Saturday, June 9, 2018

History Happens Every Day

Oh brother! ...


... history can be a mysterious and messy endeavor.

A local history center recently used the slogan “History Happens Everyday” on their website. There are several ways to look at this statement.

First, there is the idea that events happen everyday and that historians should keep a record of this "history" for future generations. On a daily basis we review local newspapers and magazines to clip and preserve in our vertical files by subject or family name so that your children's children's children can find them easily. We are always adding today's news for tomorrow's history. 

However, that is only part of the story. Doing history is more than just collecting and filing away stuff. A second way of looking at it this statement is that history is an interpretation of primary sources. While we do our best to identify the people and places seen in archival items and photos, the complete or accurate truth is not always obvious. The photograph above is a case in point and a useful “object lesson.”

History is not always clear even with 20-20 hindsight. We don't always have all the information we need to make the proper conclusions. Sometimes we make mistakes.

In his book The Conways published in 1995, curator David Emerson wrote a caption (p. 96) that identified this building as "The William Palmer House."



Last week, historian William Marvel challenged that attribution, (Conway Daily Sun, “Then and Now” article, Thursday May 31, 2018 p. 6) (click on image to enlarge it and/or see the paper at this link)



Using the same photo as a primary document, Marvel attributed the house to William's brother John then ipso facto, everything that derived from that original assumption is now suspect. With the house now tied to John rather than William Palmer new threads of history open up and Marvel weaves a wonderful story of social upheaval and cultural tensions into the picture.

We will look at these issues later, but first let's take a look "behind the curtain."


While the records are a little murky, according to our PastPerfect software it seems the photo was accessioned in 2010. Below is an image of the record with the old information before updating and here is a link to that item accession # 2010.500.366 with some of the new information. More updated information will be posted online soon. It takes a while to fact check everything and input the new data.





There is no documentation about where the photo came from. We often get donated items left on our "doorstep" with no contact info about who or where it came from. However, on the back is a handwritten notation reading "Wm Palmer House So Conway" so that explains the original identification. The number 230 and "Moses Drown?" and"Tun or r..?" are enigmatic. The number B-9-5 is our location code, box B, folder 9, item 5.



The type of paper and angle of the image tells us it is not an original print but rather a copy of a copy. 

We will also be adding more information to our records from maps from 1860 and 1892, family history research from Ancestry. com and Nellie M. Carver’s 1971 book on Goshen, including this picture of the John Palmer house from the gable end (p. 91).



With the picture she includes a romantic poem about old houses by Isabel Fiske Conant and info on some of the previous owners. In the same chapter she explains some of the fascinating connections of the “summer residents” as Nellie Carver called them.

In his article, Marvel has made an important contribution is these local history connections to stories of scandal, betrayal and decay.

There is a type of aesthetic that appreciates the rustic taste and the romance of ruins. It can be seen on the cover of Carver's book and in her description of how the summer folks enjoyed picnics at the "Stoney Chimneys," as they called an old fireplace left standing when the house was gone (pp. 90, 123, 124).



According to Marvel part of the appeal of Goshen was the opportunity for the summer people to go "slumming among the northern country folk" and to rusticate "among the amusing provincials of northern New Hampshire."

He tells the story of the Fenollosa family. Other famous summer residents in the area included interesting internationally known interlopers such as Glackens, Greely, Kirk, Baird and Nesmith. We will explore more on these folks in future blogs. 


Speaking of research based on primary sources, if you look closely at a detail of the cover of Emerson's book ...



... here is proof positive that Tom Hanks used to rusticate in Conway (just kidding, but it sure looks like him).





You see, it is all in how you use the evidence.