Tag Archives: Harrisonburg

Public History Series: Local/Regional History

Most cities or counties have a museum dedicated to its history.  This is a place to collect and display the historical items from a particular region’s past.  There are many examples of this type of museum across America.  They present an interesting story, but sometimes these stories are part truth and part myth.  Local history is often used to encourage tourism for a city and that is why some of the more exciting stories are told.

Local museums are often run by a group of volunteers or history buffs that have lived in the region for the majority, if not all, their lives.  These museums rely on donations from the community in order to exist and this creates problems.  When a prominent family donates a large amount of money to form a local museum, they are often doing so with the expectation that their family’s history will be told somewhere in the museum.  I have been to many museums where one room is dedicated to a particular family, but they did not necessary have anything to do with the city’s history.  There are exceptions to that, however.  The Harrison family in the Shenandoah Valley donated the land which makes up Harrisonburg today; therefore, his story is featured in the history of Harrisonburg, but it has been included with the context of city.  Unlike other museums (I will not mention names) I have been to where there is a room dedicated to the furniture owned by Family X, even though they really had nothing to do with the city.

Newton County Museum in Neosho, Missouri

Another part of local history is the publication of books.  I am sure you have seen books on the history of Neosho or Harrisonburg at the local stores.  These books are often written by local history buffs, and they tell the story of the city but do not quite piece together the full context of the city or region.  I own several books on local history and they all do some things well, but ignore other aspects of the history of a town.  Local historians do this on purpose.  Books and museums are a way to educate the public about their city, but they tend to leave out the more controversial parts of history because, in many cases, the families involved in the events are still living in the area and no one wants to offend their neighbors.  This also brings us back to the donation issue.  The family that gives to the museum may have a role in the city’s history, but it may not be a positive role and therefore that is ignored due to their generous donation.

The final issue with local museums is context.  Those running local museums are often well versed in local history, but not so much in national or state history.  This can be important because events taking place in the city at a particular point in time may not have been unique to that city.  It could have been a state wide issue or even a national trend.  Context is important because relating a major national or state event to something that happened in the city allows the visitor to make connections.  A city is most likely not isolated from these events and will reflect some aspects of it.

All the negatives aside, local museums are important to the historical community because they are repositories for local history.  People tend to donate old pictures and items to the museum because they no longer want them cluttering their house.  These items may not always make it into the museum exhibit, but they build a great archive.  Another role local museums often plays involves genealogy.  Many times they will collect the genealogy records for the city or county and make them accessible to the public and that helps a wide variety of historians and the local public.

Local history is not without it faults, but it is one of the most common forms of history in America.  Many Public Historians find themselves at local museums after they complete their degree.  They try to present a complete history of a region, but often upset many members of the community in the process.  As historians we want to tell the whole story, the good and the bad, but local historians need to have the tact to brush over the negatives that effect members of the community.


NOTE:  This is the second in a ten part series on Public History.  The posts from the series will be presented on Wednesdays and Saturdays from now until April 6.  A wide variety of aspects will be covered and I will try to present an unbiased account of the positive and negative aspects of each subcategory of Public History.


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What are Sanborn Maps?

I mentioned Sanborn maps briefly in posts for both HIST 696 and HIST 593, but I thought I should expand upon their importance to historians.

Perhaps a little history first!  The Sanborn comapny created maps for insurances purposes from the 1860s until the 1970s.  These maps were created for cities across the country and are very thorough in thier detail.  Their purpose was to map fire hazards which, as you can imagine, would have been important in city planning and determining insurance rates.  These maps were important to city devopers at the time because they provided a detailed sketch of their city.

Sample Key for a full color Sanborn Map

The Sanborn maps were created in full color with extreme detail on a building-by-building basis.  The maps are color codes to expreess the types of building materials, uses of a structure, and potential hazards.  The maps are extremely large and were often kept as part of city or county records.  This detail was key in determining insurance values and rates.

Color Sanborn Map of the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, Michigan

Sanborns were updated on a regular basis to map growth of cities and changes in use of structures over time.  In Harrisonburg, for example, maps were completed in 1886, 1891, 1897, 1902, 1907, 1912, 1918, 1924, 1930 and 1961.  The detail of the maps tends to suffer as time went by and often the best maps are the earliest. The below map of a block on Liberty street in Harrisonburg (from 1886) shows each building and lists whether the structure was a business or a dwelling.  If a structure was occupied by a business, the name of that business is listed on the map.  Homes are marked with less detail, but on this map lists the occupant’s occupation as a “dressmaker.”  Such details are not common on Sanborn maps, but do sometimes occur on earlier examples.  However, maps from 1961 were still detailed, but primarily for businesses.

Block of Harrisonburg in 1886 – from Microfilm

If you access the Sanborn maps today, you will most likely encounter the microfilm versions that are available in many libraries.  These maps are black and white so much of the detail is lost, but that does not diminish their importance.  The color maps are hard to come by and are large and cumbersome to work with.  For most research projects the black and white maps are  sufficient, but that depends on the research.

