A Homeland Transplanted DVD Now Available

gbhs DVD

The German-Bohemian Heritage Society has just released the DVD of our documentary, A Homeland Transplanted: German Bohemians in America. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, immigrants from German-speaking Bohemia came to America, with many settling near New Ulm, Minnesota. There, they lived on farms in the surrounding townships or in neighborhoods like Goosetown and the Wallachei. They brought the folkways of their homeland with them to the new world. Today, the traces of that culture — their Heimat — linger. Many recall the use of the “Böhmish” dialect at home or in the fields. At the family table, bread dumplings with horseradish gravy or “schmierkucken” are still a part of their family fare. Older members of the community carry on crafts such as music-making and klöppeled lace. Based on oral history interviews, this documentary tells the story of a homeland transplanted. 122 minutes

For more information, contact:
German-Bohemian Heritage Society
P. O. Box 822
New Ulm, MN 56073

The Elusive Smell of History

WWI Smell 01
On Christmas morning, my nephew (and fellow historian) received a bottle of Jockey Club cologne — a scent used by John F. Kennedy. It evoked memories of 1950s barber shops and the era of Mad Men. The smell of history is a sense that is most often missing from our interpretation of the past. We try to do emotional archaeology, connecting our hearts, as well as our heads, to the past, but neglect the nose. Richard J. Stevenson, writing in The Multisensory Museum, argued, “Olfaction per se is the most emotionally evocative sense.” Trygg Engen, in The Perception of Odors, bluntly states: “Functionally, smell may be to emotion what sight or hearing are to cognition.”

Smell can evoke pleasant memories. Jane Stuart Woolsey, recalling an Easter Sunday during the Civil War, recalled, “I remember the keen impression made by little things. I can smell the lilacs now.” Having read (and edited) numerous memoirs from Civil War nurses, many recalled the scent of death hanging over the battlefields and hospitals. Emily Souder, writing from Gettysburg, covered her ears with a pillow at night, hoping to block out the cries from a nearby hospital. She wrote, “But who shall describe the horrible atmosphere which meets us almost continually? Chloride of lime has been freely used in the broad streets of the town and to-day the hospital was much improved by the same means; but it is needful to close the eyes on sights of horror and to shut the ears against sounds of anguish and to extinguish, as far as possible, the sense of smelling.” Cornelia Hancock, another caregiver, wrote: “A sickening, overpowering, awful stench announced the presence of the unburied dead upon which the July sun was mercilessly shining and at every step the air grew heavier and fouler until it seemed to possess a palpable horrible density that could be seen and felt and cut with a knife.”

As I begin work on a World War I exhibit for the Brown County Historical Society, I turned to the two recent attempts to evoke life in the trenches: Dresden’s Military History Museum and the Imperial War Museum in London. Both tried to recreate the smells of war. I think there is a place in the forthcoming exhibit in New Ulm, and I’ll continue to blog about attempts to accurately reproduce the scents of one hundred years ago.

The Meaning of Sound

Sketching scenes and painting likenesses have been with us for millennia. On Columbus Day, 2014, I can find a portrait of the explorer on the internet. “Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus” hangs in the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It has become our standard image, although dated 1519 — thirteen years after Columbus’s death.

Images of Columbus: Library of Congress

Since the advent of photographic images in the nineteenth century, and then motion pictures, we have windows into the past, however inexact they are at telling us the whole story. Having read biographies of Samuel Clemens, it was still moving to see Mark Twain amble across the screen in this wonderfully restored film taken in 1909.

Mark Twain by Thomas Edison

This leads me to my thought for the day. Where are the sounds of the past? I’ve created hundreds of short films about historic subjects, and it is always fun to find just the right sound clip for a scene. But it is always that — a clip, sympathetic, yet divorced from its context. The problem is that the archives are shallow. Much as Ken Burns uses sympathetic images to portray battles in The Civil War, because there are no photographs of actual battles, we rely on evocative sounds. Historian Emily Thompson’s book, The Soundscape of Modernity, explores that very issue. Now, Thompson, with others, has created a website, The Roaring Twenties.

What Did New York Sound Like?

Thompson and her team poured through written documents, primarily noise complaints in New York City during the 1920s and 1930s. The site posts actual letters of complaint that were sent to the New York City Department of Health. Then, the magic. First, the site maps the complaints. Then, using old newsreels and other random recordings, connects sound to place when possible (not often). We listen to the sound of children playing on the street, the street cleaners as they pass by, and, my favorite, “Radio Row”. This was the nickname given to Cortlandt Street, between Washington Street and Broadway, in lower Manhattan during the 1920s due to the concentration of radio shops located there.

Thompson explained: “The aim here is not just to present sonic content, but to evoke the original contexts of those sounds, to help us better understand that context as well as the sounds themselves. The goal is to recover the meaning of sound, to undertake a historicized mode of listening that tunes our modern ears to the pitch of the past.”

Performing Place

Granite Falls – A Meandering River Walk from Anne Queenan on Vimeo.

