Monday, August 20, 2012

A Thought or Two on Civic Art and Frontier Settlement

The city of Clarksburg, West Virginia is a small city of about 17,000 people and is the county seat of Harrison County.  It was established in 1785 and named after General George Rogers Clark of Revolutionary War fame.  When Clarksburg was founded and established as the county seat, Harrison County included a very large portion of present-day West Virginia and a large part of that land was still unsettled. 

Trappers and fur traders had been camping in the area of Clarksburg for at least 20 years before its founding and farmers had been felling trees and plowing fields for a good dozen years or so before the Clarksburg settlement was big enough to think of itself as anything other than a small outpost on the very big frontier.  At the time, the Clarksburg settlement was nominally part of Virginia, at least as far as laws determine which state is in charge of what territory, but, for all practical purposes,  it was The Frontier, and Mrs. Blogger’s ancestors were there (well, actually  – being “settlement-adverse” - they were a few miles to the south) with their axes, plows and seed corn.

In 1985, Clarksburg celebrated its two hundredth birthday. One thing that the organizers of the bicentennial celebration left behind for future generations was a sculpture in front of the Harrison County Court House. The sculpture, titled “The Immigrants”, was created by William D. Hopen of Sutton, Braxton County, West Virginia and stands in silent tribute all the many people who have called Clarksburg home during the past two centuries.

Public – or civic - art is important, especially in a country made up of many nationalities, races, religions and cultures.  It provides a point of cultural focus, a focal point for reflection and contemplation of things bigger than ourselves and, if done right, a “civic story.”

Tourists from all over the world come to the United States and seek out our grandest pieces of civic art, and, through them, learn about our national story.  The Lincoln Memorial.  Mount Rushmore.  The Statue of Liberty.  Cities throughout the United States abound with less well known examples of civic art that tell smaller, more localized and more detailed parts of our national story, like the Clarksburg, West Virginia sculpture in front of the court house.

Civic art calls out to be looked at, both from a distance and from close up.  It has a story to tell, and, at its best,  is designed to draw you ever closer to study the subtle details. That way, you will likely think more carefully about the more detailed parts of the story.

Here’s a view of the Hopen sculpture from the front, and from a distance:

You can tell right off that there’s a story being told here.  In fact, the story begins on the left side of the sculpture. Here’s what it looks like from the side, portraying the first people to live here:

As you move from left to right, you can see the faces changing and the immigrant story unfolding.  By the time you reach the far right, the figures represent the new European arrivals of the early 20th century.  [Note: Clarksburg hosts one of the largest Italian festivals in the United States.]  The figures are not meant to be specific individuals; rather, they are meant to represent the diverse types of people who come together to form communities over time.

Sometimes, you might miss a few details at first glance.  For example, I’m pretty sure that most folks miss the coal miner (see below) with his pick crawling out of the mine until they study the sculpture a bit more carefully.

 Of course, civic art reflects the time and place of its creation, with all its cultural baggage, telling us the story that its creators were commissioned to tell.  Not everyone’s story gets told correctly, and in some cases, there are stories that never get told at all.

“The Immigrants” tells us the classic story of West Virginia’s first settlers – native Americans, explorers, farmers, craftspeople and business folk – utilizing about 16 or 17 representative figures. 

But wait a minute - What’s missing here?  Frankly it’s a problem that I notice with a lot of civic art.  In fact, any genealogist will probably recognize it immediately. 

The tiny babe in arms notwithstanding, only two of the representational adult figures are women. That leaves a whole lot of the story of immigration and settlement untold and unremembered. 

And that's why we need to tell more stories.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Back From Being On The Road; Glad I Had The Digital Voice Recorder

Harrison Co. Court House 
in Clarksburg, WV 

It’s no easy feat to get yourself re-organized after a week-long research trip in West Virginia courthouses.  

After the customary unpacking, getting caught up with the personal and business email and the handling the accumulated business stuff, it’s finally time to sort out all those notes, photocopies and photos.  Then, it’ll be time to transcribe stuff, record-link the new stuff to the old stuff and finally see just what it all means.

