Wall Drug: An American Experience

I’m back in one of those tourist haunts that helps define the geography of my life. That sounds a lot more romantic than it is. I’m in Wall, South Dakota, at Wall Drug, a strip of western themed tourist trap that is a true tribute to the effectiveness of billboard advertising.

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

When Ted Hustead and his wife moved to the town of Wall to operate their drugstore back in the 1930’s, they latched onto the idea of using billboards to advertise their wares to weary and thirsty passing tourists. If you have ever taken Interstate 90 across the state of South Dakota, you know what I’m talking about. You can establish your relative location in the state by the sheer number of “Wall Drug” billboards that stack up in herds along the freeway.

Selling the goods

The funny thing about it is that it actually works. After 1,200 miles of seeing Wall Drug signs, people become, quite naturally, curious. Even people like me who have driven these roads to see family so many times I can watch the scenery (or sometimes lack thereof) pass through my visual memory with my eyes closed. Familiarly provides no immunity to the lure of Wall.

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

I think this is because Wall Drug, despite all the tourist adverts and schtick, provides things that tourists naturally crave – restrooms and cold liquids and ice cream. That and a nice bookstore and some quality western art. It also provides the myth of the west, with wooden cowboys and gamblers lurking in the halls of the indoor street. The complex has grown over the years, but the core is comfortingly familiar.

My last visit was 15 years ago, and by and large it remains the same. Families roaming the halls, ice cream in one hand, camera in the other. People taking a pit stop before continuing on to Mt. Rushmore or the Badlands. Just as I did on my visit years ago I bought a book, a definite step up from my initial visit when I was small and craved such sundries as cute little dolls dressed as western characters.

Questions raised

There is something plaintive, too, about a place like Wall. It raises questions: How long will tourism last in a tough economy? How long will we even recognize the quaintness of such a place? What does the future hold for a country whose younger generations know only a caricature of the history of the American West?

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

Maybe part of the answer is in that history of the peoples whose collective experiences made the West great. Where ideals of hard work, faith and justice, side by side with hardship and struggle fill in the spaces of the Western Myth of gamblers, claim jumpers, and outlaws.

If you’re in South Dakota and need a cool drink on your parched journey, stop at Wall and contemplate these questions and maybe you’ll be the one to find the answer.

– Amanda Stiver

Invigorate Your History (And Your Family’s) Life!

Following on the heels of my historical consideration of Thanksgiving I’m back tracking to the topic of how to make history a part of daily family life (“I Beg of You… Don’t Hate History”– continued).

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

For those with a pre-existing love of history, this isn’t a problem, people like us discuss history all the time; family history, world history, military history, ancient history, etc.,… we have endless arguments about fairly trivial points of history. We (animatedly) discuss the number of soldiers under the command of a centurion in Ancient Rome – 100 or 60? (60 to 80 actually, opposed to the commonly assumed 100.) We argue about the way people dressed or the historically inaccurate firearms used in movies… and on… and on.

But what about the way people lived a mere two or three generations ago, how do you make that live?

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

I’ll cut to the chase… If you want to learn domestic history for the past 70 to 80 years you can read a few good books on various subjects, or a few dry textbooks that cover all of it… or… you can get a subscription to Reminisce magazine, Looking Back, Good Old Days or one of the other nostalgia periodicals and read compelling, quaint, realistic, snippets of life from the turn of the century to the present day.

I’m not shilling any of these publications I simply like them. They remind me of the stories my parents and grandparents told me about life in past decades. Reading about these people is far from the skewed social messages of neo-socialist-Marxist education materials, you get a sense of how real, ordinary people lived… and they have pictures!

The fundamental commonality of the stories in these publications is usually expressed in this way, “We were so poor, but we really didn’t know it, we had food from the farm, a home, and a loving family.” People worked hard and enjoyed the little they had. They had a sense of hard work, and hope for the future. They were individuals, but they had compassion for their fellow man and a duty to their community that can’t be legislated by a government.

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

I can’t recommend these resources enough. Some of the above publishers also produce compilations of articles based on various subjects, for example the Great Depression. They include photographs and short article stories that are a great read to share with young ones (did I mention the pictures?). Getting them interested in these very human stories is an effective gateway to a lifelong love of history. True history.

– Amanda Stiver

Thankful

Turkey Day, Gratitude Day, Thanksgiving Day – whatever the variation this one day is life or death for a nation, for America.

If we are not thankful, we are entitled and entitlement is the death of a nation. Taking Ancient Rome (among others) as an example, when an empire falls, you can bet that a lack of thankfulness for the freedoms (in America’s case) and advantages (in the case of other empires) is the attitude shift that leads to apathy, degradation, dependency, and finally, destruction.

