Grassroots historians team up with local agencies to bring past and future history to light

The Living Library

by Abe Louise Young
The Austin Chronicle
July 4, 2003:

I have always longed to visit Pompeii. The humans whose lives were caught under a blanket of lava and ash were not posing. They were not wealthy royals, and they had not just cleaned the house. Culture was vibrant and vital, and the great fabric of social strata was as in motion in AD79 as it is in 2003 -- brothels doing a brisk business, bread in the ovens, dogs and children and merchants running the square. When Mount Vesuvius let out its mighty roar and turned the town into a tapestry of ashes, almost everyone -- from richest to poorest -- was there. This is what makes Pompeii so rare: a kind of queer equality allows us to look at this antique city without the editing and erasures that power performs on history. The volcano had the power, and we are left with the story -- in its most elemental form.

There's no limit to our romance with the past: we shake its shards through a screen, piece them together, guess at who, how, why. But what would have happened if everyone in Pompeii could speak for themselves? Could they have told us what they were thinking, where they came from, what they hoped to do tomorrow?

Dr. Martha Norkunas, director of Texas Folklife Resources, is a well-respected oral historian. "When I visit a place," she mused, when asked what she thinks about the history of everyday people, "I walk through the local cemetery, and then I walk through the history museum. If I don't see the same names, there's something wrong."

Norkunas and UT English professor Dr. Evan Carton have set projects in motion this spring which aim to bridge that divide -- Norkunas with the Project in Interpreting the Texas Past and Carton with Writing Austin's Lives. The programs share a common goal of enriching the public record with the greatest possible diversity of voices, through collaboration with regular citizens.

The Project in Interpreting the Texas Past pairs groups of graduate students with state historic sites (such as the Jourdan-Bachmann Pioneer Farm in North Austin and the Sauer-Beckmann Farmstead in Stonewall, Texas). The students collect oral histories of local people whose families have lived in the area for generations. Then, they examine the site's "official" stories about the past, and devise ways to diversify and expand the interpretation that is offered -- using the words of locals. It's a partnership program between the UT Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program (creating "citizen-scholars") and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Writing Austin's Lives is a "community discovery project" created by Evan Carton at the UT Humanities Institute in partnership with Austin Public Libraries, the Mayor's Office, and AISD. The initiative is soliciting autobiographical stories from across the city, sponsoring free public life-writing workshops, offering prizes for each ZIP code and grade level, and producing an anthology. The story originals will be housed in the Austin History Center.

In both of these undertakings lies a radical interpretation of "history" that flips the concept of who is significant on its head. The stories of the midwife, the ranch hand, and the shopkeeper are as important as the statesman, soldier, and astronaut -- and we want to be able to name their names.

The Project in Interpreting the Texas Past

by Abe Louise Young
The Austin Chronicle
July 4, 2003:

In Stonewall, Texas, you drive down a long straight road and turn right into the dusty scrub of LBJ State Park. The vast Johnson ranch is also the home of the Sauer-Beckmann Farmstead, a small living history museum. Piglets with sunburnt backsides clamor in the wooden pen, while inside the old stone farmhouse, Parks and Wildlife interpreters work hard at churning butter, cooking on a wood stove (even in the scorching summer), curing meat, sewing clothes, and talking to the approximately 150,000 children and adults that visit in a year.

The farm is a big eye opener, especially for urban kids who may not realize that carrots grow in dirt, or have imagined that life existed before bathrooms. Interpreters are passionate about authenticity and do an excellent job portraying the daily work of a German-American farm family in Texas, 1900-1918. Still, questions linger: Who picked the cotton? Where did African-American children go to school? What kind of fun times did women have? Where did migrant Mexican workers live, and what were relationships with the German farm owners they worked for like?

A team of nine graduate students under Norkunas' mentorship (including myself) went to interview local resident seniors with these questions -- and to hear their stories, all the things they would tell that we could not anticipate. "It's an incredible place in between time," says Norkunas, describing the techniques of oral history interviewing. "Between the person and myself, we go back and relive pieces of the past together. They tell me in amazing, rich detail, in beautiful narratives what happened to them and why -- how they make sense of it. To hear these extremely moving stories from deep inside another person's life -- in their own voice -- changes the listener. You are never the same after sharing in that."