First off, the photos of documents are at a minimum for this trip.  Why is that, you ask? Well that’s because all the county clerks’ offices we visited had prominently-posted signs warning that cameras of any kind – including cell phone cameras – were no longer permitted in the record room.  Usually, that warning was next to a sign advising that copies could be had for $1.50 for each of the first two and then for a buck thereafter.  Therefore, copies of uncomplicated, mostly boiler-plate deeds could easily cost about three or four bucks.  When you have a list of several hundred early 19th century deeds in one county, like we had, that can add up to big money pretty quickly. Do the math.

Needless to say, we went back to our research roots and abstracted or transcribed stuff. Mostly – but not entirely - on paper.  With pencils. Just like we used to do in 1965. With a couple of exceptions.

In Harrison County, this camera ban in the County Clerk’s Record Room seems to have gone into effect sometime in the summer of 2011. Strangely, the staff of the clerk of the Circuit Court one floor above took the opposite position about copies.  It was okay to take non-flash pictures with a digital camera or cell phone, but they would not make actual photocopies.  Plus, there was no charge to use the camera. Go figure.

That "cameras okay" position in Circuit Court enabled me to get this great image from a packet of documents that concerned an 1807 Chancery Court lawsuit between Isaac Hinkle and his cousin Jacob Elsworth and his wife.  It's a summons issued to William Thornhill and William Patton to serve as witnesses in the case.

In a few cases, especially when time was at a premium or I had severe writer’s cramp, I decided to use my trusty Olympus VN - 4100PC digital voice recorder. The recorder is small – about 4 inches by 1.5 inches – and thin, and fits neatly in my shirt pocket. As long as you don’t mind having people look at you funny (they think you’re talking to yourself, mostly), it’s a reasonable alternative to writing stuff down, especially if the thought of abstracting 50 or so deeds on a court house visit seems daunting.

Plus, if you do it right, it’s not very obtrusive or offensive, even if there are a lot of other people working in the record room or research facility.

Generally, when I come to a document I want to transcribe or abstract, I discreetly turn the recorder on, stick it in my shirt pocket, and start talking in a loud whisper.  When I finish, I reach into my pocket and push the “off” button.

On this trip, I tried not to be any louder than the under-thirty title searchers who were bantering back and forth about their last Saturday night dates. (“He’s was just, you know, so full of himself, you know, and I had to buy all my own shots and like, you know, the bar bill was nearly forty bucks and I swear I only had three or maybe four drinks . . .”)

Using a digital tape recorder to collect information is a skill that takes a bit of time to develop. 

For example, if you’re doing an actual document transcription, it’s important to remember to note the spelling of all names (personal and place) and any other words that are spelled in a non-standard way.   Plus, you need to remember to actually SAY the punctuation marks, paragraph and end-of-line breaks, capitalized words and all the other minutiae that you’ll want to appear when you actually type up the document in question.  

Most important of all, you MUST remember to provide yourself with a proper citation so that a week or so later, you’ll be able to tell where you actually found the document that you spent time dictating.  Was it on microform, an original book, a typed transcription or what?  Page number?  Book number?  Physical location? You know the drill.  You know what you need. Unless you note it while you’re doing it, you WILL most certainly forget.  Trust me on this.

In addition, because it’s a lot harder than it seems, it’s always a good idea to practice this voice recorder technique ahead of time with a couple of short but somewhat complicated documents until you get the hang of it.  After all, you don’t want to travel 600 miles from home, dictate stuff into a digital recorder and then drive all the way back only to learn that you failed to note the book and page number of a will, or the spelling of a witness name.  (Fortunately, I learned this skill many years ago when I was blessed with a secretary who was a whiz at shorthand, but lousy when it came to punctuation and paragraphing. )

Bottom line: a $50 - $75 investment in a digital voice recorder that can store over 100 hours’ worth of files  can be well worth it for a genealogist caught in a situation where cameras are banned and copies are expensive.

Next time, after I get through listening to and typing up some of my “sotto voce” recorded abstracts, I’ll tell you about some of the more interesting things I found.