As a board member of the Grand Center for Arts & Culture in New Ulm, Minnesota, I have been working with PlaceBase Productions on a street theatre production. Ashley Hanson and Andrew Gaylord create historic dramas that move, physically as well as emotionally. In our case, that means the audience will walk down Minnesota Street in the heart of the National Register Commercial Historic District (for which I wrote the nomination).

The work of PlaceBase Productions is grounded in the work of Sally Mackey and others in Great Britain, using the concept of “applied theatre” to connect place and story, without the traditional audience/performer dichotomy of a theater setting. While different from living history at a historic site, there is a kinship. It is not bound to the rules that the interpreter stay in period character. In one of Hanson and Gaylord’s productions, the actors might break into song or turn the tables and begin quizzing the audience. They might use non-period props that create a setting or mood. We’re working toward a May 2015 performance of New Ulm’s story. The goal is to activate memories, provoke thought, and promote activity on the street. It is truly community theater.

Here’s a link to PlaceBase Productions.


Bringing a photograph of death to life

If you love the lore of the Old West, you might been familiar with this iconic photograph of the Dalton Gang.

The Dalton gang, 1892

The Dalton gang, 1892
















Bob Dalton wanted to make sure his name would long be remembered, claiming that he could “beat anything Jesse James ever did–rob two banks at once, in broad daylight.” On October 5, 1892, the Dalton Gang attempted this feat when they set out to rob the C.M. Condon & Company’s Bank and the First National Bank in Coffeyville, Kansas. The robbery ended, however, with four of the five outlaws dead. Coffeyville became famous all over the country as the “town that stopped the Daltons.”

Now the city can’t seem to get enough of the outlaw gang. Using the photograph of their dead bodies, the local museum created mannequins and laid them out on the floor of an exhibit.

Dalton Defenders' Museum, Coffeyville, Kansas

Dalton Defenders’ Museum, Coffeyville, Kansas















And as an illustration of the impulse to step into the past, the town painted the image on the city sidewalks outside the bank. Yes, lie down on the sidewalk and have your picture taken with the dead Dalton Gang! It seems strange to commemorate death in such a manner, but we have an impulse to connect past events with real places — even step into it, or, in this case, lie in it. Add a photo opportunity and history is spread across modern media.

Interpreting Main Street

I will be participating roundtable discussion at the upcoming annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History in St. Paul. “Interpreting Main Street” will look at the ways that four communities interpret their historic commercial districts. Although I’ll be representing New Ulm, I’ve worked with the other three towns: Red Wing, Willmar, and Winona. The other panelists each bring a different perspective to the challenge of creating a museum without walls.

Come join us. Friday, September 19, 2014 from 2:00 to 3:15 p.m. The conference will be held at the Crowne Plaza St. Paul.

Stillwater: The City of Beautiful Homes

I’ve just completed a new pastcast series for the Stillwater Heritage Preservation Commission. This year, we selected eighteen properties in the Chestnut Hill and Pine Street neighborhoods. There are some architectural gems and every home has a story. I’ve posted this example: the home of Henry and Nancy Nichols. I first encountered their story nearly two decades ago when I wrote the history of Chanhassen on the occasion of its centennial. The Nichols and the Clevelands were part of the Northampton Colony that came from Massachusetts to settle in Minnesota in the 1850s, and the Clevelands ended up in what is now Chanhassen. The story has a tragic ending.

The complete series will be released in September. The downtown series, released last year, won a 2014 National Alliance of Preservation Commissions (NAPC) Excellence Award.

D-Day Plus 70

It is early June as we approach the anniversary of one of those landmark dates in history that evoke deep memories for the oldest generation — June 6, 1944. Soon the events will be solely in the hands of historians rather than eyewitnesses. Recently I came across excerpts of CBS Radio reports on the invasion of Normandy. We know the end of the story — one that is often retold by historians. To hear it unfold is thrilling, with disclaimers from the announcers as they piece together information as it crosses the desk. I suspect, in today’s world, that we would be receiving immediate twitter accounts from the people of France. Of course, I still love to listen to baseball games over the radio, er, make that internet radio.

An Animated Geography Lesson

The Digital Scholarship Lab (DSL) at the University of Richmond recently created a website with a great American atlas: Charles O. Paullin and John K. Wright’s Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, first published in 1932. I love maps and this has been wonderfully reproduced with nearly 700 images. It gets better. There are numerous enhancements to trace change over time. For example, I have an interest in American religious history, and recently completed a National Register of Historic Places evaluation of a former Augustana Synod Lutheran Church in New London, Minnesota. With the atlas, I pulled up an animated map that showed the expansion of Lutheran churches from 1775 to 1890. This is an excellent example of how we can make resources available on the internet — and then add value with thoughtful digital tools.

Take a look.

Flatboatmen of the Frontier

Friends are taking off for a year with their two sons, heading down the Mississippi River in a houseboat. It’s the life of Huck Finn, hopefully without the drama. It will be a voyage that they will never forget. We talked a little about the history of flatboats, and I sent links to several websites about George Caleb Bingham and his evocative early nineteenth century paintings. In the search for more history, I was sent to this fascinating documentary, done in 1941. It begins in a low key manner, never quite stating that it is a recreation.