In February, Molly Wheeler interviewed Glen Treibs, a local historian and former high school teacher in Fredericksburg. Treibs relates:

My father kept in his toy box one of those great big hat needles. When he was a child, hair was so long and the hats so big, they had needles that were about a foot long. Grandmother Treibs' hair was so long she could put her eight little children together in a bunch and part her hair and put it around them. One man said that his father told him when he was little, that he would have given a thousand dollars if his wife had hair like that.

I always wondered why he had that in his toy box, but it was a remembrance of his mother who died. He was only 12. She died with her ninth child. When Oma died, the next day Opa got on in the wagon and went to town, and he bought two cases of Cokes up at the chiller; the children each had two or three Cokes apiece, to help with their mother being gone. He did that so special for his children. They had a little money, he wasn't destitute, but you didn't have a lot of cash around the farm. And that was a real privilege to give the kids.

Alvin Weinheimer Jr. spoke of one of the few black men who lived in the area in 1915, an animal faith-healer named Doc Phillips:

Once he went out to work for these two German brothers. They had a cow that was sick and it was cold that night, he was working on this cow. These two brothers were standing in the back, and one of them told the other in German, "Whether that black man knows what he's doing, that cow's probably going to die anyway." And Doc said, he didn't let that bother him -- he just kept on working on the cow. He worked on it for about another half an hour or so. After he got through, he turned around and told those guys in real fluent German, he told them, "I don't think this cow is going to die." Those German guys, they turned all kinds of colors!

Stories of race are systematically excluded from most historic sites. We wondered how this could be remedied. "It's particularly hard to create public sites that deal with the history of enslavement in this country. It's a very delicate balance to find between representing people's humanity, agency -- and the fact that they were owned. If you go too far in either direction, you're in trouble. If you focus on agency, then people think -- 'Oh, slavery wasn't so bad.' If you focus on the fact that they were owned and enslaved, then you risk presenting people as objects," says Norkunas.

The Germans in Fredericksburg, Texas, didn't own slaves -- in fact, Gillespie Co. as a whole went Union, rather than Confederate. They paid heavily for it throughout the Civil War, enduring bands of vigilantes called hangerbonder who massacred those citizens (usually new German immigrants, and often their own neighbors) who refused to fight for the Confederate flag. We heard tell of one German farm family who dug a room into the dirt of their pasture and hid out there during the entire Civil War. Glen Treibs speaks of discussing race with his high school class:

I tested my students one time. I took them to the cemetery, and I said," We're so very proud that we have a very, very small black section. There were very few blacks here." And they said, "Mr. Treibs! We didn't expect that of you." I said, "You're misinterpreting. We had so very few blacks here because the German people were so opposed to slavery."

We voted strongly with the Union in 1860. But I hate to say this, there was prejudice. Every ethnic group was considered strange. We had a veterinarian, self taught, Dr. Phillips, and I remember a couple saying," Well, we even had him eat with us in the house." They thought they were being extra stars in heaven for letting him eat with them.

Johnny Wade's mother and father were one of three African-American families who lived and worked on President Johnson's ranch. They were cooks, and Wade followed in their footsteps, working as a groundskeeper and bartender. Tracey Boone Swan interviewed Wade at his home in April:

When I was young the president raised about, I'd say about three or four hundred chickens. So, he put upon himself to tell me that I needed to gather the eggs. Every morning, it was my job. I picked up the eggs and washed them off and put them in cartons. Then one of the hands came by and picked them up when I did that. It was wonderful. I have really lived a charmed life. It was like being in Switzerland. And the president was very generous. You'd walk up to him and he'd pull out of his pocket a 20 or a 50. That's why I was always around him!

When it's all said and done, the Sauer-Beckmann Farmstead will have plenty of material to address many more aspects of early 20th-century history -- as long as resources hold out. Because of the Project in Interpreting the Texas Past, the site will end up with a new Web site, a series of performance pieces for interpreters based on newspaper accounts from 1915, a new exhibit using local demographic maps, a movie about the region, and a series of oral history booklets on themes such as women's work, children's lives, and the interaction between Germans, African-Americans, and Mexican-Americans.