Friday, January 24, 2014

In Praise of Local Historical Societies

Minutes of the York Springs Mademoiselle Club
One of the great joys of my job is that I get to visit small historical societies.  As a history professor who is trying to figure out what it means to be a public scholar/historian, I get energized by the work going on in places like the Ye Olde Sulphur Spa Historical Society in York Springs, PA.  (I wrote about my work in these kinds of local historical societies here).

My connection to this place comes through my colleague and friend Cathay Snyder, who is part of the team that runs the show at the historical society. The society tells the story of York Springs, a small rural community located between Harrisburg and Gettysburg that is famous for being the site of a very popular nineteenth-century summer resort that attracted visitors as far away as Philadelphia and Baltimore. According to the society website, York Spring's sulphur spa was known throughout the region for its health-restoring properties.  It drew regular summer visitors until the advent of the railroad made the Atlantic beach resorts a more attractive destination.

Thanks to Cathay's work, we in the Messiah College History Department have become fascinated by this community.  There are even plans to do an archaeological dig around the site of the resort hotel that once stood in the town.  Stay tuned.

On Tuesday night I braved the extreme cold and snow and took the short trip down to York Springs to do some exploring.  Beginning in February I will be teaching a course on Pennsylvania history and one of the assignments will require students to work in an archive to create an online history exhibit using Omeka software.  I want the students to learn how to use the software, how to work with historical records, and how to gain skills at telling local stories from the past.

With Cathay's help, I was able to find some really manageable projects that can be accomplished over the course of the semester.  Here are a few:

The York Springs Mademoiselle Club:  This was a reading group started in the 1940s by nine York Springs women.  What attracted me to this club was the record-keeping of its members.  Yearly notebooks trace the activities of the club and the books they were reading.  This will make a nice student project on the reading habits and social history of rural women in the post-war period.

The York Spring Senior Citizens Club:  As I was looking through the extensive records and scrapbooks kept by this organization I began to wonder when the term "Senior Citizen" came into vogue in America.

York Springs High School:  Records are available tracing education in York Springs from the one-room schoolhouse days of the 19th century to the present.  This would make a nice little online exhibit.

There are a few more projects at York Springs that we are trying to firm up.  Other students will be working in the Dauphin County Historical Society, the Brethren in Christ Church Archives, and a few other places.  It should be a fun course.

And if you get a chance, pay a visit to your local historical society.  You may never know what you might find.