A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Fall 2017

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A Closer Look at Home – Thoughts on Writing Local History

By Candace Brown

Thump. The sound of impact reverberates in the still air. My husband and I cringe. Our little boat has hit another hidden tree stump in the murky waters of Lake Kapowsin. Dark and slimy, these unnerving ghosts of an ancient forest lurk just beneath the surface, some of their flat tops several feet across. We can’t see how far down they go, but their shadowy shapes appear in every direction. “This is eerie,” I say. “I feel like we’re surrounded.” Alhough my voice is nearly a whisper I hear it travel over calm water that reflects the summer sky. I may be surrounded by stumps but I’m also surrounded by the beauty and quiet of this place. We’re at the edge of wilderness, in rural Pierce County, Washington, much closer to Mount Rainier than we are to Tacoma, 23 miles to the north.

About 1502 a mud flow from the mountain poured down the Puyallup River drainage and blocked the end of this valley, causing a stream to back up, creating a boomerang-shaped lake in what had been old growth forest. When settlers first arrived in the late 1800s these fir trees stood in water. To the loggers, trees were trees. They cut the tops off at water level and either loaded them onto train cars bound for Tacoma, or sawed them into lumber in one of the several sawmills built along Lake Kapowsin’s shore. The hills were stripped bare then. Now trees grow in large areas, alongside fresh scars of recent logging, but it’s been a long, long time since virgin timber covered every inch. I imagine how it must have looked.

Suddenly we hear the cry of a bald eagle and the flap of wings as it settles into its nest, high atop one of the remaining trees on the lake’s small island. We’re planning to explore it, to look for the foundation of a forgotten building tied to stories from a century before. Across the lake we see the boat rental place and dock, and a few vehicles, but there isn’t much else around. The floating footbridge that existed 100 years ago is long gone.

In the present peacefulness it’s hard to believe that in this exact spot, a century ago, we’d have heard deafening saws, the sounds of construction, the huff and puff and whistles of trains, and the activity of several hundred people who once bustled about their daily lives in the town of Kapowsin that crowded the lake’s shore and the hills above. It was a town that thrived on wood. But like many communities whose one source of revenue ran out, times changed. In 1927 the city of Tacoma began the process of condemning the town so the lake could become a water reservoir for the city, which ironically never happened. But within a few years everything there had been removed or demolished. Now only a few cars travel the lakeside road and a tangle of brush hides the evidence of mankind right down to the water’s edge.

Preserving the past

If not for local historians, knowledge of places like Kapowsin would die off as quickly as the old folks who once lived there. Lawrence “Andy” Anderson wants to make sure that never happens. His roots go deep in this area once dotted with small logging communities. Inspired by curiosity and a love of place, he decided to write a book. Now the first and second printings are sold out, and the pressure is on to produce a third.

To Anderson local history was never a dusty volume on a library shelf. He grew up surrounded by it. Just a baby when his parents moved to rural Pierce County right after World War II, he lived in a remodeled 1906 house and played in a forest where he and his friends could still find remnants of pioneers’ log cabins. A neighbor, “Old Jim,” with his cows, rusty farm implements, callused hands, and vivid memories of the past, fascinated Anderson from an early age.

As Anderson grew so did his curiosity about the past and his sense of urgency. All the old folks who remembered would soon be gone. By the 1970’s he bought himself a tape recorder. “I would go from home to home of the community elders,” he said. “As I gained their trust and built credibility, more doors opened and old photos came out of the closet. I believe it was my sincerity, respectful approach, and my being part of their community, that made them feel comfortable telling me their stories.” Soon people living in other states contacted him and wanted to tell theirs too. Anderson’s personal initiative preserved eye-witness accounts that would otherwise have been lost forever, and resulted in his self-published book, “In the Shadow of the Mountain-A History of Early Graham, Kapowsin, Benston, Electron and Vicinity.” It took decades to research and compile all the information.
 
“Writing good local history requires nothing less than total determination and passion in pursuit of the subject,” Anderson said. His advice to those considering such an undertaking is to “pick a topic so rousing to your curiosity that taking the time to turn over every stone will be effortless and you’ll look forward to going back for more.”

Anderson always wondered about the people who came here, what their everyday lives were like, how those lives and deeds influenced, and were influenced by, the larger world. Some people call this approach “history from below.” It is local history as experienced by ordinary people, sometimes in extraordinary situations, the essence of daily existence, the often untold or undocumented life stories that can slip into oblivion. The oral histories Anderson gathered weren’t propagandized, glossed over, glorified or the result of an agenda, as is often the case.

Why should we care what happened to the loggers and farmers in Anderson’s backyard a century ago? We should care because America is made of towns and cities, the legacies left by people who struggled to overcome hardships. Those hardships may have differed from place to place, but many of the universal challenges experienced then are the same ones we face now, and by studying them we gain perspective. These communities, like distinct bits of cloth in a patchwork quilt, combine to create the fabric of our nation’s character and the American experience. History happens locally and local history matters because local individuals, events, social movements, accomplishments, and mistakes all interact with the larger world.

 

Oral histories are the key

Many of the interviews Anderson conducted moved him deeply and the time and care he took paid dividends. “One woman living in California told me many stories of her early days and opened up more and more as we corresponded by mail,” he says. “I remember well her poignant story about how she and her brother spent their earliest years in a children’s home in Tacoma and their feeling of hopelessness.” Finally, the two children were adopted by a family in Kapowsin, and this “rebirth” felt magical to them. “The precise date they stepped off the train was etched in her memory. I don’t know if it is owing to that experience or her gift of a clear mind, but she was able and willing to give a complete stranger some of the most vivid personal accounts of life in that place some sixty years later.”

