Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Gettysburg vs. Gettysburg


Jesse Smith, writing at The Smart Set, discusses the historic tensions between the town of Gettysburg and Gettysburg National Military Park.  Smith respects the attempts to keep the battlefield "sacred ground," but also enjoys the kitsch of the town.  She writes: "any town with a Victorian photography studio, Civil War wax museum, multiple ghost tours, a fireworks superstore, and the General Pickett's All-You-Can-Eat Buffet is a town worth exploring."

Indeed it is.  While I can fully understand the need to restore the battlefield to its original 1863 state, Gettysburg also provides a wonderful laboratory for exploring the relationship between historical memory and consumerism.  Whenever I give a tour of the battlefield I take my students to General Pickett's Buffet for lunch and offer them a short lecture (usually in the parking lot) of how it is hard to separate commercialism from these so-called "sacred sites."

The best book on these issues is Jim Weeks, Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine.

Here is a taste of Smith's excellent piece:

Gettysburg the Park has been trying to kick the kitsch factor of Gettysburg the town long before it developed a new master plan in 1999. In 1959, Kenneth and Thelma Dick opened a children’s amusement park named Fantasyland Storybook Park one mile south of Gettysburg’s downtown and close to the site of General Meade’s headquarters. Fantasyland offered attractions based on fairy tales, plus puppet theaters, live animal shows, and Indian “attacks.” The site boasted that presidents’ children and grandchildren made repeated visits; it described itself as “truly a ‘must’ for discerning families.”

The Park Service disagreed. It would decide what discerning families truly must see and experience at Gettysburg. In 1974, it bought Fantasyland but allowed the Dicks to continue operating the site. Fantasyland finally closed in 1980. The Park Service also allowed the Dicks to stay in the house they owned there. Thelma did until last year, when she died at 93 . Then the Park Service demolished the house. 

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