Every year Thanksgiving comes around and we either look forward to it, or it simply gets lost in the marketing juggernaut of popular holidays from Halloween to New Year’s Day. A true sense of Thanksgiving gets swamped in the onslaught, and that’s sad because a holiday focusing on gratitude and not getting is rare these days.

Gratitude enables us to recognize that we are blessed, that we have something to be thankful for, that we have something to work for in order to be thankful for it. It is the antidote to entitlement, apathy, and self-centeredness.

So, with every bite of turkey you eat, don’t go without remembering and thanking the One who made it possible for all that is there to be thankful for; for life, for freedoms, for peaceful gatherings, for food itself… and much, much more.

– Amanda Stiver

I Beg of You… Don’t Hate History

Let the following numbers sink in and then I’ll explain why they’re horrifying…

(Image: Morguefile.com)

— A mere 20% of American fourth-graders (~10-11 years old) passed a National Assessment of Educational Progress U.S. history test with a “proficient” knowledge of their country’s history.

— Only 17% of eighth-graders (~14-15 years old) tested proficient.

— Worst of all, twelfth-graders, seniors in high school ready to go to college and become registered voters at 18 years old, scored a horrendous 12% proficiency (Stephanie Banchero, “Students Stumble Again on the Basics of History,” Online.WSJ.com, June 15, 2011).

I cannot number the times I’ve heard the now familiar statement, “Well, I hated history when I was a kid, but now I’m that I’m older, I’d really like to learn about it.” Followed by, “It’s probably because I didn’t have very good history teachers in school.”

I can’t fix the latter, which is the quagmire of our educational system dictated by politics. I can address the former; indeed I feel I must, so dangerous is this crisis.

I have but one life to give…

(Image: Morguefile.com)

Theoretically, 88% of American seniors know next to nothing about the country that gave birth to them, prospered their parents, allows their freedoms of dissent, and finally freedom to vote (or not to vote, as they wish).

88 per cent devoid of basic U.S. history knowledge! This is abysmal!

To me, as a historian, it is tragic because I love history, and my knowledge of the past lets me see into the future. Yet more fundamentally, I am appalled that our nation knows so little of its glorious, storied, sometimes dark, but often bright history.

It is tragic, too, because history is the fulcrum upon which our freedoms balance. Educationally speaking, math, science, and written word studies give us the means to improve our lot and style of life, but history hovers above, around, and beyond all that. History was passed on by word of mouth long before it was written down; it pre-existed and sustained those other disciplines. You can’t learn math if it is illegal for you to do so. History teaches us what is legal and what is not.

Most importantly, however, history preserves our knowledge of what freedom is. Without that, any dictator can come in and trounce us into submission. Without understanding the history of their struggle for freedom, any people can and will become the servant rather than the master. They no longer value what generations before fought and died to give them. They no longer value the representative government, the checks and balances, the useful traditions that give us identity, freedom of expression, freedom to meet together in peace, and freedom to transact government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

The Scottish Declaration of Arbroath says it this way:

“It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom—for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”

Give me your tired, your poor…

To know history is also to learn compassion for those who suffer because so much of human history is suffering. It is to hear the cries of hungry children during the Great Depression, waiting for food that would not come because no food could be bought because no one had money and no jobs were to be found.

It is to hear the weeping of mothers whose sons died at Lexington and Concord, and at Gettysburg and Antietam. It is to see the fire fall from the sky as American soldiers invaded the coast of Normandy and made bombing runs deep into enemy territory over Germany to defeat the Nazis during World War II.

It is the struggle of pioneer families who made the hard, unrelenting trek across the American West to find a better life, full of greater promise and a more abundant future for their children and generations to come.

Learn to love history…

These low scores are simply one of the signs of a greater malaise in America right now. It will take us some doing to get out from under its apathetic and dreary spell.

(Image: Morguefile.com)

I’m prescriptive by nature, and every problem has a solution. I can’t think of a better way to illustrate how history should be taught, and how to find the stories hidden amongst the dates, battles, and personalities than to recommend the following clip of Andy Griffith teaching a history lesson. It is classic and unparalleled. It is how I see history when I read it – full of life, full of great causes, full of heritage.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGXCH7zBdc4

In my next post…

I will concentrate on ways to re-invigorate a personal and family love of history with book and magazine recommendations and other ways to make history approachable. Man or woman, parent or child, young or old it is essential to find a way to learn U.S. and World History, and to learn to love it… stay tuned.

– Amanda Stiver

Life goes on… and so does History!

History is like that. One day you can’t get enough of WWII culinary skills, Ancient Greek composting, or the Thirty Years War and the next day… nothing!

Historical curiosity travels in phases. While a particular subject can really never be worn out as an area of study, it can wear out in our minds. We get sick of hearing, reading, or thinking about it. At that point some even give up on history (even us nerdy historian types!).

Fear not! It isn’t necessary!

