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“Boring” history? Not when you dig in.

Quincy Koons does some research

My niece, Quincy Koons, spent a day recently with me in the Union Station archive, and we had fun digging through old city directories, old maps, old newspapers and so on.

“We’ll hunt treasure,” was how I put it, and we did, and had a great time.

One thing she said surprised me. “History is boring,” she said, but she meant the history classes she takes at school.

She’s right, though. I remember my history classes. We studied kings and Roman emperors, explorers and soldiers, inventors and warriors. I know who invented the cotton gin (Eli Whitney), the date of the battle of Hastings (1066) and the Roman emperor who converted his entire country to Christianity (Constantine.)

And I also remember, too, being bored.

Bored by the Crusades?  Well, yeah. I went to Catholic school where, amid the usual flurry of dates and names droned out by nuns, the Crusades were presented as some sort of grand noble march to “free” the Holy Land.

The nuns forgot to mention all the pillage and rape, the endless looting, the intrigue and double dealing, the conquest and defeat and suffering that is the part of any huge cultural clash.

Heck, did you know that the real-life model for Dracula was involved in the clash between Islam and Christianity that we still see today?  Talk to me about a guy who impales whole towns full of people, lengthwise, on wooden stakes just to prove he’s bad, you will have my interest.

A 1942 map of the war teaches real-life geography

And that’s the point. History has all the cool stories, but you have to get away from leaders, from politics and famous people to tell them. Sadly, far too many history books today don’t do that. But it is the stories of the ordinary people, the people who did the suffering and fighting and bleeding and dying, where the real fun is.

Here at Union Station we have piles of boxes of stuff that was donated by ordinary people. When I told Quincy we’d spend the day treasure hunting, even I didn’t know what we’d find in some random box.

A scary news story

First I showed her a Polk City Directory of Ogden in 1942. I explained how those directories showed not just names and addresses, but who was employed where, the names of people’s spouses, where they lived and even a bit about how well they were doing economically.

It can also show who lived at every address in that year, I said, and Quincy immediately wanted to know who lived where she lives now. Easy to do — just look up the street number, there was the name. We found out that the guy worked as a gardener at the old Dee Hospital, which used to be at Harrison and 24th, right down the street from her house.

Quincy was fascinated — a connection to the past living right where she does!

Cover of the scrapbook

We pulled down a storage box I’ve never looked at labeled “World War II scrapbook.” Inside was a treasure indeed, and one that Quincy, who is 12, could certainly relate to.

When World War II started in 1941, Reed LeRoy Roberts was a 13-year-old student in Grant Ward, Idaho. He was learning geography in the one-room school house, so the teacher told him to clip out stories about the war from the Ogden Standard-Examiner, following the war as it progressed.

Grant Roberts —  Reed’s son? — donated the scrapbook to us for safe keeping and it is a treasure. Reed clipped out stories, maps, cartoons and pictures. He wrote commentary on what he was learning.

Sure, you could find exactly the same stuff by going through microfilm of the paper, but the scrapbook personalizes it. You see what a 13-year-old Idaho kid saw, through his eyes. You learn what he learned. You are inside his head.

Quincy loved it. She paged through, picking out headlines, pictures, cartoons. She shot about 100 pictures with my digital camera. She compiled enough stuff to do a special report on her visit to her history teacher.

But she left still thinking history is boring. Which — the way it is too often taught and written — it is. But not when you dig in and find the fun stuff.

The allies rally against Japan

Permanent link to this article: http://theunionstation.org/boring-history-not-when-you-dig-in/

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