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Never Shall I Forget: Brown County and the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

In 2012, I helped to organize, write, and design the award-winning exhibit, Never Shall I Forget: Brown County and the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, for the Brown County Historical Society in New Ulm, Minnesota. We made creative use of iPads to bring differing perspectives to the story. We will be uploading supplementary information to our YouTube channel over the next several weeks, beginning with the thoughts of the late Elden Lawrence on the cultural perspectives of the Dakota and the newly-immigrated German settlers of Brown County. Elden was fine scholar, a sharp observer of history, and a generous spirit.

A Homeland Transplanted

A Homeland Transplanted Trailer from Pastcasts on Vimeo.

The German-Bohemian Heritage Society will present the documentary, A Homeland Transplanted: German Bohemians in America, on Saturday, August 29, 2015, at the New Ulm Public Library. The film begins at 10 a.m. and admission is free.

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 and 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 extensive oral history interviews, this documentary tells the story of a homeland transplanted.

Edinborough Productions
Produced and written by Daniel J. Hoisington 122 minutes
$16.95 plus free shipping.
Order online with easy checkout at www.germanbohemianheritagesociety.com

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.

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.

A Short History of the History Documentary

Clio and the Camera from DSTspring10 on Vimeo.

I’ve been thinking about form of the “modern” history documentary. The format that has come to dominate the field — certainly the PBS “American Experience” documentaries is the Ken Burns approach. It includes the use of historical photographs, using pan and scan, plus interspersed “talking heads” providing commentary or telling a story. This format has come to dominate the field — certainly the PBS “American Experience” documentaries.

I came across this interesting ten-minute survey of the history documentary, Clio and the Camera, completed by Andrea Odiorne, a student at George Mason University. It traces the changing styles of telling history via moving images, not only in format but also in technology. As someone who has created nearly 200 short form history documentaries — pastcasts — I wonder how the advent of the portable viewing device might change how the next generation documents history.

Whitewater Shaker Village

J. P. Maclean, a historian, set about researching the Shakers in 1903, traveling across southern Ohio. He wrote about his first glimpse of Union Village, a Shaker community located near Harrison, Ohio: “When I caught sight of the first house, my opinion was confirmed that I was on the lands of the Shakers, for the same style of architecture, solid appearance and want of decorative art was before me.” The University of Cincinnati, through their Center for the Electronic Reconstruction of Historical and Archaeological Sites, is doing some exciting work in using virtual reality to interpret history. Using tools like Google Sketch-up, students have recreated the exterior and interior of buildings in the Whitewater (Ohio) Shaker Village. While not the revelation that Mr. Maclean had, it opens a new perspective into the “land of the Shakers.”

CERHAS has used the approach to create a fascinating website about ancient Troy, complete with a virtual tour. Visit:

I’d like to see a historic downtown streetscape created for a Main Street Community.

Downtown Stillwater

The St. Paul Pioneer Press has a great story in today’s edition, with reporter Mary Divine looking at the city’s new podcast walking tour. City planner Abbi Jo Wittman said of the series, “From the city’s standpoint, they’re designed as part of the public-education program. They are a tool to help residents and visitors of all ages. I’ve already been contacted by a local teacher who would like to use them as part of a Minnesota history class.”

And Divine picked out a quote that summarizes my philosophy. “Each town has its own very interesting story,” [Hoisington] said. “You just have to listen a little bit, and it becomes evident what makes that town special.”

Museums: Coming soon to a theater near you

Technology is rapidly changing the museum experience. By Experience, a company that brought the New York Metropolitan Opera to a wide audience via their live video programs, has now entered the museum for its latest venture. This week, their program, Manet: Portraying Life, played on an estimated 1,000 screens in twenty-eight countries. Unlike the live opera broadcasts, the art presentations are really just one-time-only documentaries.

What is gained with this new format? For one, I will not be able to visit the exhibit, stunning in its quality. I can sit in a comfortable chair (with a bag of popcorn) and receive what the project director calls “a super-size VIP virtual tour.” I’d learn something, and that’s good.

What is lost? I am not in control over what I see and how long I look at it. In a real museum, you set your own pace, decide what’s worth twenty seconds or ten minutes. I also lose depth, so the painter’s brush strokes flatten.

The biggest loss, though, I might call the experience of the holy — entering into the presence of the real thing. I have gone online and read letters of Thomas Jefferson. But there was an ineffable moment when I was in the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia and held the actual paper in my (gloved!) hands.

Still, these two approaches are not contradictory. The Met says that opera attendance is up because a new audience has been attracted by the theater experience.

Roger Ebert and the Princess Theater

Yesterday brought the news of Roger Ebert’s passing. It also brought to a close more than forty years of turning to his reviews on the movies of the day. It began with train commutes to summer jobs in Chicago. The Sun-Times was the right size to hold while sitting next to other passengers,  and slightly more liberal than the Chicago Tribune.

Two years ago I completed a walking tour pastcast for Urbana, Illinois, entitled, “In Lincoln’s Shadow.” The challenge was to connect the city with the presence of our greatest president, who practiced law here while on the circuit. However, no buildings — except possibly one house — remained from the 1840s and 1850s. Instead, the scripts reflect themes about Lincoln’s association with Urbana — he, for example, signed legislation establishing land grant colleges, leading to the founding of the University of Illinois.

One theme brings us back to Roger Ebert. Lincoln had friends in town, and in the evenings when the court had adjourned, enjoyed lively local entertainments. In much the same way, Roger Ebert, an Urbana boy, fondly recalled his visits to the historic Princess Theatre where he gained an early love of movies.

City of Gold

In this 1957 classic film, Pierre Berton talks about his hometown of Dawson City. A recollection of the Klondike gold rush at its height, City of Gold used still photographs to compare Dawson City of the gold rush era with the town in the 1950s. It is, in essence, the “Ken Burns” technique years before that filmmaker’s breakthrough documentary, Brooklyn Bridge.

The documentary began when Colin Low visited the Public Archives in Whitehorse, Canada, and found 200 photographs taken by A. E. Hegg during the Gold Rush in 1898-99. These 8 × 10 glass plate negatives had been found in wooden boxes in a sod-roofed log house, but were fortunately saved and restored. The plates provided incredibly sharp images; photographer Hegg brought an eye for faces and context to his work. This is a real gem, lasting around twenty-one minutes.