008, p. 68). According to Burke, the artifact itself is not necessarily essential to gain a greater understanding of material culture. Instead, material culture studies can take into account the role of the imagination in stimulating desire for goods and the ways that things become symbolic. For example, Burke describes Sidney Mintz history of sugar, Sweetness and Power, as both a social and a cultural history of how a luxury commodity consumed by the rich transformed into an everyday staple for ordinary people.
Burke also explains that spaces within buildings, as much as the buildings themselves can inform researchers. He explains how considering the layout of space can help people comprehend deeper meanings of space, work space and leisure space, public and private space, masculine and feminine space. This can be particularly relevant to developing interpretation at historic sites and living history farms because most people who visit sites (or even work in them) have prior experience with agricultural spaces. They might not comprehend the meaning of the spaces in which they walk any more than they understand the processes they observe, the nuances of the stock and plants they encounter, or the differences between the stoneware crock or the factory-produced butter churn. Staff can only interpret these nuances when they comprehend the deep meaning of the artifacts themselves.