How are these maps helpful to a historian?  There are many uses for these maps today.  Local historans use the maps to note the changes in business and industry in a given city over time. In addition to a block-by-block map, there are also maps of the entire city.  These maps are useful in mapping urban growth as well as changing patterns of industry and settlement patterns.  Sanborns can also be used by urban historians to expalin the growth patterns of cities in a particular period of time, or Cultural historians can use Sanborns to map social classes within a city and map their movements within it.

While those are just a few examples of their uses, I have used Sanborn maps to determine how certain structures have changed over time.  Were there additions? Were sections of the house removed?  Were porches added or removed?  All these questions and more can be answered by spending a few hours alone with a microfilm machine in the library!  The Historic Preservation course, along with the Public History course have really gotten me interested in architectural history and preservation.  The Sanborns are a key tool for preservationists, especially those researching structures for the National Register of Historic Places.  Sanborns are an important resource for my potential career and I am glad they are available in an accessible format.

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COURSES: HIST 593 – Historic Preservation

The final course of the semester is Historic Preservation.  Taught by Mr. Nash, we are learning about the preservation of historic structures.  In order to learn how to preserve the structure, we are first learning how they were constructed.  We have discussed the construction methods for a wood framed house and a brick house.  Next week we are going to start discussing the interiors of the house.

There is A LOT of reading for this class.  In addition to the two text books, Everyday Architecture of Mid-Atlantic (By Dr. Lanier) and Twenty Buildings Every Architect Should Understand, we are also required to read several books on reserve in the library and the National Park Services’ Preservation Briefs.  These are how-to guides for restoring and preserving aspects of historic structures.  There are 47 of these briefs available and we will read them all by the end of the semester.

We have not papers for the class.  We do have weekly presentations, however.  He paired each of us with another student and assigned a book or article important to the art of preservation.  We have to create a presentation to give in class that must last no longer than 30 minutes.  He has several goals with this project.  The first is to expose the class to these important works, but the other is to give each of us experience with presenting information.

“General Jones” House

The most important project of the semester is our “project house.”  The class was divided into two groups and we are each researching a house as if we were going to place it on the National Register of Historic Places.  The grad students are in charge of the group and we work with our group as well as oversee the work of the undergrads.  My group is working on the building that currently houses the Shen-Valley Band Company and is rumored to once be the home of Confederate General William E. Jones, who was killed in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign.  There is no evidence to support this claim, so it is up to our group to dig through Sanborn maps, deeds, and genealogy records to find out.  I will write more about the house itself at a later date.

This class has really gotten me excited about historic preservation and I think it is something that I might be interested in pursuing after I finish my Master’s Degree.  I am looking into summer internships and would really like to work in the preservation field.  It is a combination of the this course and Dr. Lanier’s Public History course that have led me to this conclusion.


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A History of Harrisonburg

It is the believed the area what is now Harrisonburg was first explored by the English in 1716.  The town was originally called Rocktown until it was renamed for Thomas Harrison who in 1779 deeded two and a half acres for the construction of a courthouse.  In 1780, a deeded an additional 50 acres which makes up the Historic Downtown District of Harrisonburg today.  This historic downtown is in the process of revitalization (not unlike that of Neosho, Carthage, and Joplin).  Harrisonburg was incorporated as an independent city in 1916.  During the American Civil War, there were battles fought near Harrisonburg in 1862 and 1864.  When the slaves were freed after the Civil War, many banded together to form a city near Harrisonburg called Newtown.  This area was annexed by Harrisonburg in 1892 and was the primary residence for the city’s African American population during segregation.

Sign in Historic Downtown Harrisonburg

Harrisonburg is the county seat for Rockingham County.  The population of Harrisonburg in 2000 was 40,000 and it is believed to be 45,000 now.  Harrisonburg is home to three higher education institutions.  JMU (of course), Eastern Mennonite University (a private institution) and Blue Ridge Community College (a branch campus).  In addition, Harrisonburg’s public school district serves approximately 4,400 students.

As my friends in Missouri know, Newton and Jasper counties are a center of Methamphetamine.  Well, Harrsionburg is considered by many to be the Meth capitol of the East Coast.  Therefore, I will not be surprised when I hear about Meth labs on the evening news!

Despite the drugs, Harrisonburg is a clean town and has a wide variety of stores.  This is due to the high concentration of students.  I look forward to exploring the history of Harrisonburg, the Shenandoah Valley and the surrounding area.  Montpelier (James Madison’s home) and Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s Home) are about an hour from Harrisonburg and I plan to make a trip to each very soon!

I will update my blog next weekend!  This week I have a busy schedule.  Monday I have Graduate School Orientation as well as Orientation for TAs.  (Monday is also the day I get my iPhone 4!!!)  Tuesday, I will meet again with Dr. Chris Davis (the professor for whom I am TA) and discuss the course and I should get a copy of the syllabus.  Finally, on Friday I have Orientation for the Department of History.  It is going to be a busy week!


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