 “Oral histories are an extremely valuable source,” Anderson says. “Some stories are hearsay, having been passed down from earlier generations. It’s important to find other sources to corroborate the stories, but it is okay to pass along unproven tales from the past as long as they are attributed as such.”

In his experience, conversation invariably led to his interviewees digging out old boxes of photos, as trust and enthusiasm grew. “People are almost always willing to share photos for copying,” he says, “if they sense you are sincere about your efforts. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of quickly returning borrowed images to their owners.” He notes that much of local history research depends on referrals by one person to another. “If there’s a sense stories and images will not be treated with respect, valuable sources will quickly dry up. With modern photo scanners it’s easy to make copies and get photos or other documents back quickly.”

Using the printed word in your research

It is entirely possible for non-professional writers to do outstanding work. Because of personal connections, local writers doing local history often feel a great passion for what they are doing, generally posses the skills to do a proper job, and have access to the same research materials as academic scholars. The success of Anderson’s book is due in part to his meticulous attention to accuracy and proper citations.

“Whether finding small details or the ‘mother lode’ it’s important to stay focused on careful documentation of sources, if your goal is to create a useful written history,” Anderson says. “Not only does it give credibility to one’s conclusions, it also provides a valuable starting place for future investigators. He knows from experience, “that it’s very easy to be caught up in the excitement of the find and forget the full source. Taking the time to make good notes about research not only supports one’s findings, but avoids retracing steps weeks or months later, looking for forgotten sources.” 

Anderson thinks of the expression, “Gold is where you find it,” in his quest for historical information. He says, “This applies, particularly to researching archives, libraries and other sources.  Some of the best information will be buried in places least expected. I’d like to have a dollar for all the times I’ve found something when I wasn’t even looking for it. Be creative. Often materials will be located in museums and archives under subject headings only distantly related to your subject area.”

“Old newspapers are an especially rich source of stories and information,” Anderson says. “It becomes a bit tedious turning the crank on microfilm machines, but information gleaned is well worth the time. In addition, it’s fun to read stories of earlier times and to realize our world hasn’t changed all that much.”

The entertainment factor lightens serious research, but most of all, Anderson values the perspective he gains, “on what people of the day were thinking and feeling about a wide range of issues. Both world and local events give added meaning to local stories.”

Rewards

Anderson found great satisfaction in writing local history. It changed his relationship to the place he’s always loved because of all he learned, and the response to his book. He says, “The history of this particular part of Pierce County was virtually unknown by people in the area, except anecdotally. When my book became available I sensed a great pent-up demand for the stories and images of the early days. The book seemed to draw the community closer together with a common story they could share.”

Back on Lake Kapowsin I seek my own rewards, as the little battery-powered motor on our rented boat is stilled and we drift close enough to step out onto the island’s shore. I look back across the water to where the town of Kapowsin once stood. Like every other small town in America, it pulsed with human dreams and desires, struggles and accomplishments, joys and sorrows. How quickly a century comes and goes, along with its witnesses. I know now that it is up to me to preserve the oral history passed down through the generations of my own family. I will start writing as soon as I get home.

 

 

© Candace J. Brown 2009

 

Tips and Resources

Anderson offers practical advice:

* “I learned that publishers like old photos scanned at a 300 dpi resolution and in what is called grayscale.  Further, the .tiff extension seems to provide greater flexibility for those who do the photo editing and page layouts than the more familiar .jpeg.  This may vary from place to place, so it’s a good idea to check with the person who will handle this, so scanning only needs to be done once. If a photo has a lot of good detailed content it may be desirable to scan at a higher resolution, such as 600 or 1200 dpi.  This provides for more close-up study of image details.”

* “One cautionary note: The writer has legal responsibilities with respect to the use of other’s written or photographic materials. Generally speaking, government documents and images, as well as material published before the 1920s, are in the “public domain” and can be used with the usual credits. It’s a subject that deserves some study before publishing local history. There are classes for writers on this subject, as well as a great deal of information on the internet.”

* “The chase is really the fun part for most historians. But your work will be for nothing if not committed to paper. Decide early that if your topic is important enough to devote months or years to its research, you have a responsibility to share your information with present and future generations of readers. One of the best motivators for me was telling people I was writing a book about a topic they would be interested in. After a few years it got embarrassing telling friends and family, ‘Yes, I’m still working on my book.’”

* “Write with a ‘personal’ voice. In my mind, history in the written form is of little value if no one wants to read it. The old pictures are always grabbers, but drawing people into the stories is a more difficult challenge. My book represents something different for each reader, but the recurring feedback I’ve received is that they could readily relate to the events and people of those days.”

 

Links:

www.aaslh.org American Association for State and Local\r\nHistory

www.academic-genealogy.com

Books:

Carol Kammen and Norma Prendergast Encyclopedia of Local History

Carol Kammen On Doing Local History: reflections on what local historians do, why, and what it means

Bogart, Barbara Allen and William Lynwood Montell From Memory to History: Using Oral Sources for Historical Research.

Joseph Anthony Amato Rethinking Home: a case for writing local history

Willa K. Baum Transcribing and Editing Oral History

Barbara W. Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan Oral History Manual

 

 

 

Historic photos are courtesy of Lawrence "Andy" Anderson with the exception of the one with the horse and buggy provided by Dr. Lynda Griffith and color photo by Candace Brown.

 

 

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