I will call this (since I’m writing here) the Law of Historical Opposites. It’s actually more of a technique, but “law” sounds more impressive.

Flip your area of interest. Love Prairie Cooking in the American West, but are sick of recipes for Johnny Cakes? Try reading about Native American tribal history or the manners and customs of the American East or of Colonial California!

Have always liked the interminable accounts of the WWII European Front action, but simply need a change – then search out Pacific Front histories or leave WWII altogether and pick a different war. Humans being what they are, there will never be a shortage. Or, the ultimate flip, search out the history of Amish and Mennonite pacifism!

Keep it fresh, and you will always stay curious!

– Amanda Stiver

Book Me: Keeping History Real

This scowl could only be saying, “Interpret history for yourself!” (Image: Morguefile.com)

Some days history comes alive and some days it stays comatose. Why is that? Why does one subject or exhibit or picture, etc, spur a curiosity in the past and another makes voluntary dental work sound like fun?

I had one of these moments at an interpretive center the other day. I can’t call it a museum because museums tend to emphasize collections of things as is, without intensive interpretation.

This location wasn’t bad, but there were a lot of ambient battle noise recordings that could have been a couple of decibels lower. That coupled with an audio playback of each written display in tight quarters resulted in a cacophony that made me want to leave rather than immerse myself in history.

On the other hand, it might have been me because I was tired out from a long couple of days of filming, so I wasn’t in a very receptive mood. However, on the road home as I read the short pamphlet about Fort Necessity in southwestern Pennsylvania I really got into the subject. Who knew that a multi-thousand dollar interpretive center would fail to inspire where a 50 plus cent sheet of folded paper with a few paragraphs would?

This is the dichotomy of history and of the use of interpretive centers, which are more and more replacing old style museums.

Is interpreting history wise? Should not each one of us have a chance to examine the facts unimpeded and come to our own conclusions?

What if the bias of the interpretive center is wrong? Are you really teaching history or are you perpetuating an opinion?

Probably both. We must interpret, and any teacher of history, no matter how much they try to avoid it, is interpreting the subject via their own personal bias to their students. That’s part of being human.

Developing a personal curiosity into history can help each of us interpret the facts on our own. If an exhibit fails to enthrall you then dig into some books on the subject. You might find the angle that eluded you and develop a whole new area of interest.

Keep history real!

Amanda Stiver

Watching Storms from the Porch

(Image: Morguefile.com)

A Facebook post by a friend the other day got me in a nostalgic mood. The post was about front porches and the happy memories they hold.

I have lived in a variety of houses and some had porches, some did not. Some had decks and those have become more or less the replacement for good, old-fashioned front porches. The kind of porches that aren’t just a stoop, but have room for multiple people, a chair, a wicker sofa, etc.

Architectural history

Historical trends in architecture affect the people who live in them. We live in the era of box-like abodes with little square carpets of lawn, expansive back decks and front porches so narrow you have to skooch across single file. Maybe it’s because air conditioned summers are our norm that people no longer request a deep, shady front porch to accommodate a lemonade break and catch an occasional breeze on a hot summer day.

Maybe, on the other hand, it’s because people are less social in their neighborhoods than they used to be. Strolling the sidewalks in the evening was a hallmark of years past, but with the advent of automobile culture people are more content to park the car in the garage that has moved from behind the house to the very front of the yard thereby symbolically cutting off the expression of friendliness that a big welcoming porch used to express.

Porch adventures

Whatever the case, I remember one summer day during a big storm in the Midwest. It was the porch of family friends. A group of us kids were huddled under the stone columns of the porch to wait out the thunder and lightning. We played games and watched the clouds gather. It was exciting to hear the booms and see the flashes of light from under the protection of the porch, better than being inside where you could only hear muffled reverberations.

Big, wide porches like that were a fortress for little kids in all the games we thought of to play. Climbing over the sides of stone railings during a dangerous mission in the Alps was only a sample of the fun things you could do. Scaling a column during the course of exciting archeological discoveries was another. Even better was when a kindly adult would bring out something tasty to eat as we dragged ourselves in from the Sahara.

My history takeaway is this: If you are in the position to afford to build a new home, consider being a throwback and ask for a big, wide front porch to grace the front of your home. Who knows, you might be the one to start a building trend that has the potential to bring people together again. At the very least, it will look great to all those who pass by and enjoy it!

Reviving good things about the past can be a positive thing, as long as we recognize that the past can never be wholly re-created, only, maybe, improved upon.

– Amanda Stiver

Fun at Fort Ancient

In southern Ohio, just north of the city of Cincinnati is a fort that is technically not a fort, but that might have been a fortified settlement, but we don’t know for sure.

The pink shape on the left shows the outline of the Fort Ancient earthworks.

Welcome to the world of mound culture history. There is so much that is unknown about the culture of the builders of these earthen mounds that even authorities on the subject have to qualify almost everything they say. We do know that these mounded earthen structures were carefully constructed by carrying soil in woven buckets to each site. And the sites themselves are scattered from Wisconsin to Louisiana, but particularly in Ohio

The earthen mounds of Fort Ancient, which is located near Oregonia, Ohio, were built between 1 and 200 A.D. according to the handy posters located on the grounds of the state park. They were built and inhabited by the Adena culture until about 500-600 A.D. (if memory serves). At this point their culture seems to have faded away.

More is known about the Native American cultures that also revere the earthworks, but their exact relationship to the original builders is still clouded. A Native American village in the area dates from 1,000-1,200 A.D. and American Indian settlements in the area continued from then on until the well past the arrival of European explorers.

Field trip

Touring the grounds of Fort Ancient was instructive and illustrated to me the immense size of the earthworks complex. The mounded earthen hills themselves range in height from about 6-7 feet tall to 20+ feet or more.

What the area was used for is another one of those unsolved mysteries. Archeological digs are in progress to help understand more about the area and its purpose. It could have been important for a number of reasons. The digs hope to prove that as a spiritual center there is evidence of an astronomical connection to the location. It might have been a setting for social or religious rituals. Perhaps a burial site or even a settlement, or maybe all of these combined.

Other similar earthworks in the region appear to have served a variety of purposes, so it will depend on future research and archeology of the locations to confirm their actual uses. The Adena culture didn’t have a written language, unless evidence of such simply has not yet been found.

If you have a chance and are anywhere near Ohio come check out Fort Ancient. There is a museum on site and other educational activities. The grounds are accessible by automobile and there is also a walking trail, which gives you a closer look at the location.

For more information visit www.fortancient.org

Happy history travels!

– Amanda Stiver

English is Two Languages

You can learn a lot about a person from the way they speak. You can learn a lot about a country by the language they use. In this case, by the language that is shared by two countries.

The English language is named for its country of origin, but it is shared with in use by England’s rebellious former colonies, The United States of America. That said, we really don’t speak the same language. Particularly our idioms and slang. We may spell a word the same, but that doesn’t mean we grant it the same meaning.

Perusing my copy of British English A to Zed by Norman W. Schur and Eugene Ehrlich proves elucidating.

I have heard of kerfuffles before, but didn’t realize it was a British word for a fuss, commotion or dither. Fascinating, although I rarely hear Americans use the words commotion or dither, perhaps fuss.

Girl Scouts are Girl Guides in Britain and oddly enough if you get in a kerfuffle in your troop you might get up someone’s nose! Or in America, get in someone’s hair 0r on their nerves.

A publican sounds vaguely Roman, but it really just means saloon keeper. A puncture isn’t a medical state; it is a flat tire on your car after you’ve been motoring on rough ground.

A spate is a flood of something or other. And a shout isn’t something you do after you’ve had too much alcohol, but is instead the word used for treating others to a round of drinks.

So here’s to speaking a foreign language that you already know!

Cheers!

– Amanda Stiver

Collecting History: Old Sayings

Some people collect antiques. Some collect old cars. Many collect old books. There are innumerable items to collect and most often we associate certain things with history, like antiquities.

As exciting as ancient pieces of statuary may be, they are expensive, often hard to move, and quite frequently illegal to gather. I have a solution. It requires no storage, no expense and is, as yet, quite legal. I urge you then to collect old sayings!

These are the short pieces of advice that have been around for centuries. Some are extremely useful and some are not.

Here are a few examples (taken from Wise Words and Country Ways: Traditional Advice and Whether It Works Today by Ruth Binney and Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression by Mildred Armstrong Kalish):

Weather –

“Ring round the moon, snow soon.”

“When swallows fly low, rain is on the way.”

“Rain before seven, fine by eleven.”

Health –

“Sit up straight.”

“Eat your crusts – they’ll make your hair curl.”

“Chew each mouthful twenty times.”

“Put vinegar on a wasp sting.”

“Eat a peck of dirt before you die.”

Education, gab and whatnot –

“Improve your mind each day.”

“What’s on her mind is on her tongue.”

“She’s got a tongue that’s loose at both ends and has a swivel in the middle.”

“I’ll be with you in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”

Kitchen –

“After melon, wine is a felon.”

“Don’t open an oven door while a cake is cooking.”

“Stew boiled is a stew spoiled.”

There you are. I’ve started you off with your own small collection. Add to it as you come by a funny old saying, factual or not. Listen for these from older family members and friends. If you don’t have access to these resources whose sayings will vary by region and nation, then look to books.

These sound bites are a direct link to history. They tell us how people thought in the past, what they believed, and how they acted. To keep the thread of history alive, start collecting today!

– Amanda Stiver